The Pentagon’s decision to replace elements of an infantry brigade of the 101st Airborne with elements of the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) has long been in the works.
This will accomplish two tasks: Firstly, it will provide better continuity in training missions with a unit designed to train foreign troops, thereby freeing up combat infantry units. Secondly, it will allow the military to better focus on countering near-peer potential adversaries in the region.
The Pentagon has been stating for months that it was going to review each of the major commands to align their activities with the U.S. military’s broader focus of competing against Russia and China. One of the major areas that were to be reviewed was Africa Command or AFRICOM.
AFRICOM was the first to present recommendations as part of this review process. The Army’s 1st SFAB, which made its first deployment to Afghanistan in 2018, is designed to take on train, advise and assist missions that the conventional infantry brigades are ill-suited for.
“This allows them to perform this important ‘great power competition’ role more effectively and more efficiently than conventional units,” Pentagon spokeswoman Alyssa Farah said in a statement earlier this week.
This move should allay some fears that the U.S. will completely pull out of Africa, where it currently has about 6,000 troops. “We’re not walking away,” Major General Roger Cloutier, the commander of U.S. Army-Africa, said to the media. “We are still engaged. The United States and the U.S. military is still committed to being great partners,” Cloutier added.
With growing violence from jihadist and terror organizations, the host nation governments in the continent can’t handle the scope and provide the expertise needed to rid themselves of the threat.
The Ethiopian National Defense Force and the U.S. Army Africa are co-hosting an African Land Forces Summit in Addis Ababa with partner countries from the region to discuss common interests and problems that each faces.
Numerous training deployments are scheduled for Africa in 2020, the biggest being Exercise African Lion, for which the United States will deploy 4,000 troops which will join 5,000 African troops.
The deployment of elements of the 1st SFAB can benefit the United States in two ways: by combatting the violent terrorism plaguing the continent and by checking the influence of Russia and China.
The SFAB advise and assist units can be tailored to fit the need being able to expand the training programs if they prove successful and the host nations want to increase the number of troops they are to train. It provides continuity and closer to a seamless hand-off to fresh trainers as they deploy and relieve the troops in place.
Conventional infantry brigades from different units would be hard-pressed to replicate that type of seamless transfer. That’s not what they are suited for. Plus, this frees up combat infantry brigades to better prepare for their own missions and deployments.
The Russians have a sizeable presence in Africa, most of which is from their shadowy contractor company known as the Wagner Group. While they are de facto Russian government troops, trained, equipped, and supported by the Russian government, they operate under a whole different set of parameters than most militaries do.
They’ve not fared well as they have little to no experience working in Africa and the host nation armies are looking for a better and long-term alternative. General Cloutier recounted, in an interview with Army Times, a conversation he had with a senior African military official.
“He told me, ‘Hey look, we have had a long-standing relationship with another country (Russia) for a long time. We feel like the world is passing us by,’” Cloutier said. “’We are looking for something new. We are looking for something new to be with the United States.'”
The U.S. has been pushing its European allies to do more in Africa. The French have certainly answered the call. They have 4,500 troops in the Sahel region and are increasing that by another 600. They lead the G5 force (Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, and Chad).
Hopefully, the deployment of the American advise and assist trainers will produce some carryover to the French efforts in the Sahel. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said that he will meet with French Defense Minister Florence Parly soon to discuss the situation in the Sahel, which Esper characterized as strictly “a CT (counter-terrorist) mission.”
Could the Americans expand their training mission to provide a regional training cadre and free up more French Special Operations troops for combat in the region? Possibly — it has been done before. During the 1980s, the American 7th Special Forces Group opened the CREM, Regional Center for Military Training (Centro Regional de Entrenamiento Militar–CREM), in Honduras, where the Americans trained Honduran, Salvadoran, and other forces to combat Nicaraguan expansionism after the Communist government took over in Nicaragua.
While the circumstances surrounding the continent are much different and on a much larger scale, the concept worked and would work again. However, the Republican chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee sees this deployment as just the first step with more Special Operations troops needed.
“The SFAB’s capabilities are well suited for many of AFRICOM’s important missions to train and advise our partners on the continent,” Senator James Inhofe said in a statement. “At the same time, the growing security threats in Africa — from terrorism to China and Russia — require additional capabilities that special operations and other troops currently serving there provide.”