Last week, Colonel Lang referred to an article by David Ignatius “in which he [Ignatius] made reference to a RAND study in which the author tries to make the case that SOF forces (Green Berets, Rangers, Delta, SEALS, and other cats and dogs) are the key to success in warfare in the future.” I just want to elaborate on the colonel’s comments. The RAND study is written by Linda Robinson, a senior international policy analyst at RAND who, in addition to numerous articles, has written a couple of books about Special Forces and our special operations forces: “Masters of Chaos” in 2005 and “One Hundred Victories: Special Ops and the Future of ” in 2013. I have not read either book and probably won’t. I did read her latest article which Ignatius referred to. Her article, “SOF’s Evolving Role: Warfare “By, With and Through” Local Forces” does contribute to a misguided idea that SOF, rather than conventional forces, is the answer to future wars. I say “contributes to” because I think Robinson’s understanding of the problem and proposed solution is more nuanced than that, but she still doesn’t seem to accept the centrality of combined arms forces in future wars. This view is apparently shared by Ignatius and even General Votel at CENTCOM.
In the crudest sense, this view stems from the overblown publicity that has surrounded years of night raids by the door kickers of Delta, the SEALs and Rangers. Not only do these high speed, low drag operations sell books, but they have influenced a generation of commanders, think tankers and Pentagon bureaucrats to put their faith in SOF.
Not all is lost, however. As our heaviest engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq wound down, the Army took a close look at what they were doing and what they were doing to the Army itself. Armor and artillery units were employed as COIN area commands. Combined arms combat against combined arms foes was becoming a lost art. Conventional Army units were given the mission to organize and train Afghan and Iraqi forces on an ad hoc basis with predictable results. The Iraqi army trained by the US in this fashion disintegrated in front of IS advances in 2014. The Afghan army is unsuitable and unsustainable without continued US presence and logistical support.
The first thing the Army to remedy the situation did was refocus on organizing and training for combined arms maneuver warfare against a near peer foe. The forward to the Nov 2016 publication of Army Doctrine Publication No. 3-0 (ADP 3-0) begins, “In 2011 the Army updated its warfighting doctrine to conduct unified land operations through decisive action and guided by mission command.” These may be new words, but they should be familiar to the oldest soldiers out there. The change, very slight in my opinion, can be seen in the definition of unified land operations.
“Simultaneous offensive, defensive and stability or defense support of civil authorities tasks to seize, retain, and exploit the initiative and consolidate gains to prevent conflict, shape the operational environment, and win our nation’s wars as part of unified action.”
I can’t argue with that. I do believe the Army is serious about getting their combined arms maneuver warfighting mojo back, but they’re not going to forget the experiences of the last fifteen years either. They will continue to organize, train and equip combined arms maneuver brigades with various mixes of infantry, armor, artillery and support units. There will also be lighter, more deployable forces built around Stryker, airborne and light infantry units. And, of course, there are the Special Forces groups and much ballyhooed commandos of JSOC. There is also a new kind of unit that was announced in March of this year. The Army intends to create six security force assistance brigades (SFAB).
These SFAB are to consist of roughly 500 officers, captain and above, and senior NCOs, staff sergeant and above. They will be organized along the lines of combined arms maneuver brigades, essentially taking a maneuver brigade and stripping away the junior officers and enlisted soldiers. All members with receive six weeks of training at a newly established Military Advisor Training Academy at Fort Benning. They will also receive training in foreign weapons at Fort Bragg from SF instructors from the JFK Special Warfare Center. There will also be SF among the approximately 70 instructors at the Military Advisor Training Academy. The SFAB will be regionally oriented and will receive language training after completing their training at Fort Benning. The first SFAB unit will be permanently stationed at Fort Benning. The second one, which is planned to stand up in the fall of 2018, will be a National Guard brigade.
The rationale for these brigades stems from our experiences, both failures and successes, in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Robinson, Ignatius and others claim OUR successes stem from our training and advising of local forces, the “by, through and with” of Robinson’s article. Many now see the creation, training and advising of foreign militaries and indigenous forces as the future of warfare. These people are wrong.
I think this reading of the lessons of the last fifteen years is badly skewed. Firstly, any successes in these wars are not OUR successes. They belong to regional indigenous forces conducting as close to combined arms maneuver warfare as their resources allow. Whether it be IS technicals supported by a few T-72s and a barrage of VBIEDs, a similarly light YPG ground force employing the principles of surprise and maneuver to the hilt and supported by Coalition air support, or a Tiger Force column of Stora protected T-90s, BMPs, and technicals well supported by mortars, artillery and air support from Russian and Syrian Air Forces; it is these forces that bear the brunt of battle and determine success or defeat. The trainers and advisors, though important, are secondary to these combined arms maneuver forces.
Secondly, we only have to look at some of the regional failures to see that trainers and advisors are not a magical solution. In Afghanistan we have equipped, trained and advised our way to create a nationally unsustainable force of dubious utility to the government in Kabul. Our years of training and advising the Iraqi Army led to collapse and defeat in the face of the IS onslaught in 2014. And our arming, training and advising of the unicorn army of Syrian rebels is a national disgrace and embarrassment. If the stuff of a competent and capable army is not there to begin with, our equipping, training and advising will lead to nothing.
Having said that, security force assistance (SFA) will remain a significant governmental and defense function for the United States. SFA encompasses foreign internal defense (FID), counterterrorism ((CT), counterinsurgency (COIN) and stability operations. These functions should not be ignored by the Army, but they should never be considered more important or as important as combined arms maneuver warfare.
Now back to the SFAB. Many in SF see the creation of these brigades as another attempt to marginalize the SF. Some of that’s our own fault. In the years since 9/11 and even before that, many in SF listened to the siren call of direct action missions to the detriment of our skills in training, advising and conducting unconventional warfare. Even when we trained and advised conventional forces, we gave the impression that we only train and advise other SOF. Big Army and DOD encouraged this. They were also under the spell of the door kickers.
This was not always so. The 10th Special Forces Group was an important part of the USG effort to help Lebanon rebuild her armed forces beginning in late 1982. Working closely with the Office of Military Cooperation (OMC) in the American Embassy in Beirut, military training teams (MTT) from 10th Group set out to organize, train and advise a modernized and unified Lebanese Army within a factionally fractured and militia ridden country partially occupied by Israel and Syria. We set out to create nine combined arms brigades with a mixture of US and French tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery and mortars. This rebuilding was underway less than a year before all hell broke loose in late 1983. The newly formed 8th Infantry Brigade under General Aoun was rushed to the Suk al Gharb ridge to protect the Maronite Christian communities in the hills and Beirut itself from Walid Jumblatt’s advancing PSP Druze militia and the Syrian Army. While several of the newly formed brigades disintegrated and their soldiers sided with the various sectarian militias, the 8th held its ground. It is my strongly held personal belief that the Lebanese Army and Lebanon herself were saved on that ridge. In the ensuing months and years of strife, the 8th Brigade, a true combined arms maneuver force, continued to distinguish itself.
There is no reason that Special Forces cannot continue in this tradition. We should not limit ourselves to conducting UW with resistance forces or training and advising foreign commando forces. It is obvious that the relationship between Special Forces and the SFABs will be close. Army has already said that command positions within the SFABs will be open to SF officers and SGMs. I don’t see the SFABs replacing the SF Groups. I also don’t see the Army capable of fielding six SFABs. They are already having trouble manning the first one and are offering a $5,000 bonus for a one year commitment. Six fully manned SFABs will be a drain on the Army. They will remove the leadership from six combined arms maneuver brigades. That would be a terrible trade off. I’d be surprised if we get past two full SFABs and that would be fine with me. The emphasis must remain on organizing, equipping, manning and training an Army fully capable of conducting combined arms maneuver warfare against peer and near peer foes over extended periods of time. All else will follow from that.