Replaced? Security Force Assistance Brigades vs. Special Forces


The U.S. Army recently announced it would be standing up six security force assistance brigades (SFABs), designed to provide the Army with units specifically trained to work as military advisors. As part of their training pipeline, these advisors will likely receive cultural and language training to facilitate working with their partner forces. They will have to become experts in small unit tactics and maneuver warfare, be comfortable living and eating with their host nation counterparts, and be willing to endure hardships in harsh environments across the world. This type of advisor might sound familiar, because they already exist. As the old cadence goes, “See that man in the green beret? Teaching’s how he earns his pay.” If Army leadership needs soldiers to serve as the, “day-to-day experts combatant commanders need to train, advise, and assist our partners overseas,” why aren’t they turning to Army Special Forces – a unit specifically designed to train, advise, and assist other military forces? Taking a broad look at Special Forces over the last 15 years provides some possible answers to this question.

There’s Already an Elite Advisory Force

To be clear, the Army should be commended, not criticized, for taking security force assistance seriously and developing a strategy to execute it responsibly. The new advisory brigades represent the Army acknowledging that trying to shift conventional combat units into advisory roles on demand is not ideal. According to the press release, these new brigades will consist of roughly 500 senior NCOs and officers, all of whom are to be trained at the new Military Advisor Training Academy at Fort Benning. Instead of having to deploy paratroopers to train and advise the Iraqi Army, the conventional Army can now turn to specialized advisory units, full of experienced soldiers who chose to be advisors, instead of junior soldiers who joined the Army to be infantrymen.

Yet this is the same type of design that has already been used with Special Forces. The basic building block of a Special Forces Group is Operational Detachment-Alpha, a team consisting of ten experienced NCOs, a captain, and a warrant officer. These teams are meant as force multipliers, capable of advising battalion-sized units. There is a rich history behind the concept.  During Vietnam, teams of Green Berets advised Montagnard irregulars and South Vietnamese Ranger units. In the 1980s, they worked side-by-side with troops in El Salvador to prevent an insurgency from toppling the government. For years, 7th Special Forces Group deployed teams to Colombia, training their army to counter illicit drug trade and rebels. Special Forces have historically been the premier advisory force when it comes to helping both conventional and irregular forces around the world. However, that perception has changed significantly over the last 15 years.

Sorry, We Only Work with Other Special Operations Forces

In October 2001, Special Forces teams from 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) served as the initial military response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Linking up with members from the Central Intelligence Agency and indigenous Afghan fighters from the Northern Alliance, the teams stormed across Afghanistan with their partner forces, calling in airstrikes against Taliban and al-Qaeda targets. It was a stunning campaign that resulted in the overthrow of the Taliban government, the disruption of al-Qaeda operations, and a revived interest in the concept of unconventional warfare.

The United States quickly realized it would have to build an Afghan state almost from scratch, to include a military and police force. Task Force Phoenix was created to accomplish this task, but the task force was formed around a conventional infantry unit – 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division. When Phoenix transitioned to Phoenix II, the mission was considered so low in priority that it went to the Army National Guard.

Similar events played out in Iraq in 2003. During the initial invasion, 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) and their Kurdish partners wreaked havoc in northern Iraq as conventional forces charged in from the south. However, when it came time to create and train a new Iraqi Army, the advisory role was assigned to both the regular Army and the U.S. Army Reserve. Newly created advisory teams were staffed by officers and NCOs from across the force. These teams eventually evolved into the Military Transition Teams, with many of their billets being filled by officers recently recalled to active duty from the Inactive Ready Reserve.

In addition to these ad hoc advisory units, conventional forces were asked to advise and accompany Iraqi Army units as part of the counterinsurgency strategy that developed during the 2006 “surge.” These conventional forces ranged from infantry platoons to military police squads, and were never designed to act as advisors or trainers. A critical capacity gap had emerged, with the United States attempting to build and train military forces in two different countries in the midst of multiple insurgencies. Despite this gap, conventional forces continued to take the lead in training and advising the Iraqi and Afghan armies.

Meanwhile, Special Forces turned its focus almost exclusively to building smaller Afghan and Iraqi special operations units, and accompanying them on raids. The legacy of this work can be seen in the current fight for Mosul, where Iraqi Special Operations Forces have taken the lead in reclaiming the city from Islamic State militants. Their reliability stands in stark contrast to the conventionally-trained Iraqi Army, a force that collapsed in 2014 when the numerically inferior Islamic State re-emerged in Iraq.

By limiting itself to working primarily with smaller special operations units, Special Forces was able to maintain its own participation in kinetic operations, but it also created a lasting external perception of what Special Forces is supposed to do. Instead of being the premier advisors for any type of military force, it became normal to assume that Special Forces only work with other special operations units. There are still Special Forces teams that work with regular military forces around the world, but the conventional military’s closest exposure to Special Forces has been through watching them train Iraqi and Afghan special operations forces.

ARSOF 2022 and the Unconventional Warfare Revival

Following the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, Special Forces shifted their focus and their traditional advisory role drifted even further away. In April 2013, the U.S. Army Special Operations Command released a special edition magazine entitled ARSOF 2022. The publication was meant to be a blueprint for Army special operations forces. It envisioned splitting them into two categories: special warfare and surgical strike, with each having specific mission sets.

ARSOF 2022 may have been well-intended, but it included information that further contributed to the perception that Special Forces was moving away from advisory missions. On a chart showing special operations and conventional forces, ARSOF 2022 listed the range of military operations and placed them on a linear scale in accordance with which force could more appropriately claim that operation as a core competency. Combined arms maneuver fell directly under conventional forces. At first glance, this seems to make sense. The conventional army conducts maneuver warfare as its primary task. The imagery shows it as a core competency for conventional forces, and its depiction on the chart insinuates that combined arms maneuver is not in the purview of special operations forces. A Special Forces captain is expected to train and advise a foreign counterpart at the battalion level. This tasking requires that captain, and his entire ODA, to therefore be experts in combined arms maneuver.


ARSOF 2022 placed unconventional warfare on the opposite end of the spectrum from combined arms maneuver, showing it as a core competency of special operations forces. Around the same time that ARSOF 2022 was released, a renewed emphasis on unconventional warfare began to emerge for Army Special Forces. The U.S. Army Special Forces Command (Airborne) was reorganized into 1st Special Forces Command (Provisional) (Airborne), converting what was once a force provider into a potential operational command with a deployable headquarters. The newly formed 4th battalions at each Special Forces Group, originally envisioned as fully equipped and manned line battalions, were reorganized into smaller units meant to specialize in special warfare. Battalion and Group-sized unconventional warfare exercises took place across the United States. Preparing for an unconventional warfare campaign started to take up time, resources, and manpower, reducing the capacity for Special Forces to fill advisory roles. As a result, Special Forces may be better prepared today to conduct unconventional warfare, but is that the mission the nation and the Army needs it to do?

The Problems with Focusing on Unconventional Warfare

While the current, joint doctrinal definition of unconventional warfare involves the coercion, disruption, or overthrow of governments or occupying powers through the support of resistance movements or insurgencies, the definition itself has changed multiple times since the creation of Special Forces in 1952. When unconventional warfare first appeared in doctrine in 1961, the focus for Special Forces was on the guerrilla component of a resistance movement. This tasking resulted in Special Forces developing the requisite capabilities of a military advisor, capabilities that could be applied to guerrillas or established military forces.

It wasn’t until 1990 that Special Forces doctrine included unconventional warfare being conducted in both wartime and in peacetime. Even then, the Special Forces field manual stated explicitly that, “SF units do not create resistance movements. They provide advice, training and assistance to indigenous resistance organizations already in existence.” At its core, Special Forces was still an advisory unit.

In June 2001, the concept of unconventional warfare changed drastically. In an updated field manual, Special Forces declared itself as “the UW [unconventional warfare] force of the United States.” Moving beyond the concept of working with resistance movements in occupied territories, Special Forces now expanded the concept of unconventional warfare to involve “an offensive asymmetric option for employing U.S. military power.” Shortly after the field manual’s publication, the United States was thrust into war by the 9/11 attacks. An offensive mindset took hold, and it became normal for the U.S. military to proactively implement policy abroad, as opposed to being a deterrence measure capable of reactionary defense. Unconventional warfare has followed this line of thinking, and some now argue that it should be a “strategic mission that is an offensive option for policymakers.”

In reality, offensive unconventional warfare is a strategy that has failed repeatedly in the past, and is a potentially dangerous policy to pursue. Some of the reasons for this have been succinctly captured in shorter journal articles, or expounded in an entire Master’s thesis. Arguably, many of the problems with offensive unconventional warfare are the same problems that come with any interventionist policy. Those problems have not gone unnoticed by senior policy makers from both the Democrat and Republican parties. If the demand signal for unconventional warfare doesn’t exist at the political level, should it be the priority Special Forces pursues while sacrificing its advisory role to the conventional Army?

This is not to say that unconventional warfare does not have a time and a place where it can be used as a viable and successful strategy. Defensive unconventional warfare – that is, coming to the aid of an occupied ally by working with a resistance movement inside the occupied territory – has worked successfully in the past. The most obvious example of this is embodied in the Jedburgh teams of World War II – multi-lateral units who acted in support of a conventional military campaign designed to expel an invading power. In modern times, such a scenario could be envisioned happening in the Baltics. If Russia chose to invade one of those countries, a resistance movement would be a vital support piece to any NATO-led conventional response.

The United States may develop an appetite for conducting unconventional warfare in the future, but the demand signal for advisors is current, strong, and not going away anytime soon. Arguably, as seen recently in Iraq, advising and training the partnered conventional forces that make up the bulk of a military are far more important tasks than ensuring they have a competent special operations capability.

Additionally, advising is one of the primary tasks that comes with conducting unconventional warfare. At its core, unconventional warfare is all about training, advising, and assisting another military or paramilitary force – or put simply, working with other people. What better way to train for that mission than to take every advisory mission the Army has to offer? There’s a good argument to be made that the less advisory missions Special Forces does, the less prepared it is to conduct unconventional warfare. Special Forces can try to simulate the human dynamic of unconventional warfare by hiring role players for its exercises, but that doesn’t replace the experience of a team deploying to another country to advise forces with different languages and cultures.

Be Careful Moving Forward

This is why the creation of security force assistance brigades should make Special Forces sit up and take notice. There have been successful advisors in the past who didn’t wear green hats to work, and there are bound to be more in the future, perhaps from these new brigades. As those advisors achieve mission success and build solid reputations for working with other militaries, there is even the possibility of mission creep. These new brigades could start by advising only foreign conventional military forces, but as their reputation grows, what’s to stop Army leadership from asking them to train surrogates or irregulars as well? Special Forces could find itself relegated to a niche role, advising only foreign special operations units while preparing for an unconventional warfare campaign that may never occur.

In response to these new brigades, Special Forces should evaluate the effectiveness of its messaging to both Army and political leadership. Instead of being known as the unconventional warfare force of the United States, it may be more helpful for people to think of Special Forces as the premier advisors of the U.S. military, with unconventional warfare being a natural extension of that advisory mission.

Special Forces should consider this carefully – it might not be long before members of the security force assistance brigade are picking out a color for a newly authorized beret, and establishing their own legacy as elite advisors who live and die with their partner forces in the darkest corners of the world.


Major Tim Ball is an Army Special Forces officer.  He has served in 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) and at NATO Special Operations Headquarters.  Major Ball is a recent graduate of the Defense Analysis program at the Naval Postgraduate School.  He wrote his thesis on the historical use of unconventional warfare by the United States. The views here do not represent those of the U.S. Army, the U.S. Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government. 

Image: Capt. Thomas Cieslak (USASOC)