war on the rocks

A Green Beret’s Ode to Big Army’s New Security Force Assistance Brigades

March 3, 2017

The U.S. Army’s recent decision to stand up six security force assistance brigades has sent a minor shock wave through the Special Forces community.  Understandably, Green Berets feel somewhat agitated now that their conventional brethren are planning a separate cohort of standing units designed to train, advise, and assist foreign forces.  After all, isn’t that Special Forces’ rasion d’etre?  If the conventional “Big Army” corners the market on training troops from partner nations, won’t that potentially threaten Special Forces’ unique role in training surrogates, or even render Special Forces units obsolete and unnecessary?  Or can we blame Special Forces for this?  In its quest for relevance in other special operations missions, did it leave a vacuum in U.S. advisory capability that conventional units are now eager to fill?  Tricky questions all, but, before anyone suggests casing the colors of the Special Forces Regiment and turning all of the “cool-guy” gear into government surplus warehouses, there are a few things we should consider.

First, Special Forces do not “own” the task of training, advising, and assisting foreign forces.  Therefore, the argument that the security force assistance brigade concept is illustrative of Special Forces’ abandonment of the advisory mission in favor of direct action and unconventional warfare is a spurious one since the mission was never theirs in the first place.  Whether you call it “Foreign Internal Defense,” “Security Force Assistance,” or any other of the various monikers the defense community has dreamt up for this vital mission set, U.S. doctrine clearly states that both special operations forces and conventional forces have a role to play.  According to Army Doctrinal Publication 1, the U.S. Army’s foundational document:

Soldiers are particularly important in security cooperation since all nations—even if they lack air and naval forces—have land-based security elements. U.S. Soldiers deploy around the world to train with security forces of other nations. Army Special Forces carry out a significant part of this effort; however, larger Army units frequently train with foreign counterparts [emphasis added].

Doctrinal platitudes aside, there is also clear historical precedent for conventional U.S. Army formations training foreign counterparts.  The U. S. Army’s effort during the Korean War to help establish the fledgling South Korean Army is one such example. Yet another is the Vietnam conflict, during which the U.S. Army deployed thousands of advisors to work with South Vietnamese conventional units.  While this particular effort met mixed success, it did free up the relatively limited number of Special Forces operators in Vietnam to focus on both developing highly effective unconventional forces such as the Civilian Irregular Defense Group, and conducting sensitive special operations in Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam.  Recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have also shown the efficacy of this division of labor between the conventional U.S. Army and Special Forces, with the former training “regular” indigenous forces, thereby allowing the latter to develop superb counterpart special operations units that have held the line against ISIL and the Taliban.

In addition to the doctrinal and historical precedents for conventional U.S. Army advisory capability, there is the practical matter of capacity.  Put simply, U.S. senior commanders’ demand for advisors far exceeds available supply.  One need only spend a day in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, or anywhere else on the globe where persistent conflict intersects with U.S. interests to understand that there is more “mission” than “men.” Special Forces are in particularly high demand, and continually struggle to meet mission requirements while providing a modicum of dwell time at home for their over-stretched operators.  That said, the introduction of security force assistance brigades into the operational playbook would be a welcome addition to the current fight, and also provide a sizeable “bench” from which to pull to meet future needs.  Moreover, these brigades would, in effect, institutionalize and professionalize the conventional U.S. Army’s advisory capabilities, putting an end to its ad-hoc, haphazard, and often half-hearted attempts at building foreign armies. The U.S.-trained Iraqi Army’s 2014 disintegration in Mosul at the hands of a much smaller, less well-equipped force should convince even the most ardent skeptic of the status quo’s folly.

Finally, the development of security force assistance brigades would fill a specific niche that Special Forces is ill-suited to address.  Special Forces are at their best when training, advising, and assisting indigenous SOF or irregular forces. They are not designed to build large, conventional armies.  Who better to train an Iraqi artillery soldier on the intricacies of indirect fire support than a U.S. artillery soldier? Would a Green Beret, whose supplies typically fall off the back of a helicopter in the dark of night, be a better instructor for Afghan logisticians than an experienced U.S. Army supply sergeant?  Bottom line: a cadre of professional experts is required to impart knowledge of artillery, logistics, mounted combined arms maneuver, information technology, or any of the other myriad specialties found in a modern land combat force.  If Special Forces are to stay true to their primary mission of unconventional warfare (that is, the support of an indigenous resistance force in a denied or politically sensitive operational environment), they should not be expected to master these conventional skill sets.

The security force assistance brigades is an idea whose time has come. This new concept will put organizational backbone into the conventional U.S. Army’s enduring advisory mission and increase the chances of its success on current and future battlefields.  Special Forces soldiers need not worry  – their unique role is safe, given that there is plenty of room in today’s operational environment for conventional and special operators alike. That said, it’s time to stop complaining about institutional rice bowls and recognize that training partner forces is not the purview of any one organization, regardless of the color of their berets.


Col. James “Jamie” E. Hayes III is a career Special Forces officer and has advised partner nation special operations and conventional forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Philippines, and Yemen.  The ideas presented here are his own and do not reflect the official position of the Department of Defense, the United States Army, or the U.S. Special Operations Command.

Image: U.S. Army photo by Spc. Joshua Edwards