Will the Army’s New Advisory Brigades Get Manning and Intel Right?


Training and advising foreign military forces might be America’s biggest growth industry. America’s continued military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the constant rotations of U.S. military units to work with partners from Armenia to Zambia, all but guarantees this. It is therefore a step in the right direction that the U.S. Army is intent on forming Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFAB), which would improve America’s mixed record of training, advising, and assisting partner forces. By creating these new brigades, Gen. Mark Milley, the Chief of Staff of the Army, seeks to fill a capability gap in the conventional force. Nevertheless, the idea is missing two key components: the right personnel and intelligence force structure.

The Way Things Were

Gen. Milley hopes these new brigades will allow the Army to take a less ad-hoc approach to the crucial security-assistance mission. For instance, the Army deployed its first advisors to Iraq in 2004 as part of the “transition team” concept (previously termed “advisor support teams”) that placed about 10 to 15 personnel of varying military specialties with Iraqi units at the battalion level and above. In Afghanistan, the Army replicated this practice as U.S. operations expanded. Regrettably, this and similar approaches to the mission met with little success.

The mission of the transition teams was simple: shift the bulk of security responsibilities to the host-nation forces, and thereby allow the U.S. military to eventually draw down its forces in these wars. For this purpose, the Army developed transitions teams to train, enable, and encourage the various arms of the Iraqi and Afghan security services, and to foster coordination between U.S. and local security forces. Some of this entailed training on basic military tasks, but most of it was simply “learning by doing,” or advising on the fly while the Iraqis and Afghans conducted operations. This was a partly successful approach, as the Army transferred security to the host-nation. Nonetheless, the hastiness of these efforts prevented the long-term development of the Iraqi and Afghan forces.

Furthermore, the annual turnover of the advising units meant poor continuity, as new teams had to forge anew the relationships and rapport necessary to interact effectively with their host-nation counterparts. Yet another challenge was that the new advisory brigades were often re-designated conventional units rather than specially trained advisory units. Like the transition teams, the advisory brigades suffered from the same issue of continuity. Additionally, the challenge of prioritizing training in a war zone was especially problematic, as enemy activity often required a redirection of the advisory brigade’s combat power from training to operations. When push came to shove, many of the advised units were not ready: Numerous commentators attribute the rapid defeat and dissolution of the Iraqi security forces in the face of ISIL militants at least in part to Iraqi units’ poor training and readiness — itself a testament to the ineffectiveness of U.S. advisory efforts. With the SFAB concept, the U.S. Army has a chance to avoid similar future disappointments through formalization of the advisory mission.

Manning Hurdles on the Path Ahead

Despite the opportunities provided by the SFAB concept and the formalization of the advisory mission, I have reservations about the Army’s implementation of SFAB units. First, as noted by Maj. Tim Ball, the Army already possesses a robust advisory capability in the Special Forces. Second, I doubt that the SFAB concept can be successful without a change to the Army’s personnel management system. To explain what I mean, let’s take a look at another kind of soldier that is selected and trained for advisory skills: the Special Forces soldier. It takes years of training and experience to make an effective Special Forces operator. And once they become Special Forces, they have a distinct career field and a promotions path. No one expects SFAB soldiers to be green berets, but the new SFAB concept does not even mention assessment and selection or training. Instead, the Army is attempting to lure personnel to advising duty via a monetary bonus. But not every soldier has the personality or talents for advising. Moreover, it does not appear that the Army intends to establish an advisory career field in the conventional force. As a result, these brigades will face the same challenges of earlier ad-hoc advisors: 500 conventional soldiers who individually volunteer to deploy as an SFAB are functionally indistinguishable from an existing brigade collectively designated to deploy as advisors. Unless this problem is resolved through personnel changes, the SFABs are unlikely to create a cadre of true advising “experts,” or to capitalize on the talents of those soldiers with demonstrated proficiency in the advising tradecraft.

Nevertheless, the SFAB concept is becoming a reality and will be an important addition to the Army’s force structure, particularly as advising foreign security forces will remain an integral mission of land forces. As such, it is imperative the SFABs be able to meet the requirements of each warfighting function in the unique context of advisory missions. As a first step, senior Army leaders would do well to review the SFABs’ suggested intelligence capabilities. Particularly if the SFABs themselves will not be composed of advisory specialists, giving them the right intelligence capabilities will be crucial to their success.

Signals Intelligence

The signals intelligence (SIGINT) capabilities developed during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — especially at the tactical level — are in high demand. Simply put, signals intelligence vacuums up the enemy’s electronic emanations from radio to radar to ascertain their capabilities and intentions. The primary advantage of this discipline is the passive nature of the collection: The targets are typically not aware that collection is occurring. Additionally, the objective nature of electronic emissions (devices operate on distinct and unique frequencies) avoids some of the pitfalls of human intelligence collection (tainted information, motivations of sources, etc.).

Incorporating signals intelligence equipment and analysts into the SFAB could contribute to the advisory mission in two ways. First, signals intelligence should act as a primary means of detecting threats to advisory forces in the unstable environments in which they will operate. Second, fusing sophisticated U.S. SIGINT capabilities with the advised forces’ knowledge of the local environment can both enhance the SFABs’ credibility and encourage partner forces to develop complementary SIGINT capacity of their own. The sweet spot for any advising mission is to demonstrate an authentic desire to improve a partner’s capacity by using unique capabilities to achieve shared goals. And, by demonstrating the utility of SIGINT technology without simply handing it over, the advisors can motivate advisees to develop their own capabilities without creating dependencies.

Human Intelligence

Human intelligence (HUMINT) will be central to an SFAB’s intelligence operations. In essence, all advisors are human intelligence collectors: Each of their interactions with their host-nation counterparts contribute to cultural and military understanding of the country and the specific unit. Improved understanding of the force’s capabilities, organization, and mission will in turn improve advisory efforts. However, advisors must approach the task of building a relationship with a counterpart with care. Everyone wants to feel better served, but no one wants to feel spied on. Accordingly, advisors must honestly portray themselves as colleagues rather than collectors.

The allocation of trained and dedicated human intelligence collectors would add an indispensable capability to the SFAB. From an intelligence-collection standpoint, HUMINT collectors can both verify intelligence gathered by other means and “cross-cue” efforts in those other disciplines. More generally, HUMINT collectors by nature tend to be friendly, personable, and adept at cross-cultural engagement — precisely the qualities that tend to make for effective advisors.

An additional human intelligence activity to consider for integration into the SFAB intelligence architecture is counter-intelligence. Counter-intelligence is probably the least known and understood discipline, due to the relatively small size of the counter-intelligence community and the nominal presence of Army Counterintelligence agents at tactical units. Fundamentally, counter-intelligence serves to conduct investigations to detect, identify, exploit, and neutralize adversary intelligence activities. The scope of these functions varies and includes such actions as source operations, red-team evaluations, and analysis. A recent addition to the counter-intelligence portfolio, spurred by events in Iraq and Afghanistan, is mitigation and prevention of “insider” or “green on blue” attacks (i.e. attacks targeting U.S. personnel working alongside or in close proximity to a host-nation security force). While regrettable, the prevalence of these attacks in some advising contexts makes counter-intelligence an essential element of force protection for SFABs in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Geospatial Intelligence

Geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) allows commanders to visualize the battlefield using products such as heat maps showing areas of significant activity by extremist organizations or imagery illustrating the density of a jungle’s canopy. As with SIGINT, the U.S. military possesses capabilities in geospatial intelligence that can both support partner forces’ operations and encourage them to develop and practice related techniques — even if only using analog methods.

Current maps and imagery are invaluable resources for military operations. Indeed, an advised force will inevitably request them. Giving maps or other GEOINT products are simple gestures that will yield dividends in the advising relationships. A map of an area can highlight aspects not known or understood by the advised force and thus have immediate impacts on their operations. Though giving a map or imagery does not help facilitate the establishment of the advised forces’ GEOINT capabilities, the SFAB will certainly gain credibility and further the rapport necessary for effective advising.

There are several important factors for consideration for the employment of geospatial intelligence with an advised unit. Foremost, is the releasability, or ability to share maps and imagery. The SFAB must ensure that products produced by external organizations (e.g. National Geospatial Intelligence Agency) and those produced locally by the SFAB’s geospatial intelligence cell have undergone the appropriate reviews and approvals prior to disclosing such information to foreign nationals. Understandably, this can be a cumbersome and lengthy process, as it seeks to protect U.S. intelligence sources and methods; nonetheless, the SFAB and its advised unit will realize the rewards of these efforts from an operational and training standpoint.

Shoulder to Shoulder

The return of advisors to Iraq, the stated need for the deployment of additional trainers to Afghanistan, and the continued global presence of U.S. advisory personnel demonstrate the requirement for dedicated advisor units. The current SFAB proposal is not a perfect solution to the conventional force advisory gap. Nonetheless, as an important first step, the establishment of SFABs will institutionalize the advisory mission and force structure in the conventional U.S. Army, and thus alleviate many of the problems that plagued previous train, advise, and assist organizations.

An integral component to the success of the SFAB concept will be the necessary appropriation of all the intelligence capabilities discussed above. Intelligence is the bedrock of military operations. Absent a thorough knowledge of the environment a unit serves in, mission failure is an inevitability.

The advisory mission is an integral component of U.S. global engagement. The development of a nation’s military capacity reduces the strain on U.S. forces and, perhaps more importantly, creates substantial and enduring partnerships. As an essential component of this engagement, the Army must design the SFABs to contend with the variety of challenges they will face. The proper structuring of the SFABs’ intelligence component will be one element among many that will ensure success in the advisory mission.


Noah B. Cooper is an active duty U.S. Army officer. He received an MA from John’s Hopkins University and an MA from King’s College London. The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Department of the Army, U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Army/Capt. Jarrod Morris