The U.S. Military Should Turn to Remote-Enabled Advising
Sgt. 1st Class Bill Yung rubbed his tired eyes as he logged into an encrypted videoconference system in his Fort Lewis, Washington, team room. Yung’s team had served as advisers to a partner nation’s counter-terrorist task force for three years, and though it was nearly midnight on the West Coast, Yung’s partners in Southeast Asia liked to hold weekly operations and intelligence meetings on Tuesday afternoons. For the next 90 minutes the task force’s staff reviewed intelligence assessments and operational summaries, while examining the next month’s worth of planned operations. Yung regularly chimed in with questions and fielded just as many — the staff asking about the feasibility of U.S. support for a cyber “soak” of a specific target and whether the American intelligence community had any new reporting on regional terrorist threats. After the meeting, Yung spent another hour chatting with the task force’s deputy operations officer, and an additional hour coordinating with the local U.S. Embassy and with Special Operations Command Pacific in Hawaii.
In a slow week, Yung spent eight hours per day orchestrating U.S. support to his partner force, on top of his duties as the team’s weapons sergeant. Every two months, the team traveled to Southeast Asia and spent a week with its partner force to ensure that the remote support continued to marry with the real requirements of the task force. Wielding an effective relationship with the U.S. country team and the theater special operations command, Yung’s team could surge advisers to physically collocate with its partnered task force during major operations or training events.
Bill Yung is a fictional character, but his team’s relationship with its partner force can be realized. Veterans of Vietnam and Afghanistan famously said that, instead of fighting “one 10-year war,” the United States and its partners fought “10 one-year wars,” due to the discontinuity wrought by the constant rotation of military personnel. This aphorism can be easily applied to American military assistance efforts around the world — where military advisers spend even less time with their local partners than the men and women working alongside Afghan forces. However, in the 21st century, the duration of a physical troop deployment should no longer be an adviser’s principal constraint. A new employment model for military advisers, coupled with today’s communications technology, could strengthen the quality and lengthen the duration of U.S. relationships with foreign military partners. These longer, deeper relationships provide greater opportunities for advisers to both improve the effectiveness of local partner forces and to advance American influence in support of U.S. country team and geographic combatant command objectives.
American military advisers in U.S. special operations forces and the U.S. Army’s Security Force Assistance Brigades should provide continuous advisory support to partner nation foreign security forces. These efforts support long-term cooperation, which accrues local benefits for partner nation stability and security, while nesting within the broader struggle for influence that characterizes great-power competition. The duration of an adviser’s physical deployment will always be constrained by the real demands of family, personal well-being, career timelines, and so on, but the advisory relationship ought to be continuous, despite a lack of constant physical proximity. Advisers ought to organize their efforts to provide seamless support to partner forces in a manner that allows both adviser and partner to leverage 21st-century communications technology. Remote-enabled advising can never replace in-person military advising, but it can augment it, and continuous advising could provide greater stability and continuity of relationships than the current, intermittent model.
Advising in Context
Defined in multiservice military doctrine as “all activities to provide subject matter expertise, mentorship, guidance, advice, and counsel to foreign security forces while carrying out the mission assigned to the individual, unit, or organization being advised,” advising is a cornerstone of both security cooperation and unconventional warfare. Advising, in layman’s terms, attempts to extend American influence and advance American interests by improving the efficacy of a partner force — whether this partner force is military or irregular in nature — through interpersonal engagement. Advising has served as a central plank of American foreign policy since the Kennedy administration, and the potential to increase a local ally’s fighting effectiveness without committing a large body of American troops and without placing an American face on operations remains a highly attractive policy option.
Mark Grdovic, a retired U.S. Army Special Forces officer, provides a model for advising:
The amount of influence an adviser attains will be directly proportional to the sum of three factors: the rapport between the adviser and the host-nation commander or counterpart; the credibility of the individual adviser; and the perception by host-nation forces of the continued value of the relationship.
Contemporary U.S. military advising relationships are sometimes “persistent” but typically fleeting in nature. Even within longstanding advisory efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, relationships are dismantled and rebuilt every six to 12 months as American units are replaced and rotate home. Most other missions are much smaller in scope, isolated to infrequent combined training missions or joint exercises. These constraints force both adviser and partner to focus the preponderance of their energies toward building rapport, while developing a relationship that is more transactional in nature. Only through repeated interactions over a longer period can an adviser truly establish credibility and demonstrate the shared value of the relationship.
Toward Remote-Enabled Advising
There are clear precedents for remote-enabled advising in the American wars in Iraq and Syria. Due to the political and physical risk of placing American troops alongside local partners, the U.S. military has increasingly embraced remoteness in the most tactical sense — often limiting advisers from accompanying below a certain partner echelon (the battalion-level, for instance) or restricting them from remaining at the “last covered and concealed position” as the partner force progresses to a tactical objective. Moving the adviser farther away from his or her partner force’s engagement with the enemy decreases the physical danger to the American adviser. This can be a problem, insofar as distance may diminish the adviser’s ability to build rapport with the partner force or to establish the requisite credibility. However, not every partner force wants or needs the continuous presence of U.S. advisers at every echelon, nor is this presence always suitable to either American or partner nation interests. The U.S. military thus far has seen remote-enabled advising as a challenge rather than an opportunity, employing it as a tactical risk mitigation measure, but not as a means to fundamentally shift adviser-partner force relationships from intermittent to continuous ones.
Remote-enabled advising is not a good fit for every partner. In instances where partner forces are in regular combat and there is an established expectation of American advisers participating directly in these engagements, remote advising may not be a workable option. Remote advising should be employed with a partner force that has an existing relationship with U.S. forces and the appropriate amount of technical literacy. Most significantly, an effective remote relationship should be acceptable to both American and partner nation leadership. Though refraining from having American advisers working continuously on foreign soil is likely to entail less political cost, it could also appear as if there is inadequate American support for the partner country.
Special operations forces are already accustomed to frequent, short overseas missions in small teams, while Security Force Assistance Brigades, thus far, have deployed as whole organic units on nine-month tours. The U.S. Army anticipates the Security Force Assistance Brigade deployment model shifting toward operating in more dispersed fashion in multiple regions as the United States withdraws from Afghanistan. U.S. Special Operations Command generally seeks a 1:2 ratio of time overseas to time at home station, and both Security Force Assistance Brigades and special operations forces would have to examine their current employment models to balance the commitment of advising, both remotely and in person, with training and other missions. Advising remotely is a time-intensive task that would require irregular working hours, due to time differences and sudden, unpredictable requirements to provide support. These efforts do not neatly fit into a standard unit training calendar, and an understanding of what constitutes garrison operations for advisory elements would have to change.
Additionally, continuous advising would force advisers to develop specialized expertise beyond the generalized regional knowledge and limited language capability that typifies the contemporary American military adviser. Though there is risk that retaining a constant focus on a specific partner country and partner force could pigeonhole advisers, leaders could manage this by ensuring that advisory teams continued to execute training that provided a broad skill set, and regularly rotating individual advisers between elements. While ensuring adviser specialization in a partner force should increase the efficacy of that advisory effort, there may be a broader trade-off in terms of the diminished flexibility of advisory forces. Should the need arise to re-task advisers already committed in a remote approach, breaking up the element’s relationship with a partner force could be costly to U.S. objectives.
Advisers are doctrinally expected to advise, coach, teach, liaise, and support. Remote-enabled advising requires these same competencies, but there will be a learning curve for advisers transitioning from working alongside partners on a close but more episodic basis to a remote but continuous basis. General technological literacy and working knowledge of specific platforms will require training for all users. This training focuses on the U.S. adviser, but the adviser should train his partner on how to use systems on the other end. This could be challenging in less developed countries whose soldiers lack basic education, and in places where the communications infrastructure is inadequate. Past examples of remote-enabled advising using specialized communications equipment will likely give way to the use of existing hardware with secure communications applications like Signal and Wickr or the myriad video teleconferencing software gaining traction during the COVID-19 pandemic. Especially in cases of countries with lower-intensity conflict, it is highly likely that an off-the-shelf product with minor revisions, combined with already ubiquitous cellphones, can support the necessary communication between American advisers and local partners.
Geographic combatant commands, U.S. country teams, and adviser organizations would have to develop new working relationships to be able to employ remote-enabled advising. Commanders of advisory forces, permanently aligned with partner forces, would become an integral portion of an American ambassador’s military mission to the host country to ensure that the remote-enabled efforts supported ambassadors’ integrated country strategies and combatant command regional strategies. The advisers, though often operating from the United States, would need to have clear chains of command, and would need to allow for oversight of their advisory tasks by both the geographic combatant command and the American ambassador in the partner force’s country. Retaining command relationships with the combatant command when performing advisory duties while at home station would require the adviser’s headquarters to rethink its relationship with its subordinates. Used to either exercising command over units that were at home station or providing administrative support to those that were deployed, headquarters of advisory elements would have to hybridize these traditional models to manage a force that physically works in one continent, while the effects of its mission are felt in another.
The most dramatic change required to implement remote-enabled continuous advising comes in the policy realm. Frequently operating from U.S. soil, advisers plying their trade remotely would answer to the geographic combatant command and coordinate with the U.S. country team. Blanket restrictions on advisory efforts would be a severe impediment, and the authorities and rules of engagement would have to be dynamic and tailored to the context of each mission. This would create some legal complexity, especially as some partner forces would be more actively involved in conflict than others. From a policymaker’s perspective, more broadly, with advisers operating primarily from inside the United States, “forward presence” would take on a different connotation and would require a different mindset.
Once adopted, remote-enabled advising would continue to have three central limitations: First, it merely reduces, but does not remove, the requirement for U.S. advisers to have regular face-to-face interaction with their partner forces. Second, it depends on communication technology that requires training, maintenance, and patience by both the advisers and the partner forces using it. Finally, remote-enabled advising could create unrealistic expectations on the part of the policymaker about what advisers can accomplish using solely remote methods.
Under the current model, a U.S. advisory element will spend, at best, between six and nine months overseas with a partner force before returning home. After redeployment, individual advisers rotate to different assignments, while the units shift their focus to other missions. It can be years before the advisers return to work with the same country, let alone the same partner force. Aligning the same advisory team with the same local partner allows for a longer and more mature relationship than is feasible through the “constant” physical presence of a rotating cast of American advisers. Despite the physical distance, U.S. advisers can provide partner forces with both practical counsel and enabling capabilities that support partner nation requirements. In this fashion, by limiting the requirement for the constant physical presence of U.S. advisers, remote-enabled advising can make advisory missions more cost-effective for the United States and more feasible for the partner nation. Remote-enabled advising is not a panacea, but it can serve to advance American objectives in the competitive space, when employed with the right partner.
Maj. Gordon Richmond is a U.S. Army Special Forces officer and a student at the U.S. Marine Corps’ School of Advanced Warfighting. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the U.S. Army, the School of Advanced Warfighting, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.