Small Wars Journal

Giving Advising its Due

Wed, 01/22/2014 - 3:57pm

Giving Advising its Due

Carl Forsling

Almost every conflict the United States has fought since Korea has involved advising foreign forces.  In Vietnam, advising was how we got into and out of that war.  In Bosnia, Kosovo, and Haiti, Americans have trained foreign units at the tactical level.  In Iraq (the second time around) and Afghanistan, enabling foreign militaries to assume security responsibilities on their own has been a key part of the operational and strategic goals.

The special operations forces doing this mission, such as the US Army Special Forces and the Marine Foreign Military Training Unit, are well-resourced and given wide freedom of action.  However, those units do not perform the preponderance of training and advising foreign forces in major theaters, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan.  That has been the job of an assortment of conventional troops given this extraordinary mission.

The final success in those campaigns does not rest upon the battlefield victories of large American units.  It rests in the abilities of host nation security forces.  Good advisors, increasing the capabilities of host nations, are worth many times their numbers in line units. 

In spite of this fact, the selection, training, and employment of advisors does not reflect either the stated or actual importance of the mission.

For example, most of advisor team leaders assigned to advise Afghan commanders of battalion-level or higher are greatly different from those assigned to command American battalions.  An American battalion commander is board selected, once to be a lieutenant colonel and again to be a commander.  After he completes his tour as a commander, he will likely attend a top level school, be it the Army War College or the Marine Corps War College, followed by another tour in a high-level staff before being promoted to colonel.

By comparison, the advisor to a host nation commander may as well be randomly selected.  He could be an officer just finishing a tour at an operational unit, waiting for the three years he needs to move.  He could be an officer passed-over for promotion.  He could be basically anyone.

The rest of his advisor team was likely also grabbed from units for any number of similar reasons.  His officers were those who, at best, happened to be between assignments, and at worst, were those who were unneeded or unwanted at their home units, be that for them getting out of the military or for being on a commander’s excrement list.  His enlisted were also likely not in key billets or crucial to their home units.

In addition, save for a few select billets, such as logistics or communications, most advisors are not working within their specialties, so they are losing credibility within their community every day they are on the job.  Advisor duty is not seen as a career-enhancing or broadening billet.

As currently designed, advisor duty is not going to attract the sort of individual that the military institution values.  Nor does it promote those individuals within the institution afterwards.  That shows the priority associated with it, and that the grand words given honoring the importance of host nation security forces are just that.  Words.  Making an effort to professionalize advisor duty will greatly increase its effectiveness.

Several steps can be taken to professionalize advisors within the conventional forces of the US military.  Those start by holding the duty in high esteem.  Typically, advisor teams are organized one grade below the unit they are advising—teams led by majors advise battalion-level elements, those led by lieutenant colonels advise regimental-level elements, and so on.  Lieutenant colonels advising large units should be selected for advisor duty by a formal board, just as lieutenant colonels are selected for battalion command.  Only those lieutenant colonels who have previously served as advisors should be considered to lead advisor teams at the regimental-level or higher.  Upon completing a tour leading a regimental-level advisor team, they should be eligible for top level schools and considered for colonel alongside their line commander counterparts.  Over time, having an additional track for assession to the senior ranks will encourage top officers to volunteer for advisor duty.

At lower levels, advisor duty should not be viewed as just a way to finish out a three or four-year tour.  It should count as equivalent to any other tour outside of a line unit.   This should include precepts given to promotion boards directing them to consider the importance and unique challenges of this work.  For enlisted, being an advisor should be regarded as highly as working on the drill field or recruiting. For officers, an advisor tour should be regarded as equivalent to attending career or intermediate-level school, or to an instructor tour in one’s specialty.  Advisor duty is as relevant to warfighting as any other job—it teaches the skills modern warfare requires, including tactical proficiency, cross-cultural skills, and appreciation for the operational and strategic levels of conflict. 

Increasing the rewards, and in turn the respect, given advisors will serve to make it a desired billet, increasing the caliber of those assigned.  Furthermore, by increasing the promotability of those with advisor experience, the military will better institutionalize both the lessons and importance of advising.  

This is not a free ride.  Advisors need to be given more rewards, but the expectations need to be greater as well, both in training, in theater, and afterward.

Outside of the special operations forces for whom foreign forces assistance is a way of life, the training given to most advisor teams varies widely.  A variety of local and service schools fill the training requirements for advisors.  The US military needs to face reality and realize that this is a requirement that is not going away.  While there may be ups and downs in terms of immediate needs, there will be a continuing requirement for qualified advisors.  A dedicated joint school needs to be established for conventional forces tasked with advising and training foreign forces, teaching the fundamentals of the trade.  Additional modules can be established as add-on courses for individual theaters as necessary, but a permanent advisor course needs to be created. 

If demand lulls for a period, individuals could still be sent to train and establish a qualified nucleus of potential advisors.  If sufficient numbers of active duty troops are not available, then reservists can fill that gap.  There are plenty of reservists looking for active duty assignments and deployments.  During the periods of low demand, qualified active and reserve component troops could receive the baseline advisor training.  Once a theater of interest is identified, all that would be required is for those individuals to attend follow-on culture, language, and tactical skills refresher training.  This would enable advisors to enter the fight with a minimum of lead time.

While a better selection process and stronger training infrastructure are important, advisors truly earn their spurs in theater advising a foreign military unit.  Often, their tours are only six or seven months.  At higher echelons, this may be expanded to a year.  Longer tours should become the norm for all.  The first two months with a foreign unit are spent building relationships and credibility.  The last month of any deployment is spent preparing for retrograde.  A six month tour, then, only allows three months of actual advising.  Year-long tours should be the standard. 

At the completion of a year, advisors should be given an additional occupational specialty of advisor within their service’s personnel system.  This would make that individual part of a permanent advisor cadre, eligible for further deployments as an advisor elsewhere, given the appropriate cultural and language training.  For officers, it would also make that individual eligible for a lieutenant colonel-level advisor team command and an accompanying additional opportunity for higher commands and rank.

The selection and training of advisors are not the only things that need to change.  If victory rests on the shoulders of host nation forces, then advisors need to be given the support they deserve. 

In theater, advisors need to work for advisors. The advisors of a given host nation unit should report to the advisors of the next higher echelon unit whenever possible.  Line units should be established as supporting, or, as appropriate, subordinate to, the advisor chain of command.  While an advisor team lieutenant colonel may not have control of an adjacent American battalion, his commanding general should.  If the US is unwilling to commit adequate forces to own a battlespace, it needs to acknowledge that the host nation has that responsibility.  The advisors attached to that host nation unit are the tool by which American forces exert influence, and they deserve the full support of any American forces in the area to accomplish the mission.  Command relationships are a prime means by which a military expresses what is important.  If the host nation security forces are the center of gravity, then the Americans assisting those units need to be the focus of effort, and who is in charge needs to reflect that.

Furthermore, while most advisors are an eclectic blend of conventional troops, they are performing a special operations mission.  They need to have a comparable freedom of action.  They are bound by the same litany of rules and regulations as any line unit, such as the number and type of vehicles required in patrols and protective equipment requirements.  For example, in OEF,  American MRAPs and MATVs cannot keep up with Afghan vehicles, yet those are the only vehicles Americans are authorized to travel in.  This means that advisors cannot stay with the host nation troops they are supporting.  This shreds their credibility.  All advisor teams need the freedom to work outside the constraints given line units, when necessary to accomplish the mission. 

The words,”put up or shut up” come to mind when talking about the advisor mission.  As in many things, the institutional leadership of the services exists to support the establishment they grew up in, one of line units organized in a traditional fashion.  The conflicts of the future will anything but traditional.  The leaders who will succeed in that environment will be those who are able to blend the conventional and the unconventional.  Advisors are that bridge.  Advising is not a unique one-off of a war we are leaving.  It is likely the face of most conflicts we will face in the future, and it needs to be embraced.  As the military shrinks, it needs to exploit every force multiplier it can, and advisors are a critical one.

About the Author(s)

Major Carl “Skin” Forsling is an MV-22B instructor pilot with VMMT-204.  He recently served as an advisor to Afghan Border Police in Helmand Province.  He has multiple tours with fleet MV-22B and CH-46E units, and has instructed in both those platforms and the TH-57.  He has earned his master’s degree from Boston University and a bachelor’s from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.



Thu, 01/30/2014 - 3:36am

The Army (and the other services as well) will continue to advise foreign militaries, police etc. there is no doubt. However we need not build a new school house. We already have folks with the right skill sets in place...

Special Forces.

Yet we fail. The Army (and probably the others services as well) have bent over and taken from SOCOM any job that they didn't want. I know FID and advising isn't as sexy as DA and SR, but it is what they were designed for. This is not a crack on SF. It is a crack on those who employ them inefficiently or incorrectly. Often they are given jobs that any good infantry unit could do. We should be making the most out of the investment and the language and regional understanding they possess.

Or we open up there school house to the conventional guys. The use of conventional forces to advise clearly shows that there is little need of super trained advisors. I realize that the SF community won't like it but perhaps they should be pulled out of SOCOM?

Or what if we gave conventional advisors the same training and opportunities that SF gets?

Don't get me wrong, I have great respect for Special Forces. And taking down Afghanistan with 12 A-teams was an extraordinary feat of arms! However once done, they should have transitioned into advisors and trainers and stopped going on patrol unless accompanying host nation forces.

Bottom line is our best advisors not being employed like they should. And conventional forces is made to pick up the slack. From a point closer to the bottom of the leadership pyramid than most on here, it smells like the kind of elitism that the Big Army was afraid of. Except rather than needless fear it and think that it strips away good leaders,big Army supports it.


Fri, 01/24/2014 - 11:05am

I have deployed 3 times as an advisor, twice to Iraq as an Iraqi Army advisor, and once to Afghanistan as both an Afghan National Army advisor and an Afghan Uniform Police advisor. I was only selected by HRC once. The other two times, I was chosen by my unit to deploy as an advisor. At all times, I communicated back to my Branch Manager about my concerns of being removed from the cycle of normal career progression that would have given me Key & Developmental positions, only to be placated by "words" that I would be taken care of. In DA Pam 600-3, 01 FEB 2010, it clearly states in Figure 10-1 that Transition Teams are considered KD positions. However, the Armor Branch does not "really" consider Transition Teams as KD. Due to this fact, my career has effectively been derailed and I will be forced out of the Army against my will because I have completed this "necessary" duty for the Army.

What the Army fails to do is to look at each Soldier's skills, and evaluate their performance while being an advisor. During each deployment, my Transition Teams definitely moved the ball forward for each organization which we advised. They were definitely better when we left than we found them. I also bring fifteen years of private-sector consulting to the Army that they fail to value.

I am an Army Major with the aforementioned skills and deployments, and possess two Master's degrees, and am a PhD candidate in Organizational Leadership with an emphasis in Information Technology. I will be passed over in the pending LTC board because I do not have the operational experience that my peers do; however, I contend that the advising mission is as critical, if not more, to the strategic gains of our deployments (past and future) as the tactical gains that we make when we first occupy a country.

I will take my advising skills and experience back to the private sector; but, I do so against my will because the Army fails to understand the importance of advising experience explained in MAJ Forsling's article.

Great article MAJ Forsling! Hopefully, the military will see the benefits of advising experience, and learn how to select the right people to perform this critical missions.

I led an advising mission to Kandahar to help develop the Afghan Air Force. This was a post O-6 command, one year tour for me; I was also a commander. Essentially I was advising a wing commander on how to develop, employ and sustain his new air wing after I had commanded a larger sized force. Because of my previous command experience, I found that developing rapport and advising (as well as leading my own command) easier than some of my fellow advisors in other locations. While each of the four sets of Air Advisor activities in Afghanistan have its unique challenges, IMHO, here are my perspectives:

I agree with MAJ Forsling's assessment of the caliber of people assigned: it is a hodgepodge. Fortunately for me and the Afghans we advised, most of my team were outstanding officers and NCOs. Most of the few that weren't, we found ways to improve their skills and niches where they could contribute to our mission -- because they were on one year tours like the rest of us (which will lead me to my second point). Nevertheless, developing and employing their own force is a leader's challenge and not everyone assigned to command an advisory force excels in this regard.

I also agree with the recommendation that advisors ought to be one on year tours. Those that were on six or four month tours were challenged by the steep learning curve and that it was difficult to integrate them into our development plan for the AAF. At best, we could give them a short-term project as they found it difficult to establish rapport when they and their Afghan counterparts knew they would soon leave.

There are aspects of advising which are easier than others. For example, teaching someone to shoot a gun, fly or fix a helicopter is easier than teaching someone to lead a platoon, employ combat aviation or manage a fleet of aircraft; in turn, those tasks are easier than teaching someone to effectively teach or conduct campaign planning; harder still is teaching someone to objectively evaluate their subordinates or developing and implementing strategies that will support their national objectives. Depending on where one is the development of indigenous forces, the advisor must be more skilled, experienced and knowledgeable. This requires advisors that are among the best of their peers.

The US Air Force did establish a formal school for Air Advising to train general purpose and some special operations forces, similar to what MAJ Forsling suggests. However, due to budgetary choices, it appears that the Air Advisor Academy will soon be closed.

To the best of my knowledge, none of my fellow O-6s were selected for promotion and only 2 of the more than 80 the O-4s and O-5s I served with went on to have their own command. On the other hand, several of E-9s I served with went on to become Senior Enlisted Advisors and many of the enlisted I served with ended up getting promoted within two years of their advisor tour.

Nevertheless, I am forced to conclude that the Air Force is equally myopic as the other services when it comes to the long-term development of its advisor mission for general purpose forces. Perhaps this is a mission that is best left to the special forces. If so, the lesson learned is that when the advisory mission is surged to include general purpose forces, those selected to advisory mission will bypassed by those who didn't take this amazing career and personal development mission.

I believe in the advisory mission for several reasons, both professionally and personally. Repeatedly, the Afghans would ask us why we did things the way we did...repeatedly. Much like asking "Why?" five times, we found that we had to develop a much better understanding of our profession of arms (and not just our individual MOS / AFSC skills) to be effective advisors. I also found that I became a better leader and person because of my Afghan advisory experience. I won't get into all of it...but suffice it say that I recommend becoming an advisor if you want to learn more about yourself, your country, and the meaning of military service.


Thu, 01/23/2014 - 3:12pm

Athens sent an army, but victorious Sparta sent a man. Or so the saying goes. But Sparta didn't send any man, she sent a General.

I tend to agree with Maj Forsling's account of advisers as being more a hodgepodge than creme de la creme. And I don't think it takes much of an imagination to realize that this has consequences. But I do have a question.

Is the proposal here to form 1. a school of advising 2. an advisory mission organization within which these advisers would live 3. create a skill identifier for teacher OR is it that 1. a school of advising 2. advising through special selection as the need arises.

Under the first proposal I see the military advisers gaining an awareness that they are not going to be able to compete with line-unit stars for career options and will want to professionalize by segregation into advisory units. Giving them a skill set that has to be earned is all but guaranteeing that.

Under the second proposal, the advisory role becomes subject to regulation. But here's the rub...when I was a platoon leader patrolling my chunk of Iraq, partnered as I was with two Iraqi Army infantry companies, was I advising? I'm pretty sure I influenced them. I also made sure their planning fit my planning, and patrolling skills fit my patrolling skills, but that they could fall in on my raid plans, or if they were in the lead I controlled for my risk by essentially forcing their plans to become more like what I would do (since I wasn't about to explain as a young PL that I took casualties cuz the IA screwed the pooch). So at what point is the mission advising and subject to regulation vs being a general skill line officers should be prepared to take on as part of their regular duties?

So my basic question is the adviser there to train a set of manual-derived technical skills or is he there to advise the client on how the client solves his problems? One is nothing more than a trainer with language and culture blocks checked, the other is a skilled professional offering his services and judgement to the client.

PS What about FAO's, skilled as they are in language and culture and often with combat arms backgrounds? Wouldn't this be a better fit for them as a mission?

101st Ranger

Thu, 01/23/2014 - 2:23pm

The effectiveness of an advisor is largely based on the resources that he is prepared to transfer to the advised. Without resources, the advisor is a frustrated and rejected foreigner, relegated to writing overly optimistic reports to his or her superior. The reports are misleading and do not provide policy makers with the information that is required for effective decision making at higher levels.

Most who read this comment will dismiss it because it violates their cultural paradigms. Others will crack a half smile because they have been the individual described above. I know that I have!


Thu, 01/23/2014 - 2:08pm

Carl. Your article is spot on. The U.S. military does not do enough upfront in regards to the advisory effort in Afghanistan. The "selection and training" of advisers is the most important factor that determines the success of the Security Force Assistance (SFA) mission in Afghanistan. Unfortunately the U.S. military has missed the mark on selection and training. AWN

Maj Forsling hits on points that others have addressed in the past....hopefully someone is listening.

"The first two months with a foreign unit are spent building relationships and credibility. The last month of any deployment is spent preparing for retrograde. A six month tour, then, only allows three months of actual advising. Year-long tours should be the standard".

A year at a minimum though a bit longer may work as well:…

"A dedicated joint school needs to be established for conventional forces tasked with advising and training foreign forces, teaching the fundamentals of the trade".

The Vietnam-era MATA course sounds like the right way to go but if not that, then perhaps combining the 162d IN BDE and SATMO out of FT Bragg may work. Re-locate it to FT Knox IOT centralize it somewhat, give FT Knox a warm-fuzzy about losing 3/1 BCT, and get it away from the FT Bragg-SF vortex so GPF advisors don't start thinking of themselves as snake-eating Green Berets (plus it'll be close enough to home for me to want to work there!)