Small Wars Journal

Security Force Assistance Brigades: The US Army Embraces Antifragility

Fri, 08/11/2017 - 9:39am

Security Force Assistance Brigades: The US Army Embraces Antifragility

Nathan A. Jennings

The United States Army has experienced a marked shift in focus since transitioning its large-scale counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan to priorities that span a larger spectrum of potential conflict. The ominous rise of peer competition in Eastern Europe and East Asia, despite continued obligations to conduct advisory and counter-terrorism operations across four continents, has created tension over balancing structure and training for combined arms maneuver and stability-oriented operations. As argued by the Trump Administration’s current National Security Advisor, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, “demands on all components of the US Army are likely to increase as threats overseas generate simultaneous threats to the homeland.”[i]

The disparate nature of the contemporary threat environment has consequently catalyzed a challenging dilemma: should the Army prepare to fight other modern militaries like those of Russia and China, or orient on stabilizing war-torn states like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan? While the location and character of America’s next large-scale conflict commitment remains unclear, its primary landpower force could answer the arrayed challenges by embracing theorist Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s concept of “antifragility”—an adaptive quality that moves beyond resilience or robustness to collective improvement—as a method for ensuring responsiveness against future unknowns. As argued by in his 2012 work, Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder, this would require fostering an organizational doctrine, structure, and culture optimized to “thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors.”[ii]

Fortunately for the United States and its allies, the US Army is currently undergoing force structure modifications that will develop and institutionalize degrees of antifragility. One example is the emerging initiative to create an advisory training academy and up to six security force assistance brigades (SFAB) that specialize advising and assisting foreign armies.[iii] Reflective of Taleb’s “barbell” strategy that advocates “extreme risk aversion on one side and extreme risk loving on the other,” the addition compliments the Army’s traditional focus on high intensity combat—represented by its twenty-nine infantry, stryker, and armored brigade combat teams (BCT) equipped for high intensity combat—with SFABs designed for military advisory efforts that will likely remain an enduring fixture in American strategic partnerships.[iv]

This bifurcation between combined arms maneuver (CAM) and security force assistance (SFA) avoids, as argued by Taleb, “the corruption of the middle” where organizations attempt to mitigate risk by adopting more “moderate” or “medium” approaches intended to ward off all manner of challenges or allocate undue attention to prepare for improbable “black swan” events.[v] It eschews the temptation to dilute the expertise of high intensity combat forces with non-combat missions while allowing specialized formations to retain focus on doctrinal mission essential tasks. More importantly, the establishment of a division-equivalent of SFA elements—which will presumably adopt much of US advisory responsibilities in both the Middle East and South Asia—will reduce the cyclic skill degradation and resource inefficiencies that stemmed from constant assignment of maneuver BCTs to conduct temporary advisory and assistance missions.

This barbell strategy, which diversifies the Army’s tactical portfolio at the polar ends of the warfighting spectrum, will allow it to better negotiate unpredictability in future engagements. If properly resourced and protected, the concept will reduce “the risk of ruin” and allow better negotiation of chaotic environments. As a complimentary effort to expand special operations forces capacity and codify counterinsurgency lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan, the “bimodal” alignment of BCTs and SFA Brigades will increase the US military’s ability to react to unanticipated engagements. Improved contingency responses could include a sudden intervention another country due to massive ethnic cleansing, response to a massive terror attack on the homeland, or the outbreak of major combat operations in Eastern Europe or East Asia.

The creation of the new advisory units will offer further benefits that mitigate operational, and strategic, risks for the Army in case of a manpower intensive ground campaign. Should America become engaged in a long-term operation that requires rapid expansion of security capacity—as it did during Operation Iraqi Freedom when constant unit rotations strained the All-Volunteer Force model—the officer-heavy SFA Brigades could be rapidly expanded and equipped into full-sized maneuver units. As argued by General Mark Milley, the Army’s 39th Chief of Staff and champion of the initiative, the new stability-focused brigades can “be used for train, advise, and assist” during “phase-0 operations” or “in time of emergency” incorporate more soldiers to create “decent capability” for high-end combat.[vi] Regardless of wartime alteration, the advisory academy would preserve the Army’s institutional advisory knowledge in preparation for the inevitable return to globally distributed stability operations.

Looking towards the future, Milley has stated that “the level of uncertainty, the velocity of instability, and potential for significant inter-state conflict is higher than it is has been since the end of the Cold War in 1989-91.”[vii] By adopting an intentionally distributed “barbell” posture, in addition to other force modernization programs, the US Army can diversify as a more antifragile enterprise in the face of endemic unpredictability. The new enhancements likewise hold potential to, in part, allow the organization to gain an unprecedented degree of optimization and competency. Moving beyond false-choices over full-spectrum capability, these changes are creating a paradigm where the Army can more efficiently respond to unexpected crises—be they multi-corps campaigns or enduring advisory assignments—with a judicious distribution of risk mitigation.

End Notes

[i] H.R. McMaster, “Continuity and Change: The Army Operating Concept and Clear Thinking About Future War,” Military Review (March-April 2015): 17.

[ii] Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder (Random House Trade Paperbacks: New York, 2014), 3.

[iii] Matthew Cox, “Army Stands Up 6 Brigades to Advise Foreign Militaries,”, 16 February 2017.

[iv] Taleb, Antifragile, 161.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Mark Milley quoted in Sydney Freedberg, “Army Mulls Train & Advise Brigades: Gen. Milley,” Breaking Defense, 14 December 2015.

[vii] Sydney Freedberg, “Gen. Milley to SASC: World Getting Worse, Army Getting Smaller,” Breaking Defense, July 21, 2015.


About the Author(s)

Nathan Jennings is an Army Strategist and Assistant Professor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. He served multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, is a graduate of the School of Advanced Military Studies, holds a MA in History from the University of Texas at Austin, and a holds a PhD in History from the University of Kent. He is the author of Riding for the Lone Star: Frontier Cavalry and the Texas Way of War, 1822-1865.



Fri, 08/11/2017 - 11:20pm

I do not disagree with anything the author states, I just have one question, how are we paying for it. I got an AUSA bulletin that cites former Secretarys of the Army wish to close more bases; For a variety of reasons some of which sound like they should be easy fixes and closures more like foreclosures. Why can't we afford to upgrade hangars and leaky storage facilities?

Respects to General McMaster but some of his positions on Islam contradict President Trump's original campaign promises to take on the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization and declare radical Islam, radical Islam and instead he suggests it is properly defined as un-Muslim? What does that even mean? It means to me unMuslims are errant Muslims still respected by other Muslims more than infidels in at least 25% of the Umma in numerous polls.
General McMaster's also seems to buy into the radical agenda by suggesting America's problems in the ME stem from too much support for Israel a country for which he has questioned supporting and instead is more behind the Palestinians who are no longer making any pretense of making peace with and is totally radicalized. Or so I have heard or read. I have wondered if he comes from the era in the US military that was both jealous of the IDF's successes, and angered by memories of the USS Liberty.
I am reminded of the many times there has been intentional dissociation of "lone wolf" terrorist attacks in the USA and more in Europe where the reports of a lone wolf attack proved to be the operation of a cell.
I question the effects on any leader or soldier who has spent an inordinate amount of time even in the service of our great democracy in nations in which they must remain submissive to the sharia laws of our "allies" in nations that are less than democrat and if Turkey is an example in opposition to democratic principles.
I still believe there is a real problem in respect that "going native" is more subtle than Major Gantz demonstrated.
I don't see any program in the SF or this SFAB that takes note that long term deployments have mostly one way cross cultural transfers or address the question, is it a good thing?
This paper on SFABs comes at a time there is an intent to double the Afghanistan Army's Commando units a truly professional and competent force, and suffering the strains of constant deployment. The arguments against doubling the size are the normative resistance to SFs. It takes too many of the best soldiers and leadership from main force units, a fear standards will be lowered and the cohesion of the Commando forces weakened, in more recent months there have been two attacks on US Forces by newly recruited commandos with American lives lost.
The US army is debating if a draft should be instituted in the US. And although President Obama grew SF to Division size proportion are they cost efficient?
The Washington Post and other liberal prints are attacking Erik Prince for recommending to President Trump that more could be accomplished by establishing a 5,000 member "mercenary" force. He did the same thing when the under trained and abandoned Iraqi Army got shoved aside by the Islamic State and was dismissed with much less notice or fanfare than his proposal to President Trump. The Bridge hanging of Blackwater employees over the Euphrates River in Fallujah and the reemergence of the sentencing of the 4 Blackwater employees makes this a non-starter. The main argument more than the repugnance of regressive liberal socialists to mercenaries, is cost. Is it more expensive to hire contractors?
Even the UN is now fielding Blue Helmets in combative roles. And we know from Somalia that President Clinton paid as much American tax dollars to put a blue helmet on the ground as we did an American soldiers boots, in that instance the UN forces were not the most professional.
We should not discount that Michelle Obama promised to "get the girls home." And never did. Former employees of Executive Decisions trained up the Nigerian force that finally pushed back Boko Haram. After all these years half the girls were dead converted to Islam by rape marriages, they died from a variety of causes, abuse, neglect even snake bites. It was an empty promise to bring them home.
President Obama in reducing forces in Iraq and Afghanistan put the onus on SF to perform assassinations. How much did it cost the tax payer to kill a terrorist leader and how much should it cost, never seems to have been a consideration although for the previous 7 years all we heard from the DNC was the Iraq war cost too much.
We also have analysts like Kilcullen suggesting we must go beyond COIN and what is not clear to me from this article if that is what the author is suggesting?
General McMaster's is a personable leader, a good man and a genuine hero and intellectual, capable of forward thinking.
I do not know that I agree with his position on Islam and the continued programming of Americans to PC radical Islam but how else can SFABs go forward? There is also the concern that it seems like America has become a split or multiple personality, a new personality emerging with each election cycle. General McMaster's is one man who may prove he can bridge whatever change comes in 4 years. And may survive the purges as we experienced with Generals Petreaus, McChrystal and Flynn. And hopefully the "scandals".
How far will the SFABs go to incorporate some of the ideas proposed by Kilcullen? Will more focus on the littoral regions and the concerns of population growth on the environment be factored, will megacities become the new battle fields with drug gangs and terrorists posing threats in nations where the nation states are breaking down and can not control their own cities or much of them, is it already happening in parts of America were murder rates are sky rocketing? Will we develop a better means to combat "swarms" of fighters?
USA efforts to assist countries in ridding themselves of despotism will continue to be attacked just like our removal of Hussein a man who orchestrated the urders of nearly 450,000 of his own people and invaded his neighbors twice to seize oil assets and capital. We kicked over an ant hill that spewed thousands of terrorist fighters and defeated them as well. What did it come to? Did one election undo everything?
Are we under a perpetual state of radical Islamist terrorist threat or have we only just become aware we have been in such a state that was inevitable after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, a corrupt despotism that in ts last gasps committed annihilation today we call genocide. A dissolution of the Ottoman occupied territories and Sultanates, and radical Islamic Apocalypse believed to have ended in the desert wastes of Omdurman. A sudden revolution of Arab freedom from Turkish rule leaving much of the Islamic states in a state of long term poverty, despotism and we must expect that things will only get worse. Ar least until the 12th Imam finally arrives and rids the world of us.