Small Wars Journal

Thoughts for Units Conducting Military Engagement in the New Normal

Wed, 09/24/2014 - 2:11pm

Thoughts for Units Conducting Military Engagement in the New Normal

Tom R. Przybelski

The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) puts significant emphasis on the need to build capacity in foreign militaries and rely on those partners to both improve regional security and further US interests.[i]  To put this guidance into action the US military will need to think about how best to work with and through foreign militaries. During steady-state operations a wide variety of deployed and permanently assigned units conduct military engagement, security cooperation and deterrence as part of a theater campaign plan.[ii] That effort is generally oriented on interoperability, maintaining access, and building partner capacity. The work to build capacity in the militaries of Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade can provide important insights on how to accomplish those tasks and more. Specifically, the mission of advisor teams operating from top to bottom – service level to small tactical units – within the Iraqi and Afghan military structures informs today’s challenges. An advisor’s core tasks – develop, enable, backstop, and illuminate – can be applied broadly by units engaging with foreign militaries to both build capacity and prepare to conduct contingency operations with those partners.


While traditional unit interactions with foreign militaries are often centered on a specific operational exercise or training on a particular skill set, units should look more comprehensively at their engagement strategy. Because of the nature of the mission, teams of advisors worked for a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan to build capacity horizontally across all aspects of advised unit functionality while also working vertically throughout the military institution.  Those two aspects provide important insights.

In addition to operations, advisors dealt with doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel and facilities. An advisor team might have been working on the operations planning process, force laydown, medical evacuation and medical care, resupply, water distribution and quality, equipment distribution, driver and mechanic training, targeting, communication networks and integration with local and national security forces. Of the hundreds of areas in need of work, an advisor team picked lines of effort that were within its capacity, of high value, and that had reasonable potential for improvement. Teams were mindful of encouraging operational and logistical solutions that could be sustained by the host nation. Additionally, teams paid attention to the partnered unit leader’s priorities and interests. Taken together, an advisor team could map the unit’s development trajectory – where it had been and where it was going. By understanding that trajectory, advisors judged new ideas as being right for the unit, too advanced, or sometimes even counterproductive to development. In addition to areas of focus, advisors looked for talented and energetic people to focus on. Overall, advisors took a comprehensive view of development.

While deploying units and members of high level staffs don’t have the time or daily interaction of an advisor team, they can look across a wide range of military functions while planning engagement. The development goals that a US unit chooses to work towards for a particular engagement or exercise should be along deliberately planned lines of effort, in accordance with authorities, and may be only indirectly related to operations. Supporting functions like logistics or communications could be just as important as operational unit interaction. A deploying US unit might see partnered accomplishment of a specific live fire range as the focus of an exercise, but it may be just as important to connect a logistics cell to the effort in order to understand and encourage the partnered unit’s supply and maintenance capacity. Talking about the consequences of corruption, the benefits of military professionalism, and the proper connection to higher authority should be standard. Additionally, when upgrading or building facilities to support engagement, units should be careful to build facilities that can be maintained sustainably by the host nation. All money, resources, and time spent should be thought of in terms of their negative or positive effect on development. Looking broadly at the goals for interaction with foreign militaries will provide better insights into the true development needs of foreign militaries and more effective engagement.

Units conducting engagement activities should also consider the entire military structure up to the service headquarters. In Iraq and Afghanistan, teams worked throughout the chain of command and supporting establishments. This placement of advisors was critical for developing functional staffs including operational, logistical and administrative functions above the tactical level. Upper level teams put people in the right places to talk about human rights, corruption, rule of law, connection to civilian authority and interoperability with other elements of the security establishment. Advising throughout the military hierarchy was key to the plans for developing sustainable, professional forces.

While units deploying for exercises and engagement are largely tactical, senior staff members and commanders can still seek venues to connect with counterparts at the operational and service levels. Theater campaign plans for steady-state operations within geographic combatant commands should put emphasis on impacting developing militaries at all points. In general, units should seek opportunities to engage above the tactical level so that a developing military’s institutions are consistently encouraged to both support lower echelons effectively and connect with civilian authority properly.


Development is important, but to accomplish the QDR’s goals units should also learn to enable developing militaries on the battlefield. During operations, advisor teams enabled the advised unit by providing access to intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), fires, explosive ordnance disposal, route clearance, and medical evacuation among other capabilities. Advisor teams could fully integrate with the advised unit and significantly increase its combat power for specific missions.

Similarly, units conducting military-to-military engagement should use the opportunity to be more than interoperable. These units should develop an understanding of how to enable that foreign military unit in a crisis. US military units should be prepared to integrate with, not just fight adjacent to, larger foreign military formations and provide access to critical selections from the full spectrum of US capabilities across all functions. As examples, units should understand what their capacity is to provide task organized teams to add combat power, targeting, engineering, mobility, intelligence, and communications capacity to foreign units. Being able to perform this role during contingencies, including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, would allow the US military to accomplish its mission with a smaller force by more fully partnering with host nation forces.  

Additionally, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, among the reasons that combined US/host nation operations were difficult was that the host nation unit staffs had only a fraction of the capacity of US staffs. US units often wanted a significantly higher level of detail in planning than the host nation militaries were able to provide. Just as tactical units should be prepared to integrate with and reinforce larger units, higher level staffs should be prepared to enable foreign military staffs with key people for planning and execution; beyond simple liaison elements. As with advisor teams, staff sections should be prepared to participate in host nation military planning activities with the goal of bringing the plans to the level of detail and formatting necessary for US units to integrate reliably.


While enabling reinforces success, units should also be prepared to backstop problems in the existing functions of developing militaries. To keep an advised unit from failing, advisors were prepared to backstop short term critical faults. Advisor teams were able to judiciously access support for maintenance, fuel, construction materials, engineering, and air and ground transportation to help an advised unit overcome carefully selected, acute problems.

Similarly, units conducting engagement activities should use the opportunity to understand the areas in which a developing military may need support should it start failing in a crisis. Units should evaluate the functionality of the host nation unit by looking for likely points of failure and their ability to plug in a US capability to fill a gap. In particular, as an exercise or other training event is conducted, units should pay attention to the full spectrum of supplies required by the foreign military and how US units would link directly, or through contracts, to fill those needs rapidly for short periods. The ability to backstop foreign military units in a few key areas could allow them to continue a mission during a crisis rather than fail.


US units should capture the lessons from the first three tasks and be prepared to act on them. By having a persistent presence in a host nation unit, advisor teams were able to explain the capabilities and intentions of the advised unit to other forces during operations or in the form of reports and analysis during assessment of long term development goals. Advisor teams provided insight into operational force laydown, cross leveled intelligence into US systems, explained the unit’s operations, and acted as liaisons. Advisor teams also used that information to understand the advised unit’s development trajectory, build their engagement strategies around it, and pass the information along to other stakeholders.

Units conducting military-to-military engagement can adapt this task to inform their own and others’ contact with foreign military units. While typical lessons-learned products tend to focus on a specific exercise or deployment, units and high level staffs should orient instead on capturing and continuously updating a particular foreign military’s development goals and trajectory. This type of information would be valuable to both regionally aligned units with habitual relationships and to units coming through for one-time events. In either case this type of information would allow units to build on past work. Units could design tailored engagements rather than default to basic packages that lack a connection to that specific military’s development trajectory. In addition, units should gather best practices for enabling and backstopping that particular military for use in contingencies. Illumination can help all stakeholders work on a consistent development trajectory for foreign military units and also inform crisis response by outlining key connection points for enabling and backstopping.


The tasks of advisors working with the militaries of Iraq and Afghanistan were focused on improving performance. Applied broadly by units and staffs working with foreign militaries, those tasks can guide engagement activities towards the same goal. In addition to building the partner’s capacity, units and staffs can also improve their own ability to assist foreign militaries in a crisis. Rather than focus only on interoperability, US units should train to integrate key capacities as necessary to reinforce foreign units though enabling and backstopping. Finally, US units should consistently capture the efforts of the first three tasks in order to illuminate future interactions. With this template, US units can better partner with foreign military capabilities in both steady-state and in crisis in furtherance of US interests.

End Notes

[i] Charles T. Hagel, Quadrennial Defense Review (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, March 2014), III.

[ii] “Doctrine for Joint Operations 3-0," Washington DC: Joint Chiefs of Staff (2011), V9-V10.


About the Author(s)

Tom R. Przybelski is an infantry officer assigned to 2nd Marine Division.


Below I have tried to depict the "new normal" as the period in time in which the United States (for various reasons) is forced to seek the transformation of outlying states and societies -- more along modern western lines --

a. NOT via the voluntary decisions of native populations who, post-the Cold War, are "universally" inspired by our western ideas and example. But, rather,

b. Via the actions of determined governors/governments who -- working in our behalf -- must:

(1) Overcome the continuing appeal of each nations historical/traditional/indigenous ideas and examples. And, in spite of these,

(2) Achieve the necessary political, economic and social changes that we require anyway.

(3) This, at times, requiring the use of more-coercive (think force-of-arms) -- rather than more-inspirational -- means.

Thus, the same general problem as presented by America's 19th Century South and 19th Century West, to wit: the need to transform, "civilize" and, thereby, better incorporate, often against their will, these "outlying" portions of the realm.

These such measures/requirements/actions today being played out again -- but now on the world stage -- and now with America's military forces being deployed/employed in more of an advising, enabling and backstopping role?

Bill C.

Tue, 09/30/2014 - 12:46pm

(I have cleaned this up a little bit and added some things.)

Based on my ideas at my comment below, let us look at how we might do, for example, political warfare but in an era in which one's "big guns" -- (1) the idea of the shining (western) city on the hill and (2) the idea of universal (western) values -- have fallen flat on their face and/or have shown themselves to do more harm than good.

Post-the Cold War -- as we pressed forward with what we thought were our "big guns" (our way of life, our way of governance and our values, attitudes and beliefs) -- we thought that these would be all that we would need to achieve our political objective, to wit: the transformation of outlying states and societies more along modern western lines.

Boy were we wrong.

Instead, we got states and societies (such as those in the Middle East, Russia and elsewhere) who, having no wish to be thus "transformed and assimilated," pushed back -- essentially by bringing to bear their own "identity" big guns, to wit: their own shining cities on the hill (examples: the Caliphate and the Russian Empire) and their own ways of life, ways of governance and corresponding values, attitudes and beliefs. These, much to our chagrin, tending to stop our expansionist undertakings dead in their tracks.

So: What are we to do now? Now that we realize that our "big guns" (see above) have, in effect, proven to be more of a liability than an asset?

Our political objective has not changed. We still require that outlying states and societies be transformed more along modern western lines.

But how does one do this in an environment in which the western example is now looked upon -- by many -- in such a negative (rather than positive) light?

The answer, I believe, is as we have done these things in the past: By "hiring" regimes to do our work for us. And by building our such partner's military, police and intelligence forces such that they might (1) overcome the resistance of their populations and (2) achieve these necessary transformations anyway.

Post-the Cold War, we attempted to achieve our political objective via the population and via our "big guns;" both of which have now failed us miserably.

Now it appears we must come at this mission in a much less attractive ways; ways which (1) we are very familiar with but ways that, post-the Cold War and the so-called "end of history," (2) we had hoped that we would never have to use again.

To conclude:

The title of this article is "Thoughts for Units Conducting Military Engagements in the New Normal."

By my explanations and examples above, I hope that we might gain a better understanding of (1) what the "new normal" actually looks like (they don't want to be like us -- they want to be like themselves) and (2) what our political and military actions -- undertaken within this negative environment -- might look like also and why.

"The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) puts significant emphasis on the need to build capacity in foreign militaries and rely on those partners to both improve regional security and further US interests."

Here is what I believe we need to understand re: "building partner capacity" and "furthering US interests."

a. "Furthering US interests" means transforming foreign states and their societies more along modern western lines.

b. "Building partner capacity" means that we understand this will require force-of-arms.

Thus by going BPC, we formally acknowledge, for all the world to see, that neither western ideas nor western examples (as we had banked on recently) are up to this task (see item "a" above).

With the "shinning house on the hill" and the idea of "universal values" having failed us, its back to "old school" for us (oppressive regimes; force-of-arms) to further US interests.

Madhu (not verified)

Thu, 09/25/2014 - 12:31pm

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

I forgot to thank the author in my previous comment. It's a thoughtful article, I was only riffing off of the title in my previous comment.

Madhu (not verified)

Thu, 09/25/2014 - 12:02pm

<strong>"The New Normal"</strong>

When I saw that, I thought of the following from one of my favorite articles at SWJ by Wm. J. Olson:

<blockquote>The second major route by which the Department of Defense has come to dominate strategic thinking is through control over virtually all of the government-based strategic think tanks and educational institutions. <strong>Because of immensely deep pockets, this is an influence that extends to many non-government think tanks and certainly to the host of DoD-dependent contract institutes and organizations. There is no strategic think tank in government outside the Department of Defense, and the few feeble efforts that might play a role are overwhelmed by the sheer number and size of what DoD can deploy. The Policy Planning office at State is often noted as an exception</strong>, but it ceased being a strategic center many years ago. In addition, the vast supply of former military officers, particularly retired general officers, means that many of the strategic, long-range thinking and planning institutes, organizations, school houses, and offices—public and private--are dominated by military officers reared in the context of understanding war noted earlier.

Increasingly the intelligence community has fallen under military control, even nominally civilian offices. Further, nominally civilian policy positions in OSD, and beyond, are being filled increasingly by retired officers. There are now contracting firms largely controlled by retired officers—and some now created by former enlisted men—advising DoD and increasingly foreign governments; an expansion of the number of former military on staffs and committees in Congress; and, of course, the easy transfer from military service into every sort and variety of contracting firm doing business with DoD and other agencies. Institutionally, the major instrument of US engagement in the world, the principal means for executing all manner of efforts, is through the Combatant Commands, with commanders now near pro-consuls abroad and increasingly at home, with memories of MacArthur. </blockquote>

And the sad thing is, State has many strange and silly ideas too, so I'm not sure that increasing its funding would necessarily change things without challenging its outmoded ideas or lack of intellectual rigor. Take civilian aid programs, as one example.

We are now in deep state territory, the professional managerial class of official Washington which must work and eat and make money and is prone to the manipulation of others because a certain type of personality cannot live without a grand ideological purpose.

In short, we don't know how to find the excitement in peace, anymore.

The land of jazz and classic Hollywood movies and skate punks and early Silicon Valley and Hogan's Heroes sitcoms with their civilians-who-were-once-in-the-military cheekiness about "warriors", all the innovations of twentieth century management and manufacturing, can't understand what might be exciting, or motivating or, profitable even, about peace. Such a strange moment in our history as Americans....