By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (May 18, 2017) -- Last week, the Army established the first of what will eventually be six security force assistance brigades, or SFABs.
That unit, now assigned to Fort Benning, Georgia, has already identified about 70 percent of the personnel who will ultimately serve under its flag and wear its patch -- though right now, both the patch and the flag are still being designed.
The new SFAB and the five others planned -- a total of five in the active component and one in the National Guard -- will each have 529 Soldiers assigned and will be tasked to conduct advise and assist missions for the Army, said Lt. Col. Johnathan Thomas, who serves with the Army's G-3/5/7 force management directorate at the Pentagon.
"The SFAB is designed to rapidly deploy into a theater of operations in support of a combatant commander," said Thomas. "Once it arrives in that particular theater, it will begin to work with, train, advise, and assist those partner nation security forces on anything they need help with, be it logistics, be it communications, be it maneuver. Anything they need help with to improve their capacity and capability, that's what the SFAB is designed to do."
Thomas said SFABs could deploy to places such as Africa, South America, Europe, or anywhere Army senior leaders decide. The units will have the capability to deploy anywhere.
The advise and assist mission is one the Army has done for years, Thomas said, but it's something the Army has until now done in an "ad hoc" fashion. Brigade combat teams, for instance, have in the past been re-tasked to send some of their own overseas as part of Security Transition Teams or Security Force Assistance Teams to conduct training missions with foreign militaries. Sometimes, however, the manner in which these teams were created may not have consistently facilitated the highest quality of preparation.
The SFAB units, on the other hand, will be exclusively designated to conduct advise and assist missions overseas. And they will be extensively trained to conduct those missions before they go. Additionally, he said, the new SFABs mean regular BCTs will no longer need to conduct advise and assist missions.
"The SFAB, because it is going to go forward and advise, will somewhat relieve the pressure on our BCTs to go forward and do that mission," Thomas said. Instead, he said, BCTs can now concentrate on training and preparing for their next deployment.
He said that because the advise and assist mission is considered an enduring mission, "the Army decided ... we should have a dedicated, permanent structure to get after this mission on behalf of our partnered forces and partner nations."
THE FIRST SFAB
Col. Scott Jackson, an infantry officer who has served in the Army for 27 years now, has been named the first commander of the Army's first SFAB. His unit, the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade, which is headquartered at Fort Benning, Georgia, was established last week, but will officially activate this October.
Right now, he said, the unit is just getting started, so it is short on Soldiers. But he did say that about 70 percent of those who will ultimately join the unit have been identified.
"They will slowly start arriving over the summertime to begin training this fall," Jackson said.
And when fall rolls around, he said, training will be extensive.
"The really unique aspect of the SFAB, as a concept, is the training we are going to give the organization," Jackson said. "We are starting with a very talented pool of officers and leaders all around. But then we are going to give them an unbelievable training plan."
Jackson said that training will include immersive language training. Some Soldiers, he said, will get as much as 16 weeks of training in a language that will assist the unit as they deploy. That level of language training, he said, "is unheard of in the conventional force."
Additionally, leaders in the formation will attend a recently-established six-week "Military Advisor Training Academy" in addition to the language courses.
"They will also receive training in foreign weapons, so they can properly advise their counterparts in foreign countries on how to employ those weapons," Jackson said. "They will receive advanced medical training, and advanced driver training. The level of skill preparation is really unseen in our efforts of doing combat advising up until now."
Thomas said training for all SFABs will begin at Fort Benning, and will also include survival, evasion, resistance and escape training as well.
Jackson said about 370 of his unit's 529 Soldiers, or 70 percent, will get the extensive training and will be coded as advisors. The rest, he said, will be mission-command personnel to operate the brigade.
ALREADY READY TO LEAD, TO TRAIN
Another unique aspect of the SFAB is how the leadership was selected. All leaders in the Brigade have already served in their current positions. Jackson, for instance, already served as a brigade commander at Fort Stewart, Georgia; while his Command Sergeant Major Christopher Gunn is a former Brigade Combat Team CSM.
Jackson also has experience as an advisor. On the second of his three tours to Iraq, he served as a military advisor to an Iraqi provincial governor. There, he said, he "straddled the line between military and political advising." He provided updates for the governor on what was going on militarily, the threat situation, and how the governor could best support military operations.
"What I got out of that was the power of personal relationships," Jackson said. "You have got to have patience. You have to establish a strong personal-level relationship. You can't be in a rush. You have to be patient."
Jackson also said that part of advising, such as in Iraq, is knowing that the "American" way of doing things is not always the best way to do things with a partner.
"There is an Iraqi way of doing things. There is an Afghan way of doing things," he said. "If you don't realize that, if you are not sensitive to their way of business, what you propose as an advisor will have no credibility, and you will have no trust. And you will be an ineffective advisor."
In part, it was his experience in the past as a brigade commander, and his experience as an advisor in Iraq that helped him secure the position as commander of the 1st SFAB.
Battalion and brigade leaders were selected by a panel of general officers and command sergeants major. And like Jackson, all of those have already served in similar positions within a brigade.
It is uncommon, Jackson said, for an officer to hold a command position at the same level more than once.
"That's a unique aspect of an SFAB," he said. "Because we're advisors, we're expected to be extremely knowledgeable at our job. We can't be learning our job. We already have to have done it. Every officer, every leader in the organization, has already done their job previously, and have proven themselves in their positions."
At least for now, the Army isn't assigning Soldiers to SFAB units. Instead, the SFAB units will be manned exclusively with volunteers, said Thomas.
"We are going to reach out across the Army to get volunteers for the SFAB," Thomas said. "And we are looking for senior individuals, staff sergeant and above, across a variety of experiences and capabilities."
Thomas said the SFABs need experienced infantrymen, artillerymen, engineers, and logisticians, among other skill sets. The Army also needs Soldiers with experience as squad leaders, first sergeants, and platoons sergeants. For officers, the Army wants those with experience as company commanders, battalion operations officers, executive officers, battalion commanders, and brigade commanders.
To help facilitate more volunteers to the SFAB mission, Thomas said, the Army has approved assignment incentive pay for enlisted Soldiers.
"It is an imperative that we want volunteers for this," Thomas said. "That's why the Army approved the $5,000 assignment incentive pay for this; it was that high of a priority. We want individuals who want to be there. We don't want to force individuals, or simply assign them to the SFAB. People with a passion to deploy and do this kind of work -- that's who we want inside the SFAB."
Jackson said that while most of his unit's personnel have already been identified, he's looking for people who are excited about the prospect of doing something new within the Army. He wants people for whom the mission is exciting, and for whom being part of a new kind of unit is also exciting, he said.
"The first thing that should excite you about the SFAB is that it's a chance to write history," Jackson said. "This is an exciting part of the U.S. Army history and it's a challenging time in the world. And the SFAB is going to be at the forefront of that."
Jackson said that the first Soldiers onboard at the 1st SFAB, and in the other SFABs that will form, will have an opportunity to define what it means to be in an SFAB. They will set the standard for the unit and for those who come after them.
"The real history of the SFAB will be written by the folks, the collective folks, assigned to the first several SFABs, as we establish what the SFAB ethos is, and the culture, and the organizational standards," he said. "It's like any high-performing organization when it's first stood up. Initial benchmarks have to be established. The folks in this organization -- the folks that work with us -- are going to be the ones who are writing that history."
Jackson also said he expects those in the SFAB will be among the best Soldiers the Army has in their particular career field. He said partner nations will expect that of them -- as they are there to train others how to do their jobs.
"If you are a Soldier who wants to be a true master at arms, well, we are going to be recognized as the experts at what we call combined arms maneuver," he said. "If you are in the SFAB, other coalition partners are going to look at you to be the experts in how to do warfighting with conventional forces. Most people join the Army to go do Army things, to go out and deploy and be involved in operations. If that's you, then you should come to the SFAB."
BRIGADE COMBAT TEAMS IN WAITING
The SFAB concept is a key priority of Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, to get after and to institutionalize the concept of the advise and assist mission within dedicated force structure.
But the SFAB does more than that. While the SFAB will have just 529 Soldiers within its ranks, those Soldiers will constitute "primarily a very senior force," Thomas said.
With senior leadership already in place that mirrors a standard brigade combat team, the SFABs will be able to quickly grow into a full-sized BCT with as many as 4,000 Soldiers, if the Army needs to increase combat capability.
"We call it regeneration," Thomas said. "And the regeneration capability of the SFAB is one of its features. The SFAB will provide a cadre of officers and [noncommissioned officers] who will facilitate the regeneration of an SFAB into a full-blown brigade combat team."
Were a generation order given, Thomas said, any of the six SFABs the Army expects to build could grow quickly into a full-sized infantry brigade combat team, Stryker brigade combat team, or armored brigade combat team.
"The Army will have to bring Soldiers, NCOs and officers into the SFAB from various locations across the Army," Thomas said. "That'll be part of the normal transition and assignment process that will help facilitate the growth of the SFAB into a BCT."
Thomas said it would take a lot of Soldiers to fill an SFAB and turn it into a full-sized BCT. But he also said that it will be much faster for the Army to convert an SFAB into a BCT than it would be to stand up a new BCT from scratch. So the SFAB, in addition to institutionalizing the advise and assist mission, will also enable the Army to build combat forces faster if it needs to.
What the SFAB also does, Thomas said, is get after the Army's No. 1 priority: readiness.
"Being able to provide advisors to assist our partner nation security forces not only helps them defend their country and their interests, and put down existing threats or emerging threats in their area, but also helps us with our readiness," he said. "Because now we don't have to send our forces forward and do those things. Those forces are capable of doing it for themselves."
Thomas said Soldiers interested in volunteering for SFAB duty should contact their branch manager at the Army's Human Resources Command to discuss the assignment and to learn more about the assignment incentive pay being offered.