A better strategy for security force assistance in the Pacific
The Army, with its long history of security force assistance to Pacific Rim nations and a wealth of new knowledge born of war in the Middle East, should improve and increase SFA operations as part of the nation’s strategic rebalance to the Pacific. Such missions allow the Army to build partner nation capacity while honing its own readiness, an efficient approach well-suited to today’s fiscal and strategic imperatives.
The United States has a well-established relationship with its Pacific partners and allies. Despite cyclical periods of budgetary restraint, the Army has kept a capable force in Japan and Korea for well over half a century, even as its European presence shrank after the Cold War. On the Korean Peninsula, for example, Army combat forces have remained virtually unchanged since the 7th Infantry Division left Korea in 1971, except for the Army’s deployment of one brigade to Iraq in 2004 and implementation of the Nunn-Warner Amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill Act in 1989. The Army has also recently aligned continental U.S.-based conventional forces to the geographic combatant commanders, including U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii, to provide dedicated forces that can train for specific contingency operations in their area of responsibility.
But several things are leading to a departure from the static defense model established in the Pacific over the past 70 years, including fiscal constraints, the rise of China and the change in national defense strategy dubbed the rebalance to the Pacific.
The chief of staff of the Army says the service’s 21st- century role has three pillars: prevent conflict through credibility, shape the international environment by enabling allies, and win decisively and dominantly when called. These nest with the PACOM commander’s desire to improve stability in the Asia-Pacific region by promoting security cooperation, responding to contingencies and deterring aggression. Though strategic, operational and tactical preparations for attacks on South Korea and Japan are certainly important, the Army has pursued and must continue to pursue other options to prevent, shape and win in Asia.
Among the most important of these will be SFA missions, which strengthen partner militaries and allow them to shoulder more of the fiscal and military load of their own defense and regional stability efforts. Thanks to the recent regional realignment, the Army can execute SFA missions with available CONUS-based units, thereby furthering U.S. economic and national security interests at a fraction of the cost of forward stationing.
Among U.S. service branches, the Army is particularly well-suited to engage partner militaries in the Pacific. Nations in the region rely heavily on their ground forces to maintain security, hedge against external intervention, and respond to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief requirements. Seven of the world’s 10 largest armies reside in the Pacific, and 21 of 27 Pacific nations have an army officer as chief of all defense forces. Their own fiscal constraints mean they are likely to continue funding an active ground defense capability at the expense of more costly air and sea power.
Moreover, the Army has long experience with SFA missions in Asia. For more than a century, from the Philippines to Korea, Thailand, Vietnam and Japan, U.S. soldiers have helped Pacific nations learn from their expertise. Today, conventional and special operations soldiers train Pacific nations’ armies on a broad range of military topics. Ongoing efforts to improve partner nation military capacity include exercises such as Talisman Saber (Australia), Balikatan (Philippines), Cobra Gold (Thailand), Ulchi Focus Guardian (Korea) and Yama Sakura (Japan).
Unfortunately, U.S. Army Pacific’s theater security cooperation program and SFA strategy have been neglected because of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the Army’s requirements in Afghanistan wane, conventional forces — particularly CONUS-based ones aligned to the Pacific — can and should refocus their energy on SFA missions in the Pacific.
A Brigade-Size Solution
Partners and allies, particularly in Southeast Asia, will want to capitalize on the Army’s hard-earned experience of 12 years of combat in the Middle East, which fostered rapid advances in counter-improvised explosive device technology, combat medical support, unmanned aerial system operations and methods of targeting an enemy intertwined with the civilian population. Fortunately, the years of war also advanced the art of training foreign militaries, including the creation of an effective model for supporting partner nation militaries in the Pacific.
The Army has a history of developing short-lived organizations for SFA, including the Korea Military Advisory Group, Military Assistance Command-Vietnam and, more recently, the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq. None survived the conflict that produced them. Some observers have called for a standing advisory capability, but the Army has neither the resources nor the manpower to develop a permanent advisory corps, particularly in the current fiscal climate.
Instead, the Army realized that a brigade and its subordinate units generally had enough training capacity to provide effective SFA at the tactical level. After the Army shifted from a division-based to a brigade-based force, units in Afghanistan developed a brigade-size solution to a brigade-size problem: the security force assistance brigade.
The brigade combat team is the ideal structure for providing SFA in myriad tactical training situations. Any BCT, be it infantry, armor or Stryker, can, with limited external support, deploy a tailored package that provides SFA to a partner nation’s tactical units, from the squad to the brigade level. The BCT’s plethora of field grade, warrant and senior NCO provides a robust staff capability and the means of planning for and generating much of its own support requirements. Its complement of artillery, engineer, logistics, military intelligence and signal units can train partner nation units on a full suite of tactical combat skills, including recent technological advances.
Finally, a brigade-size approach to SFA highlights the need to train partner nations down to the platoon level. Though U.S. participation in Cobra Gold, Ulchi Focus Guardian and other regional exercises will likely continue despite fiscal constraints, they do not fully capitalize on the Army’s ability to train partner nation forces because they largely rely on simulations focused at the operational level of war. Nor do operational-level exercises allow the Army to take advantage of the extensive training capacity of its noncommissioned officer corps. If real learning occurs at the lowest level — from private to sergeant — then training of smaller units should be a core part of the SFA strategy.
Options to Consider
The Army needs cost-effective ways to boost conventional-force SFA in the Pacific as part of a broader theater security cooperation program. Some of the options include:
• Use Army forces already aligned or assigned with PACOM to conduct theater military-to-military engagements. This includes most units stationed in Hawaii, Alaska and Washington, including five of the eight active Stryker BCTs, all well-positioned to rapidly deploy throughout the Pacific by air or sea. Sending elements on SFA missions would provide a unique opportunity to further develop relationships in Asia while maintaining the Army’s expeditionary capability at three major installations: Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska. Though fiscal realities may limit the development of additional expeditionary capability, existing infrastructure at these key facilities certainly suffices to deploy SFA units throughout Asia.
• Allow partner nation forces to train alongside Army forces in the U.S. By bringing partner nation forces to the U.S. to train at regional and combat training facilities such as Yakima Training Center in Washington, the Pohakuloa Training Area in Hawaii and even the combat training centers, Army units would continue to train, develop enduring relationships and hone tactical trainer skills with our Pacific partners — and yet alleviate much of the fiscal and political burden associated with transporting, protecting and supporting U.S. forces in a foreign country. Many nations, such as Australia and Japan, already use U.S. training facilities to improve their tactical skills, but Army leaders must foster and encourage these training events as not just facility usage but also SFA opportunities. Army forces stand to gain as much, if not more, from training partner nation forces stateside. Using these training events as SFA engagements is a cost-effective way of improving proficiency in our own mission-essential tasks while developing and improving relationships with our Pacific partners.
• Train partner nations to perform Defense Department tasks for which the Army has executive agency responsibilities. These include numerous exportable, trainable tasks, including chemical and biological defense, explosives safety, efforts to defeat IEDs, domestic disaster relief, veterinary services and non-combatant evacuation operations, among others, all of which have relevancy in the Pacific. Some of these capabilities reside in the BCT and some are available from other specialty units, but all have applicability at the tactical level and are trainable by Army forces. The Army can and must seek ways to export its expertise in these valuable fields to our Pacific partners through SFA programs tailored to partner nations’ militaries.
• Assume a central role in conventional SFA operations for Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines. For more than a decade, special operations forces have advised and assisted the Philippine military in its struggle against terrorist cells on its southern islands. Though counterterror operations are trained almost exclusively by SOF, associated tasks are trainable by conventional Army forces, including counterinsurgency, combat medicine, unmanned aircraft operations, IED defeat, and targeting. Using rotational BCTs in a more central training role in the Philippines would maintain conventional force training capability while freeing SOF to focus on counterterrorism tasks — just as the U.S. did in both Iraq and Afghanistan. It would also preserve and develop hard-won Army expertise in integrating conventional and special operations forces.
Capitalizing on combat experiences and executive agent expertise, developing a holistic SFA approach across the Pacific and shifting to a larger conventional role in the Philippines, the Army can continue to maintain tactical proficiency while training our Pacific partners and allies on current battlefield realities. By increasing the credibility of our Pacific partners’ militaries, the Army boosts deterrence against conflict, and should deterrence fail, buys the National Command Authority precious time when conflict looms.