February 1, 2008  

SecDef has signaled a turning point in U.S. defense thinking

“Arguably the most important military component in the war on terror is not the fighting we do ourselves, but how well we enable and empower our partners to defend and govern their own countries.”

— Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking to the Association of the United States Army on Oct. 10

Gates’ speeches to AUSA and his subsequent “soft power” speech at Kansas State University indicate a turning point in U.S. defense thinking since the neo-isolationism of the “pre-emptive warfare” strategies of the early Bush administration. In many ways, the secretary’s call to empower our allies to defend themselves returns to a consistent theme of U.S. foreign policy first employed in the early days of the Cold War, with the Marshall Plan, the Van Fleet advisory mission to Greece and the beginnings of foreign military assistance to U.S. allies.

For the military services, this should be nothing new. Since 1947, U.S. military assistance and advisers have been deployed to wars in Greece, Korea, the Philippines, Southeast Asia, Central America and now Southwest Asia, and in hundreds of almost-wars around the globe. American uniforms have been seen, and still are seen, in mud-hut villages and on river deltas worldwide, where individual soldiers or small teams of sweating GIs work alongside local forces to reinforce shaky new nations. But in fact, for the mainstream military generation raised since the end of the Cold War, this is new, since advising foreign armies, providing military assistance and working in harness with the State Department have been out of style for the top leadership of the services for decades.

The defining events, of course, have been the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the failure of the U.S. to plan adequately for the rebuilding of Iraqi and Afghan security forces put us at a grievous disadvantage for the first several years of warfare in those two countries, a disadvantage that is only now being made up by the hard work and sacrifices of dedicated men and women in recently created advisory jobs. Much more remains to be done, but the reconstruction of Iraqi and Afghan security forces is finally on firmer ground.

Iraq and Afghanistan are worst-case examples of “enabling and empowering” allies. The secretary’s real thrust — and the topic of debate in Washington, D.C., today — is how to merge military power with other government agencies to support allies in emerging states before events reach crisis proportions, and to help our friends manage their own affairs without U.S. conventional forces. This is a challenge the U.S. has successfully faced before, yet the Washington policy establishment appears singularly ill-informed about how to go about it. Here are some fundamentals.


The action arm of U.S. policy in the world — the place where the rubber meets the rice paddy, so to speak — is the U.S. country team, headed by an ambassador (the chief of mission, or COM). The ambassador’s embassy team consists of representatives of the various agencies of the U.S. government with an interest in the local country (including military attaches), but it also often includes a U.S. military mission of some kind, often called a Military Assistance and Advisory Group (MAAG), though in actual fact there are over a dozen names tailored to the desires of the host country. The MAAG-type organization is the lowest level where true integration of diplomacy and military power takes place, and it happens daily, face-to-face between the ambassador and his military chief.

Before the end of the Vietnam War, MAAGs were powerful instruments of U.S. military power; more than 60 were stationed around the world, advising and training foreign armies, dispensing military aid, and working with ambassadors to fortify U.S. influence. During the post-Vietnam retrenchment, the system was dismantled. Laws were changed, foreign military assistance transferred to the State Department, and State itself was gutted by Democratic and Republican Congresses both then and especially since the end of the Cold War.

So the first step in reviving American support to allies is to resuscitate the capabilities of front-line U.S. country teams in threatened parts of the world, especially their military components. The framework still exists in various forms in U.S. defense assistance offices, though there are key legislative changes that will require congressional attention — which is appropriate for a strategic shift of this magnitude. Certainly, there will be differences from the past; time never stands still. But three fundamentals are clear.

First, U.S. objectives can only be achieved by patient, long-term effort on the ground, face-to-face with allies. Reorienting from high-tech, ultramodern pizzazz to patient work on building host country security forces is going to take quite a mental shift in the services. For all the hype about the “information revolution” and “expeditionary capabilities,” America is going to have to show long-term commitment by face-to-face, person-to-person engagement. Second, true interagency operations are most important at the country team level. Forget Washington; even with the best efforts, Washington will always be driven by the bureaucratic frictions inherent in governing. State, Defense and other agencies represented in the ambassador’s team have to focus on reinforcing the country team and the COM’s authority. Third, for the Defense side, creating effective advisers in MAAGs is the fundamental element in aiding our allies. Military assistance — vital to front-line country teams and thus to U.S. policy — will only be successful if top-line American soldiers are sent to tomorrow’s front lines.


“Advising” — that is, the use of military personnel to influence or assist foreign armies — dates back as far as military history can reach. Every modern army has at one time or another executed an “advising” function, with varying degrees of success. What exactly advisers are, and what they do, is conspicuously missing from the current debate; indeed, the Joint Chiefs of Staff dictionary of terms does not define “adviser.” Briefly, though, a military adviser is an expert in a certain military specialty, assigned to impart his knowledge to an ally, often a specific person. In addition to specialist expertise — the absolute bottom line for an adviser — he must have a good familiarity with the host country and its armed forces, and must have some degree of fluency in the local language. What he does is advise, train and sometimes supply host country security forces, usually one-on-one with a designated counterpart. An adviser is both an “adviser” and a trainer; at a face-to-face level, the two functions blend together. An adviser assigned to a MAAG may teach host country instructors how to teach; he may then be asked to pass on complex military concepts in an environment totally unsuited for them, or to advise combat units in the field. He is diplomat, trainer, adviser, mentor and friend when appropriate. The duty is highly individualistic, and great sensitivity to cultural differences is both vital and demanding. One adviser in El Salvador commented, “The advisory business and the mission of the milgroup are the most difficult jobs I have seen thus far in my career.” Another commented that at the lowest levels of advisory duty, “cultural immersion is total and the pace is intense.” (Think of T.E. Lawrence in his white robes, or bearded U.S. NCOs in Afghanistan.)

A vital point about advisers is duration. To be effective, they must be stationed in the country for as long a period as practical — a year is minimum; a longer period, if conditions permit, is better. Permanent stationing permits members of the MAAG to cultivate essential relationships with counterparts in the host country, builds and integrates programs with the country team in support of U.S. policy objectives, and allows them to become more expert in the language and culture of the area — advantages if U.S. conventional forces are deployed there.


In contrast to the MAAGs, mobile training teams (MTTs) from the general-purpose forces visit host countries episodically for combined training exercises and in smaller numbers to provide specialized training not inherent in the MAAGs. Most current military leaders, having “grown up” after Vietnam, are more familiar with MTTs than MAAGs, and Pentagon briefings frequently confuse the two. Until recently, and before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan sapped American troop strength worldwide, U.S. units assigned to specific theaters usually provided MTTs in their regions. The U.S. brigade in Panama, for example, executed training missions in the southern hemisphere and tended to have a higher proportion of Spanish-speaking soldiers than other units. The same was true in other theaters.

Mobile training teams are essential adjuncts to U.S. policy in many ways. They can support training requirements set by MAAGs and country teams, focus specialist expertise directly on U.S. priorities (much of the U.S. infrastructure built in Central America in the 1980s was built by MTTs) and gain familiarity with areas and allies with whom they might execute contingency operations.

In general, MTTs have one large advantage and one serious drawback in supporting the secretary’s charge to the services. The advantage comes by having the entire general-purpose force as a potential pool for MTTs. As a consequence, the range of expertise to back up the work of MAAGs and country teams is virtually unlimited. Given the right staffing mechanisms and priorities, a MAAG should be able to call in backup for everything from veterinary services to heavy engineer battalions to light infantry units. But the unavoidable drawback to MTTs is that their appearance in the host country is only episodic, and the brief time they are in the country precludes establishment of long-term relationships or true understanding of the host country and its challenges. They are not as effective as advisers who live with their counterparts. An MTT is — or should be — the MAAG’s “hired help,” or outside experts. To get maximum leverage from an MTT, the training objectives should be integrated into the country team’s and MAAG’s plan for the advisory mission and its political objectives. That is not always the case, and those ties need to be strengthened at the combatant command level.


Gates’ potential reorientation of U.S. security policy heightens combatant command interest in theater security planning. Of course, the first responsibility of the combatant commander is to maintain readiness to engage U.S. forces whenever required to deter or defeat America’s enemies. The second, also extant today, is to execute theater security plans with the region’s COMs. Concrete steps are to lobby for security assistance to selected host nations, to maintain cordial relations with regional heads of armed forces, and to integrate combatant commander planning with the individual ambassadors’ plans for their host countries. In current U.S. practice, MAAG commanders answer both to “their” ambassador and to the combatant commander (and sometimes to a service component commander as well) in violation of principles of war, counterinsurgency experience and common sense. The waffly term “unity of effort” is an admission that “unity of command” is just too hard for today’s superpower to fix.

So with regard to MAAGs and country teams, the combatant commander’s wisest role is to ensure that his and the COM’s plans in front-line country teams are meshed, and that he, and particularly his service components, support requests for MTT and foreign military assistance in as timely a manner as possible. For the MAAG to be effective, the combatant commander’s support role is absolutely vital. (Considering the “enable and empower” mission, the term “combatant commander” is unfortunate; one African general recently exclaimed, “You want a war in Africa? No? Then why is he a ‘combat commander?’”)

Obviously, a shift in U.S. strategy of the magnitude suggested by Gates waits on the election of the next administration. There are encouraging signs, though, that whichever party comes to power, the general direction of U.S. military strategy will favor “building partnership capacity,” the current Pentagon buzzword. So without waiting for an election, there are some things that could be done today that would speed the transition to a new defense strategy in 2009.

First, a comprehensive survey should be taken to determine the actual state of affairs abroad with regard to country teams in “front-line” states — those threatened by instability sufficient to threaten American interests. Prioritization of front-line states — and therefore front-line country teams — is vital if both Defense and State hope to resurrect strengthened U.S. capabilities in those areas, is vital to assist both departments in allocating scarce resources as they come online, and is likewise vital to obtaining congressional support for necessary legislative changes.

Second, congressional support is key for legislation that undoes some of the “reforms” of the post-Vietnam era while maintaining appropriate oversight. The departments of Defense and State should develop three joint legislative initiatives for the consideration of the next Congress:

å Congress should consider expansion of State’s country team capabilities to include expansion of embassy staffs and the Foreign Service officer corps.

å Legislation pertaining to security assistance funding should be amended to make programs more responsive to front-line COMs and to combatant commanders. Security assistance legislation, and the provision of security assistance, is far too complex for a single article. But if top-notch advisers are essential to empowering our allies, providing timely, top-notch materiel support is likewise vital — depending on the circumstances, facilitating new materiel delivery is usually a substantial part of a MAAG’s mission.

å Defense and State should be prepared to recommend to Congress those additional front-line states where the personnel and missions assigned to specific U.S. military missions — MAAG under any name — should be expanded beyond current statutory limitations, as has been done in a number of states already.

Third, within the Defense Department, a system of schools to train and educate officers and NCOs headed for MAAG assignments must be established and maintained to ensure that advisers, though chosen for their military skills, are also schooled in U.S. policy aims and in the language and culture of their hosts. Schooling will probably best be accomplished on two levels — the lowest for service members on an initial tour, who will return to their mainstream specialties after a two- or three-year hitch in the host country. The second level should be for those more senior service members who desire to make MAAG work a career, and who will return to the region for multiple tours, eventually culminating as a MAAG executive officer or commander. Since the Army has experience training and educating advisers and will eventually provide the greatest percentage of adviser personnel, it should be designated the service executive agent for establishing MAAG training and education, and should be funded by the Defense Department.

Fourth, at the combatant command and service proponent level, commanders and staffs should ensure that channels of communications and support are established to reinforce and back country teams — not just MAAGs — by all legal means. Since MAAGs traditionally have low-overhead administrative capability, service components can and should provide administrative backup for members, maintain channels of support back to the appropriate services and, with the authority of the combatant commander and their own authority, support MAAG and COM requests for MTT and other service expertise.

Finally, rebuilding State Department capabilities is going to be much tougher and take longer than reorienting Defense. The departments of Defense and State should consider seconding selected military officers from the general-purpose forces to assignments, in mufti, within front-line embassy country teams to fill slots that State can’t fill or to provide capabilities that are not usually found at the embassy level — planners, for example, or for communications, budget management or any of a hundred functions. The services have done things like this previously — military officers are regularly detailed to the security agencies or to NASA, for example, without cost to their careers — and as Defense and State get better at integrating functions within the country teams, this should be more widely acceptable.

Gates’ speeches, and his actions within the Pentagon, indicate that the Defense Department is now looking beyond Iraq and Afghanistan for a more appropriate use of military power in a more complex world. Assuming the next administration is generally of the same mind, the services don’t need to wait to be told what to do. After all, they’ve done it before.

ROBERT KILLEBREW served more than 30 years in the Army and is a former Army War College instructor.