Initial SFAB Deployment To Afghanistan Generating High Expectations

Staff Sgt. Braxton Pernice, 6th Battalion, 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade, is pinned his Pathfinder Badge by a fellow 1st SFAB Soldier Nov. 3, 2017, at Fort Benning, Ga., following his graduation from Pathfinder School. Pernice is one of three 1st SFAB Soldiers to graduate the school since the formation of the 1st SFAB. He and Sgt 1st Class Rachel Lyons and Capt. Travis Lowe, all with 6th Bn., 1st SFAB, were among 42 students of Pathfinder School class 001-18 to earn their badge. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Noelle E. Wiehe)

It appears that the political and institutional stakes associated with the forthcoming deployment of the U.S. Army’s new 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) to Afghanistan have increased dramatically. Amidst the deteriorating security situation, the performance of 1st SFAB is coming to be seen as a test of President Donald Trump’s vow to “win” in Afghanistan and his reported insistence that increased troop and financial commitments demonstrate a “quick return.”

Many will also be watching to see if the SFAB concept validates the Army’s revamped approach to Security Force Assistance (SFA)—an umbrella term for whole-of-government support provided to develop the capability and capacity of foreign security forces and institutions. SFA has long been one of the U.S. government’s primary response to threats of insurgency and terrorism around the world, but its record of success is decidedly mixed.

Earlier this month, the 1st SFAB commander Colonel Scott Jackson reportedly briefed General Joseph Votel, who heads U.S. Central Command, that his unit had less than eight months of training and preparation, instead of an expected 12 months. His personnel had been rushed through the six-week Military Advisor Training Academy curriculum in only two weeks, and that the command suffered from personnel shortages. Votel reportedly passed these concerns to U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley.

Competing Mission Priorities

Milley’s brainchild, the SFABs are intended to improve the Army’s ability to conduct SFA and to relieve line Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) of responsibility for conducting it. Committing BCTs to SFA missions has been seen as both keeping them from more important conventional missions and inhibiting their readiness for high-intensity combat.

However, 1st SFAB may be caught out between two competing priorities: to adequately train Afghan forces and also to partner with and support them in combat operations. The SFABs are purposely optimized for training and advising, but they are not designed for conducting combat operations. They lack a BCT’s command, control and intelligence and combat assets. Some veteran military advisors have pointed out that BCTs are able to control battlespace and possess organic force protection, two capabilities the SFABs lack. While SFAB personnel will advise and accompany Afghan security forces in the field, they will not be able to support them in combat with them the way BCTs can. The Army will also have to deploy additional combat troops to provide sufficient force protection for 1st SFAB’s trainers.

Institutional Questions

The deviating requirements for training and combat advising may be the reason the Army appears to be providing the SFABs with capabilities that resemble those of Army Special Forces (ARSOF) personnel and units. ARSOF’s primary mission is to operate “by, with and through” indigenous forces. While Milley made clear in the past that the SFABs were not ARSOF, they do appear to include some deliberate similarities. While organized overall as a conventional BCT, the SFAB’s basic tactical teams include 12 personnel, like an ARSOF Operational Detachment A (ODA). Also like an ODA, the SFAB teams include intelligence and medical non-commissioned officers, and are also apparently being assigned dedicated personnel for calling in air and fire support (It is unclear from news reports if the SFAB teams include regular personnel trained in basic for call for fire techniques or if they are being given highly-skilled joint terminal attack controllers (JTACs).)

SFAB personnel have been selected using criteria used for ARSOF recruitment and Army Ranger physical fitness standards. They are being given foreign language training at the Military Advisor Training Academy at Fort Benning, Georgia.

The SFAB concept has drawn some skepticism from the ARSOF community, which sees the train, advise, and assist mission as belonging to it. There are concerns that SFABs will compete with ARSOF for qualified personnel and the Army has work to do to create a viable career path for dedicated military advisors. However, as Milley has explained, there are not nearly enough ARSOF personnel to effectively staff the Army’s SFA requirements, let alone meet the current demand for other ARSOF missions.

An Enduring Mission

Single-handedly rescuing a floundering 16-year, $70 billion effort to create an effective Afghan army as well as a national policy that suffers from basic strategic contradictions seems like a tall order for a brand-new, understaffed Army unit. At least one veteran military advisor has asserted that 1st SFAB is being “set up to fail.”

Yet, regardless of how well it performs, the SFA requirement will neither diminish nor go away. The basic logic behind the SFAB concept remains valid. It is possible that a problematic deployment could inhibit future recruiting, but it seems more likely that the SFABs and Army military advising will evolve as experience accumulates. SFA may or may not be a strategic “game changer” in Afghanistan, but as a former Army combat advisor stated, “It sounds low risk and not expensive, even when it is, [but] it’s not going away whether it succeeds or fails.”

Visualizing The Multidomain Battle Battlespace

In the latest issue of Joint Forces Quarterly, General David G. Perkins and General James M. Holmes, respectively the commanding generals of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) and  U.S. Air Force Air Combat Command (ACC), present the results of the initial effort to fashion a unified, joint understanding of the multidomain battle (MDB) battlespace.

The thinking of the services proceeds from a basic idea:

Victory in future combat will be determined by how successfully commanders can understand, visualize, and describe the battlefield to their subordinate commands, thus allowing for more rapid decisionmaking to exploit the initiative and create positions of relative advantage.

In order to create this common understanding, TRADOC and ACC are seeking to blend the conceptualization of their respective operating concepts.

The Army’s…operational framework is a cognitive tool used to assist commanders and staffs in clearly visualizing and describing the application of combat power in time, space, and purpose… The Army’s operational and battlefield framework is, by the reality and physics of the land domain, generally geographically focused and employed in multiple echelons.

The mission of the Air Force is to fly, fight, and win—in air, space, and cyberspace. With this in mind, and with the inherent flexibility provided by the range and speed of air, space, and cyber power, the ACC construct for visualizing and describing operations in time and space has developed differently from the Army’s… One key difference between the two constructs is that while the Army’s is based on physical location of friendly and enemy assets and systems, ACC’s is typically focused more on the functions conducted by friendly and enemy assets and systems. Focusing on the functions conducted by friendly and enemy forces allows coordinated employment and integration of air, space, and cyber effects in the battlespace to protect or exploit friendly functions while degrading or defeating enemy functions across geographic boundaries to create and exploit enemy vulnerabilities and achieve a continuing advantage.

Despite having “somewhat differing perspectives on mission command versus C2 and on a battlefield framework that is oriented on forces and geography versus one that is oriented on function and time,” it turns out that the services’ respective conceptualizations of their operating concepts are not incompatible. The first cut on an integrated concept yielded the diagram above. As Perkins and Holmes point out,

The only noncommon area between these two frameworks is the Air Force’s Adversary Strategic area. This area could easily be accommodated into the Army’s existing framework with the addition of Strategic Deep Fires—an area over the horizon beyond the range of land-based systems, thus requiring cross-domain fires from the sea, air, and space.

Perkins and Holmes go on to map out the next steps.

In the coming year, the Army and Air Force will be conducting a series of experiments and initiatives to help determine the essential components of MDB C2. Between the Services there is a common understanding of the future operational environment, the macro-level problems that must be addressed, and the capability gaps that currently exist. Potential solutions require us to ask questions differently, to ask different questions, and in many cases to change our definitions.

Their expectation is that “Frameworks will tend to merge—not as an either/or binary choice—but as a realization that effective cross-domain operations on the land and sea, in the air, as well as cyber and electromagnetic domains will require a merged framework and a common operating picture.”

So far, so good. Stay tuned.

Robert Work On Recent Chinese Advances In A2/AD Technology

An image of a hypersonic glider-like object broadcast by Chinese state media in October 2017. No known images of the DF-17’s hypersonic glide vehicle exist in the public domain. [CCTV screen capture via East Pendulum/The Diplomat]

Robert Work, former Deputy Secretary of Defense and one of the architects of the Third Offset Strategy, has a very interesting article up over at Task & Purpose detailing the origins of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy and the development of military technology to enable it.

According to Work, the PRC government was humiliated by the impunity with which the U.S. was able to sail its aircraft carrier task forces unimpeded through the waters between China and Taiwan during the Third Taiwan Straits crisis in 1995-1996. Soon after, the PRC began a process of military modernization that remains in progress. Part of the modernization included technical development along three main “complementary lines of effort.”

  • The objective of the first line of effort was to obtain rough parity with the U.S. in “battle network-guided munitions warfare in the Western Pacific.” This included detailed study of U.S. performance in the 1990-1991 Gulf War and development of a Chinese version of a battle network that features ballistic and guided missiles.
  • The second line of effort resulted in a sophisticated capability to attack U.S. networked military capabilities through “a blend of cyber, electronic warfare, and deception operations.”
  • The third line of effort produced specialized “assassin’s mace” capabilities for attacking specific weapons systems used for projecting U.S. military power overseas, such as aircraft carriers.

Work asserts that “These three lines of effort now enable contemporary Chinese battle networks to contest the U.S. military in every operating domain: sea, air, land, space, and cyberspace.”

He goes on to describe a fourth technological development line of effort, the fielding of hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV). HGV’s are winged re-entry vehicles boosted aloft by ballistic missiles. Moving at hypersonic speeds at near space altitudes (below 100 kilometers) yet maneuverable, HGVs carrying warheads would be exceptionally difficult to intercept even if the U.S. fielded ballistic missile defense systems capable of engaging such targets (which it currently does not). The Chinese have already deployed HGVs on Dong Feng (DF) 17 intermediate-range ballistic missiles, and late last year began operational testing of the DF-21 possessing intercontinental range.

Work concludes with a stark admonition: “An energetic and robust U.S. response to HGVs is required, including the development of new defenses and offensive hypersonic weapons of our own.”

Nuclear Buttons (continued)

Right now, I gather the President of the United States has the authority to unilaterally fire off the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal on a whim. Whether this would actually happen if he tried to order this is hard to say. But I gather there is no real legal impediment to him waking up one morning and deciding to nuke some city and that there is no formal process in place that actually stops him from doing this.

This is a set of conditions that came into being during the Cold War for the sake of making our nuclear deterrent and strike and counterstrike capability more credible. The U.S. and Russian no longer have their nukes targeted at each other. This is more a matter of good manners and is something that could be changed in a moments notice.

Is it time for the United States to consider placing the authority to launch nuclear weapons under control of more than one person? Perhaps the authority of three people, the president, a senior military leader, and a representative of congress?


There is a little technical difficulty here, for in the case of an emergency, the President, Vice-President and Speaker of the House would be shuttled off to separate locations. Still, there could be a designated representative for the military (commanding general or his representative at United States Strategic Command) and one of our 535 congressmen or senators appointed as a representative for congress. There are any number of ways to make sure that three people would be required to authorized a launch of a nuclear weapon, as opposed to leaving a decision that could exterminate millions in seconds in the hands of one man. With the Cold War now in the distant past, and nuclear strike forces a fraction of their original size, maybe it is time to consider changing this.


1st Security Force Assistance Brigade To Deploy To Afghanistan In Spring

Capt. Christopher Hawkins, 1st Squadron, 38th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade, middle, and an interpreter speaks with local national soldiers to gain information about a village during an enacted military operation on urban terrain event at Lee Field, Oct. 23, 2017, on Fort Benning, Ga. (Photo Credit: Spc. Noelle E. Wiehe)

The U.S. Army recently announced that the newly-created 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) will deploy to Afghanistan under the command of Colonel Scott Jackson in the spring of 2018 in support of the ongoing effort to train and advise Afghan security forces. 1st SFAB personnel formed the initial classes at the Military Advisor Training Academy (MATA) in August 2017 at Fort Benning, Georgia; approximately 525 had completed the course by November.

The Army intends to establish five Regular Army and one Army National Guard SFABs. In December it stated that the 2nd SFAB would stand up in January 2018 at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

The Army created the SFABs and MATA in an effort to improve its capabilities to resource and conduct Security Force Assistance (SFA) missions and to relieve line Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) of these responsibilities. Each SFAB will be manned by 800 senior and noncommissioned volunteer officers with demonstrated experience training and advising foreign security forces.

Specialized training at MATA includes language, foreign weapons, and the Joint Fires Observer course. SFAB commanders and leaders have previous command experience and enlisted advisors hold the rank of sergeant and above. As of August 2017, recruiting for the first unit had been short by approximately 350 personnel, though the shortfall appears to have been remedied. The Army is working to address policies and regulations with regard to promotion rates and boards, selection boards, and special order to formalize a SFAB career path

Of Nuclear Buttons: Presidential Authority To Use Nuclear Weapons

[The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension (1984)]

While the need for the president of the United States to respond swiftly to a nuclear emergency is clear, should there be limits on the commander in chief’s authority to order use of nuclear weapons in situations that fall below the threshold of existential threat? The question has arisen because the administration of President Donald Trump has challenged the existing taboos against nuclear use.

Last November, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing to investigate the topic, which congress had not considered since the height of the Cold War in the mid-1970s. Called at the behest of Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), the committee chairman, the hearing appeared intended to address congressional concerns over rumors of consideration of a preemptive U.S. attack on North Korea that could include nuclear strikes.

The consensus of the witnesses called to testify was that as presently construed, there is little statutory limit on the president’s power to authorize nuclear weapon use. The witnesses also questioned the wisdom of legislating changes to the existing setup.

Professor Peter Fever of Duke University, a noted scholar on nuclear issues and former National Security Council advisor, caveated between presidential authority to respond to a “bolt from the blue” surprise nuclear strike by an adversary, which was unquestioned, and the legitimacy of unilaterally ordering the use of nuclear weapons in a non-emergency scenario, which would be far more dubious. He conceded that there is no formal test for legality; the only real constraint would lie in the judgement of U.S. military personnel whether or not to carry out a presidential order of uncertain lawfulness.

There is no existing statutory framework undergirding the existing arrangement; it is an artifact of the urgency of the Cold War nuclear arms race. Under the Atomic Energy Act, congress gave responsibility for development, production, and custody of nuclear weapons to the executive branch, but has passed no laws defining the circumstances under which they may or may not be used. Harry S. Truman alone decided to use atomic bombs against Japan in 1945. In the late-1950s, Dwight D. Eisenhower secretly pre-delegated authority to use nuclear weapons in certain emergency situations to some U.S. theater commanders; these instructions were also adopted by John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Several presidents authorized secret deployment of nuclear weapons to overseas storage locations.

The U.S. constitution offers no clear guidance. War power are divided between congress, which has the sole authority to declare war and to raise and maintain armed forces, and the president, who is commander in chief of the armed forces. Congress attempted to clarify the circumstances when it was permissible for the president to unilaterally authorize the use of military force in the War Powers Resolution of 1973. It stipulates that the president may commit U.S. military forces abroad only following a congressional declaration of war or authorization to use force, or in response to “a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.” Successive presidents have held that the resolution is unconstitutional, however, and have ignored its provisions on several occasions.

Congress has traditionally afforded presidents wide deference in the conduct of foreign affairs and military conflicts, albeit under its existing mechanisms of oversight. In waging wars, presidents are subject to U.S. law, including obligations to follow congressionally-approved international conventions defining the laws of war. While the president and congress have disagreed over whether or not to begin or end foreign conflicts, the legislative branch has rarely elected to impose limits on a president’s prerogatives on how to wage such conflicts, to include the choice of weapons to be employed.

The situation in Korea is an interesting case in itself. It was the first post-World War II case where a president committed U.S. military forces to an overseas conflict without seeking a congressional declaration of war. Congress neither authorized U.S. intervention in 1950 nor sanctioned the 1953 armistice that led to a cessation of combat. Truman instead invoked United Nations Security Council resolutions as justification for intervening in what he termed a “police action.”

Legally, the U.S. remains in a state of hostilities with North Korea. The 1953 armistice that halted the fighting was supposed to lead to a formal peace treaty, but an agreement was never consummated. Under such precedents, the Trump administration could well claim that that the president is within his constitutional prerogatives in deciding to employ nuclear weapons there in a case of renewed hostilities.

In all reality, defining the limits of presidential authority over nuclear weapons would be a political matter. While congress possesses the constitutional right to legislate U.S. laws on the subject, actually doing so would likely require a rare bipartisan sense of purpose strong enough to overcome what would undoubtedly be resolute political and institutional opposition. Even if such a law was passed, it is likely every president would view it is an unconstitutional infringement on executive power. Resolving an impasse could provoke a constitutional crisis. Leaving it unresolved could also easily result in catastrophic confusion in the military chain of command in an emergency. Redefining presidential nuclear authority would also probably require an expensive retooling of the nuclear command and control system. It would also introduce unforeseen second and third order effects into American foreign policy and military strategy.

In the end, a better solution to the problem might simply be for the American people to exercise due care in electing presidents to trust with decisions of existential consequence. Or they could decide to mitigate the risk by drastically reducing or abolishing the nuclear stockpile.


Golden Knights

Trademark fight between the U.S. Army parachute team and the new National Hockey League (NHL) team the Las Vegas Golden Knights: Army challenges Golden Knights trademark; Vegas responds

Best line from the article: “…we are not aware of a single complaint from anyone attending our games that they were expecting to see the parachute team and not a professional hockey game.”

South Korea Considering Development Of Artillery Defense System

[Mauldin Economics]

In an article I missed on the first go-round from last October, Ankit Panda, senior editor at The Diplomat, detailed a request by the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff to the National Assembly Defense Committee to study the feasibility of a missile defense system to counter North Korean long-range artillery and rocket artillery capabilities.

North Korea has invested heavily in its arsenal of conventional artillery. Other than nuclear weapons, this capability likely poses the greatest threat to South Korean security, particularly given the vulnerability of the capital Seoul, a city of nearly 10 million that lies just 35 miles south of the demilitarized zone.

The artillery defense system the South Korean Joint Chiefs seek to develop is not intended to protect civilian areas, however. It would be designed to shield critical command-and-control and missile defense sites. They already considered and rejected buying Israel’s existing Iron Dome missile defense system as inadequate to the magnitude of the threat.

As Panda pointed out, the challenges are formidable for development an artillery defense system capable of effectively countering North Korean capabilities.

South Korea would need to be confident that it would be able to maintain an acceptable intercept rate against the incoming projectiles—a task that may require a prohibitively large investment in launchers and interceptors. Moreover, the battle management software required for a system like this may prove to be exceptionally complex as well. Existing missile defense systems can already have their systems overwhelmed by multiple targets.

It is likely that there will be broader interest in South Korean progress in this area (Iron Dome is a joint effort by the Israelis and Raytheon). Chinese and Russian long-range precision fires capabilities are bulwarks of the anti-access/area denial strategies the U.S. military is currently attempting to overcome via the Third Offset Strategy and multi-domain battle initiatives.

Arctic Territories

The Arctic is an ocean, so claims there should be resolvable by existing rules concerning 12-mile territorial limits and 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zones. But, the law of the sea allows countries to claim beyond the 200 nautical mile limit if they can prove that their continental shelf extends beyond those zones. This has led to more issues.

There are only five nations with claims in the Arctic: The United States, Russian, Canada, Norway and Denmark (Greenland). There are some claims that are fairly typical, like the sea border area between the Alaska and Canadian territory being in dispute, Hans lsland near Greenland being in dispute between Denmark and Canada, and the question as to whether the Northwest Passage is Canadian territory or international waters. These are all disputes that will probably be solved through diplomacy.

But, confusing the situation is that three nations claim the North Pole. The North Pole is 430 miles (700 kilometers) from the nearest land. The sea depth there is 13,980 feet (4,261 meters).

Canada’s claims go all the way to the North Pole and 200 miles beyond it, based upon where they have claimed that their continental shelf is: Canada Claims North Pole


Russia has made similar claims. They are saying the Lomonosov and Mendeleyev ridges are part of its continental shelf and therefore part of its territory. A topographic map of the area is worth looking at:

Denmark also claims the north pole. Apparently the Lomonosov Ridge is also an extension of Greenland.

This map nicely summarizes the confusing and competing claims:

The Russians have gone so far as to dive down to the Lomosonov Ridge and plant a flag there in 2007. It is a flag planed 14,000 feet below sea level.

The Arctic

Brief article from Micheal Peck on Russia’s Arctic ambitions: Russia has plans to dominate the Arctic

In case you missed it, the Arctic has been warming up for the last few decades. As Peck points out: “Once a lure for hardy explorers–and a hiding places for ballistic missile submarines–the North Pole is now seen as a new frontier with abundant energy and mineral resources. With polar ice melting, new shipping lanes are opening up that offer the prospect of more direct routes for cargo vessels sailing between North America, Europe and Asia.”

Anyhow, while the U.S. Navy has only one heavy ice breaker, fellow NATO member Canada is working the problem. They are building a facility at Baffin Island and are developing arctic capable patrol vessels, frigates, etc.  There are also planning on building 6-8 Harry DeWolf class artic patrol vessel:

based upon:

There are also the efforts of NATO members Norway and Denmark, so it is not like the United States and Russia are the only participants here.

Still the Northwest Passage has only been opened seasonally since 2000, with a cruise liner going through it in 2006. It is now being transited with increasing regularity. Of course, there is also the Northeast Passage and Russia has the Northern Sea Passage, which they are developing. Still, these passages are seeing limited use right now. In 2016, 18 ships (7 Russian) traversed the Northern Sea Passage.

A few related links:

Canada at War. The Arctic. Northwest Passage, 1944

Amazing Voyage Through Perilous Arctic Ocean (2000)

Warming ‘opens Northwest Passage’ (2007)

Plain sailing on the Northwest Passage (2007)

That pricey Arctic luxury cruise was just the beginning. Up next: Arctic shipping. (2016)


The picture at the top of this post is from 2016.