Toward An American Approach To Proxy Warfare

U.S.-supported Philippine guerilla fighters led the resistance against the Japanese occupation of Luzon during World War II. [Warfare History Network]

U.S. Army Major Amos Fox has recently published the first two of a set of three articles examining nature of proxy warfare in the early 21st century and suggests some ideas for how the U.S. might better conduct it.

In “In Pursuit of a General Theory of Proxy Warfare,” published in February 2019 by the The Institute of Land Warfare at the Association of the U.S. Army, and “Time, Power, and Principal-Agent Problems: Why the U.S. Army is Ill-Suited for Proxy Warfare Hotspots,” published in the March-April 2019 edition of Military Review, Fox argues,

Proxy environments dominate modern war… It is not just a Russian, Iranian or American approach to war, but one in which many nations and polities engage. However, the U.S. Army lacks a paradigm for proxy warfare, which disrupts its ability to understand the environment or develop useful tactics, operations and strategies for those environments.

His examination of the basic elements of proxy warfare leads him to conclude that “it is dominated by a principal actor dynamic, power relationships and the tyranny of time.” From this premise, Fox outlines two basic models of proxy warfare: exploitative and transactional.

The exploitative model…is characterized by a proxy force being completely dependent on its principal for survival… [It] is usually the result of a stronger actor looking for a tool—a proxy force—to pursue an objective. As a result, the proxy is only as useful to the principal as its ability to make progress toward the principal’s ends. Once the principal’s ends have been achieved or the proxy is unable to maintain momentum toward the principal’s ends, then the principal discontinues the relationship or distances itself from the proxy.

The transactional model is…more often like a business deal. An exchange of services and goods that benefits all parties—defeat of a mutual threat, training of the agent’s force, foreign military sales and finance—is at the heart of the transactional model. However, this model is a paradox because the proxy is the powerbroker in the relationship. In many cases, the proxy government is independent but looking for assistance in defeating an adversary; it is not interested in political or military subjugation by the principal. Moreover, the proxy possesses the power in the relationship because its association with the principal is wholly transactional…the clock starts ticking on the duration of the bond as soon as the first combined shot is fired. As a result, as the common goal is gradually achieved, the agent’s interest in the principal recedes at a comparable rate.

With this concept in hand, Fox makes that case that

[T]he U.S. Army is ill-suited for warfare in the proxy environment because it mismanages the fixed time and the finite power it possesses over a proxy force in pursuit of waning mutual interests. Fundamentally, the salient features of proxy environments—available time, power over a proxy force, and mutual interests—are fleeting due to the fact that proxy relationships are transactional in nature; they are marriages of convenience in which a given force works through another in pursuit of provisionally aligned political or military ends… In order to better position itself to succeed in the proxy environment, the U.S. Army must clearly understand the background and components of proxy warfare.

These two articles provide an excellent basis for a wider discussion for thinking about and shaping not just a more coherent U.S. Army doctrine, but a common policy/strategic/operational framework for understanding and successfully operating in the proxy warfare environments that will only loom larger in 21st century international affairs. It will be interesting to see how Fox’s third article rounds out his discussion.

Security On The Cheap: Whither Security Force Assistance (SFA)?

A U.S. Army Special Forces weapons sergeant observes a Niger Army soldier during marksmanship training as part of Exercise Flintlock 2017 in Diffa, Niger, February 28, 2017. [U.S. Army/SFC Christopher Klutts/AFRICOM]

Paul Staniland, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, has a new article in The Washington Post‘s Monkey Cage blog that contends that the U.S. is increasingly relying on a strategy of “violence management” in dealing with the various counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and stability conflicts (i.e. “small wars”) it is involved with around the world.

As he describes it,

America’s “violence management” strategy relies on light ground forces, airpower and loose partnerships with local armed actors. Its aim is to degrade and disrupt militant organizations within a chaotic, fractured political landscape, not to commit large numbers of forces and resources to building robust new governments.

…Violence management sidesteps politics in favor of sustained military targeting. This approach takes for granted high levels of political disorder, illiberal and/or fractured local regimes, and protracted conflicts. The goal is disrupting militant organizations without trying to build new states, spur economic development, or invest heavily in post-conflict reconstruction.

…It has three core elements: a light U.S. ground force commitment favoring special forces, heavy reliance on airpower and partnerships of convenience with local militias, insurgents, and governments.

…Politically, this strategy reduces both costs and commitments. America’s wars stay off the front pages, the U.S. can add or drop local partners as it sees fit, and U.S. counterterror operations remain opaque.

Staniland details the risks associated with this strategy but does not assess its effectiveness. He admits to ambivalence on that in an associated discussion on Twitter.

Whither SFA?

Partnering with foreign government, organizations, and fighters to counter national security threats is officially known by the umbrella terms Security Force Assistance in U.S. government policy terminology. It is intended to help defend host nations from external and internal threats, and encompasses foreign internal defense (FID), counterterrorism (CT), counterinsurgency (COIN), and stability operations. The U.S. has employed this approach in various forms since World War II.

Has it been effective? Interestingly enough, this question has not been seriously examined. The best effort so far is a study done by Stephen Biddle, Julia Macdonald, and Ryan Baker, “Small Footprint, Small Payoff: The Military Effectiveness of Security Force Assistance,” published the Journal of Strategic Studies earlier this year. It concluded:

We find important limitations on SFA’s military utility, stemming from agency problems arising from systematic interest misalignment between the US and its typical partners. SFA’s achievable upper bound is modest and attainable only if US policy is intrusive and conditional, which it rarely is. For SFA, small footprints will usually mean small payoffs.

A Mixed Recent Track Record

SFA’s recent track record has been mixed. It proved conditionally successful countering terrorists and insurgents in the Philippines and in the coalition effort to defeat Daesh in Iraq and Syria; and it handed a black eye to Russian sponsored paramilitary forces in Syria earlier this year. However, a train and advice mission for the moderate Syrian rebels failed in 2015; four U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers died in an ambush during a combined patrol in Niger in October 2017; there are recurring cases of U.S.-trained indigenous forces committing human rights abuses; and the jury remains out on the fate of Afghanistan.

The U.S. Army’s proposed contribution to SFA, the Security Forces Assistance Brigade, is getting its initial try-out in Afghanistan right now. The initial reports indicate that it has indeed boosted SFA capacity there. What remains to be seen is whether that will make a difference. The 1st SFAB suffered its first combat casualties earlier this month when Corporal Joseph Maciel was killed and two others were wounded in an insider attack at Tarin Kowt in Uruzgan province.

Will a strategy of violence management prove successful over the longer term? Stay tuned…

Are Russia And Iran Planning More Proxy Attacks On U.S. Forces And Their Allies In Syria?

Members of the Liwa al-Baqir Syrian Arab militia, which is backed by Iran and Russia. [Navvar Şaban (N.Oliver)/Twitter]

Over at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), Jennifer Cafarella, Matti Suomenaro, and Catherine Harris have published an analysis predicting that Iran and Russia are preparing to attack U.S. forces and those of its Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) allies in eastern Syria. By using tribal militia proxies and Russian mercenary troops to inflict U.S. casualties and stoke political conflict among the Syrian factions, Cafarella, et al, assert that Russia and Iran are seeking to compel the U.S. to withdraw its forces from Syria and break up the coalition that defeated Daesh.

If true, this effort would represent an escalation of a strategic gambit that led to a day-long battle between tribal militias loyal to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, Syrian government troops, and Russian mercenaries and U.S. allied Kurdish and SDF fighters along with their U.S. Marine and Special Operations Forces (SOF) advisors in February in the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor. This resulted in a major defeat of the pro-Assad forces, which suffered hundreds of casualties–including dozens of Russians–from U.S. air and ground-based fires.

To support their contention, Cafarella, et al, offer a pattern of circumstantial evidence that does not quite amount to a definitive conclusion. ISW has a clear policy preference to promote: “The U.S. must commit to defending its partners and presence in Eastern Syria in order to prevent the resurgence of ISIS and deny key resources to Iran, Russia, and Assad.” It has criticized the U.S.’s failure to hold Russia culpable for the February attack in Deir Ezzor as “weak,” thereby undermining its policy in Syria and the Middle East in the face of Russian “hybrid” warfare efforts.

Yet, there is circumstantial evidence that the February battle in Deir Ezzor was the result of deliberate Russian government policy. ISW has identified Russian and Iranian intent to separate SDF from U.S. support to isolate and weaken it. President Assad has publicly made clear his intent to restore his rule over all of Syria. And U.S. President Donald Trump has yet to indicate that he has changed his intent to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.

Russian and Iranian sponsorship and support for further aggressive action by pro-regime forces and proxies against U.S. troops and their Syrian allies could easily raise tensions dramatically with the U.S. Since it is difficult to see Russian and Iranian proxies succeeding with new Deir Ezzor-style attacks, they might be tempted to try to shoot down a U.S. aircraft or attempt a surprise raid on a U.S. firebase instead. Should Syrian regime or Russian mercenary forces manage to kill or wound U.S. troops, or bring down a U.S. manned aircraft, the military and political repercussions could be significant.

Despite the desire of President Trump to curtail U.S. involvement in Syria, there is real potential for the conflict to mushroom.

TDI Friday Read: Links You May Have Missed, 23 March 2018

To follow on Chris’s recent post about U.S. Army modernization:

On the subject of future combat:

  • The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has issued a new report emphasizing the need for developing countermeasures against multiple small unmanned aerial aircraft systems (sUASs) — organized in coordinated groups, swarms, and collaborative groups — which could be used much sooner than the U.S. Army anticipates.  [There is a summary here.]
  • National Defense University’s Frank Hoffman has a very good piece in the current edition of Parameters, “Will War’s Nature Change in the Seventh Military Revolution?,” that explores the potential implications of the combinations of robotics, artificial intelligence, and deep learning systems on the character and nature of war.
  • Major Hassan Kamara has an article in the current edition of Military Review contemplating changes in light infantry, “Rethinking the U.S. Army Infantry Rifle Squad

On the topic of how the Army is addressing its current and future challenges with irregular warfare and wide area security:

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.”

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

New U.S. Army Security Force Assistance Brigades Face Challenges

The shoulder sleeve insignia of the U.S. Army 1st Security Forces Assistance Brigade (SFAB). [U.S. Army]

The recent deaths of four U.S. Army Special Forces (ARSOF) operators in an apparent ambush in support of the Train and Assist mission in Niger appears to have reminded Congress of the enormous scope of ongoing Security Force Assistance (SFA) activities being conducted world-wide by the Defense Department. U.S. military forces deployed to 138 countries in 2016, the majority of which were by U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) conducting SFA activities. (While SFA deployments continue at a high tempo, the number of U.S. active-duty troops stationed overseas has fallen below 200,000 for the first time in 60 years, interestingly enough.)

SFA is the umbrella term for U.S. whole-of-government support provided to develop the capability and capacity of foreign security forces and institutions. SFA is intended to help defend host nations from external and internal threats, and encompasses foreign internal defense (FID), counterterrorism (CT), counterinsurgency (COIN), and stability operations.

Last year, the U.S. Army announced that it would revamp its contribution to SFA by creating a new type of unit, the Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB), and by establishing a Military Advisor Training Academy. The first of six projected SFABs is scheduled to stand up this month at Ft. Benning, Georgia.

Rick Montcalm has a nice piece up at the Modern War Institute describing the doctrinal and organizational challenges the Army faces in implementing the SFABs. The Army’s existing SFA structure features regionally-aligned Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) providing combined training and partnered mission assistance for foreign conventional forces from the team to company level, while ARSOF focuses on partner-nation counterterrorism missions and advising and assisting commando and special operations-type forces.

Ideally, the SFABs would supplement and gradually replace most, but not all, of the regionally-aligned BCTs to allow them to focus on warfighting tasks. Concerns have arisen with the ARSOF community, however, that a dedicated SFAB force would encroach functionally on its mission and compete within the Army for trained personnel. The SFABs currently lack the intelligence capabilities necessary to successfully conduct the advisory mission in hostile environments. Although U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley asserts that the SFABs are not Special Forces, properly preparing them for advise and assist roles would make them very similar to existing ARSOF.

Montcalm also points out that Army personnel policies complicate maintain the SFABs in the long-term. The Army has not created a specific military advisor career field and volunteering to serve in a SFAB could complicate the career progression of active duty personnel. Although the Army has taken steps to address this, the prospect of long repeat overseas tours and uncertain career prospects has forced the service to offer cash incentives and automatic promotions to bolster SFAB recruiting. As of August, the 1st SFAB needed 350 more soldiers to fully man the unit, which was scheduled to be operational in November.

SFA and the Army’s role in it will not decline anytime soon, so there is considerable pressure to make the SFAB concept successful. Yet, in light of the largely unsuccessful efforts to build effective security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, it remains an open question if the SFAB’s themselves will be enough to remedy the Army’s problematic approach to building partner capacity.

Army Creates Security Force Assistance Brigades and Training Academy

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Brandon Blanton, center, a trainer with Company A, 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, Task Force Strike, assists Iraqi army ranger students during a room-clearing drill at Camp Taji, Iraq, July 18, 2016. The new Security Force Assistance Brigades will assume these types of missions in the future. (Photo Credit: 1st Lt. Daniel Johnson)

With much of the focus of the defense and national security communities shifting to peer and near-peer challenges, the Department of the Army’s recent announcement that the first Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) will begin standing up in October 2017 comes as an interesting bit of news. The Army will also establish a new Military Advisor Training Academy at Ft. Benning, Georgia to train officers and non-commissioned officers to staff what are projected to a total of six SFABs with 500 personnel each.

The Strategic Role of Security Force Assistance

Security Force Assistance (SFA) is the umbrella term for U.S. whole-of-government support provided to develop the capability and capacity of foreign security forces and institutions. SFA is intended to help defend host nations from external and internal threats, and encompasses foreign internal defense (FID), counterterrorism (CT), counterinsurgency (COIN), and stability operations.

The use of military aid to bolster allies is a time-old strategic expedient; it was one of the primary weapons with which the U.S.waged the Cold War. SFA has assumed a similar role in U.S. policy for countering global terrorism, as a cost-effective alternative to direct involvement in destroying or deterring the development of terrorist sanctuaries. The efficacy of this approach is a hot topic for debate in foreign policy and national security circles these days.

Organizing, training, equipping, building, advising, and assisting foreign security forces is a time and resource-intensive task and the best way of doing it has been long debated. One of the Army’s justifications for creating the SFAB’s was the need to free line units from SFA taskings to focus on preparing for combat operations. The Army is also highlighting the SFABs dual capability as cadres upon which combat-ready U.S. Army Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) can be quickly created in a national emergency with the addition of junior personnel.

Advise and Assist: SOF vs. General Purpose Forces?

The Army believes that dedicated SFABs will be more effective at providing SFA than has been the case with recent efforts. This is an important consideration in light of the decidedly mixed combat performance of U.S.-trained and equipped Afghan and Iraqi security forces. The dramatic collapse of Iraqi Army units defending Mosul in 2014 that had been trained by conventional U.S. forces contrasts with the current dependence on U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF)-trained Iraqi Counterrorism Service (CTS) forces to lead the effort to retake the city.

This apparent disparity in success between the SOF advise and assist model and the more generic conventional force SFA template is causing some angst in the U.S. Army Special Forces (ARSOF) community, some of whom see training foreign security forces as its traditional institutional role. Part of the reason conventional forces are assigned SFA tasks is because there will never be enough ARSOF to meet the massive demand, and ARSOF units are needed for other specialized taskings as well. But the ultimate success of the SFABs will likely be gauged against the historical accomplishments of their SOF colleagues.

Can Effective Armies Exist Without Effective Governance? History Suggests No.

ARVN soldiers and U.S. advisor (U.S. Army Center for Military History)

ARVN soldiers and U.S. advisor (U.S. Army Center for Military History)

Is it possible for an outside country to build an effective indigenous military? The United States inter-agency and national security communities have a strong current interest in helping other countries develop and sustain effective security establishments. This is officially termed Security Cooperation (SC). The assistance provided directly by the U.S. military to foreign military organizations is called Security Force Assistance (SFA). SC and SFA are both integral aspects of current U.S. foreign policy and military strategy.

The U.S. has been providing SFA since at least World War II, but its success in this undertaking has been decidedly mixed. A two-decade effort by the U.S. to build an effective South Vietnamese army culminated in abject failure at the hands of North Vietnam in 1975. Despite a decade of investment in money, resources, and manpower, the U.S. has yet to build (or rebuild) independently effective military establishments in Afghanistan and Iraq.

One consistent factor in each of these cases has been the lack of a stable, effective indigenous government to underpin the military forces. How important is effective governance to successful military establishments? History suggests that it may be integral.

On his wonderful blog, The Best Defense, Tom Ricks recently posed the question “Is the existence of a capable infantry a sign of a strong government bureaucracy?” In his recently published The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History, Tonio Andrade cited Stephen Morillo’s observation that “strong infantry depends on strong government” to support that assertion that Europe had poor infantry in the 15th century by Chinese standards because of underdeveloped governments.

According to Ricks, Morillo made six implicit points:

  1. To have an infantry, you have to get people together
  2. To get them together and keep them together, you need a central authority
  3. You also need to feed and house them, and that requires money, likely raised by taxes, which again requires central authority
  4. To raise the taxes and collect them, you need assessors and collectors — that is, a bureaucracy
  5. And that is why a soldier is different from a warrior. A tribe can field a warrior, and a good one. But it takes a state to develop and sustain an infantry soldier.

Historical experience would suggest not only that capable military forces are reflective of effective governance, but that strong governments are necessary in order to field strong military establishments. This fundamental lesson may be vital to the future success of U.S. SC and SFA efforts.