WASHINGTON: After 15 years of ad hoc solutions, the Army may build specialized battalions and brigades to train and advise foreign forces, the service’s chief of staff says. Gen. Mark Milley made clear that advisor units are just a proposal under study, a study that only started “a couple of months ago.” But even studying the idea is a remarkable reversal for the Army, which thoroughly rejected the idea in years past.
“Better late than never,” said Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, who wrote a 2008 study lambasting the Army’s performance training and advising Iraqi and Afghan forces.
“I’m absolutely delighted and think this is absolutely the right move for the Army to take,” said Jon Nagl, a retired Army officer whose 2007 article “Institutionalizing Adaptation” was (to my knowledge) the first call for a dedicated “advisory corps.”
“The greatest failing of the United States Army over the past 15 years of war has come in advise and assist,” Nagl told me, where the service preferred ad hoc solutions rather than a permanent commitment of resources and personnel. As a result, he said, “we have failed [in] the train, advise, and assist mission in Iraq and Afghanistan. I saw that as someone who was personally responsible for part of that mission — and I think that that is a crime.
“The reasons for failure… are many and varied, but the reasons certainly include the failure to build standing advisory forces,” Nagl continued. “This is not just a historical question, [because] the capacity and capability to train advise and assist, to build foreign militaries, is going to be the critical contribution of the United States Army to the security of the nation for the next 50 years … not direct combat.”
The Army has always been reluctant to take troops out of combat units and dedicate them to what it sees as secondary missions. But training and advising have been the Army’s primary missions in Afghanistan and Iraq for years now. What’s more, the current ad hoc system hurts combat readiness anyway.
“We’re sending train and advise teams to Afghanistan and Iraq — and we’ve been doing this for years — those teams are in fact the leadership of brigades and battalions, we’re just ripping them out and sending them over,” said Gen. Milley this morning at a Center for a New American Security conference. “We’re destroying the force structure of those units and reducing their readiness level by taking their chain of command out.”
“If any enemy of our nation did this to us — destroyed our combat brigades — we’d declare war,” agreed Nagl. “We’re taking perfectly good Army combat units, stripping out all the soldiers and the equipment, and sending the cadre off to serve as advisors.”
The train-and-advise units would have all the officers and NCOs of a regular battalion or even an entire brigade, Milley said, but not the rank-and-file. That’s because advisors and trainers are advising and training some other country’s combat troops, not holding the line on their own. They need lots of experienced military professionals to mentor the host nation’s leadership in conducting operations and/or training. They don’t need regular riflemen, truck drivers, mechanics, and the like.
You could add those junior soldiers in relatively short order, however. That gives the proposed organization a secondary purpose that makes it much more attractive to today’s shrinking Army than it was 10 years ago. If there’s a major war, national crisis — or even a budget increase — you can rapidly grow the Army by filling out train-and-advise units with new recruits.
“It takes 10 years to create a major. It takes 10 years to create a staff sergeant; it takes six months to create a private or a second lieutenant,” said Nagl. Keep experienced officers and NCOs — the cadre — around in skeleton units, and they can provide a stiffening spine for either foreign forces or hastily raised American forces.
“During [peacetime] Phase 0 type operations, they can be used for train, advise, and assist,” Gen. Milley said. “Then in time of national emergency, you have a coherent chain of command that I can bring soldiers in, put them through Basic [Training] and AIT [Advanced Individual Training], and match them up with those leaders, put them through a few months of pretty significant training, and then I’d have a reasonably decent capability that could backstop the regular Army forces and the Guard.”
“I’m going to lean heavily on the Guard, and i’ve already talked to the Guard leadership about some of that,” Gen. Milley said today. He repeated proposals he made in September to increase Guard training budgets, more closely integrate Guard and regular active duty units, and do away with the century-old custom of Guard units training only 39 days a year. (Milley is anything but shy about exploring new ideas, which makes him a lot of fun for a reporter).
But today Milley made clear he wanted three lines of defense:
- The regular active-duty Army. That’s the most ready force, the “fight tonight” force, he said, but “that will pretty much get consumed pretty quickly in any of the larger contingencies that we have.”
- Then National Guard takes the field en masse as the regular units burn out. Unfortunately, said Milley, “right now….you’re look at 100-120 days or so before I could in conscience look myself in the mirror and say, yea verily, they’re ready to go to war.” He wants to give the Guard more training to increase their readiness and reduce that timeline.
- Finally come the newly-raised units, with brand-new privates and junior officers wrapped around a skeleton of an experienced train-and-advise brigade.