Brigades Can't Be Advisors

  • March 12, 2008
  • U.S. Army

FM 3-0 Operations establishes that Army brigades must be capable of conducting combat across the full spectrum of environments ranging from peacekeeping to counterinsurgency to full-blown, mechanized, maneuver warfare.

Much of Operations is premised on the concept of modularity, which essentially seeks to remove cookie dough, rocky road, and other Vermont-hippy-influenced flavors from the Army structure and establish standardized brigade scoops in only chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry. Ice cream Sunday chefs, also known as Generals, can now craft their creations without needing to harmonize strange concoctions (Chunky Monkey--what flavor goes with that?!) in the rear of the freezer.

All of this should in theory make it much easier to create a delectable dessert of mayhem and war to advance the peace.

(A dozen scoops each of chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla is apparently the recipe for taking down and stabilizing--equally important now--Iran. You heard it here first on Abu Muqawama)

This is all fine and dandy except when you really need a flavor that can't be found in your tub of Neapolitan. Advising foreign forces falls into this category.

US Army brigades are ill-suited to conduct full spectrum operations as brigades while also being able to advise a host nation's forces. There are two main reasons for this.

The first is that modularity essentially establishes brigades that are self-sufficient. Self-sufficiency is a measure of the degree to which the brigade is functional. Yet the self-sufficiency that is desirable in an essentially autonomous brigade means that a brigade a) doesn't have any dependency on host nation forces for its security and survival and b) ought to, if it is a well-trained unit, believe it can do missions better than its host nation counterparts.

As anyone who has served as an advisor knows, it is the lack of absolute self-sufficiency and the reliance on host nation forces to a certain extent that allows small teams to develop trust and advise, rather than lead, host nation forces. Also, small teams lack the capacity to take on missions for their counterparts. By their very weakness, they can't do a mission better than the host nation forces and need to work "by, with, and through" host nation forces in order to accomplish common objectives. Fully capable platoons, companies, battalions, or brigades have proven unable to adopt the long-term thinking needed to allow an "80% solution" by host nation forces. Non self-sufficient advisor teams, however, have no choice.

The second important reason that BCTs can't simply be advisor units when needed is that the skills which make someone a successful leader and those that make them a successful advisor, while overlapping at times, are not the same.

To date the Army has acted as though "anyone" can be an advisor while not recognizing that this does not mean that "anyone" should be an advisor. Advisors require qualities such as language aptitude, internalized cultural relativism, cross-cultural communication, extreme patience, and teaching skills. We don't necessarily think of all of these qualities as being necessary for effective leadership. Some qualities that we admire in leadership, on the other hand, such as "leading from the front," are ill-suited for advising.

Some individuals have the ability to turn to the right qualities at the right time. Some lack important qualities of either the leader or the advisor. And some are simply unable to switch between the advisor hat and the leader hat.

I would argue that the skills which make a good advisor are rarer as a whole than those that make effective combat leaders.

It would be unrealistic to believe that in developing leaders for full-spectrum operations within brigade combat teams, we could simultaneously prepare them for roles as advisors and fill all of our brigades with capable BCT leader-advisors.

In the long-run, every effort should be made to continue to have small, knowledgeable teams act as advisors.

Special Forces, some would note, is uniquely suited for such a role. However, the current trend is toward increasing the total number of advisors in Afghanistan and in Iraq and to increasing the number of advisor missions, e.g., advisors to Pakistan. Already there are more people in either the Afghan advisor command or the Iraqi advisor command than there are total Special Forces soldiers in the US Army. So it is unlikely that Special Forces could do both its other six core missions and also be fully engaged in the advising piece.

Unless we believe that US forces are about to develop the panacea that allows us to dominate stabilization and counterinsurgency operations as outsiders, the need for advisors after the completion of offensive operations will prove enduring. BCTs will no more be able to fill the advisor void than ad hockery.

The solution is LTC John Nagl's advisor corps proposal, which would select soldiers and officers for their ability to function successfully as advisors, reward advising as much as service in a brigade combat team, and specifically tailor a combat unit to give advisors the ability to build, mentor, advise, coach, and liaise with host nation forces. Instead the Army seems hell-bent on de-constructing the advisor training mission at Fort Riley, which, given its growing expertise on training and deploying advisors, would seem the right place to begin to build a permanent institutional advisory capacity.