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Australian Army: Security Force Assistance Battalion (SFABn)

Australian Army gunners from the 8th/12th Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery prepare to relocate the M777 howitzer during Exercise PREDATORS WALK at the Mount Bundey Training Area, Northern Territory.

As National Defence: Defence Strategic Review 2023 (DSR 23) is implemented, the Australian Army may continue its, historically validated, ad hoc and bespoke, pathway to train, advise and assist (TAA) missions. An alternate pathway, however, assesses that the urgency of DSR 23 - emphasising ‘assistance [as] a key pillar of [Australia’s] broader bilateral relationships in the region’ - no longer sanctions traditional ad hoc approaches to TAA missions.  

This Land Power Forum post argues for a standing Australian Army Security Force Assistance Battalion (SFABn) to achieve TAA missions. To preserve Regular Army combat power, ‘fully integrated and more capable [of] operating across five domains [maritime, land, air, space and cyber]’, the SFABn would be entirely sourced, trained, organised, and equipped from the Reserve.[i] The SFABn would be an Army unit, but Reserve personnel could be sourced from the wider Australian Defence Force (ADF).

The Australian Army SFABn task and leadership profile could emulate United States (US) Army’s Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) requirements. For example, in competition, SFAB tasks include ‘contributing to deterrence through a persistent presence … [facing] strategic competitors while building partner interoperability and situational awareness for joint and coalition forces’.[ii] Complementing SFAB tasks, SFAB leadership requirements mandate that their officers and non-commissioned officers:

…. must have already successfully served in a commensurate position [at brigade and battalion levels] in a US Army Brigade Combat Team before being selected to serve in an SFAB’.[iii]

… must have previously successfully commanded or served at the level for which they are being recruited.[iv]

Enabled through these task and leadership profiles, the Australian Army SFABn would bias working with others to achieve more. This means an SFABn would continuously look for opportunities to work with, and integrate if appropriate, whole-of-government organisations alongside allies, partners, and mission appropriate stakeholders.

Strategic guidance or ad hoc train, advise, and assist missions

DSR 23 states that ‘Australia has…a professional defence force and defence organisation, and an enviable international reputation as a capable country in military, peacekeeping, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations.’[v] Following from this statement, DSR 23 unequivocally emphasises the importance TAA missions provide for our national security (italics inserted):

In the Pacific and Southeast Asia, the Defence Cooperation Program brand is considered an exemplar of defence diplomacy. The assistance provided through the program is also a key pillar of our broader bilateral relationships in the region; deepening cultural ties and developing enduring people-to-people links.

The Defence Cooperation Program must continue to grow in importance. It should be expanded in the Indian Ocean region, particularly the north-eastern Indian Ocean.[vi]

Empowered through strategic guidance, the Australian Army is now positioned to realise the DSR 23’s vision of excellence in TAA missions. However, in 2023, the Australian Army is not yet organised, trained, or equipped for these missions.

The Army’s historical approach to TAA missions is to create ad hoc organisations ‘comprising bespoke contingents drawn from across the breadth of Army’.[vii] In other words, TAA missions task organise, with appropriate and available skills, when and where required. Task organising for Australian Army TAA missions is historically validated, famously through the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam as well as exemplary service from training teams in Malaya/Malaysia, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Timor-Leste, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Philippines and Ukraine. While the Australian Army’s future pathway under DSR 23 may be to continue such ad hoc and bespoke preparations for TAA missions, an alternate approach is attainable with multiple capability benefits.

Australian Army Security Force Assistance Battalion (SFABn): Partnership with 54th Security Force Assistance Brigade, US Army National Guard

In May 2018, the US Army announced it would establish six Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFABs) — five in the Active US Army Component and one in the US Army National Guard.[viii] SFABs are specialised United States Army units whose core mission is to conduct TAA with allied and partner nations.[ix] SFAB advisors, through the Fort Moore, Georgia, Military Advisor Training Academy, receive additional training including language, medical, culture, joint fires employment, non-standard logistics, and special weapons.[x]

SFABs ‘improve on the US Army's ad-hoc solutions, which previously relied on conventionally-organised Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs)’. SFABs allow the ‘US Army to reduce demand on conventional BCTs for combat advising, allowing BCTs to focus on readiness for warfighting against near-peer threats.’[xi] On average, the US Army deploys approximately  ‘800–1,000 advisors daily and… engages through SFABs in 54 countries’.[xii]

The Australian Army SFABn, as previously stated, could be entirely sourced, trained, organised, and equipped from the ADF Reserve. This arrangement would make the Australian Army SFABn an ideal partner with a similar allied formation. Here the 54th SFAB, US Army National Guard, provides a tailored option to achieve this partnering effect.

Activated in March 2020, the 54th SFAB, US Army National Guard, has six battalions located in six US states—Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Texas.[xiii] The 54th SFAB is ‘globally focused and capable of deploying Soldiers to support missions anywhere in the world’.[xiv] The 54th SFAB, like all US Army SFABs, comprises approximately 800 people in 60 multifunctional teams consisting of four to eight advisers each, with teams categorised as either:

  • Manoeuvre Advising Teams;
  • Field Artillery Advising Teams;
  • Engineer Advising Teams; and
  • Logistics Advising Teams.[xv]

Learning from the 54th SFAB’s structure, organisation and employment, an Australian Army SFABn could include a headquarters and administration element of 25 people, leading and supporting 240 advisers in 30 multifunctional teams. These multifunctional teams could include four to eight advisers each, as follows:

  • Manoeuvre fifteen x eight person Advising Teams (120 advisors);
  • Field Artillery five x eight person Advising Teams (40 advisors);
  • Engineer five x eight person Advising Teams (40 advisors); and
  • Logistics five x eight person Advising Teams (40 advisors).

The 54th SFAB’s employment model ‘enables eight advisor Teams to deploy twice a year to round-out regionally aligned active component US Army SFABs,’, including with the 5th SFAB which is geographically aligned with US Indo-Pacific Command.[xvi] A partnership between the Australian Army SFABn and the 54th SFAB, including deployments in our region, could assist our Army Reserve leadership to understand optimal ways to deploy, retain, organise, equip and train the SFABn’s 240 advisers.

SFABn benefits

To rapidly build the Australian Army SFABn, a cohort of SFABn leadership and trainers would attend the US Army Military Advisor Training Academy, Fort Moore, Georgia. Attendance at this course would also build enduring relationships between Australian SFABn personnel and their US SFAB partners.

For the Australian Army, selecting experienced SFABn officers and non-commissioned officers, who have already successfully served in a commensurate position in an Australian Army or ADF equivalent unit, reinforces the enduring value of our people and our Reserve forces. Where previously, skilled people may have completely separated from military service, an SFABn provides suitable people a fresh option to continue their service and achieve the aims of DSR 23. As such, an Australian Army SFABn could become a pathway for Reserve, and transitioning Regular, ADF personnel to extend their service and effectively employ their skills. For example, if an Australian Army member enjoys commanding or non-commissioned officer leadership at section, platoon, company or battalion level, then an SFABn appointment provides them a further opportunity to reach their personal and professional potential in that role.

Selection for SFABn service would be competitive. Selected leaders, employed for a second time in an SFABn in a commensurate position, would be vital to realising DSR 23’s vision of ‘assistance’ as a key pillar delivering on our broader bilateral relationships in Australia’s region.[xvii] Therefore, based in the US SFAB selection model, service in an Australian Army SFABn would require people who are:[xviii]

  • Rank and trade competent.
  • Biased toward mutual trust, shared understanding and disciplined initiative.
  • Creative and critical thinkers.
  • Complex problem solvers.
  • Empathetic with others.

Conclusion

Arguably, DSR 23 requires more from the Australian Army in train, advise and assist (TAA) missions. More TAA is problematic, especially for the Regular Army. Instead, this Land Power Forum post offers an alternate pathway to TAA based on an Australian Army SFABn entirely sourced, trained, organised, and equipped from the Reserve.  As outlined here, the SFABn would be an Army unit of approximately 265 people in 30 multifunctional teams. The SFABn would source advisors from the wider ADF Reserve. The Australian Army SFABn would emulate and partner with US Army SFABs, particularly the 54th SFAB, US Army National Guard, and the US Indo-Pacific Command geographically aligned 5th SFAB.

In addition to achieving the aims of DSR 23, an Australian Army SFABn would skill our people, enhance retention in the ADF reserve, reinforce the enduring value of our people, build regional partnerships and assure enduring alliance partnerships.

This article is a submission to the Winter Series 2023 Short Writing Competition, 'Army’s Role in Train, Advise and Assist Missions'.


End Notes:

[i] Australian Government, National Defence, Defence Strategic Review, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2023, Part A, Executive Summary, p. 7

[ii] Association of the United States Army, The U.S Army's Security Force Assistance Triad: Security Force Assistance Brigades, Special Forces and The State Partnership Program, Arlington, Virginia, 03 October 2022
https://www.ausa.org/publications/us-armys-security-force-assistance-triad-security-force-assistance-brigades-special [accessed 29 June 2023]

[iii] Congressional Research Service, In Focus: Army Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFABs), Washington, D.C., 12 June 2020, p. 2 https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/IF/IF10675/11 [accessed 25 June 2023]

[iv] Congressional Research Service, In Focus: Army Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFABs), Washington, D.C., 23 March 2023, https://sgp.fas.org/crs/natsec/IF10675.pdf p. 1 [accessed 27 June 2023]

[v] Australian Government, National Defence, Defence Strategic Review, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2023, Part B, Executive Summary, p. 17

[vi] National Defence, Defence Strategic Review, Ibid, Part B, Chapter 6, paragraphs 6.16 – 6.17, p. 47

[vii] Department of Veteran Affairs, Formation of the Association of Australian Army Training Teams, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 28 September 2022 https://www.dva.gov.au/newsroom/latest-news-veterans/formation-association-australian-army-training-teams [accessed 22 June 2023]

[viii] In Focus: Army Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFABs), 12 June 2020, p. 1, Op Cit.

Alignment of SFAB missions is as follows:

  • 1st SFAB: US Southern Command.
  • 2nd SFAB: US Africa Command.
  • 3rd SFAB: US Central Command.
  • 4th SFAB: US European Command.
  • 5th SFAB: US Indo-Pacific Command.
  • 54th SFAB: Global focus.

[ix] Military Department of Indiana, Indiana National Guard, 54th Security Force Assistance Brigade, State of Indiana, 2023  https://www.in.gov/indiana-national-guard/indiana-army-national-guard/54th-security-force-assistance-brigade/ [accessed 25 June 2023]

[x] United States National Guard, Army National Guard, Become A Combat Advisor, Washington, D.C.  https://www.nationalguard.com/sfab [accessed 27 June 2023]

[xi] Indiana National Guard, 54th Security Force Assistance Brigade, Op Cit.

[xii] Association of the United States Army, The U.S Army's Security Force Assistance Triad, Op Cit.

[xiii] United States National Guard, Army National Guard, Become A Combat Advisor, Washington, D.C.  https://www.nationalguard.com/sfab [accessed 27 June 2023]

[xiv] Texas Military Department, The 54th SFAB: the National Guard’s security force advisors, Austin, Texas, 25 October 2022 https://tmd.texas.gov/the-54th-sfab-the-national-guard%E2%80%99s-security-force-advisors [accessed 27 June 2023]

[xv] In Focus: Army Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFABs), 23 March 2023, Op Cit.

[xvi] United States Army, Security Force Assistance Command, Factbook, Washington, DC, 2023, pp. 22, 25

[xvii] National Defence, Defence Strategic Review, Ibid, Part B, Chapter 6, paragraphs 6.16 – 6.17, p. 47

[xviii] Army National Guard, Become A Combat Advisor, Op Cit.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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