One of the Army's advisory Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFABs) will be headed to the Pacific for the first time as the Pentagon once again tries to draw back from the Middle East and confront China and Russia, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said last week.
SFABs have thus far deployed only to Afghanistan, but McCarthy said one of them will be going to the Indo-Pacific theater, possibly later this year, to improve the readiness of partners in the region through its specialized train, advise and assist mission.
China's military buildup and use of "economic coercion" against allies necessitates a U.S. response that will involve closer coordination with partner nations in the region, McCarthy said at the Brookings Institution Jan. 10.
"We will accomplish readiness through strengthening our partnerships" in the Pacific with Thailand, the Philippines and others, he said.
One way to do that is by committing one of "our regionally aligned Security Force Assistance Brigades ... which will deploy in fiscal 2021" beginning Oct. 1, he added.
McCarthy's announcement is in line with the expanded role for the SFABS outlined last year by then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, who is now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The service planned to build to five SFABs, assigning one each to U.S. Central Command, Africa Command, European Command, Indo-Pacific Command and Southern Command, Milley said in a January 2019 address to the Association of the U.S. Army's Institute of Land Warfare.
Milley said the plan to deploy more SFABs followed on the "extraordinarily positive" reports on the performance of the 1st SFAB, which ended its mission in Afghanistan in November 2018.
At a Pentagon briefing last May, Command Sgt. Maj. Christopher Wren of the 1st SFAB said he saw major improvements in the ability of the Afghan security forces to go on the offensive during the SFAB's deployment.
"Just us being there gave them confidence," he said.
However, the 1st SFAB's deployment came at a cost. Command Sgt. Maj. Timothy Bolyard, 42, of Thornton, West Virginia, and 20-year-old Cpl. Joseph Maciel, of South Gate, California, were killed in separate "insider attacks" by Afghans in uniform during the mission.
Bolyard was one of the Army's most experienced and respected noncommissioned officers. He had at least seven combat deployments and was a recipient of six Bronze Stars, two of them with combat "V" device.
The deaths of Bolyard and Maciel in the so-called "green on blue" attacks were "tragic to us internally," Brig. Gen. Scott Jackson, commander of the 1st SFAB, said at the Pentagon briefing in May, adding that his soldiers were aware of the risks.
The 1st SFAB had trained specifically on balancing security against the need to get out with the Afghans at remote locations, Jackson said.
The Army's concept in forming the SFABs was to take more experienced enlisted and junior officer personnel, preferably with tours in combat zones, and place them in units designed specifically for the train, advise and assist mission.
In Afghanistan, the SFABs have the dual purpose of freeing up other Army units for more conventional and counter-terror missions.
In the Indo-Pacific, McCarthy said, the SFAB would contribute to the National Defense Strategy, which is aimed at drawing back from the counter-terror wars that have consumed the U.S. military since the 9/11 attacks to focus on great power competition against China and Russia.
McCarthy acknowledged that the Pacific historically has been "predominantly a sister service endeavor," meaning that it is the bailiwick of the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force, but said an expanded role for the Army is vital to fulfilling the National Defense Strategy.
The other services' ships and planes have their missions, he said, but "nothing comes close to the effects of boots on the ground, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our partners."
In response to questions at Brookings, McCarthy also noted that the U.S. for years has attempted to shift forces to the Pacific, only to be drawn back repeatedly into conflicts in the Middle East.
During the Obama administration, the policy came to be known as the "Pacific pivot," but the initiative stalled as then-President Barack Obama ordered a surge of troops to Afghanistan and later sought to battle the rise of the Islamic State.
President Donald Trump has publicly and repeatedly stated his intention to withdraw U.S. troops from the "endless wars" of the Middle East. But as commander in chief, he has ordered at least 14,000 more troops to the region since last May and has kept a carrier battle group on station.
In the current crisis with Iran, Trump has ordered about 3,500 paratroopers from the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division to Kuwait, sent about 100 Marines to bolster the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and put other units on standby alert.
However, Milley and Defense Secretary Mark Esper have said that the focus on China and Russia is now the top priority and will require a shift of forces to the Pacific.
At a Pentagon briefing last month, Esper said that decisions on drawing down troops in Afghanistan would be made "in the coming weeks," possibly clearing the way to bolster the U.S. presence in the Pacific.
The overall U.S. intention is "to have a much more comprehensive" Army presence in the Pacific, McCarthy said.
Crises in the Middle East could complicate the plan, but "you need the will to do it, and we have the will" to send more soldiers to the Indo-Pacific, he said.
"We don't need any more gunfights [and] we don't want any more," McCarthy said, "but if they come, we'll be ready."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.