The demands for American military training is high. Yet, the program the United States has used to train partners around the world to fly is being cut without a replacement. The U.S. Air Force has an interest in building the capacity of partners and allies to expand U.S. reach and influence, but the security force assistance programs that tasked air advisors to help train foreign militaries is at risk of being cut, leaving the United States unable to keep up with foreign demand for operational training.
Air Force Chief of Staff, General C.Q. Brown, recently touted the strong bonds that should be present with allies and partners to succeed in the next conflict, stating that the Air Force must be “integrated by design.” However, the Air Force has never truly institutionalized the security force assistance mission, despite its recent successes and strategic partnerships being a priority of the chief of staff. Security force assistance has been subject to Air Force major commands, but not institutionalized at Headquarters Air Force, a result of leaders not fully understanding its capability to build partnerships or how to invest in the program to achieve maximum efficacy.
The Air Force’s air advisor programs, its version of security force assistance, faced extensive and complex issues, but overcame many challenges to have success in Iraq and Afghanistan. Air advisors have also had significant success in developing air forces outside of combat zones. Security force assistance, by definition, is meant to bolster capabilities amongst partners and has roots as far back as Baron Frederick von Steuben advising George Washington’s Continental Army. It was employed by U.S. special forces during the Cold War all over the world. Investing in security force assistance programs can help to provide partners with American military experts to develop airpower capabilities and extend American influence in places where the United States has security interests but cannot deploy forces unilaterally or maintain a large permanent presence.
The service has the ability to operationalize this capability, capitalizing on its benefits for the United States by improving military interoperability, building influence and access, and increasing partner capability in strategically important regions, especially with developing states in critical regions like Africa, the Middle East, and the Pacific. The programs explicitly provide operational capabilities to states and support America’s foreign military sales program. The value to American partners is that security force assistance can help to train the airmen and aircrew in these countries, after U.S. equipment is delivered or using a partner’s existing equipment. Air Force security assistance should be considered an operational capability, similar to the Army Security Force Assistance Brigades. Like the Army, the Air Force’s standing advisor units would be able to solve several issues that have plagued this program in the past. Opportunities have emerged, like Ukraine’s receiving extensive American weapons and materiel, for these advisor units to advance American security interests by building interoperability with partners whose security interests mirror its own.
Failure to Understand Air Power Security Assistance
We are not the first to make an argument in favor of creating a functional combatant command that operationalizes security assistance. However, the issue has become more urgent because the budget allotment for Air Force advisor units is not being renewed in 2023. It is unclear if this was purposeful or just overlooked by service planners who remain unaware of air advising demand. When the authors asked, both the 14th Fighter Wing and 492nd Special Operations Wing public affairs offices had no answer for why these advisor units were being divested. Elimination of these units now removes the Air Force’s institutional advisor capability because these personnel will simply be absorbed into their original career fields and will no longer be dedicated to working with American partners.
Air advisors are specially qualified airmen who deploy to partner nations and train host personnel on air operations, ranging from mission support to offensive air operations (like light air attack and close air support). In Afghanistan and Iraq, air advisors trained partner security forces in mission planning, aircraft maintenance and sustainment, and validation of air operations capabilities. Air Force advisors, for example, trained Afghan pilots how to fly the A-29 light attack aircraft in combat. The A-29 program and the performance of Afghan pilots was one of the only positive findings in the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s April 2022 report. As the program matured, Afghan pilots returned to Kabul to begin successful offensive operations against the Taliban. It was not until American forces curtailed support and began withdrawing that the program ceased operations and fell alongside the Afghan army.
Funding for an advisor unit ranges from $1 to $2 million annually without flying operations and can reach $10–15 million for those units with a flying mission. Comparatively, the Air Force’s active foreign military sales casework had a backlog of $226 billion in 2021 because of a lengthy and convoluted process of delivering equipment. Part of the problem with understanding security force assistance, which is perhaps unique to the Air Force, is that it often gets confused with and lumped under the broader term of security cooperation.
In the Air Force, the agency charged with all security cooperation is the office of the secretary of Air Force/international affairs. That organization focuses on Title 22 foreign military sales and not security force assistance operations. Title 22 refers to the military code regulating the sale of U.S. military equipment to allies and partner states. Security cooperation focuses on the initial procurement of military equipment and provides initial training to those partners, but often not full operationalization or integration into joint or multinational operations. It is security force assistance advisors who provide that operational and integration capability.
Traditional security cooperation activities are sometimes referred to as “type 1” and security force assistance activities as “type 2.” Type 1 is broadly defined as the Title 22 foreign military sales and predominantly focuses on partner education in the United States and/or equipment delivery. For example, the OV-10 Bronco close air attack platform was divested from U.S. inventories and transferred to the Philippines in 2019. The Filipino armed forces had already been flying the OV-10 aircraft, so it required no additional training from the United States. A type 2 security assistance operation is when advisors are sent to a partner nation and work within their aviation enterprise to fully train the host nation’s forces, not necessarily tied to any sale of U.S. equipment. For example, U.S. and NATO advisors joined Mediterranean security forces for the Orion and Iniochos 2022 air exercises, where Hellenic forces were trained in a variety of interoperability exercises by Western advisors.
How Does the Air Force Make This Happen?
To date, security force assistance has not been integrated into the Air Force’s doctrine and operational plans. As a first step, this should change, and this mission should be organized as a program, trained and equipped above the major command level. This simple change would help to overcome the biggest hurdle: recognizing the criticality of this capability as a core mission for the service. After this basic step, this program should be tasked by a security force assistance tasking authority based on support requirements sourced from combatant commanders whose theaters coincide with foreign military sales and strategic partnership priorities. This would allow Air Force leaders to use this program to address prioritized partners, whose receipt of foreign military sales and equipment could now achieve an initial operational capacity through advisor-led training and operational integration.
The challenge is that the service does not accurately forecast security force assistance requirements. This is the result of strategic planners not asking operational commanders for security assistance capabilities, which leads to an inability to prioritize theaters where U.S. advisors could be used to increase partner force capabilities. Admittedly, it is not easy to determine requirements for security assistance. According to the RAND Corporation, combatant command campaign plans are not explicit enough to plan and forecast security force assistance operations without knowledgeable staff. This issue could be resolved by including this program in Air Force strategy documents and creating a mechanism for combatant commanders to leverage security force assistance programs in locations where the United States has a strategic need to leverage partner nation capabilities.
Security force assistance should be considered an operational capability, worthy of its own enterprise structure, just like the Army’s security force assistance brigades. Security force assistance should be cross-functional, and not limited by a single major command’s mission or capabilities. Like the Army, the Air Force’s standing advisor units should be led by a senior officer, with the authority to assign personnel, and not be stove-piped into a functional or geographically aligned major command. Even if these changes are made, security force assistance capabilities will still be in limited supply because of the failure to institutionalize capable units, which has resulted in a small number of advisor-capable personnel dedicated to this mission. To truly operationalize security force assistance, the Air Force should consider creating enough units to meet specific demands. However, even when appropriately staffed, the demand for advising capabilities will be limited in initial scope, and combatant commanders would have to submit theater priorities to officers who would then decides how to task personnel to different combatant commanders. These commanders would then have the ability to begin sorting support requests with available assets and send advisors to designated places in their area of responsibility.
Sealing the Deal
Selling American military equipment to partners is important for developing partnerships. But integrating those purchasers’ security forces through standardized training and development ensures credible partners as the United States looks for opportunities to balance power abroad. However, as a 2009 report shows, the demand for air advising outstrips the supply of air advisors. According to that study, “components lacking assigned forces have a large unmet demand for aviation irregular warfare, building partnerships, and air advising capabilities … the Air Force lacks standing, discrete, dedicated units and lacks a process for planning how to develop aviation capabilities in less-developed countries.” At the time, both the Special Operations and Air Mobility Commands invested in standing units to meet mission demands. Those units would serve worldwide demands with relative success, while establishing a template for an air power security force assistance capability writ large.
Unfortunately, the gains made after these changes in 2009 risk being lost if the air advisor enterprise continues on its current trajectory, despite significant demand remaining. Take Ukraine: Billions of dollars of Western equipment have bolstered defense efforts against Russian aggression. The House and Senate, in each of their versions of the National Defense Authorization Act, have called for studies on transitioning Kyiv from the Soviet-era MiG-29 to more modern American-made F-16s. These calls to modernize Ukraine’s air force will require investments in U.S. training capacity. This is a perfect example of where air advisors can enable a U.S. partner, beyond simply selling or providing weapons and a two-year training program.
The Air Force has a lengthy history of demand from partners seeking to improve their air operations capabilities and has an interest in building partners’ air capabilities to bolster collective security and improve interoperability. Yet the service has not implemented an operational program for developing these partners’ air services, instead choosing to focus on the sale of military equipment while foregoing critical development and interoperability needs. The lack of operational organization, dedicated resourcing, and tasking authorities at the strategic level have constrained the air advising mission at a time when it is more critical than ever to develop security partnerships. Without standing units dedicated, resourced, and aligned to this mission, the Air Force is lacking a critical capability to effectively integrate security partners into its global priorities.
Ethan Brown is a senior fellow for defense studies at the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence and Global Affairs (Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress). He is a U.S. Air Force Special Warfare veteran, having spent 11 years as a special operations joint terminal attack controller and air advisor. He is on Twitter @LibertyStoic.
Lt. Col. Jonathan Magill is an active-duty Air Force officer currently assigned to the Air Staff as the air advising cross functional manager, and previously commanded the 818th Mobility Support Advisory Squadron. He has significant experience in various roles throughout the security cooperation enterprise and has over four thousand hours of flight time in the C-17A and C-208B. As an air advisor, he has deployed throughout Africa and the Middle East.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official guidance or position of the U.S. government, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Air Force, or the U.S. Space Force.