David B. Rowland, Green Light, Go! The Story of an Army Start Up (Koehler Books, 2023)

Growing concern about the US Army’s force structure is leading to both internal and external discussions about cutting the number of Army personnel involved in the advising and training of foreign militaries. Against that backdrop, US Army Colonel David B. Rowland’s recently published book, Green Light, Go! The Story of an Army Start Up, comes at an opportune time. It injects a much-needed perspective into discussions about Army security force assistance capabilities—specifically why security force assistance brigades (SFABs) are needed for the future of American strategic competition. While some already view SFABs, despite only being activated in the past six years, as legacy formations from an era of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, Rowland’s book illustrates how SFABs contribute to interoperability among allied and partner military forces, while also increasing the military effectiveness of host-nation forces they advise and cooperate with. His discussions throughout also highlight why SFABs are uniquely designed to work with foreign militaries in ways that conventional and special operations forces do not. Simply put, this is the kind of book that illustrates the value of having dedicated organizations full of professional advisors that are neither conventional nor special operations units.

First conceptualized in 2017 by General Mark Milley, the US Army created six SFABs—five in the active component, each aligned with one of the five overseas geographic combatant commands, and one in the National Guard, spread across six states and capable of surging and augmenting an active-duty SFAB in any area of responsibility. Selected to serve as the first commanded of 1st Battalion, 5th SFAB at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Rowland begins the book by describing his ground-up, entrepreneurial approach to standing up an entirely new unit. His experience shows the importance of being highly innovative—and flexible—given military bureaucracy is not organized to support a new Army formation that was effectively a startup. He also illustrates the challenges of quickly building cohesion across the formation and making the unit well trained and capable for military exercises. The unit’s members had to meet their own readiness standards so they could expertly teach these skills to foreign forces—rapidly and starting from scratch.

Although Rowland does not discuss it extensively, there were added challenges surrounding the unit as it stood up and prepared to conduct its first missions. One of these was cultural. SFAB personnel wear a distinctive brown beret to distinguish them as professionally trained advisors—something that my research indicates is still viewed as controversial across the US Army. There is also a challenge of optimizing training for the realistic global operational environment. SFAB advisors attending the Combat Advisor Training Course earn an additional skill identifier after forty-one days of instruction for “assessing, liaising, supporting, and advising” a foreign security force. My research, however, suggests that this training program remains an aging legacy course because of its focus on teaching advisors to excel in environments like those of Afghanistan and Iraq. However, given growing emphasis on strategic competition with peer and near-peer states and helping allies and partners train for large-scale combat operations, SFAB deployments would involve a largely different set of challenges than advising efforts in the post-9/11 wars. That becomes apparent as Rowland describes the way his maneuver advisor teams worked with allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region during their very first deployment. His unique perspective also offers insights into some of the less sexy aspects of advising—teaching allies and partners how to better plan, for example, and to develop the requisite support, logistical, medical, and training requirements to make their conventional militaries more effective and capable.

Rowland also describes SFAB organization and the way they are operationally used. A full SFAB is composed of two infantry battalions, a cavalry squadron, a fires battalion, an engineer battalion, and a support battalion. However, because SFABs were created only for the specific function of advising, they are not the normal size of brigade; their rank-heavy manning is set around eight hundred people. At the same time, due to selection and recruitment issues, my research has indicated that SFAB units are only 60–70 percent manned. When deploying, SFABs typically utilize a maneuver advisor team made up of twelve advisors that use their unique military background. By providing in-depth explanations of his unit’s deployments (under COVID-19 conditions and tight protocols) to Thailand, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Mongolia, Singapore, South Korea, and other Asian countries and island nations, Rowland showed how his teams constantly had to adapt to different conditions and expectations, while also having to demonstrate the value of SFABs so that they could deploy more teams to other countries across the Indo-Pacific region. Interestingly, the biggest friction points Rowland’s teams encountered were with US embassy teams, which were typically risk-averse and at times resistant to the idea of having a small US Army team in country, working with host-nation forces.

Readers without an Army background and consequently lacking knowledge of the complicated set of jargon and acronyms used in the service will appreciate Rowland’s accessible language and simple explanations, including describing military life and Army bureaucracy in a way that is easy to understand and relate to. For instance, the US Army often uses a standard, eight-step training model: (1) plan the training event, (2) train and certify leaders, (3) reconnoiter the training site, (4) issue the event operations order, (5) rehearse, (6) execute the training, (7) conduct an after-action review, and (8) conduct retraining. Rowland describes the practical challenges his new advisor units faced in applying this model with host-nation forces with widely divergent capability levels—and how they overcame those challenges. In another example, Rowland demonstrated how his unit used the RSOI framework (reception, staging, onward movement, and integration) to facilitate a Royal Thai Army visit to their base for military exercises. Do these subjects—applying training models and facilitating foreign military visits—typically make for compelling reading? Probably not. But they are precisely the type of work SFABs are specifically designed for. Unlike conventional forces, SFABs’ top priority is working with foreign militaries, and Rowland’s accessible descriptions of this type of work adds important value to discussions about how much of a security force assistance capability the Army needs.

Ultimately, Green Light, Go! checks a lot of boxes. For military generalists, it is an easy-to-follow introductory read about the role and function of an SFAB in an era of strategic competition. It is also a useful resource for any leader that might be thrust into the position of having to innovatively create a new military unit or organization. The startup approach described by Rowland demonstrates leadership lessons that apply to any organization that must identify gaps and opportunities when working in a novel environment or with a new partner. Finally, the book provides a strong argument for SFABs to remain a permeant fixture of the US Army. Many SFAB advisors I have interviewed have emphasized the multiplicative effects that compound as they work with partners and enhance their interoperability with the US Army. Given the nature of the business that SFABs are in, readers will come away from Rowland’s book with an appreciation of SFABs as an important tool of American influence—one that is necessary for the future of US strategic competition around the globe.

Lieutenant Colonel Jahara “FRANKY” Matisek, PhD, (@JaharaMatisek) is a military professor in the national security affairs department at the United States Naval War College, research fellow at the European Resilience Initiative Center, and Department of Defense Minerva co-principal investigator for improving US security assistance. Lt. Col. Matisek has published over one hundred articles and essays in peer-reviewed journals and policy-relevant outlets on strategy, warfare, and security assistance.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Army, Department of the Air Force, Department of Defense, or US government. This article was supported by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research under award number FA9550-20-1-0277.

Image credit: Spc. Jacob Núñez, US Army