The United States failed in its attempts to build air forces in Iraq and Afghanistan for numerous reasons. Chief among these was policymakers’ excessive ambition: they failed to consider what the US military services could plausibly deliver and what Iraqi and Afghan air forces could realistically absorb. The provision of ill-suited F-16s to the Iraqis, for example, and UH-60s to the Afghans led to a loss of lives, time, and money. And the US military utilized aviation advisors in an ineffective ad hoc approach that we can best describe as an amateur pickup game—random, inexperienced personnel working together briefly before rotating out.
Imagine walking into a park to see a soccer game. One team is made of pickup players wearing a hodgepodge of uniforms and confused by the game and each other. The team members communicate poorly, resulting in confusion and fouls. Slowly, they learn and improve, but just as things start to go well, they step off the field and walk out of the park. Replacements appear from seemingly every direction to fill the vacancies on the soccer field. With the rookies, the team’s performance slips back to where it started. The new players make the same mistakes and learn the same hard lessons as their predecessors.
This example illustrates the shortcomings of aviation advising in Iraq and Afghanistan. There, aviation advisor missions were staffed with a collection of individual augmentees drawn from the joint and coalition forces based on rank and duty qualifications, but inexperienced in the advising mission. And with few exceptions, aviation advisors rarely returned to the mission after leaving the theater. In effect, advisor missions were forced to continually climb the learning curve only to slide back down when advisors departed en masse with their hard-won knowledge and experience. This approach was ill-suited for a mission that required contextualized learning over the long term.
Air advisors are the US Air Force’s operational arm to conduct security force assistance and exist in both conventional and special operations forces. They train, assess, equip, and assist foreign air forces, and most importantly, understand the bigger strategic picture of security cooperation. Air advisors attend one month of initial qualification training; many continue learning via upgrades and additional qualification training. This is sufficient to start a mission, but not to effectively sustain it—the most important knowledge comes from experience.
The best solution for a successful large-scale air advising mission is for the Air Force to organize, train, and equip a standing advisor wing with regionally aligned squadrons that build partnerships and capabilities in support of combatant command priorities. This wing, when needed, could absorb joint and coalition aviation advisors to execute a large-scale lengthy security force assistance mission to build the next partner’s air force. The validity of this solution has been demonstrated by the US Air Force’s Mobility Support Advisory Squadrons (MSASs). These units stay high on the learning curve through lessons-learned papers, after-action reports, and squadron debriefs when advisor teams return from an engagement with a partner air force. Leadership ensures overlap on teams so that experienced advisors can mentor new advisors and introduce them to the partner airmen, ensuring the relationship of trust endures. The MSAS units also maintain a near constant dialogue with various stakeholders, including component commands and in-country offices of security cooperation.
But an air advisor wing has not yet garnered support from Air Force senior leaders. In fact, the service is currently reducing advisory capacity as part of the shift toward great power competition. It is divesting three of these standing units, and with them, the vast majority of its in-aircraft aviation advising capability, proving once again the perishable nature of this important mission within the service. Air Force Special Operations Command is closing its 6th Special Operations Squadron and 711th Special Operations Squadron and changing the role of its combat aviation advisors. Air Education and Training Command will soon shutter the 81st Fighter Squadron, the unit responsible for training partner nation A-29 fighter pilots and maintainers in light attack and air-to-ground integration mission sets. What will remain is two MSAS units with limited mobility and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities as well as the US Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation rotary-wing advisors. The US military will have such a limited capacity that it will likely have to employ an ad hoc approach when the need for large-scale air advising arises again. Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate the problems of this approach. Four recommendations stand out: track advisor experience, design personnel rotations for continuity, use best-practice onboarding, and leverage the longevity of defense firms.
Track Air Advisor Experience in Personnel Records
When the US military receives another large-scale aviation assistance mission, it will be critical to send experienced personnel. To do this, all the services must identify and tag their air advisor talent still in uniform as they would be the first-round draft picks next to personnel from the MSASs. Drawing from this pool to find commanders, senior enlisted leaders, and planners would go a long way in helping the advisor mission learn faster.
The Air Force recently started tracking air advisors and provides a model for the other services. In 2019, the Air Force began data mining its personnel records to identify members with advisor training and experience—most of its talent was hidden from view. By marking their records with special experience identifiers and allowing them to wear an “Air Advisor” tab on their uniforms, the Air Force can now see the advisors in its personnel system, and we see them walking around bases worldwide. To date, approximately 3,500 tabbed air advisors are still on active duty in the US Air Force.
Unfortunately, the other services have not done this. While the Air Force conducted the lion’s share of aviation advising work in Iraq and Afghanistan, hundreds of soldiers, sailors, and Marines also participated. They have disappeared. The US Army, Navy, and Marine Corps should conduct a similar audit to tag their advisor talent still in uniform. If history is any indication, future missions will need this talent again.
Stagger and Overlap Air Advisor Rotations to Ensure Continuity
Personnel rotations must be designed to ensure mission continuity, rather than following the standard schedules. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States made two major mistakes—rotating most advisors out at the same time and not providing overlap for incoming advisors.
At a macro level, the services tended to rotate most of the aviation advisor mission’s personnel in the summer. Setting up the rotations to align with the military’s moving season left the advisor mission’s experience levels high in the spring but low in the fall after large numbers of pickup rookies joined the team. An almost entirely new set of advisors meant that relationships with partner nation airmen had to be rebuilt by the new team. Simply staggering the deployments of advisors throughout the year would minimize disruptions in the organization and enable it to leverage continuity in the mission.
At an individual level, Air Force air advisors almost uniformly report that they had little to no in-person turnover period with the outgoing advisor. A turnover period provides time for new advisors to establish trusted relationships with partner-nation counterparts and key leaders, which is critical to successful advising. In addition, this period would allow the outgoing advisor to demonstrate how to interact with partner airmen, share lessons learned, and coach the replacement advisor through the critical first few weeks. The military services should ensure a thirty-day overlap period between outgoing advisors and their replacements. Moreover, personnel policies should consider this a mandatory part of the mission—like training—rather than an inefficient redundancy.
Onboard New Air Advisors with Best Practices
When air advisors are pickup players from across the joint force, success depends on equipping them with the current playbook and long-term strategy before they take the field. In the past, many advisors received insufficient preparation for their assignments, but US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) developed an onboarding best-practices program that should serve as a model for future missions. This onboarding course was information dense, strategically focused, and targeted toward preparing pickup air advisors and staff officers coming from across the joint force.
Every month, USSOCOM held week-long onboarding programs at Fort Bragg. Before deploying, pickup advisors learned current and relevant information about the mission and legal authorities of Special Operations Joint Task Force–Afghanistan (SOJTF-A), the current status of Afghan special operations units, the political situation in Afghanistan, and more. SOJTF-A’s commanding general spent an hour with the attendees via videoconference to share his priorities and assessment and to answer questions from the audience. USSOCOM’s leadership strongly believed that if everyone supporting its mission knew the big picture and how they contributed, they would make wiser decisions and be more committed to success. As a result, everyone—including support personnel like forklift drivers—worked together seamlessly to support the advising mission.
Another important aspect of the program was the onboarding process for senior leaders. Before SOJTF-A’s incoming O-6 commanders and E-9 senior enlisted leaders left for Afghanistan, USSOCOM brought them together multiple times for team-building and strategy sessions. These onboarding sessions allowed the new command leadership to establish relationships, discuss the mission and challenges with their new commanding general, and hear directly from regional and military experts about the dynamics of the country and the state of the Afghan special operations forces. Combined, these onboarding programs for pickup advisors and for senior leaders ensured everyone understood the mission and their unique role in it. When SOJTF-A personnel took their place on the pitch in Afghanistan, they could start contributing right away.
Leverage the Endurance of Defense Contractors
Perhaps the greatest source of continuity for aviation advisor missions is the defense firms under contract with the US government to train and maintain partner nations’ air forces. Once the size and scope of an aviation advisor mission exceeds a modest threshold, then maintaining the partner nation’s air force requires the assistance of defense contractors in most cases. In addition to their technical and logistical expertise, defense firms have the advantage of remaining on the job for as long as they are needed. Building air forces is an ultra-endurance event, and defense contracting firms have the legs for it. Aviation advisors come and go, but the contractors come and stay.
The military services should add additional requirements to their contracts for building partner aviation capability such as recording data about the partner nation’s air force, conducting operational analysis of its capabilities, evaluating its effectiveness, writing down its history, and creating decision support tools. With better access to reports, histories, analysis, and lessons learned, pickup teams can avoid the mistakes of their predecessors and make advances that endure with their successors.
Aviation advisor organizations in Iraq and Afghanistan kept records and reports, but it was done unevenly and was not standardized, leaving huge gaps in information and historical context. Accomplishing these things required the commander’s focus, which often turned to other pressing matters. Capturing data and writing reports for future advisors seemed like a tax on overstretched units. Pickup advising does not lend itself to maintaining continuity in the mission because it drains implicit knowledge within the advisor organization, making it easy to repeat the same failures and learn the same hard lessons over and over.
No amount of aviation advisor magic can overcome bad strategic-level policy decisions, but the joint force, principally the US Air Force and US Army, can do a much better job executing future large-scale aviation advisor missions, even with pickup advisors. Our four recommendations—identifying and tracking current advisor talent, rotating advisors more thoughtfully, creating predeployment mission onboarding courses, and utilizing defense contractors’ longevity—are cheap and easy to implement, especially compared to the costs of standing aviation advising wings or brigades. Still, they do require institutional commitment to see them through. These solutions would go a long way toward creating a continuously advancing aviation advisor mission, instead of one that relearns the game every year.
Jonathan Magill is an active duty Air Force officer currently assigned to the Air Staff as the USAF 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, Jonathan has deployed throughout Africa and the Middle East.
Tobias Bernard Switzer is an active duty Air Force foreign area officer, a nonresident fellow with the Irregular Warfare Initiative, and an adjunct senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security. Formerly a special operations helicopter pilot, combat aviation advisor, and Olmsted scholar, he has deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Central America in various counterinsurgency roles.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, Department of the Air Force, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Tech. Sgt. Ashley Hyatt, US Air Force