At the base of the rugged Caucasus mountains, a battalion of Georgian soldiers clad in mountain-warfare fatigues and carrying a variety of small arms races down a snow-covered slope. Watching the scene unfold, American advisors yell steady and detailed instructions to maneuver quickly against a well-prepared, but notional, enemy. The setting of the training, the Vaziani Training Area in Georgia, was a former Soviet airport that enabled Moscow to project force and maintain control of the region during the Cold War.

The sight of US Army soldiers training Georgian military forces represents a renewed US foreign-policy focus on the Caucasus and commitment to Georgia’s “security and territorial integrity, [to strengthen] the rule of law and respect for human rights.” It also embodied an overt move to counter the aggressive tactics and rhetoric of Georgia’s revanchist neighbor, Russia. The US recommitment began in May 2018 when US Army Europe deployed infantry soldiers to act as trainers—a security force assistance (SFA) mission—to maintain partnership with Georgia, a nation of geostrategic importance, and make the Georgian security forces self-sufficient in training and territorial defense. The SFA program has a plan to train all of Georgia’s nine battalions over three years. But as the United States embarks on the generation, employment, and sustainment of local security forces, it must recognize an important truth: providing SFA is not easy and involves inherent risks.

For the United States, gaining a strategic position near the Black Sea presents opportunities to increase influence in the area, but the situation also presents tremendous risks of provoking Russia’s longstanding fear of NATO encirclement and ignoring the absorptive capacity of the Georgian state. To further complicate US involvement, Russia has historical ties to Georgia, and recent history shows that Russia remains sensitive to what it perceives as US and NATO encroachment within former Soviet satellite states—which Moscow prefers, at best, to preserve as loyal satellites, but as a minimum as buffer areas. Within the context of the Georgian security dilemma, a smart approach will deploy the right US SFA force package to produce a trained and capable Georgian force, but a smarter one will do so while also mitigating the likelihood of Russian escalatory actions.

Furthermore, past mistakes in SFA have been made as a result of overlooking the host nation’s current capabilities, political and social realities, and ability to receive security assistance. Still, Georgia is uniquely positioned to thrive from an appropriately balanced SFA force composition. A tailored SFA approach must recognize the dynamic operating environment and history, avoid a “one size fits all” solution, and offer realistic objectives that address the military issues in Georgia, positioning the Georgian Defense Forces as a capable and willing partner against an emboldened Russian threat.

Why Western SFA in Georgia: A Brief History of Promises

Georgia’s long-festering sovereignty issue over two breakaway regions—Abkhazia and South Ossetia—finally came to a head on August 2008. By the time five days of hostilities ended, Russia occupied 20 percent of Georgian territory. When Russian forces invaded Georgia, the United States worked to uphold the fledgling democracy with diplomacy rather than military force. Focusing on protecting Tbilisi, the Georgian capital and the seat of government, the United States provided military transport to return Georgian forces that were deployed to Iraq to defend their homeland. The US government told Russia that “[they] were doing so and not to interfere.” The Bush administration helped to raise funds to support Georgia, sanctioned the separated territories, and reminded NATO of their responsibilities to partners. But Russia saw the US and NATO decisions not to commit forces to support the defense of Georgia’s territory and likely interpreted the situation in a very particular way. Russian forces had quickly seized land from a NATO partner—without a single bullet fired from a NATO member in response—and extended their operational reach by taking the initiative. Russia had acted. NATO stood on the sideline. Far from being sated, no more than six years later, Russia would seize the Crimean Peninsula and assist Russian separatists in the eastern Donbass region of Ukraine.

Against that backdrop, there are sound strategic reasons for providing military assistance to Georgia. By doing so, the United States counters Russian malign influence and reassures a nation that has been an enthusiastic and reliable partner. Georgia is currently the top non-NATO contributor of troops to the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan and serves with no national caveats. The Georgian military’s contribution reflects the Georgian people’s positive perception of the West. Up to 90 percent of Georgia’s population supports a Western orientation and 70 percent supports NATO membership. The Russian occupation of Georgian territory and interest in the area, combined with the Georgian people’s support for US and NATO assistance, are two of the important reasons for the establishment of the Georgian Defense Readiness Program (GDRP)—under the auspices of which current the current SFA mission is being undertaken.

Georgian Institutional Thresholds

The United States must consider Georgia’s absorptive capacity before expanding future SFA initiatives like GDRP. Since Georgia is a small country with a relatively small defense force, economy, and government, the United States should be aware of Georgia’s institutional thresholds so that it does not inadvertently weaken the country’s readiness to oppose Russian opportunism and other crises. A consideration of Georgia’s absorptive capacity—its capacity to use aid resources effectively—and whether it has sufficient infrastructure to achieve objectives gives the United States measurable factors to think about the utility of security assistance. For instance, Georgia has a small economy, ranking 121st in the world in terms of gross domestic product, and does not offer the institutional foundations to accept large investments in responsible ways despite recent anti-corruption reforms. Additionally, considering the small size of the Georgian armed forces, which has about thirty-seven thousand active members, the country has limited capacity to train, reset, and deploy forces and meet national commitments.

Admittedly, Western application of SFA in Georgia has been relatively successful compared to other SFA missions in Western and Central Europe. Since 2014, the US government has invested over $117 million in security assistance in Georgia by way of State Department Title 22 authorities. Further, between fiscal years 2016 and 2017 the Defense Department provided over $42 million in security. The SFA provided has helped to advance Georgia’s defensive posture and capabilities. However, Georgia still struggles to appropriate enough money for its defense budget to match stated defense priorities. Georgia has been distracted by emergent obligations, such as sending a battalion to support the NATO mission in Afghanistan. Moreover, priorities associated to immediate threats like homeland defense often trump long-term military planning objectives. Rather than focusing on the purchase and deployment of weapons and equipment, the United States must also acknowledge that Georgia does not have “the doctrinal and institutional foundations of a modern military force.” Building a framework of a self-sufficient modern force requires tailored solutions that do not ignore categorical problems in the nation’s defense capacity. The United States must also recognize that there are diminishing returns when Western SFA fails to address the inherent problems of a state. That is, establishing realistic objectives and acknowledging limitations of military assistance must be the first step in deploying an SFA force package to train host-nation militaries.

A Tailored Approach to Achieve Realistic Objectives

Taking lessons from past mistakes in SFA while recognizing the institutional capacity within the Georgian security apparatus allows the United States to tailor an SFA solution. For many familiar with the US Army’s recent SFA initiatives, calling for the deployment of one of the new security force assistance brigades (SFABs) to Georgia might seem like the best answer. However, an SFAB deployment to Georgia would only address a military training issue and not the institutional problems that inhibit long-term self-sustainability. An SFAB should be the core element to achieve the stated military objective of building a “self-supporting training capacity to prepare and sustain resilient, capable tactical combat units for territorial defense.” A tailored solution would also consist of a team of interagency and joint experts who can develop a Georgian national defense strategy that aligns ends with ways and means and, thus, equip the country with institutional and doctrinal foundations for continued defense.

The argument for deploying an SFAB for an SFA mission seems self-evident. The US Army has already stated that one advisory brigade, composed of more than 500 soldiers and officers, would eventually be available for Europe to conduct advise and assist missions. Structured to “work with, train, advise, and assist those partner nation security forces on anything they need help with, be it logistics, be it communications, be it maneuver . . . anything they need help with to improve their capacity and capability, that’s what the SFAB is designed to do.” Unlike the US Army’s Military Training Teams that were haphazardly assembled and trained for counterinsurgency operations from 2007 to 2011 in Iraq and Afghanistan, SFAB advisors receive “deeper cultural-awareness and language training over the course of a three-year SFAB assignment.” Formed, trained, and deployed as cohesive units, SFABs have special familiarity with the deployed area and have experienced combat advisors within their ranks—bringing more competence as each SFAB can employ teams to advise at multiple echelons from the company to the corps level.

The training objectives of GDRP could be meet with an SFAB. One SFA battalion, for instance, could support the training and evaluation of Georgian infantry companies to entire battalions and provide tactical education, mentorship, and other professional development opportunities. As the Georgian armed forces’ capacity to self-train increases, the training mission can then shift to higher echelons (at the corps and ministry levels). The SFAB has senior intelligence trainers, strategists, and logisticians who can help the Georgian military design training and readiness plans to ensure that defense spending matches operational requirements. Unlike the first SFAB deployment to Afghanistan in 2018, which saw the need for an additional infantry battalion to secure it from insider threats, an SFAB’s mission in Georgia would not need the extra force-protection measure. The country’s permissive environment enables the SFAB to deploy as a standalone brigade.

In terms of achieving defense institutional objectives, though, an SFAB is only part of the answer. Georgia has institutional-threshold issues that necessitate an interagency approach with support from specialists in the joint community. A tailored SFA force package should include force managers to help the defense ministry maintain talent and align force structure to operational needs; treasurers and comptrollers to instruct about budget discipline and accountability; economists to develop appropriate defense fiscal policies; operational researchers to support the advancement of analytical modeling and simulations; and intelligence specialists to improve the capability to detect indicators and warnings. From the joint community, a tailored approach might involve the inclusion of Air Force personnel specialists to support accessions requirements, foreign area officers to identify capability gaps and support security cooperation investments, and US Navy construction specialists to support infrastructure development. A tailored solution engenders operational solutions to the tactical-level problems of maintaining equipment and making sure units get proper support and supplies, because an interagency and joint team would produce systems, processes, and policies to account for SFA investments. Addressing these institutional weaknesses in Georgia enables the United States to strengthen military readiness through a whole-of-government approach, yielding sustainable programs and systems to maintain a readied force. The commitment to accomplishing institutional development requires more time and resources than the training objectives, but it is far more consequential for Georgia’s ambition to be able to defend its sovereignty.

The advantages of an interagency and joint solution extend beyond the borders of Georgia. As a specifically tailored advisory force package, it will likely not provoke Russian escalatory actions when compared to armored formations in Poland and the Baltics or combined exercises in Georgia that elicit warnings of a “horrible” conflict.

Security force assistance is an important mission, and Georgia is an important partner within which to conduct that mission. But for it to be maximally effective, in Georgia or anywhere, it must account for things like absorptive capacity and institutional thresholds, and must take the form of a tailored approach that reflects those realities.


*Editor’s note: A previous version of this article used the phrase “semiautomatic machine guns” instead of “a variety of small arms.” The editorial error has been corrected, with thanks to a commenter for noting it.


Maj. Scott R. Gross is an acquisitions and foreign area officer, currently serving as the country desk officer for Niger within the Strategy Engagements and Programs Directorate, J5, at United States Africa Command in Stuttgart, Germany. He was commissioned through the United States Air Force Academy, earning a Bachelor of Science in Systems Engineering Management. He also holds both a Master of Arts in Strategic Studies from the Naval Postgraduate School and a Master of Business Administration from Hope International University.

Maj. Saythala “Lay” Phonexayphova serves as an Army strategist at the Joint Center for International Security Force Assistance under the Joint Staff J7. His previous assignments include the lead operational planner for US Army Europe’s contingency plan, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the United States Military Academy, and Military Training Team trainer for the Iraqi Army and Police in Baqubah, Iraq. He holds a BS from West Point and MAs from Loyola University Chicago and Touro University.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.


Image credit: Sgt. LaShic Patterson, US Army