The Army, for the first time, will send soldiers from one of its new training brigades to Africa in the coming weeks, expanding the use of the new specialized units as the Pentagon looks at possible troop cuts on the continent.
The decision to send a couple hundred soldiers from the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade has been in the works for months. And it's the next step in the Army's broader plan to use the training teams to free other brigades who had been working as advisers to move on to other combat jobs.
The plan comes as Defense Secretary Mark Esper eyes potential troop cuts in Africa. as part of a global review aimed at directing more focus on Asia. U.S. lawmakers and allies have voiced opposition to any cuts, and sending the new training teams isn't likely to affect the overall troop numbers in Africa, at least initially.
For Brig. Gen. Scott Jackson, the deployment to Africa means preparing his soldiers for a new type of mission. As commander of the 1st SFAB, he helped build the inaugural training brigade, and took it to Afghanistan for its first deployment in 2018. Two other SFABs have deployed to Afghanistan since then, so Jackson will now be the first to take the trainers to a new region — one that will be dramatically different from their war-zone mission.
In Africa, his soldiers won't have the vast U.S. and coalition support system with its network of bases, supply chains and readily available helicopters and armored vehicles.
"We won't have the military structure we had in Afghanistan," said Jackson, in an Associated Press interview from Ethiopia. The soldiers, he said, may be in downtown areas of cities rather than military-equipped forward operating bases. And they're likely to be moving about in Ford Broncos, rather than armored trucks.
Part of their training for the mission has focused on improving their ability to sustain themselves for longer periods of time on their own, without the benefits of nearby military storehouses filled with food, supplies, ammunition and medical equipment.
"You can't get anywhere fast in Africa," said Jackson, who was attending a major Africa training exercise and getting to know some of the military and national leaders his soldiers will be working with. He said they also got instruction on how to better work with embassies and their staffs.
At the same time, his medics had to take a two-week tropical medicine course so they can be ready to deal with an entirely new set of diseases, bugs and other elements the soldiers will be exposed to.
Jackson was tapped in 2017 to lead the first Security Force Assistance Brigade, after Gen. Mark Milley — then chief of staff of the Army — launched the program to create permanent training teams that could be deployed around the world. Milley is now the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Each SFAB includes a little more than 800 soldiers.
The goal is to use the teams to advise and assist security forces in other countries, and take the pressure off other Army brigades that have been used to do training but are needed for other national security missions. In addition to the three brigades that have already deployed, three others, including one in the National Guard, are in various stages of development and training.
Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of U.S. Africa Command, specifically requested the SFAB, and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said it's the right move.
"The key is what is the right capability you've got to have in there, and the SFAB is uniquely suited for this," said McCarthy. "Smaller elements have a huge impact on who they're training."
Esper said that roughly 200 soldiers from the 1st SFAB will replace soldiers from the 101st Airborne who are returning home from Africa, "so that they can train for high-intensity conflict," in line with the National Defense Strategy. He provided no estimate of the number of 101st infantry soldiers will come home from Africa, but said the net result would be roughly a wash, numerically.
There are between 6,000 and 7,000 U.S. forces on the continent at any one time, including about 4,000 that are at the U.S. base in Djibouti. Other forces train and advise local forces and conduct counterterrorism missions against militants, such as al-Shabab in Somalia and other al-Qaida-linked groups and Islamic State affiliates in west and north Africa.
"My aim is to free up time, money and manpower around the globe, where we currently are, so that I can direct it" toward Asia or return forces to the United States to improve combat readiness, Esper said. But he has also assured nervous allies that the U.S. won't totally withdraw from Africa.
Members of Congress have also pushed back against any troop reductions.
"Our small military presence across Africa is meaningful, and provides significant return on investment," said Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Inhofe led a delegation of senators to Africa this month to discuss the importance of continued military cooperation in the region. They visited Uganda, Ghana and Mauritania.
"Our partners are grateful for our leadership," Inhofe said. "Downgrading our investment now would only increase our risk and make future competition or potential conflict more costly down the road."
Under current plans, about one-third of the training brigade will deploy to various countries in Africa. Officials will not disclose the countries, but acknowledge some will continue an ongoing training mission with the Djibouti military.
The remainder of the brigade will continue to reset and train in the U.S., and then those team would be available to rotate into Africa to replace the first group when it comes home. Jackson said he doesn't know exactly how many months the teams will be in Africa, but it's likely to be less than the brigade's nine-month deployment to Afghanistan.