Fighting with Our Friends
When to Lead and When to Listen to Your Allies
Nearly everyone who’s worn the uniform has worked with a partner nation in some capacity. Whether you’ve grabbed candy at a KATUSA snack bar on the Korean Peninsula, patrolled the mountains of Afghanistan praying the guy next to you isn’t Taliban, trained Ukrainian artillerymen on the finer points of putting HIMARS warheads on Russian foreheads, or had the grim task of training Taiwanese soldiers to prepare to fight a PLA occupation, working “by, with, and through” our allies and partners has become a core day-to-day mission for the US military. Our allies are our greatest strength, and it is one of the few advantages that the PRC or Russia can’t quickly match by stealing technology or drafting soldiers.
It is for that reason that I get extremely frustrated by some of the commentary, often driven by rigid ideological activism or lobbying efforts, surrounding how and when we should help our friends. There are few phrases I hate reading or hearing more than “We should trust country X to know what they need for their security” and its foil “the American way of war is the only right way of war.” Both of these maxims are equally ill-informed, destructive to strategic planning, and disrupt cooperation. Sometimes a country really doesn’t know, or doesn’t have the capability to produce, what’s best for its security, that’s why it’s asking us for help! And sometimes we Americans forget that we have our faults, and that our way of war is often influenced by our unique way of life, industry, and geography.
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So today I’d like to create a basic guide for understanding how we can differentiate between what’s best for us and what’s best for our allies and partners. In this edition of Breaking Beijing, I’ll present a basic refresher on the different types of advise and assist missions conducted by the US military, then I’ll pivot to the basic friction points we face during those missions using Taiwan and Ukraine for case studies, and then wrap up with two basic checklists for everyone from congressional staffers to your run-of-the-mill military instructors to use when assessing the acquisitions and training needs of an ally or partner.
Without getting into all the technical DoD-ese, we may consider our allied advise and assist missions in four main buckets:
Special Forces: While somewhat obscured by the GWOT, the original mission of the Army’s Special Forces is to conduct security force assistance and unconventional warfare. Small teams of Green Berets work with our allies and partners (or insurgent forces in an occupied nation) to train them to fight in both unconventional and conventional manners. These folks are the best trainers in the business, but their numbers are limited and can only cover so much ground. They’re often deployed first, work closely with interagency partners, and work great when you want to minimize visibility. Their training often means they have the best insight into the strengths and weaknesses of an organization at the tactical and operational level of war. Other Special Operations units can and do perform these missions, but to a lesser degree.
Security Forces Assistance Brigades (SFAB): As SF focused on direct action missions during GWOT and the US military got involved with training new and undeveloped militaries in Iraq and Afghanistan, the SFAB was developed to take mid-grade officers and (somewhat) seasoned NCOs and place them in full-time advisor units. They’ve had mixed success due to their rapid development and emphasis on gucci kit over rigorous training, but they are increasingly becoming a reliable asset around the world, particularly in East Asia. The advantage of SFABs is that they can train forces at scale in a way that SF cannot based upon size and dedicated assets. This also takes the strain off of SF so they can focus on more specific missions. I’ve written previously about how an SFAB dedicated to Taiwan could improve Taiwanese security.
Conventional force trainers and combined exercises: This bucket can mostly be thought of as the conventional unit teams that were developed ad-hoc to train our Afghan and Iraqi partners, partnering with them on missions, and rotating our allies stateside to train at Combined Training Centers like NTC and JRTC. Additionally, this is the most common form (though they all have their own methods and teams) of combined training for the non-Army services. Think big multilateral exercises with vague names than some staff officer got a bullet point on his resume for inventing. The Army leads on allied training simply because it has the greatest number of dedicated units to the mission, the largest number of personnel, and frankly it’s a lot easier (and safer) to train soldiers at scale how to shoot a rifle on land than to bring them onto a multi-million dollar piece of equipment that floats or flies. And for the sake of our two most crucial training missions, Taiwan and Ukraine, the land fight is where our trainers and assistance can have the most impact.
Security assistance in the form of money, machines, and munitions: Everyone loves money and guns. But what money, and which guns, is often the greatest point of contention on Capitol Hill, in the Pentagon, and Foggy Bottom. We spend billions annually, (or in the case of Taiwan, fail), in order to ensure that our allies have what they need to fight so they can either deter aggression, win on their own, or meaningfully contribute as a partner when we join the fight. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency is the main conduit for this assistance and the mission has a mixed record to say the least from bureaucratic malfeasance and misappropriation at any point in the pipeline to just a plain failure to properly report on progress from the ground back to DC.
Now that we have the basics down, let’s talk Ukraine and Taiwan. I have my opinions and what should and shouldn’t be provided to Ukraine and Taiwan, as well as operational design, but that’s not the purpose of this article. Here, I’d like to highlight a couple of controversies and explain how those, and future, controversies can be resolved without relying on political rhetoric to drive policy.
Ukraine: From fighter jets to long-range guided missiles, Ukraine has asked for a lot to keep Ivan at bay. The US has provided *a lot*, and our neglect of our defense industrial base, on full display as we try to meet demand, has made it apparent that not everything was ready for wartime production. But that’s not what I want to cover. Rather, there is a great deal of commentary surrounding what we can teach Ukrainian soldiers headed to the frontlines and what they can teach us. If you scroll Twitter or read WoTR, you’ll see a range of commentary from officers and desk jockeys claiming to know *exactly* how the Russians can be defeated if only the Ukrainians did what they said, to a variety of commentators screaming bloody murder that the US should shut up and just deliver without questioning Zelenskyy. How do we make sense of this? Well, first I would posit that neither radical side of that debate is correct. Second, what the US has to offer is basic tactical training that can reduce strain on Ukrainian forces, as well as training on advanced systems. The more seasoned Ukrainian officers and NCOs that can be on or near the front lines, the fewer stuck in the rear training new recruits on things like marksmanship and battle drills. Additionally, US special forces and trainers (as well as their spooky counterparts) did indeed put a great deal of time into training their Ukrainian counterparts *before* the war started going as far back as 2014-2015. All of that training was put to good work as they turned the Russians back.
At the same time, it would be ridiculous to say that the US knows better than seasoned Ukrainian commanders on how best to counter the Russians on the battlefield *right now.* We can teach them tactics and operations in the same way we do our own, but lessons from the field matter more than the classroom. That’s why the US sent teams over and brought Ukrainians to our schoolhouses, so that we could also learn about Russian tactics and operations. It was a symbiotic relationship. And going forward, we should continue to acquire and share that knowledge, but there are limitations to areas beyond the Ukrainian theater. There are certainly broad lessons about logistics, combat medicine, anti-tank and anti-air systems, weapons performance, attrition in the modern age, etc., that can be gathered and applied to any other battlefield. BUT, as Russian and Chinese equipment increasingly look foreign to each other, and as PLA tactics evolve, we should use a great deal of caution in saying “well the Russians did this, or this equipment worked this way, so we should tell our soldiers to expect this in the Western Pacific.”
So as a quick checklist, consider the following for assessing who should learn from whom, and when:
Is this a battlefield-acquired experience or doctrinal training? In other words, is this training universal (marksmanship, land navigation, battle drills), or is it conditional? (reacting to Russian recon tactics, Russian electronic warfare, Ukrainian-designed COTS weapons systems)
Do these lessons apply to all modern systems, or just Russian systems?
Was this technique born of necessity or creativity? That is to say, did this tactic come about because the Ukrainians had no other options, or because our/their systems didn’t work as designed?
How does geography and culture factor into the operational decisions made?
How did the weather factor into these events?
Would US soldiers ever be put in this position?/Would Ukrainian soldiers ever be put in this position?
How quickly can we gather accurate feedback? What knowledge would be relevant for us today and tomorrow? Can we deconflict what our allies want us to hear vs what they actually experienced? Is there OSINT or third-party information to back up claims?
Taiwan: There’s a $19 billion and counting backlog of weapons systems for Taiwan that goes back to the 2000s. Why and how that cluster occurred is not only for another blog post, is is for an entire congressional inquiry (one which I look forward to reading). So rather than try to unpack that, I want to talk about Taiwanese strategy and how that ties to acquisitions. Taiwan is a small island nation, one that cannot on its own take on the full might of the People’s Liberation Army in a conventional fight. In order to decrease the conventional disparities, disrupt and increase costs of a complex PLA amphibious invasion of the island, the focus has come down to a “strategy of asymmetric denial.” In this case, asymmetric refers to weapons systems like anti-ship missiles, mines, and loitering munitions, that are small, mobile, and/or cheap that offset big-budget or numerically/technologically superior systems like ships, tanks, and aircraft. These systems can’t win a war on their own, but they can raise the cost of victory or delay it long enough, to make the enemy reconsider or retreat. So then why is there a debate over how and what to supply to Taiwan? Well, there’s a few points of contention:
Bureaucracy: The Taiwanese military continuously over the years has prioritized shiny, status systems like those the US and China have (tanks, fighter jets, subs, etc.). While these have their place, buying more of these systems over asymmetric systems is harmful to an asymmetric defense plan. The current DPP admin in Taipei led by President Tsai has made an effort to reform the military, but as everyone knows, bureaucracies and bureaucratic culture don’t move fast.
Best Intentions: There are different types of Taiwanese advocates, particularly in the West. Most do not come from a defense planning/ops background, and as with any country, activists can be very passionate about the things they care for, sometimes to a fault. Twenty years of GWOT, and decades of European focus before that, means the actual number of capable Western Pacific military analysts is quite small. And these days anyone can be an advocate or critic with a Twitter account. Other times, there are political difference on Taiwan between the two main parties about what defense spending is appropriate, and that can transfer over into external lobbying efforts by foreigners who have money or interest in one party or another. Often times, there’s no malice here, but “my friend on Taiwan says we need this” is not the same as “my friend is a defense planner and has assessed X because of Y and we therefore we need Z.” This is by no means unique to Taiwan, it’s the curse of advocacy even when you’re cause and heart are in the right place.
Ostrich Syndrome: Not everyone agrees on the threat timeline, some would prefer not to think about it, and a dwindling few are even welcoming of the CCP. “Ostrich Syndrome” as I’ve come to call it, is not unique to Taiwan, and the CCP’s actions in recent years have pulled a lot of heads out of the sand, but there’s still some who will argue against a threat of invasion despite all evidence to the contrary. Don’t confuse one or two loud voices with the reality on the ground. Some love to exclaim “Taiwan is its own country and will not be caught between the US and China” which is a ridiculous thing to say because a) geographically it pretty much is, b) Taiwan would very much like to not be invaded and keep being a country and c) the US is not trying to invade Taiwan, China is. To argue that the US put Taiwan in this position is simply chronologically wrong. BUT, there are cases of the US (or any country) putting allies in bad spots due to rhetoric, and providing bad advice or assistance that makes things worse because we had no sense of what was actually going on. That is something we want to avoid, and enabling Taiwan’s military bureaucracy to maintain the status quo in terms of training and acquisitions would do just that.
So what does this all mean for you the advisor, policy staffer, or check writer? Well, it means you’ve got to actually think and do research. You can’t just take someone’s word for it if you want to do your job responsibly. Do you want to be this generation’s whiz kids or George Marshall? But you also aren’t an expert on every weapons system or operational capability. Or maybe you are, and your boss is an idiot that needs a lot of convincing. If you want to get to good, feel confident in our security cooperation and assistance decisions, and sell it to those around you, consider the following:
Is the requested system consistent with the US policy towards Taiwan and the National Defense Strategy? Does it provide a viable counter against a PLA big-budget system?
Can the system be easily repaired, resupplied, and deployed? Is it mobile, rapidly deployable, or concealable?
Does the request represent a capability that is available today, or in 5-10 years? Is this just vaporware with a bunch of buzzwords?
What does the supply chain look like? Could we easily supply more if tensions rose or war broke out? (a challenge within itself given PLA air and sea systems)
Has someone on the ground given a viable explanation for this system? Have they said “I have witnessed X, and in order to do Y, we need Z.” Is this request backed up by others on the ground or those who are familiar with the system?
Will the State Department reject your request? (The answer is almost always yes, skip this question)
Will this weapon system provide adequate defenses/deterrence without escalating the situation? (ie giving the Taiwanese nukes)
Is the person making the request a registered lobbyist? What’s their angle? Do they represent a think tank of ill-repute? Is it made in their home district?
Can our partners easily be trained on these systems and are they willing to incorporate them into their doctrine? (This can be the hardest, as the second advisors walk away, you have to have faith that those systems won’t be tossed by an entrenched officer or bureaucrat)
Would providing these systems potentially compromise advanced US technology that would significantly hurt us if reversed-engineered?
Some of the above questions can be easily answered, some take more time. And not all are simple “if yes/no, then do this” decisions. But regardless of the above, the most important takeaway is that you can’t provide adequate advising and assistance without eyes on the ground, a respectable voice for those eyes back to DC, accountability and oversight, and an honest conversation with your partners about the fight. The fact is that any partnership is a two-way street, and knowing when to listen and when to speak can make or break it. There are simply no absolutes. The Taiwanese know their beaches better than us and have a better grasp of the will of their people, but the US has gotten quite good and building killing machines and tactics and operations. Ukraine is quite good at killing Russians and has plenty of experience to share, but US training and assistance before the war helped get them to good.
In other words, the best way to fight with your friends is to deflate the egos, drown out the politics, and recognize comparative advantages. If you want to win, you’ll recognize that the best alliances are symbiotic.
If you would like to read more on what the consequences of losing a war for Taiwan might look like, the future of warfare, and more, you should check out my novel, EX SUPRA. And if you have any suggestions for topics, please send them my way on Twitter @Iron_Man_Actual.
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