Senior leaders from six states gathered at the nation’s largest military installation earlier this year to welcome the newest Army National Guard brigade into the force.
For the past 18 months, Army Guard leaders in Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Texas had offered up some of their most promising leaders and most experienced soldiers to build the unit.
Army leaders, including Gen. Michael Garrett, the commander of U.S. Army Forces Command, thanked them for those efforts. Then he said it wasn’t enough.
The 54th Security Force Assistance Brigade is headquartered in Indiana and currently comprised primarily of soldiers from the six states with battalion headquarters. But if the unit is to succeed, it will require support from all 54 states, territories and the District of Columbia, officials said.
The “54” in the unit name will remind leaders of that, Garrett said. It is the only one of its kind outside the active component.
“It will take the entire National Guard to outfit this organization,” he said during the unit’s activation ceremony.
SFABs are the brainchild of Gen. Mark Milley, the Army chief of staff from 2015 to 2019 who is now the chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff. He started creating them in 2017. The new, specialized units are designed to train, advise, assist and fight alongside the forces of U.S. allies around the world. The first brigades have already seen action in Afghanistan.
We will ask more of our citizen-soldiers than most units do.
—Col. Jeffrey Hackett, the commander of the 54th Security Force Assistance Brigade
While the units are new, their mission is not. Many combat brigades, including some from the Guard, deployed in an advisor role to Iraq or Afghanistan over the past two decades. SFABs are meant to reduce the need for brigade combat teams to perform the mission in the future, freeing them up to focus on large-scale ground combat.
The 54th SFAB is one of six SFABs standing up. It was the fourth to be officially activated, following active-component units based at Fort Benning, Georgia; Fort Bragg, North Carolina; and Fort Hood, Texas. The Army has since activated brigades in Fort Carson, Colorado; and Joint Base Lewis McChord, Washington.
As of March, nearly half of the brigade’s personnel strength was in place, with 472 soldiers in the ranks. The unit’s first soldier — and first commander — Col. Jeffrey Hackett said the unit was on pace to be at 100% before its first Joint Readiness Training Center rotation at Fort Polk, Louisiana, in 2021.
That training rotation will be the culminating exercise before the brigade’s first mass deployment. When and where that will be is still uncertain, but Garrett promised the nation’s need for the unit would not wane between now and then.
“We are not going to wait to employ you,” he said.
The unit’s unique requirements and demanding operational tempo is already being felt.
Soldiers who join the SFAB must meet higher standards of physical fitness and pass a rigorous assessment and selection process alongside active troops at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Those who pass the test then face upwards of six months of advanced training focused on the advising mission, medical skills, foreign weapons and survival skills.
Like their active counterparts, the 54th is filling its ranks with experienced soldiers. Leaders must have served in a comparable role in a previous unit. And officials are seeking soldiers who have demonstrated the ability to lead, adapt and operate in difficult conditions.
“We will ask more of our citizen-soldiers than most units do,” Hackett said. “There’s no doubt each state has chosen the best to lead its formation.”
The 54th continues to fill its ranks. The March ceremony, however, officially marked the start of the unit’s history, according to Brig. Gen. Mark Landes, the commander of Security Force Assistance Command, the one-star organization that oversees the six SFABs.
“The advising mission requires units with soldiers who are experienced, well-trained and mature,” he said. “Its soldiers are dedicated to becoming experts in their field.”
Landes said Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa, South America and the Pacific will all have a need for advisors.
Leaders of the 54th SFAB said their soldiers are uniquely suited for such missions.
Guard soldiers are typically older and more experienced than active-component counterparts of the same rank, they note. And offer more varied skills and experiences.
Many members of the unit also have experience working with foreign allies through the State Partnership Program. They also have civilian-acquired skills that Hackett said will be unique assets for the Army’s advisor efforts.
“They work two jobs. One that pays the bills and the other that allows them to serve this nation,” he said. “We have DEA agents, school teachers and principals, EMTs, firemen, doctors, lawyers, carpenters and politicians. And my favorite one is we even have a dolphin trainer.”
Garrett noted that the Army has treated advising as a peripheral task in the past, assigning the mission to ad hoc units and pulling apart brigade combat teams.
In reality, the mission is central to the National Defense Strategy and the Army’s larger mission, he said. And now, the Guard will be central to those efforts, just as it has been for the past two decades in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Like other SFABs, the 54th includes six battalions. Two are infantry, one cavalry, one artillery, one engineer and one sustainment. Each battalion will be comprised of numerous 12-person advisor teams. Deployments could involve one or several teams.
While the core of the units are built by the six states, Hackett said Guardsmen have joined the unit from across the nation and as far away as the Kingdom of Jordan in the Middle East.
The activation ceremony, he said, will make the unit — and its unique mission — more visible and aid in recruiting the rest of the brigade.
Hackett and Bishop said they are looking for soldiers who are willing to devote more time to training and are able to deploy regularly.
“We really want soldiers who want to challenge themselves,” Bishop said. “Soldiers who want to make units better, make allies better, make their country better.”
The author can be reached at 202-408-5885 or [email protected].
The 54th Security Force Assistance Brigade is one of six new Army SFABs designed to provide combat advisors to allied foreign military forces around the globe.
The unit’s soldiers wear brown berets and the new Advisor Tab to mark their unique mission and must pass a rigorous selection and assessment process.
●Brigade Headquarters — Indianapolis, Indiana
●1st Battalion (Infantry) — Fort Benning, Georgia
●2nd Battalion (Infantry) — Pinellas Park, Florida
●3rd Battalion (Cavalry) — Gainesville, Florida
●4th Battalion (Field Artillery) — Dallas, Texas
●5th Battalion (Engineer) — Columbus, Ohio
●6th Battalion (Sustainment) — Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois
Source: National Guard Bureau