When discussions about security force assistance brigades (SFABs) arise, the topic often focuses on issues at the user or tactical levels, such as incompatible tool sets or equipment differences. Issues like sustainment interoperability challenges through the U.S. European Command (USEUCOM) area of responsibility (AOR) are less discussed. Using experience from advising SFABs in multiple nations within the USEUCOM theater, this article aims to highlight considerations for senior sustainment leaders, such as at the sustainment brigade or division G-4 level. With proper consideration, leaders can adjust their standard operating procedures to reflect solutions to interoperability challenges when incorporating a non-U.S. unit into a U.S. operation or formation. More information on the human, procedural, and technical interoperability domains can be found in Army Regulation 34-1, Interoperability.
Although SFABs have been around since 2017, how the Army currently employs them is relatively new. Each of the five active component brigades is aligned or assigned to a combatant command. The way the units are integrated into organizations is mission dependent. The sustainment advising battalion focuses on advising, supporting, liaising, and assessing (ASLA) tasks across the sustainment and mission command warfighting functions. Through ASLA, the Army works on building or improving the capability of allies and partners, building capacity, and building and developing interoperability. Everything done is grounded in U.S. doctrine focusing on large-scale combat operations (LSCO). Each SFAB team, from the captain-led advisor team to the brigade headquarters team, covers the operating to generating levels.
Depending on the mission, each team operates independently within one organization, like a partner force battalion, or consolidates and spreads across the breadth and depth of one or multiple organizations across multiple countries, like a multinational division.
ASLA is executed along the continuum of competition, crisis, and conflict. The unit focuses on advising and assessing competition with an eye on preparing for conflict. In support roles, SFABs become relationship managers between the allied and partner forces and the U.S. forces. The other critical pieces SFABs provide the Army, reinforced in 2022 by the Chief of Staff of the Army, are access, presence, and influence. While the U.S. already has a historical presence in Europe, SFABs focus on countries that do not have a large U.S. presence, such as Romania, North Macedonia, and Georgia. The unit provides persistent presence. One of the concerns from the Army service component command perspective is rotational forces relearning the same interoperability issues. SFABs can pass on lessons learned and maintain continuity due to rotational deployments. If the operational environment deteriorates from competition to crisis or conflict, the roles shift to liaise and support. Technical interoperability is provided with the unit’s organic mission command systems or presence. Being embedded with allies and partners enables unit members to understand the gaps and shortfalls in the partner force’s capability and to rapidly identify options to close those gaps, fulfilling our support role. SFAB sustainment elements support Army shaping operations by establishing logistics partnerships, enhancing interoperability, establishing or refining host nation (HN) support agreements, and gaining access to potential critical infrastructure, which are key tasks of the SFAB. Ultimately, an SFAB is the connective tissue that understands how an ally, partner force, and the U.S. operates.
Now that the SFAB mission and operational concept are summarized, here are some interoperability challenges. The first challenge sustainment leaders should consider is the integration of non-U.S. units into a division’s task organization or addition to a sustainment brigade’s general support requirements conducted on an area basis. Under similar circumstances, this consideration applies to non-Army units, like the Navy and Marine Corps. It begins with a series of questions that allow sustainment leaders to understand the interoperability gaps between supporting and supported units.
Does the unit have a support operations section? The idea of an additional staff section that works in concert with the S-4/G-4 is generally only seen in U.S. Army operations. From the outset, leaders must identify the counterpart relationships to prevent overwhelming the supported unit with sustainment reporting requirements from multiple U.S. entities directly related to procedural and human interoperability domains.
Does the unit conduct parallel planning? At what echelon does sustainment planning occur? In U.S. Army units, it is standard procedure for subordinate and enabling units to plan in parallel with a higher-level unit rather than wait until the complete order is published (e.g., a brigade support battalion develops a concept of support even though the brigade combat team order is only in the warning order phase). This is not necessarily the case in non-U.S. units and can become a point of friction between counterparts.
Does the unit forecast requirements? What was experienced from a procedural domain standpoint was that the unit did not make general projections about an operation, a form of parallel planning. Instead, they opted to wait until the order was published and the supported units generated requirements. The unit forecasted requirements at a more micro level and used existing forecasting tools to predict consumption only once the final order was issued.
Can the unit integrate non-U.S. units (subordinate or adjacent) into sustainment reporting channels? This relates to the technical and human aspects of interoperability and is the actual format and method of reporting, whether it is a standalone spreadsheet with translated terms or a common software for virtual meetings, and the expectations for reporting. Expectations from U.S. units for what a subordinate unit briefs in a maintenance meeting may not match non-U.S. expectations. This can lead to interoperability friction in the human domain, exacerbated by problems in the technical domain due to using different software solutions to report data.
Can sustainment leaders transition terms and concepts from a U.S. format to a NATO format? Many NATO nations have brigade-sized logistics units, but U.S. leaders must understand the differences in structure, employment, and capability of these units, as it is a mistake across all three interoperability domains to see a logistics brigade icon on an organization chart and assume it is comparable to a U.S. Army sustainment brigade.
The second challenge that sustainment leaders should consider is how familiar non-U.S. units are with LSCO. More importantly, leaders must recognize if a counterpart truly understands the impact a transition to LSCO has on sustainment operations. As part of the advising mission, a live fire exercise preparation was observed, during which the medical concept of support was asked about. Surprisingly, the response was that the unit would call the local emergency services. When pressed, the unit responded that this procedure was the expectation even for LSCO. A second example involved resupply operations, with the default being to purchase fuel, supplies, etc., on the local economy. Both examples point to a lack of understanding of the LSCO operating environment, which the Army faces as well. While a nation at war can have areas completely untouched by combat, at the tactical level where fighting occurs, the normal commercial support system disappears as the power grid fails, bridges and roads are destroyed, and civilians flee. This impacts all three domains of interoperability. Regarding the human domain, leaders likely face challenges in generating the culture change for counterparts with decades-long careers without significant consideration of sustainment in LSCO.
In some cases, the culture change is hampered by the organizational culture of the non-U.S. unit, as few European countries allow for high levels of mission command among subordinate leaders. This limits junior leader authority to make decisions for designing sustainment plans, something U.S. leaders may be unfamiliar with. This connects directly to the procedural domain in that leaders may need to invest time working with counterparts to develop procedures for operations in a LSCO environment. For example, leaders may work with a counterpart’s legal office to create authorities and procedures for seizing fuel or occupying private property due to military necessity.
Lastly, leaders can assist counterparts in the technical domain by sharing insights and practices that U.S. forces use on the battlefield, such as using monetary wire transfers to allow for field ordering officers or commanders’ emergency response program payments. Additionally, leaders must clarify the support relationship expectations with non-U.S. units. Unfortunately, the U.S. definitions of command and support relationships do not match NATO definitions. This creates a support shortfall due to a misunderstanding of expectations since many of the terms are the same even though their meaning differs.
The third challenge is that U.S. forces are likely less familiar with USEUCOM operations than NATO counterparts, which means U.S. leaders immediately begin an uphill battle trying to understand the sustainment situation and available support options. This limits a leader’s ability to get past ground level interoperability issues and instead see the bigger picture. This was experienced during the unit’s initial USEUCOM advising mission, and arguably we learned as much or more from our counterparts as they learned from us. Specifically, we discovered several topics that can be useful for senior sustainment leaders to know about. Some examples are:
- Acquisition and cross-servicing agreement: An agreement between nations that allows one to provide to the other, including supplies and services, in lieu of monetary payments. For example, an HN could provide life support to U.S. forces on an HN base during an exercise in exchange for the U.S. providing fuel to the HN during a previous training exercise.
- Mission partner environment: A common computing solution that European and NATO nations connect to and share information from their own internal networks and systems.
- Logistics functional area services: A suite of logistics software tools that allows allies and partners to coordinate logistics requirements. Currently focused on managing transportation, it also has functionality for sustainment planning, deployment operations, and other aspects of logistics.
- Standardization agreement: Used within NATO for a common understanding between nations on technical or equipment-related specifications, such as the additives required to make diesel fuel into JP-8 jet fuel.
- National support element (NSE)/joint logistic support group (JLSG): These two entities go hand in hand, with the NSE being the primary support provider to a nation’s forces. For example, a U.S. Army sustainment brigade providing support to U.S. forces during a training exercise is, from the ally or partner’s view, the U.S. NSE providing support to U.S. forces. The JLSG is primarily a wartime entity and, in theory, is the handoff point between the NSEs (who get supplies and equipment forward from their own nation to the joint operations area or the transition from the communications zone to the combat zone) and the multinational effort managed by the JLSG to get those supplies and equipment forward to the end user.
In closing, many interoperability challenges across the three domains remain at the lower tactical level, such as fuel nozzle compatibility or the lack of expertise and repair parts for U.S. mechanics to work on another nation’s fleet of vehicles. However, there are additional interoperability challenges at battalion and above regarding planning, providing support, and understanding doctrinal capabilities that leaders can address by updating their planning tools and standard operating procedures. Senior sustainment leaders operating in the USEUCOM AOR can begin addressing these challenges by understanding our allies’ and partners’ differences in doctrine and practice.
Key resources for this are the available SFAB teams already operating in theater, learning the sustainment intricacies as they execute their ASLA missions. These advisors can provide both context and connection, helping fill in the whole picture of the sustainment situation in the theater.
Lt. Col. Jeremiah Hull currently serves as the commander of the 6th Sustainment Advising Battalion, 4th Security Force Assistance Brigade, at Fort Carson, Colorado. He commanded the 17th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion in Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, and has held various tactical and strategic assignments, including multiple combat deployments and an operational deployment as an advisor in Romania.
Lt. Col. Eric Shockley currently serves as the support operations officer in the 4th Infantry Division Sustainment Brigade at Fort Carson, Colorado. He previously served in the 6th Sustainment Advising Battalion, 4th Security Force Assistance Brigade in various roles and in tactical assignments from platoon to brigade level that include deployments to Iraq, Romania, and Poland.
This article was published in the Summer 2023 issue of Army Sustainment.