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The gear SFABs need for a diverse set of missions presents new challenges

As the Army fills out and deploys its six Security Force Assistance Brigades across the globe, leaders are looking for solutions to the disparate and austere environments these units will face.

Three basic problems these units face are how to see and move in the terrain, power their equipment and heal their soldiers.

They’re finding that there is no one-size-fits-all answer to how to operate a spread out brigade of 816 soldiers in 64 advisor teams across regions, These environments include desert, tropical moderate and arctic climes, with available support ranging from the deeply embedded infrastructure of Europe to the austere and challenging terrain in Africa.

Lt. Col. Melvin Jackson, director of the Army’s SFAB capabilities management, shared a few of the brigades’ needs with attendees at the Maneuver Capabilities Development and Integration Directorate’s annual industry days out of the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Georgia, on April 7.

In late January, the Army officially approved including the SFABs in their modernization strategy. That means they’ll get filled out with gear and technology just as units such as Armored Brigade Combat Teams, Stryker BCTs and Infantry BCTs.

While SFABs could be involved in crisis and combat, they will spend much of their time in competitive environments, working with allies and partners, training them to be ready to confront threats such as Russia, China and Iran.

That means that those brigades will often have to rely on varying levels of support from those partners or simply have to provide for themselves without the benefit of major combat logistics chains that ABCTs, SBCTs and IBCTs would use for large-scale operations, during war.

All of the newest gear — Next Generation Squad Weapon, Integrated Visual Augmentation System, Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, Robotic Combat Vehicle, Enhanced Night Vision Goggle-Binocular, Squad Multipurpose Equipment Transport, and both long- and short-range reconnaissance drones — will flow to the SFABs.

But even with all of those items, some gaps remain.

Such as with tactical mobility.

Jackson said that though the brigades will get the JLTV, SMET and others, no single platform has all of the desired capabilities the SFAB task forces need. And simply by their configuration — SFABs are broken down into roughly 64 teams of four to 12 soldiers — they must have a very light footprint yet be self-sustaining.

Even the Army’s new Infantry Squad Vehicle, a nine-seat, stripped down off-road vehicle, isn’t much use. That’s because SFAB managers are looking for some armor protection, a communications suite, windshield and crew-served weapons ring, according to the presentation.

“I don’t believe there is one vehicle that meets all the requirements, or one that will meet all of the SFAB requirements,” said SFAB capabilities team member Maj. Ryan Mabry. “Going to be a variety of vehicles needed for advisor teams, based on where they’re going, the threat they encounter and … their mission set.”

The six SFABs are regionally aligned with each of the geographic Combatant Commands, such as U.S. Central Command or U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. Each of those areas have their own set of operational challenges and threats.

Leaders with the 5th SFAB, out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, which is aligned with INDOPACOM, told Army Times in March that they plan to keep at least a third of their estimated 820 soldiers spread across the region at all times.

Each adviser team will deploy in the region for six months at a time.

In some scenarios that will mean a few weeks here, a few weeks there. In more heated areas and times, it could mean months-long missions in very austere conditions.

Capabilities developers such as Jackson and Mabry say that will mean simple things such as water purification will have to be considered when sending out those teams.

SFAB task forces “do not have the organic means to cook food, purify water or take showers in austere environments,” according to the presentation.

Mabry said that while current solutions out there can purify a lot of water, the types of purifiers that could regularly produce enough water for all of the needs of 12-soldier teams are just too heavy.

“The problem is weight …,” Mabry said. “We cannot get this thing light enough.”

Small SFAB teams will need to produce and manage their own power to run a myriad of communications and sensing systems. Right now, they’re relying on battalion-level assets such as towed generators that are bulky and unwieldy and require additional mechanical support.

What they want, according to the presentation, are flexible, fuel-capable, soldier transportable generators that could also be dropped from the air.

Almost as important as generating power will be managing it. Planners want teams to be able to get power from anywhere, the sun, wind, a car battery, plugging into generators.

But they only want to be generating it when needed, not constantly running loud, gas machines at all hours creating noise in the battlespace.

Such small teams will have fewer support soldiers to keep them plugged into the wider area. That’s why they’re also looking to find ways to tie in as much video feed from as many cameras and sensors as they can on a very small amount of hardware.

They can’t rely on higher headquarters to do all of the processing and feed them a picture of what’s going on when the team is far from its own support.

Soldier health presents its own set of problems. SFAB units could be in very remote parts of the world, and a combat medic must have the training and equipment to run everything from daily sick call to sustaining a casualty for up to 72 hours.

That’s because, with a standard BCT, medical sustainment is concentrated at a higher echelon beyond the medic. But with a small team hundreds or more miles away from main Army support, they need those more complicated capabilities in a mobile package at the lowest level.

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