WASHINGTON — In front of its headquarters near the Pacific Ocean, soldiers from 5th Security Force Assistance Brigade are planting palm trees.
The unit, established in 2020, has set up partnerships with six nations in U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, including Japan, Indonesia, Mongolia, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines. The 5th SFAB is headquartered at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington.
SFABs were created to build expert advising units to help partner nations fill gaps in their militaries, key to the U.S. strategy to have coalitions to counter the weight of peer adversaries such as Russia or China.
Each palm tree so far planted represents one of the countries the unit has built partnerships with. The unit plans to plant more.
“There’s one for every country, as we grow partnerships, we will plant more palm trees,” Lt. Col. Dustin Blair, 4th Battalion, 5th SFAB commander, told Army Times in an interview at the annual Association of the U.S. Army conference on Wednesday.
SFAB soldiers are seeing some of those early partnerships show their own signs of military capability growth already.
“The greatest counterweight to our growing adversary in the Indo-Pacific region is this nested group of partners and allies,” Blair said.
The unit sent advisors to Mongolia more than two years ago.
“Our (non-commissioned officers) worked directly with the sergeant major of the army of Mongolia to stand up an NCO education system,” Command Sgt. Maj. Brian Robert, 3rd Squadron, 5th SFAB, told Army Times.
SFAB soldiers worked with the Royal Thai Army for their first combined training with Strykers and an Infantry Brigade Combat Team, Lt. Col. Gerry Resmondo told Army Times.
Those Thai units now use Strykers at their own combat training centers and are working on ways to maneuver a brigade, Lt. Col. Gerry Resmondo, 3rd Squadron, 5th SFAB commander, told Army Times.
That’s not a capability they had before working with 5th SFAB, Resmondo said.
In an upcoming training event this month, Blair said that South Korea, Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand are all sending company-sized elements to participate, and another seven Asian nations are sending observers.
Much of that work is aimed at getting a steady pipeline of partner nations flowing into the Joint Pacific Multi-National Readiness Center in Hawaii, Blair said. The facility offers partner forces realistic training, evaluation and opposition.
“A lot of countries will go into training, but they’ve never had an opposing force,” Resmondo said.
The Joint Pacific Multi-National Readiness Center gives users access to five islands that help replicate some of the maritime-focused terrain they’ll face if fighting China. But it’s sometimes not an option.
The portable combat training center program began last year with groups from Army CTCs taking expedient range monitoring gear and observer-trainer-controllers to offsite locations.
SFAB soldiers trained with one such portable CTC this year in Indonesia, which has hosted Garuda Shield, formerly a bilateral training exercise with the United States.
That grew to Super Garuda Shield earlier this year with 14 nations participating in the large-scale exercise, Blair said.
While the reach of SFABs in the region is far, the unit is doing a lot of that in small teams.
Resmondo said that about 11 teams with a total of 130 soldiers are now conducting six-month rotations in the region. They have the authorized capacity to increase that to 20 teams with 272 personnel.
The entire brigade includes 820 volunteer soldiers split into 64 advising teams. Those teams deploy every 18 months for six months at a time.
Some teams may be as small as a captain and two enlisted personnel. Others might be larger, depending on the needs of the training package.
The brigade has the authorization to build partnerships with another eight nations currently.
So, there might be some more trees to plant. And some species of palm trees live more than 100 years.
Clarification: This article has been updated to accurately state the deployment cycles of the advisor teams.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.