In the sprawling network of foreign relations, the aspect of military assistance and cooperation is often overlooked by smaller or more regional powers. Nations that don't have such an immense defense infrastructure often tend to shy away from these overseas entanglements in favor of domestic issues. While this may be due to budgetary concerns, political shyness, or even an ongoing internal conflict, the opportunity to expand one’s national reach should never be an oversight.
These smaller nations play an important part in regional as well as global influence. Their ability to be a deciding factor, while smaller, can still be an integral part of the East-West hegemony. Be it CSTO, NATO, EU, or any other combined effort to assist and positively influence another nation or region, the smaller nations have the opportunity to fill the gaps larger nations may leave. One part of this is through unique units with special mission sets.
Two new additions to the United States Army and the British Army could prove to be excellent blueprints for a new pilot program for these smaller states. These units have the unique mission of engaging with foreign allies and their militaries by helping to train, assimilate, and bond with them for long-term cooperation. These relationships, kept warm, can pay dividends should the need arise for cooperation on the battlefield in future conflicts.
A British soldier with an unmanned ground vehicle as a part of the new Ranger unit. (Photo from Sgt Nick Johns RLC / MoD Crown)
The first of these is the American’s Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB). Founded in 2018 as a new component of the United States Army, they outlined their mission is “ to conduct training, advising, assisting, enabling and accompanying operations with allied and partner nations.” These units are seasoned members of the Army, further trained in specific advisory skills. At a total size of approximately 800 soldiers, they deploy in small contingent teams to areas each unit is assigned globally.
These teams contain a multi-functional 12-soldier team. Each member specializes in a particular field such as medical, logistics, intelligence, and explosive ordnance disposal. The skills they bring to their partner nations are invaluable to increasing their capabilities, particularly as most of these partner countries are not inherently strong enough to defend their own nation.
These “weak states” may not be able to afford a large defense force or be susceptible to corruption. Imparting these skills, modernization, and positive morals and ethics is imperative to keeping these corners of the globe under good governance. Keeping these vulnerable nations within a sphere of influence that is friendly and progressive is immeasurably valuable for any host nation.
Great Britain has also taken steps to also engage these smaller partner states. The UK’s new Ranger unit takes the concept a step further, as it is "based on four Infantry Battalions but selecting personnel from across the Army,” according to the UK Ministry of Defense. While they were only founded in December 2021, they are planning to be fully active later this year. General Sir Nick Carter, Chief of the UK Defense Staff, said the unit will be specific for use with foreign nations and specialize in "relevant culture and locality.”
Philippine soldiers stack on a doorway with a 5th Security Force Assistance Brigade advisor at Fort Magsaysay, Philippines, July 15, 2021. (Photo from U.S. Army)
These units are the leading edge in a new concept for global defense actors. A small but highly capable force specifically designed to cultivate a well-trained and motivated allied force anywhere in the world is imperative. As a smaller nation, the opportunity to join this initiative is becoming imperative.
However, small nations don’t have the expansive military forces structure the US or UK have. For them, this model shapes into a slightly different image. Despite this, there is still a place for the nation at the global table of security actors. A small contingent of veterans, further trained in cooperative efforts abroad, could allow the smaller nation to expand its geopolitical reach to something larger than it normally would have.
The structure would resemble that of the aforementioned examples. Soldiers with notable time in service and experience on overseas missions would be the primary target for selection. These veterans would be assessed in a battery of physical, psychological, linguistic, and problem-solving examinations. With a selection of suitable candidates, a company of 100-200 program volunteers would be formed for experimental review, as this number would be more workable for a small nation’s military.
Over the course of several months, this unit can be partnered with existing assistance units. The new foreign assistance unit can gain valuable experience alongside other large nation units such as the US Army’s SFAB units operating across the globe. Additionally, as this unit matures, it can also be used to expand the operational knowledge of their home nation’s military. The unit, over time, becomes a lightning rod of experience, knowledge, and innovation.
U.S. Army soldiers conduct company-level combat exercises in Vaziani with Georgian troops. (Photo from U.S. Army National Guard)
Some of the notable setbacks to this are easily identified by commanders in small nation militaries. Budgetarily, this would be an uphill battle. An already cash-strapped army would be highly apprehensive about launching a new pet program, and ultimately having to go before Parliament or similar body to pitch such an endeavor. Even if the funder were awarded, it's unlikely to be in any significant amount so as to allow the full range of motion for the new unit.
Another roadblock would likely be culture. Many small nations have an adverse reaction to rocking the proverbial boat, and this extends to the military. Not only would senior officers potentially scoff at the idea of such a specialized unit, but it may become a “dumping ground” for soldiers unfit for regular service. This would scuttle the very project from the start, as more officers would see the new unit as a death sentence to any career progression opportunity.
While it may seem daunting, the benefits of a well-supported and organized unit can launch a small nation into new geopolitical heights. Additionally, they allow their own forces the expertise they might not get due to a rather stagnant deployment schedule. As these smaller nations vie for more attention and opportunities from larger nation resources, one excellent method is to become an invaluable asset in the global influence chessboard.
Cover image credit: U.S. Army National Guard photo by Spc. Hannah Tarkelly, 382nd Public Affairs Detachment/ 1st ABCT, 1st CD/Released.