BANGKOK, Thailand –
Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) Soldiers wrapped up their first mission to the Indo-Pacific region Monday, despite hurdles presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
During the mission, nearly 60 Soldiers from the 5th SFAB trained alongside the Royal Thai Army on a host of weapon systems and tactics, including the ins-and-outs of Stryker brigades, said Lt. Col. David Rowland, commander of 1st Battalion, 5th SFAB, during a phone interview from Bangkok.
The mission was “a huge win for both militaries,” Rowland said, and helped maintain their partnership during an unconventional time.
In May, the 5th SFAB -- known as the Vanguard -- became the last of the six new assistance brigades to activate and is made up of more than 800 Soldiers.
Their overseas mission marked yet another chapter for the Army’s globe-trotting SFAB Soldiers. First up was the 1st SFAB, who dispatched to Afghanistan in 2018. After their deployment, another SFAB team traveled to Africa for the first time to train Senegalese troops on logistics and vehicle recovery. And earlier this summer, a 45-member task force was sent to Colombia for a counter-narcotics mission.
The previous assignments have shown “there’s a mission in this organization, especially as our partners and allies get to know our Soldiers and see they truly desire the opportunity to work with them, get to know them, and demonstrate good cultural sensitivity,” toward them, said Col. Andrew Watson, deputy commander of the 5th SFAB.
The utmost importance on the mission, Watson said, was “maintaining the health of American troops and the individuals they interact with. We demonstrated that by our example, and took every possible measure to safeguard the Thai Army and public, as well as ourselves.”
To help mitigate the deadly virus, the cadre began their mission by self-isolating twice. First at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, where the brigade is headquartered, and then again in Bangkok once they landed.
This movement reduction was a “bubble-to-bubble” troop transfer, Rowland said, and ensured nobody brought the virus to Thailand with them. Soldiers were separated from everyone outside of their battalion.
Once they arrived in Thailand, they self-isolated again, but had communication systems to prepare for their missions and interact with partners, Watson said.
“Throughout that two-week quarantine, they were monitored by the Royal Thai government and Royal Thai Army, who administered additional tests and screening,” he said.
The Soldiers were tested for COVID-19 by Thai authorities on days 1, 7, and 14 of their quarantine with all Soldiers testing negative.
Once they got the go-ahead from medical professionals, the Soldiers were off to take on the mission as planned, Watson said, but they remained solely at the training locations throughout the country and followed all U.S. and Thai safety measures
The show goes on
The Thai soldiers “knew we put ourselves through a lot of isolation to get there,” Rowland said. “They are very willing partners who want to learn from us, and we found there is a lot we can learn from each other.”
What started with workshops in a classroom, culminated in the field, with troops from both nations putting their tactics knowledge into practice, Rowland said.
The mission established and maintained a relationship built on mutual trust and respect, Watson said, adding, “this isn’t about the United States telling people they need to do things ‘the American way,’ it’s about understanding what the right way is for [our allies]. If they had questions, or wanted our opinion, we provided it.”
In other words, the Thai military identified what works for them, Watson said. “We found an overwhelming interest in examining everything from professional military education, doctrine, and tactics, to how they trained -- particularly in regards to their recent acquisition of Stryker fighting vehicles.”
The 5th SFAB is filled with Stryker experts, from training to maintaining, Watson said, who will continue rotating into the Pacific to “conduct exercises with partners and allies to help sustain [their militaries], and provide support toward our interoperability goal, especially as the Royal Thai Army continues to acquire more Strykers and expand their regiments.”
The American Soldiers helped the Royal Thai Army “understand how to use the Stryker platform on their own terrain” in four-weeks, Rowland said.
The shorter deployments were by design, Watson said. “We do not have a permanent presence but rotate in and out for shorter periods. We’re there to achieve interoperability, share how we do things, learn how they do things, have a conversation to build our relationship, and sustain access in the Pacific.”
“Our goal in this partnership with the Royal Thai Army is to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific where all nations meet as equal partners,” said Col. Curtis Taylor, commander of the 5th SFAB. “We learned as much from the great leaders in the Thai Army as they learned from us, and we hope to share our lessons learned to help make our Army better."
Moving forward, SFABs are “looking to work with those [other Pacific nations] who want to work, and the partner nation drives a lot of how these interactions are going to go,” Watson said. “In this case, the Royal Thai Army was very welcoming, very supportive, and very interested.”
Going into 2021, several other nations in the Pacific have shown interest, he said.
There are currently Soldiers from the 5th SFAB in Indonesia, Watson said. “They’re completing their quarantine, and using a similar model that was used in Thailand. They will be training with an Indonesian infantry unit for a pretty significant period.”
Even though COVID-19 has reduced the ability for larger exercises, the show has gone on for SFAB units, Watson said. “With a smaller number of Soldiers, this is a way we’ve been able to maintain that relationship” with partner allies in the Pacific -- “which is very important.”
“We also are conducting several events virtually in a distributed manner,” he said. “We have a virtual event where one of our advisory teams we'll be working with an element from the Philippines army [in September]. And we have another element that's doing a virtual planning event -- that’s a training and teach model with Indonesia as well.”
But the training is meant to help each other. Working with foreign partners has given the American troops the “ability to learn from, and garner the best practices [of our allies], and bring them back to our Army, helping us be stronger together,” Watson said.
In addition to more international experience on their resumes, SFAB Soldiers were promoted at a higher rate than other units last year, said Lt. Col. Kevin Field, the SFAB recruiting team lead, during a livestream on Facebook in May.
Shooting through the ranks isn’t the only benefit, since cash bonuses up to $53,300 have also been offered. On top of that, a $5,000 assignment incentive pay is on the table for enlisted Soldiers who join an SFAB, regardless of qualifying for a bonus or not.
For Soldiers interested in joining, the reward of being a part of an SFAB unit goes beyond the incentives, Rowland said. It’s “an opportunity to put great training into practice with a foreign partner forces, and helps Soldiers become an expert in their profession.
“By the time our Soldiers go back into the [other Army units], they will hopefully be the best person in their formation” because they will be a true expert in their field, he added.