FORT BRAGG, North Carolina (AP) — The U.S. Army is authorizing $5,000 bonuses to woo top-performing troops into a new training brigade as the service once famous for shouldering the burden of America's wars works to meet the growing demand for advisers in places ranging from Iraq and Syria to Afghanistan and Africa.
The plan recognizes the new reality of America at war: Army soldiers are more often training and building local security forces rather than doing the fighting for them on foreign soil. It replaces what has been a hodgepodge of programs over the past dozen years with projections for five new, permanent, fully-trained brigades that can be deployed around the world as professional advisers.
"It's a recognition that this is an enduring requirement for the conventional Army," Gen. Robert Abrams, head of U.S. Army Forces Command, told The Associated Press in an interview. "Most times we're falling in on existing institutions that are probably failing, and bringing them up to a certain competency level so they can secure themselves. And we've got to be able to do that on a large scale."
The new program and its signing bonuses also illustrate how the Trump administration has endorsed the Obama administration's emphasis on working "by, with and through" local forces. That policy emerged from the deadly and tumultuous years after the 2003 Iraq invasion, when as many as 160,000 American troops were on the ground battling insurgents while struggling to transform a rag-tag mix of often ethnically-opposed Iraqi troops into a functioning fighting force.
U.S. troops left Iraq in 2011. Less than three years later, the Iraqi security forces largely collapsed as Islamic State militants seized control of large swaths of territory. U.S. troops then returned to Iraq, training, advising and enabling the Iraqis to oust IS from the country.
The $5,000 bonus got final authorization on Wednesday and is expected to be available beginning in June. The Army has chosen a colonel to lead the first training brigade and he will travel to a number of military posts in the coming weeks to recruit soldiers for the unit. Joining is strictly voluntary.
Since it's a new program, Abrams acknowledged some soldiers may be reluctant to shift away from current career paths by taking a chance on something they fear may fail or lose support over time.
"There is natural apprehension in the field: 'Is this a flash in the pan?' It's not a flash in the pan," Abrams said. "The chief is committed and the Army senior leadership is committed, I'm committed. This is going to be an enduring capability."
The challenge, he said, is getting mid-grade non-commissioned officers to sign up. That's where the bonus will help.
Of the 529 soldiers in the brigade, 360 will be officers who don't qualify for the bonus. The rest will be enlisted soldiers and non-commissioned officers who can earn the extra money.
The objective is to fix some problems created by the current training programs. In Iraq and Afghanistan, chunks of combat brigades have been deployed to serve as trainers and advisers to local forces, often leaving the remainder of their units back at home. Right now, for example, portions of three brigades are in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"It separates the leaders from those they lead, and it degrades (unit) readiness significantly," Abrams said, adding that Army leaders have expressed frustrations over breaking units apart to staff the mission.
The plan calls for a military assistance training academy to be created at Fort Benning, Georgia. About 90 civilian and military staff members are being recruited. The first class will begin in October.
Members of what is being called the new Security Force Assistance Brigade will go through a training course of six-to-eight weeks. Almost 200 will receive 16 weeks of intensive language instruction. Others will get an eight-week language course.
The first brigade could be ready to deploy by the end of 2018, Abrams said, but there has been no decision on where they will go. Iraq and Afghanistan are the most likely locations, he said.
As more brigades are created, they would deploy to other areas of the world. While the Army initially conceived of one base in each geographical military command around the globe, it's more likely they'll simply be sent where most needed.
The Army will select soldiers for the second brigade in about a year. All five brigades will be created by 2022.