DoD’s International Armaments Cooperation: A Unique Opportunity for Transformative Change

On December 1, the Department of Defense (DoD) will finalize its plan for reorganizing the undersecretary for acquisition, technology, and logistics (AT&L) within Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) into two new undersecretariats. As DoD has itself acknowledged, this reorganization “provides a once in a generation opportunity to improve how the Department is organized and operates.” When DoD submits its final reorganization, it should include decisive action to establish International Armaments Cooperation (IAC) on a more strategic footing so that, rather than simply being seen as a mechanism to offset procurement costs, it is empowered to contribute to global national security priorities.

IAC and Strategic Myopia

International Armaments Cooperation (IAC) refers to a suite of defense security cooperation programs involving technical and defense industrial base cooperation, including “cooperative research, development, test, and evaluation of defense technologies, systems, or equipment; joint production and follow-on support of defense articles or equipment; and procurement of foreign technology, equipment, systems or logistics support.” For example, the department oversees the coproduction of military systems or equipment by U.S. and foreign providers, such as coproduction of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which entails cooperation with eight other strategic allies. IAC also includes exchange of relevant research and technical knowledge among scientists; reciprocal exchanges of logistics support; and combined research and development projects.

The fundamental challenge of IAC is that it sits at the crossroads of DoD’s own acquisition and force development activities and its engagement with international partners to pursue national security objectives overseas. As such, it is driven by two separate considerations: on one hand, by acquisition priorities, cost considerations, and the expansion of technical knowledge to drive technological innovation; on the other hand, by opportunities to deepen partnerships, create new operational possibilities for the U.S. armed forces and potential coalition partners, and set conditions promoting success in contingencies. Though these two considerations are not mutually exclusive, the current structure and management of IAC leads one of the two—acquisition objectives—to dominate the other, neglecting opportunities to advance key national security objectives overseas.

This is not a new problem. A report two decades ago by the Defense Science Board Task Force on International Armaments Cooperation asserted that “DoD should view collaborative international programs, first and foremost, as an important means of attaining U.S. geopolitical and military objectives.” Yet, it concluded, “the U.S. has looked to cooperation as a means by which to save resources (often on lower priority systems), without an appropriate focus on clear or overriding national security objectives.” While leaders within AT&L responsible for IAC have made strides in expanding the strategic focus of these efforts since that report, a sizable chasm between acquisition objectives and national security priorities remains.

This disconnect has organizational, policy, and procedural roots. Organizationally, IAC is currently managed by a director for international cooperation that reports directly to the AT&L undersecretary. The benefit of this position is its direct line to the undersecretary, ensuring that key initiatives can obtain political backing at the highest levels. Yet, its placement in AT&L inevitably emphasizes acquisition considerations over geostrategic concerns, the latter of which are generally not the province of the AT&L community. Moreover, the office’s connections to key stakeholders in the international cooperation arena—the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the Defense Technology Security Administration, OSD Policy, and Geographic Combatant Commands—are generally informal and underdeveloped.

Organizational issues are compounded by gaps in policy. DoD has no overarching policy to govern IAC; it is mentioned only briefly in more general policy documents, such as DoD Directive 5000.01, on “The Defense Acquisition System,” and DoD Directive 5132.14, on “DoD Policies and Responsibilities Relating to Security Cooperation.” No official DoD policy establishes rules, procedures, and objectives for the conduct of IAC, and there is no official strategic guidance to establish IAC priorities. To its credit, AT&L’s Office of International Cooperation has issued an “International Cooperation in Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics (IC in AT&L) Handbook” designed to fill this gap, but it lacks the standing of more formal, department-wide issuances.

These organizational and policy issues are exacerbated by procedural concerns, which likely represent the chief impediment to a more strategic orientation for IAC. According to the IC in AT&L Handbook, exploration of opportunities for international cooperation in acquisition or production begins with acquisition program managers. It instructs, “International cooperative opportunities should be identified at the first major milestone or decision point in the defense acquisition process. The first consideration is at entry into the Materiel Solution Analysis and Technology Development Phases (including the Technology Development Strategy, Milestone A).”

In practice, this approach means that international cooperation opportunities are only considered as add-ons to planned U.S. acquisitions, rather than as potential strategic actions designed to achieve geopolitical or military operational effects. It sends the message that international cooperation opportunities ought to be oriented toward cost savings and interoperability, while helping combatant commanders shape their areas of operation to their advantage often comes only as an afterthought.

Another flaw in this approach is that it limits international cooperative development programs to U.S. programs of record. As U.S. national security strategy increasingly emphasizes working in cooperation with partners to confront shared challenges, the United States increasingly seeks to work with partners whose militaries lack the resources or sophistication to turn routinely to high-end, expensive U.S. program-of-record solutions. When we focus exclusively on U.S. programs of record in the cooperative development context, we risk losing opportunities to work with these partners on efforts that could yield strategic results by enhancing military operations, particularly in coalition settings, or achieving breakthroughs in critical relationships.

Because of these organizational, policy, and procedural challenges, the 1996 Defense Science Board Task Force’s vision of IAC “first and foremost, as an important means of attaining U.S. geopolitical and military objectives” remains distant. As the breakup of AT&L takes shape, then, creating a more strategic orientation for IAC is an imperative the department should not neglect.

Applying International Armaments Cooperation Strategically

A more strategic orientation means prioritizing IAC efforts to focus on cooperation with nations that play, or could play, key roles in working side-by-side with the United States to address shared security priorities, or to improve the operational posture of the U.S. military to more effectively carry out contingency operations, such as by expanding its options for globally distributed logistics. Let us consider two hypothetical examples of how a more strategic approach to international armaments cooperation might work in practice.

Patrol Boats in Southeast Asia. Enhancing the maritime security capacity of partners in the South China Sea, including by providing these partners with maritime patrol assets, is a key element of DoD’s Asia strategy, as witnessed by the provision of six Metal Shark patrol boats and a Hamilton-class cutter to Vietnam earlier this year. Yet, such partners often lack the capacity to operate large or sophisticated vessels and lack sufficient resources to purchase them. For example, the cutter provided to Vietnam carries a crew of 162 seamen; its operation and maintenance will present a significant challenge to a relatively young and small Vietnamese Coast Guard. A second challenge is interoperability: the four primary targets of U.S. security assistance in the South China Sea region—Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines—currently operate patrol boats of U.S., Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Soviet, Singaporean, Russian, German, Indonesian, Australian, Malaysian, and Dutch origin. Building habits of maritime collaboration among these partners is almost fatally hampered by the lack of cooperative communication, coordination, and command-and-control across these diverse platforms.

Key partners in the region like Vietnam and Indonesia already have active but unsophisticated shipbuilding industries and are eager to partner with the United States to deepen their technical foundations. A cooperative program involving the United States and one or several South China Sea regional partners, potentially including Japan and/or Australia, to produce maritime patrol boats could serve as the impetus to develop a common platform that would promote interoperability. Moreover, it would allow the development of a platform specifically tailored to the needs of regional navies and coast guards. Such platforms could be purchased by these regional actors or acquired by the United States for transfer to partners through U.S. security assistance. Such a program would thus accomplish three goals: deepening strategically important relationships, enhancing interoperability, and producing a platform tailor-made for U.S. capacity-building initiatives.

Small Arms in the Middle East. The United States actively trains and arms a range of actors in the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) region in conjunction with key security objectives, including the Iraqi Security Forces, Afghan Security Forces, Kurdish fighters, Syrian rebels, and others—all while providing support to sustain arms and materiel of members of the counter–Islamic State coalition. Arming these diverse state and nonstate actors is a logistical headache: shuttling arms around the region and, particularly, from various points outside the region to multiple recipients is a logistical nightmare that so burdens the United States’ own regional logistics assets that their availability to support the operations of the U.S. military itself could potentially be constrained.

Strategic international armaments cooperation could help solve this problem. Coproduction of small arms in tandem with a key regional partner—Lebanon or Jordan, for example—could produce a reliable source of the types of weapons in demand, a particular need given that many actors in the region eschew U.S. program-of-record weapons. It could also deepen key partnerships, as well as contribute economically to stabilizing a highly volatile area. Most importantly, it would free U.S. logistics assets from their global rounds of weapons pickup and delivery, ensuring their availability to support U.S. forces as their own operations require.

As these examples demonstrate, IAC can generate creative options to improve U.S. partnership relations, partner capabilities, and operational posture. Yet, they would never occur under the current structure: neither scenario involves a U.S. program of record, and both would require planning originating from an analysis of regional strategic objectives rather than acquisition objectives. Additionally, rather than offsetting acquisition costs, they may require allocation of U.S. security assistance funds to implement. Nevertheless, the benefits of each concept are clear, albeit measured by a different standard than acquisition cost savings. To realize such possibilities, IAC must be realigned with a more strategic orientation.

Seizing the Opportunity for Transformation

The reorientation proposed herein—and contemplated for at least the last two decades—will not happen overnight; it will require a change in culture and process that must develop over time. But it can begin with four discrete steps.

First, AT&L’s Office of the Director of International Programs should be transferred to OSD-Policy . The office should be combined with the Policy office responsible for providing policy and strategic oversight to other DoD security cooperation programs. Doing so would ensure that IAC policy and planning discussions are tightly linked to the department’s strategic policy guidance and to regional- and country-specific priorities developed by the Policy organization. Moreover, it would facilitate the integration of IAC with other security cooperation efforts, creating mutual benefits.

There are risks of such reorganization. Cutting IAC off from its close linkages to the acquisition system would be unacceptable to the department and unsustainable for IAC. While the sundering of the AT&L organization also risks disrupting some of these connections, a wholesale move to Policy could do much greater damage. Thus, maintaining these linkages (see below) must be prioritized as the office is relocated. Second, given mandates across the Pentagon to downsize, any such reorganization carries the risk that the mission could be reassigned without the people attached to it. Again, such an outcome would be unacceptable; the International Cooperation Office should only be moved with the commitment that its expert staff would move along with it.

Second, IAC planning and implementation must be integrated into the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) . As detrimental as its current lack of strategic orientation may be, any new approach that neglects the important acquisition objectives the current IAC structure effectively addresses would be a huge loss. Tight linkages to the acquisition community must be maintained. The best way to accomplish this tricky balance is to empower, and assign responsibility for, DSCA to serve as a conduit between acquisition and security cooperation stakeholders. DSCA is already deeply integrated into military service acquisition communities and manages a range of procurement activities that carefully balance U.S. needs with partner demands. IAC is a natural extension of this work; additionally, greater involvement of DSCA in IAC would deepen synergy between IAC and other security cooperation efforts.

DSCA is not the only mechanism for linking the security cooperation and acquisition communities. Other organizations, particularly the Defense Technology Security Administration (DTSA), can also perform integrative functions. Perhaps even more important are cross-functional entities established throughout the department for targeted purposes, such as the Arms Transfer Technology Release Senior Steering Group (ATTR SSG) and the Logistics Capacity-Building Advisory Group (LogCAG). These organizations bring together senior leaders from relevant OSD, military service, defense agency, and combatant command organizations to drive integration, ensure connectivity between their organizations, and troubleshoot priority challenges. Ensuring their active engagement, in support of DSCA and DTSA as day-to-day leads, to strengthen the connective tissue between the acquisition and strategy/policy communities can pay tremendous dividends.

Third, Geographic Combatant Commands (COCOMs) should build IAC planning into theater campaign plans . By policy, Geographic COCOMs serve as the primary synchronizers of all security cooperation activities in their regions; yet, IAC has long been segregated from theater campaign plans, COCOMs’ primary planning mechanism. Building IAC planning into theater campaign plans would allow creative concepts for cooperation to originate from analyses of regional strategic objectives and vulnerabilities in addition to U.S. acquisition initiatives. It would put another arrow into the quiver of the combatant commander working to shape his or her theater to the United States’ advantage.

Finally, the Pentagon must build a more robust policy structure around IAC . Major programs and processes such as IAC rarely perform to their maximum potential without clear policy and strategic guidance. An overarching policy document, nested within DoD policies on acquisition (DoDD 5000.01) and security cooperation (DoDD 5132.03), is needed to articulate the policy objectives of IAC, outline processes that equitably integrate acquisition and international cooperation objectives, and clarify roles and responsibilities for involved stakeholders. DoD strategic guidance must also address priorities for IAC, rather than leaving it at risk of ad hoc-ism and strategic drift. The first proposed step—transferring the office responsible for IAC into OSD-Policy—would help, given that it is from within OSD-Policy where strategic policy guidance most commonly emanates.

DoD is facing a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform International Armaments Cooperation efforts from primarily a cost-savings tactic to an agile and creative tool for advancing U.S. strategic national security objectives around the world. To do so, it must achieve a creative balance between the twin objectives of supporting smart, efficient acquisition and enabling pursuit of high-priority national security objectives overseas. As we increasingly depend on partners to help us confront national security challenges in the midst of a resource-constrained environment, we cannot afford to let this opportunity pass.

Tommy Ross is a senior associate with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Tommy Ross