Reforming Security Cooperation for the 21st Century

What the FY17 NDAA Draft Bill Gets Right, and the Challenges Ahead

The Fiscal Year 2017 draft Senate and House bills of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) have garnered considerable attention for their tackling of national security organizational and defense acquisition reform. A less visible but highly impactful provision in the Senate draft NDAA bill takes a historic leap forward in reforming the Department of Defense’s security cooperation enterprise. The United States provides security cooperation to international partners as a means to achieve its foreign policy and supporting defense objectives in 148 countries globally. The proposed NDAA reforms endeavor to make security cooperation nimbler, forge stronger connections to broader U.S. foreign policy objectives, enhance accountability via monitoring and evaluation, and professionalize the security cooperation workforce.

The complexity of global challenges ranging from China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea to transnational terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and cyber threats will require the United States to work with allies and partners to achieve common security objectives. In support of this approach, partners will require assistance from the United States in building the capacity and capabilities of their security forces and in improving interoperability with U.S. forces. Through these relationships, U.S. forces gain peacetime access to key locations globally, some of which may be valuable in a contingency. Security cooperation also aims to deepen political and military relationships that can advance the U.S. foreign policy agenda. Security cooperation can take the form of U.S. forces providing training and equipment, military exercises and exchanges, institution building, advising, and planning to allies and partners.

The Senate draft bill proposes to reform the security cooperation enterprise in four areas. First, it aims to clarify and streamline security cooperation authorities and funding pots, particularly in the area of training and equipping partner militaries, which proliferated after September 11, 2001. Currently, the Department of Defense (DoD) has 123 Title 10 authorities related to security cooperation, hindering the speed and efficiency of defense planners and policymakers attempting to determine which authority they should use to address a given partner requirement. Parochial interests in DoD may resist the collapse of individual funding or authority pots that give them leverage in interagency decisionmaking. In addition, the administration has raised concerns that streamlining authorities and funding must not undermine DoD’s current security cooperation or force readiness efforts or the Department of State’s lead role in foreign policy. Yet, with careful analysis, simplifying these authority and funding streams will reduce planning and execution time, enabling the United States to be more responsive and address critical needs.

Second, the draft bill calls for tighter coordination between DoD and the Department of State (DoS) on security cooperation activities. Currently, although DoD and DoS coordinate in many areas of planning and execution of security cooperation, it is not always consistent. This provision rightly recognizes that security cooperation is a tool of U.S. foreign policy and requires DoD to obtain concurrence and coordination with DoS on these activities to ensure that security cooperation links clearly to foreign policy objectives. The outcomes and second-order effects of security cooperation cannot be easily separated from policy or politics, because they influence the partner country’s monopoly on the use of violence and thus its cohesion as a state. Enhanced coordination could compel both agencies to wrestle with tensions that may arise between U.S. security and governance and human rights objectives abroad, which in theory should happen within both departments already. Requiring coordination and concurrence on security cooperation activities between DoD and DoS may elevate these tensions, perhaps making them more intractable, but it could also actually prompt a more open dialogue about the tensions in U.S. foreign policy and a better way to navigate them.

That said, it is also possible this requirement may actually create more DoD oversight and control over DoS-sponsored security assistance, as DoD, the better-funded partner, inherently has more influence at the interagency table than DoS. Moreover, with some security assistance activities (e.g., military exchanges and exercises), previously defined as activities overseen by DoS, now being categorized as “security cooperation,” DoD may be in a position to implement these activities outside the bounds of interagency guidance.

Third, the draft bill proposes to improve monitoring and evaluation of security cooperation activities. Today, although DoD and DoS implement end-use monitoring requirements on specific equipment, both departments lack a system to determine the overall return on investment for security cooperation. Such a system will increase accountability and transparency of security cooperation activities, will likely compel DoD and DoS to select partners for targeted investments, and will encourage both agencies to collect lessons learned to adjust course. Monitoring and evaluation criteria should include not only tactical and operational metrics but also strategic effects that may be measured best over the long term. Planning, managing, and executing an effective monitoring and evaluation system is vital but may require new talent and skills among the security cooperation workforce when there are parallel budgetary pressures to reduce staff.

Finally, the draft NDAA provision seeks to increase professionalism of the security cooperation workforce. The U.S. military is one of the premiere professional organizations in the world. However, the services do not prioritize security cooperation as a career track, as they do for operational and war-fighting careers. Given the responsibility placed on service members to perform security cooperation on behalf of the United States, the services should require more rigorous standards for training, expertise, and capacity than currently exists. Creating pathways and incentives for careers that include security cooperation experience will help. Government civilians likewise need enhanced training and certification to ensure rigorous security cooperation policy oversight, evaluation, and execution. Institutional barriers in the services and the civilian bureaucracy may impede these reforms, but the current enterprise leaves DoD personnel ill-equipped to manage the challenges of planning and implementing security cooperation.

At a time when political acrimony is growing about the value of working with allies and partners in securing U.S. objectives abroad, shoring up how the United States conducts security cooperation and ensuring that the return on investment is clear will become increasingly important. Improving the efficiency, oversight, and professionalism of the security cooperation enterprise will help prove to Americans that these investments are worth the price.

Melissa G. Dalton is a senior fellow and chief of staff in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

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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Melissa Dalton