America spends billions each year on security cooperation and assistance programs, but the results do not match the investment. To help improve efficiencies, the Center for American Progress recently proposed consolidating all these programs within the State Department.
That would be a big mistake, because it would minimize the Pentagon’s role in shaping and directing security assistance and, ultimately, the program’s military objectives would be subordinated to State Department interests, such as judicial reform and humanitarian programs. Those are not the values by which such security assistance programs should be solely judged.
Security sector assistance programs deliver arms, military training, and other defense-related services to allies and partner nation governments via grants, loans, credit, cash sales, or leasing. By definition, these programs should prioritize national security. To this end, reforms should enhance joint State and Defense authorities so programs are evaluated in terms of America’s national strategic goals.
In the existing system, State consults with Defense on its security assistance designs. Defense then implements State programs, as well as its own security cooperation programs, such as multinational military exercises and military training and advising.
The departments differ in the scope to which they apply security assistance. Defense programs target narrower national security objectives, such as the Maritime Security Initiative, launched in 2015 to expand maritime domain awareness. State’s programs, such as the Central America Regional Security Initiative, emphasize broader regional stability and humanitarian goals.
Assistance programs can be better tailored to their objectives when State shares directive authority and decision-making power with the entity most relevant to each program’s purpose. For example, when the objective is military capacity-building, the Defense Department should be an equal partner; when the goal is justice system reform, the Department of Justice should be a full partner.
Consider how the Philippines used American-sourced coast guard cutters when responding to China’s intrusions at Whitsun Reef earlier this year. Given President Biden’s emphasis on strategic competition with China, strengthening partner nations to resist Beijing’s maritime coercion should be a no-brainer. In this context, State should ensure it ties the objectives of its weapons sales program to Defense Department priorities, such as improving maritime domain awareness, by enabling the Philippines and, perhaps other countries, to increase patrols of exclusive economic zones.
Another report published this month by the Center for a New American Security rightly suggests that security assistance in the Middle East should be guided by strategy and applied narrowly to military effects. However, the report’s recommendations are limited to counterterrorism activities and a strategy of deprioritizing the Middle East in favor of the Indo-Pacific. If limiting security assistance to military purposes would make programs more effective in a region of waning emphasis, it stands to reason that this should be the formative basis for all security assistance programs, especially when strategy calls for increased investment in the security capacities of partner nations.
Reforms to security assistance should push the agencies in this direction, encouraging—or compelling—State to design its programs in closer coordination with the Pentagon and in support of Defense Department’s operational needs, such as improving military forward presence, wartime resilience and interoperability.
Congress should recognize and re-evaluate its role in these decision as well, as legislative earmarks can limit State’s directive agility and responsiveness. But even the best-laid plans cannot succeed without follow-through.
The Global Security Contingency Fund (GSCF), for example, tried to catalyze cooperation between State and Defense, but it neglected assessment processes. As a result, it fell short. This pilot program required concurrence from each department on any GSCF project and offered more flexibility in program funding. But two years after the first seven projects were announced, none had materialized. State and Defense failed to clearly define timeframes and track GSCF projects against those benchmarks, only starting to implement these standards years into the program. By 2016, execution still lagged expectations, and a frustrated Congress stopped paying for the program.
Regular evaluation that prioritizes timely, tangible measures of success directly tied to U.S. strategic interests is crucial to ensuring that programs deliver on their objectives. But as the GSCF showed, implementing assessments only after problems arise is damage control, not effective program design.
In devising reforms to ensure that U.S. funds, arms, and training are directed to viable projects that serve our national strategy, it’s critical to keep the main thing the main thing. State Department priorities for security assistance should emphasize specific national security objectives that enable better Defense Department forward presence, resilience and interoperability with our security partners.
Also critical is ongoing evaluation. Assessment processes should be implemented on the front end, not as an afterthought. Reforms must be carried out with the end in mind: security assistance for security purposes.
This piece originally appeared in Breaking Defense