A New Model of U.S. Defense Cooperation


How are our European allies meant to cope with the predations of Russia, Middle East friends with the Islamic State, and Asian partners with the gray-zone challenges of China? Washington expects them to shoulder more of the burden for their own security, even as constrained defense budgets and the proliferation of high-technology erode the credibility of U.S. power projection forces.

The diffusion of power, threats, and technology demands adjustments to the way we partner with other countries to achieve common security objectives. Two days of intense and wide-ranging discussion about the implications of rising powers, hybrid threats, and disruptive technologies at Chatham House in London reinforce our view that we must widen the aperture on how the Pentagon, Foggy Bottom, and Langley contemplate defense cooperation. This applies to alliance management, partnership capacity building, and even defense acquisition. Achieving future strategic objectives will depend on our ability to refashion the way we prepare our allies and partners to deter or fight adversaries and shape the emerging world.

We call for a new model of defense cooperation because the challenges the United States and its allies face are more complex and diverse than they have ever been. From Russian aggression in Ukraine to the Islamic State and Boko Haram, to weak states and illicit trafficking, to natural disasters, climate change, and China’s contest over rules and rule-making in the East and South China Seas, the security challenges shatter familiar frameworks. Even in the United States we lack a clear consensus on our top security priorities. We need to download a new security operating system for government that makes our defense cooperation more responsive, effective, and affordable.

Our institutional machinery is failing to keep pace with a rapidly changing landscape. Governments and private industry are struggling to catch up with three characteristics of our contemporary environment: globalization, internationalization, and commercialization.

Globalization has democratized the means of war. Despite the fact that the United States spends more on defense than the next eight countries combined, more and more nations, and even some non-state actors, have been able to approach greater parity in technology that is commoditized, accessible, and dangerous. In the wake of American actions against al-Qaeda, the Predator and Reaper UAVs are widely known; however, similar drone systems are diffusing throughout the world. Some of them are armed and now their owners know exactly how to deploy them. Moreover, Stuxnet is a case study on how a wide range of state and non-state actors can exploit the cyber domain to wreak real world havoc. Governments are by no means helpless in the face of these pervasive challenges; however, those that are willing to repress citizens’ individual rights may be gaining short-term comparative advantage in their response.

Internationalization, the result of both connectivity and the diffusion of power, poses a challenge for the United States, Europe, and their traditional allies, who are all having difficulty keeping pace with emerging powers, both great and middle. Europe accounts for about 17 percent of global defense spending, but overall Western and Central European spending has fallen by 7 percent since 2008, with financial and diplomatic heft unmatched by hard power. The United States is saddled with global responsibilities and struggling to support recapitalization of major platforms, costly military operations, pricey new technologies, and personnel costs for the world’s best professional military force, especially its veterans. Ends and means are out of whack, even as the world expects the United States to fix every problem.

Commercialization means that technological innovation is being driven by the private sector more than the public sector and traditional defense industry. Defense investments created the crucial elements of today’s connectivity, including the Global Positioning System and the Internet. Giants in IT, manufacturing, and life sciences now have larger research and development programs than the Pentagon and are more advanced in diverse fields such as big data analytics, cloud computing, robotics, nanotechnology, synthetic biology, and much more. Private industry’s role in military research and development is nothing new; however, these giants are global companies with global perspectives. For some, the idea of prioritizing the national interest seems quaint, even irrelevant.

How well is defense cooperation responding to these macro trends? As everyone from Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work to author James Fallows has noted, United States defense programs are on the losing side of cost-imposing strategies and behind the decision-making cycles of our competitors and potential adversaries. Programs designed in periods of less dramatic change and with fewer, more similar partners contrast with the growing number of diverse partnerships we are forging to meet current challenges.

Defense industry is pressed in all directions. We want systems and platforms to appear instantaneously, one day to deal with one mission, another day to cope with a very different mission. Resilience in the jaws of all hazards demands being prepared for everything from conventional warfare to hybrid conflict to a wide variety of lower-level missions that take up the daily concerns of our new partners.

So how can defense cooperation adapt to broad demands amidst wholesale and rapid change? We see several steps that should be taken. Let us discuss them with respect to the Asia-Pacific region, although there are similar implications for other regions as well.

First, we must jettison self-referential mindsets and learn from our competitors. The democratization of military technology demands that we follow Deputy Secretary Work’s admonition to seize a “third offset strategy” and turn the tables and adopt offsetting asymmetrical strategies and technologies of our own–for us, and for many of our allies and emerging partners. Should China’s anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) capabilities turn into more offensive action, for example, then such actions can be neutralized at relatively low cost through comparable cost-effective systems to raise the costs of potential aggression.

Second, we need to leverage allies more effectively. We recognize that allied interests are similar but naturally not identical to those of the United States. Allies can over-promise as much as the United States, and they will be limited in how far they can (or wish to) modify existing defense spending or programs. Even so, countries such as Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the Philippines can enhance their own capacities and those of others.

Japan, walking the tightrope of doing more without upsetting regional security, keeps its defense spending around 1 percent of GDP. But Tokyo can and is leveraging existing capacity by gradually lifting politically imposed restraints on exporting hardware with military uses, enhancing intelligence sharing and space situational awareness cooperation, and increasing collective self-defense rights. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are likely to sign a forward-looking set of alliance Defense Guidelines in Washington in early May, but their roadmap will only be as good as the follow-through.

As Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott struggles to retain sufficient political support at home, he has wisely put in place a rigorous acquisition process for selecting a replacement for aging Collins class submarines. The leading prospect remains a collaborative effort involving Japanese Soryu conventional hulls, American command and control and weapon systems, and Australian integration and crews. Because submarine programs are expensive and long-term, the defense project could literally weld together an enduring trilateral security partnership among Washington, Tokyo, and Canberra. India, a growing partner of all three allies could consider taking part in this kind of major defense cooperation effort, even though we know that India will continue to forego formal alliances.

Allies can also help each other build capacity that is more challenging for the United States. For instance, Vietnam and the Philippines both need to establish better coast guards. The United Kingdom, as part of its Five Power Defense Arrangement with Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Malaysia, could assist with training, exercising, and education, as well as information sharing. Allies such as Australia and Japan could cooperate in places where the United States has more encumbrances, including Myanmar and Cambodia.

Third, we need to strengthen the capacity of new partners. The U.S.-Philippine alliance has a long history, but now a fresh incarnation. The new partnership is focused on building Philippine capacity for a minimal effective defense, especially in its long neglected naval, air, and coast guard forces. The pending Supreme Court decision in Manila is expected to uphold the Constitutional legality of the U.S.-Philippine Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement signed last year. That accord paves the way for more U.S. military forces to operate, exercise and spend long rotations at bases in the Philippines, both for capacity building and, while that process is underway, reassurance. The relationship between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Obama pivots around maritime cooperation and trade. Similarly, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and President Obama can build on the idea of a maritime awakening: with some 6,000 inhabited islands, Indonesia needs integration, infrastructure (including 24 planned new ports), and information-centric coastal and air defenses. The United States has wisely lifted the ban on some lethal arms for Vietnam, which badly needs more maritime domain awareness and A2/AD capabilities of its own. Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, and even Myanmar offer additional new possibilities.

Fourth, we can build new capabilities. Minimal effective defense in the Indo-Asia-Pacific requires some basic amphibious capability, theater antisubmarine warfare, and wider maritime domain awareness. Indeed, domain awareness could become a regional public good. Sharing real time information would enable humanitarian assistance and disaster response, assist search and rescue missions, and reduce misperceptions, while also reducing illegal fishing, tracking illicit trafficking of all kinds, and imposing reputational costs on states taking unilateral action in the South China Sea.

Finally, the United States can shift from narrow defense cooperation to wider security cooperation by using these innovations to bolster regional institutions. In Asia, the Chinese like to rail against American influence, but they fail to mention that China is the biggest foot dragger when it comes to empowering independent regional institutions to do anything. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) seeks to balance major powers outside the subregion, and it is at the center of larger, more inclusive institutions that hold out promise, including the ASEAN Regional Forum, the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus, and at the pinnacle, the East Asia Summit. Admittedly, an inability to halt China’s salami slicing in the South China Sea and bring China into a binding code of conduct erodes ASEAN’s credibility. An information regime providing a common operating picture of what is happening would clearly help.

In short, to respond to globalization, internationalization, and commercialization, our governmental institutions—and their relationship with the private sector and international actors—have no choice but to change dramatically. Our overall operating system must be more responsive, internationalized, and responsive, and yet somehow not cease to be effective, affordable, and (for those in the private sector) profitable. It must employ broad strategic thinking that focuses more on outcomes than inputs and outputs. This requires refurbishing the concept of defense cooperation—especially the kind that pushes excess defense articles but scrimps on more holistic capacity building—into a wider concept of security cooperation that takes into account global and regional challenges. In the final analysis, our defense programs must safeguard the peace, but also work toward a common vision for a more stable and free international society.


Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security and the former Director of the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. Dr. Audrey Kurth Cronin is Distinguished Professor at George Mason University’s School of Policy, Government and International Affairs and Director of the newly-established International Security Program.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery