Retooling U.S. Security Sector Assistance

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One of America’s most important foreign policy tools is not fit for purpose. U.S. security sector assistance — the means by which the United States strengthens alliances and partners — is stuck in the past. Crucially, it is out of sync with U.S. priorities when it comes to where resources are needed most and the types of capabilities required by America’s allied and partners.

Despite widespread agreement on the need to prioritize strategic competition with Russia and China, the United States still directs a disproportionate amount of assistance toward the Middle East. An emphasis on counter-terrorism since 9/11 has also contributed to an emphasis on building the wrong capabilities. The United States is not equipping allies and partners with the capabilities they need to deal with competitors who are adopting increasingly sophisticated strategies in the areas of cyber security, strategic communications, and illicit commercial activity. Moreover, the mechanisms needed to integrate security sector competition with other instruments of national power, including diplomacy, military operations, strategic communications, and other foreign assistance, are underdeveloped at best. These shortcomings hinder U.S. allies and partners, in turn leaving them vulnerable to Chinese and Russian influence.



Assistance could and should be a critical tool for deterring competitors and enabling, influencing, and reassuring frontline allies and partners. Making it so will require the United States to change how it envisions, prioritizes, plans, and executes security sector assistance, and that it become more adept at using assistance for signaling purposes. This in turn will necessitate that the executive and legislative branches work together to expand the resources for security assistance or to slay the sacred cows that account for the misuse of the resources currently available. In taking these steps, the U.S. government should ensure that assistance is delivered in a way that reinforces, rather than neglects, its fundamental commitment to democracy and human rights, for ignoring these values cedes valuable ground to America’s competitors. 

Signs of a Gradual Shift

The United States provides security sector assistance to foreign civilian and military forces, agencies, and institutions ranging from local law enforcement and judicial systems to standing militaries. This assistance is intended to strengthen U.S. access to key territories and facilities, shape partners’ national security decision-making and governance, and build their capacity and capabilities for use against shared threats and adversaries. It also promotes the U.S. defense industry via arms transfers, supports the infrastructure and operations of multilateral organizations such as NATO, and increases military interoperability. The State Department implements assistance across the entire security sector, including organizations responsible for defense, law enforcement, and security of key assets like ports and borders. The Department of Defense has a narrower mandate, and provides assistance to partner militaries under the umbrella of security cooperation. The Pentagon also engages in a range of other activities — combined exercises, staff talks, port visits, and officer exchanges — that fall under security cooperation as well. We use the term security sector assistance for simplicity, and distinguish where these additional security cooperation activities are relevant. The U.S. government does not typically define Foreign Military Sales as assistance, but we believe it should, and that it ought to factor Direct Commercial Sales into its assistance planning as well. Both types of sales can lead to sustained U.S. engagement with a partner in the form of training, maintenance, and sustainment for the purchased items.

Over the last several years, the national security enterprise has, with a great many fits and starts, endeavored to shift its broader focus — from weapons systems to diplomacy — away from counter-terrorism and toward strategic competition with state actors. As part of this shift, policymakers have attempted to realign security assistance to contribute more directly to strategic competition, primarily by creating new resources for security assistance in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. The European Deterrence Initiative, launched in 2014, has allocated around $6 billion annually to enhance America’s deterrent posture vis-à-vis Russia. It has been supplemented by the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, authorized by Congress in Fiscal Year 2016 to provide $250 million in security assistance to bolster Ukraine’s security. Congress also created the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative in 2014, later re-designated as the Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Initiative, and funded it as a five-year, $425 million security assistance effort, which it has since extended through FY2025. This program is intended to improve the ability of Southeast and East Asian nations to address growing Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea. In the FY2021 defense bill currently being finalized, Congress is set to authorize a Pacific Deterrence Initiative, modeled on the European Deterrence Initiative, with as much as $6 billion annually to improve U.S. posture in the Asia-Pacific region, reportedly with a significant security assistance component.

These efforts have been laudable, but far from sufficient. The European Deterrence Initiative has largely been used to shift enduring costs for U.S. military presence in Europe into the Overseas Contingency Operations portion of the defense budget. It has also dedicated the vast majority of funds to posture and equipment pre-positioning, with little attention to security assistance beyond combined exercises — a significant missed opportunity. The Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative has been managed insularly by the U.S. Europe Command, which has bypassed synchronization with other Defense Department and U.S. government stakeholders, leading to a focus on the provision of “training and equipment at the expense of developing a long-term strategic vision and implementation of meaningful defense reform.” In the Asia-Pacific, the Maritime Security Initiative has shown promise, but its relatively limited funding has failed to significantly contribute to a rebalance of assistance toward the region, and it has largely funded projects with little deterrent value. Incoming U.S. Indo-Pacific Commander Adm. Philip Davidson declared, “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.” Moreover, none of these initiatives have prioritized partner security sector governance — a vital element of any strategy that seeks to shape the behavior of U.S. allies and partners. As Congress considers the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, it is essential that these mistakes — failure to integrate security assistance with other instruments of national power, overemphasis on posture at the expense of cooperation, and too little ambition for assistance initiatives — are not repeated. Even avoiding them, however, will go only so far in terms of optimizing security sector assistance for the challenges ahead. The U.S. government should also address broader challenges with the way security sector assistance is prioritized and executed. 

Still an Outmoded Instrument

To increase the effectiveness of security sector assistance for strategic competition, the United States should address deficiencies related to where and how it uses this assistance. Currently, assistance is focused on the wrong countries and being used to build the wrong capabilities. Assistance remains over-directed toward countries in the Middle East, Africa, and South and Central Asia, rather than to those in Europe and Southeast Asia where the main competition with Russia and China occurs. There are several reasons for this disparity.

First, annual commitments to Israel and Egypt — totaling $3.3 billion and $1.3 billion, respectively — eat up a large portion of the Foreign Military Financing budget. The origins of U.S. munificence to both countries is linked to the “payoff for peace,” that is, the U.S. commitment to Israel and Egypt after they signed the 1979 Camp David Accords. Distinct from the Foreign Military Sales program, through which the State Department brokers purchases of U.S.-made defense articles and defense services by foreign partners, the Foreign Military Financing program provides grants and loans to help partners, generally lower-income countries, purchase those articles and services. It is intended to be the premier program for building the capabilities of frontline allies and partners. Given its purpose, one would think that the United States would be steering more Foreign Military Financing toward Europe and Asia.

Second, the 9/11 attacks brought new requirements: promoting counter-terrorism cooperation and rapidly building the capacity of local part­ner forces, especially the creation or enhancement of tactical units, to address “urgent and emergent threats.” This naturally led to a focus on countries where terrorists operated or might take root, which reinforced the geographic focus on the Middle East, and expanded it to include countries in Central and South Asia. This focus was especially marked at the Defense Department. The amount of assistance it administers climbed significantly since 9/11, and totaled just over $7.5 billion in the FY2021 budget request. Approximately $6.5 billion comes from contingency funds for capacity building in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other conflict zones. Supporting these conflicts created additional security assistance cost centers among partners that played critical roles supporting counter-terrorism operations and U.S. logistics footprints. For example, Pakistan received over $23 billion in security assistance and military reimbursements as a result of its importance to the United States as a counter-terrorism partner after 9/11. Jordan has also experienced a marked increase in assistance over the same period, receiving close to $10 billion.

Overall, the United States spends about $20 billion annually on security sector assistance, of which only approximately 8 percent is allotted to Europe, East Asia, and the Pacific, according to Security Assistance Monitor. Addressing this imbalance will require the departments of State and Defense to reprioritize their budget requests, and Congress to cease earmarking security sector assistance dollars based on outmoded objectives.

The overriding focus on counter-terrorism in U.S. security sector assistance programs and national security strategy more broadly over the past two decades has not only contributed to its orientation toward the Middle East, Africa, and South and Central Asia. It also compounded challenges related to how the United States uses assistance, specifically America’s emphasis on countering urgent threats and on capacity building for counter-terrorism or special operations units. Where the State Department provides assistance to civilian security sector forces and institutions in other countries, it overemphasizes building tactical capabilities for law enforcement (that is, training small operational units on narrow capabilities like interdicting narcotraffickers or conducting counterterrorism raids) at the expense of the administrative capacity and professionalism of these forces and institutions. Defense Department assistance has similarly focused on building the tactical capabilities of partner militaries. Such tactical assistance — which often includes status-signaling weapons systems and resources to supplement partner personnel training budgets — is often prioritized by partners as well, particularly in the absence of effective U.S. messaging on the importance of broader reforms.

The U.S. emphasis on counter-terrorism led to a buildup of Special Operations Command and the services’ special operations forces components as well, and a commensurate focus on building the capacity of their special operations counterparts in other countries. Although the services dispense assistance, they don’t invest much in terms of the planning necessary to tie the execution of this assistance to either specific objectives or longer-term engagements. Other than the Army’s Security Force Assistance Brigades, the services don’t organize for the security sector assistance mission. Even in the Asia-Pacific, the main focus of assistance prior to the Maritime Security Initiative was the special operations forces capacity-building mission in the Philippines. This focus on special operations force has left the services, and U.S. partners’ conventional forces, out of the equation in many places. Iraq and Afghanistan are a notable exception, but even in these countries the United States has focused on building specific types of military units with a heavy emphasis on partner special operations capacity.

While the United States has directed security sector assistance toward the Middle East and South and Central Asia, and focused more on building partners’ tactical capacity for counter-terrorism, Russia and China are using aggressive military pressure to coerce neighbors and compete in new domains, such as cyber and space. They are also using instruments of statecraft outside the traditional security arena, such as economic pressure, lawfare, and even technical standards-setting. For example, China has used commercially flagged fishing vessels to perform militia-like functions in support of its activities around South China Sea features. Russia has used its cyber capabilities to disrupt critical infrastructure, interfere in elections, undermine political leaders, and spread disinformation throughout NATO-aligned Eastern Europe. The United States has failed to keep pace — either on its own in terms of its use of all instruments of national power, or in terms of the security assistance it provides partners to enhance their capabilities to mount effective responses and build resilience.

Optimizing Security Sector Assistance 

If security assistance is to be an effective tool in strategic competition, then the U.S. government needs to step up its game. Washington should develop a sophisticated, integrated planning process at the State Department and Department of Defense for security assistance; significantly increase the Foreign Military Financing budget, or redirect spending from the Middle East and North Africa to Asia and Eastern Europe; use security assistance to convey strategic messages to both rivals and partners; and feature human rights considerations more prominently when engaging in arms sales. This would require the United States to address underlying deficiencies in planning, prioritization, and execution in ways that account for the unique challenges that Russian and Chinese approaches to competition bring: the use of disinformation, private security contractors, cyber tools, and civilian and commercial actors such as commercial fishing fleets. This is not to suggest that Washington should look to security sector assistance as the solution to all of its national security challenges — far from it. Rather, assistance should be better integrated with other instruments of national power. The following recommendations are intended to close the gap between where the United States currently is regarding its use of security sector assistance and where it needs to be to compete effectively. Some of these recommendations are focused more squarely on China and Russia, whereas others relate to broader reforms to the security sector assistance enterprise.

First, it is essential to create coordinated, department-wide planning processes at the departments of State and Defense. The U.S. government is hamstrung by inefficient and incoherent planning and coordination processes that do not allocate assistance based on U.S. foreign policy priorities, country prioritization, availability of resources, and regional and country-specific assumptions. Congressional earmarks make prioritization more difficult, but getting rid of them won’t solve the problem. Policymakers should recognize the fundamentally interdisciplinary nature of many aspects of strategic competition and begin to break down stovepipes both within and between key agencies involved in the planning and execution of security assistance. Interagency coordination should move beyond mere deconfliction and concurrence toward a truly collaborative real-time planning and response. Lack of coordination also exists within departments, which should reform their assistance planning processes. Of equal importance, security sector assistance planning and prioritization should account for the fact that China and Russia are mounting sustained challenges to governance and rule of law at the regional, national, and multinational levels. Advancing governance and rule of law therefore should be a key aim of assistance.

The State Department has a wider mandate for security assistance, encompassing both military aid and assistance for civilians. It is also supposed to use security assistance to advance broader, more long-term objectives like trade and investment, efforts to help allies and partners develop an innovation base, and major diplomatic initiatives. To fulfill this mission, the State Department should develop a planning process that elevates common interagency objectives for assistance, deconflicts competing objectives where necessary, identifies security assistance resources projected to be available for the period of time necessary to achieve such objectives, and recommends the allocation of assistance based on U.S. foreign policy priorities. Those priorities should be derived from the next administration’s national security strategy and informed by the availability of resources, and regional and country-specific assumptions. State also needs to create a framework to guide the use of assistance as dictated by the above planning process in alignment with other instruments of national power, and a framework for factoring in how arms sales — both Foreign Military Sales and Direct Commercial Sales — might affect U.S. security assistance planning and broader U.S. foreign policy objectives. Last year, the House of Representatives passed a State Authorization Act that required these and other reforms, but it has languished in the Senate since then.

Defense Department assistance should focus narrowly on four inherently military objectives: supporting State Department-coordinated efforts to build long-term capacity so that an ally or partner can manage its own security challenges; achieving a fundamental improvement in U.S. posture to prevail (including via coalitions) in a potential contingency, for example by assisting a partner to build a deep-water port or develop the capability to contribute in a specific role to potential coalition operations; generating short-term capacity when deemed necessary to achieve strategic objectives or improving interoperability for a specific goal; and responding to real-time developments, such as deterrent signaling, personnel recovery, or humanitarian response. Defense Department planners should be required to identify the objective(s) they’re serving and justify their plans on that basis. They also should be conducting a rigorous analysis to identify gaps in Pentagon plans for contingency scenarios involving near-peer competitors or other real-time developments that could impact U.S. interests, and basing priorities for security assistance on those gaps. Stronger links between contingency planning and security cooperation will help focus Defense Department security assistance and advance strategic competition.

Second, a more sophisticated and coordinated planning process should lead the United States to redirect security assistance to U.S. allies and partners in Asia and Eastern Europe, and expand the nature of assistance provided. The U.S. government has begun shifting some assistance, such as Section 333 capacity building administered by the Pentagon, away from U.S. Central Command countries to countries in the U.S. European Command and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command regions. The State and Defense departments need to accelerate this shift to compete more effectively with Russia and China. The United States should be using Foreign Military Financing, as well as Maritime Security Initiative funding and other programs, to help regional states in Asia develop anti-access/area denial systems to challenge Chinese power-projection operations. The departments of State, Defense, and Homeland Security should also be coordinating to increase support for U.S. Coast Guard cooperation with allies and partners to challenge China’s white hull strategy.

Realizing a significant reallocation of security assistance in support of strategic competition will require increasing the overall budget for Foreign Military Financing. These budgets have declined from a peak of $9.4 billion in FY2015 to the current year’s $7.5 billion, while the importance placed on security cooperation with allies and partners and the variety of threats they face have increased. The amount of such an increase will depend on the needs of key allies and partners, and whether Congress is willing to reduce Foreign Military Financing to Israel and Egypt, which in some years accounts for nearly two-thirds of the program’s budget. Unquestionably, the State Department can improve its prioritization of the remaining amount, which is spread across more than 100 partners globally, but those limited resources go only so far.

In our experience, selling Congress on an injection of resources or on reductions to Israel and Egypt will require considerable effort. The State Department would need not only to provide a compelling strategy for how resources that can be freed up by reducing commitments to Israel and Egypt will be used to improve America’s national security posture. It also will need to provide a convincing assessment that such reductions will not infringe on Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region or lead to a breakdown in the peace treaties between Israel and Egypt. We believe these crucial U.S. interests — Israel’s security and regional stability — can be maintained at lower aid levels. However, we are also realistic about the political challenges that make such a shift so difficult regardless of what any policy analysis suggests. For this reason, although we typically would recommend starting with a reallocation of existing resources before increasing the overall budget, in this instance we recognize that directing more money to the problem might be the least-worst option. A compelling case can be made for new resources and authorities to expand the types of aid provided under Foreign Military Financing — including to address the gaps identified above, such as cyber security and law enforcement. The argument will be strongest if it is articulated within broader strategies for competing with China and Russia.

In addition to Foreign Military Financing, there are a mix of other programs the United States could use to increase the capacity and capabilities of key Eastern European NATO allies. As Max Bergmann observed on these pages a few years ago, Congress is likely to be unwilling to provide much assistance funding through traditional grant methods, especially as Eastern European countries are wealthier than typical grant assistance recipients. This approach is deeply flawed: Many of Eastern Europe’s governments lack the economic wherewithal to engage in the types of military development necessary to compete with Russia. Moreover, the United States has clear and urgent goals in the region that should not be left dependent on the vicissitudes of partners’ budget politics. At the same time, we agree with Bergmann that the United States cannot and should not shoulder too much of the responsibility for these countries, which should demonstrate a commitment to acquisitions. One of the problems with Foreign Military Sales, though, is that U.S. weapons systems that Eastern European militaries would need to compete with Russia are top-of-the-line and likely unaffordable for midtier countries. Providing excess defense articles is one workaround, but this puts recipients at the mercy of what is available. Bergmann’s recommendation that the United States provide a mix of grants and loans to help NATO countries make acquisitions themselves is a fine one, and we would offer complementary or alternative approaches as well. The U.S. government could consider a lend-lease program in which equipment itself is provided via a loan or low-cost lease for a period of time to be used in an agreed-upon manner, after which the recipient could purchase the equipment at a reduced cost. Pooled sales and multilateral cooperative platforms modeled on the Movement Coordination Center Europe are other promising solutions. Any one of these models would be an improvement on the current approach.

As China, Russia, and others compete across a range of domains stretching beyond traditional military strength — cyber security, law enforcement, and disinformation — the U.S. government should enhance its ability to provide timely, relevant assistance in these areas. In our experience in government, American allies and partners routinely ask for this assistance. Yet, U.S. capacity building in each of these areas is immature. Cyber security assistance is meagerly resourced and often ad hoc, with limited assistance programs spread incoherently across government agencies. Likewise, intelligence and law enforcement capacity building are limited and often plagued by turf battles. Enabling allies and partners to counter disinformation represents an emerging area of focus, and Washington should rise to the occasion. In many of these areas, effective governance is often one of the most crucial gaps America’s allies and partners confront. To meet these challenges, the United States should reimagine security sector assistance, factor in its impact on governance and rule of law, and increase the involvement of the departments of Homeland Security, Justice, and Treasury.

Third, the United States should enhance the ability to use security assistance to deliver strategic messages to allies and partners on the one hand and competitors on the other. Assistance can be a valuable tool to reassure allies and partners, incentivize them to take or avoid certain actions, and reinforce coalitions or multilateral structures. It can also be used to deter competitors in ways that are meaningful, relevant, and timely by communicating redlines, demonstrating new capabilities, and responding to provocations. This means not only providing assistance that will have material effect but also delivering assistance — in terms of timing and context — to maximize its strategic messaging value. For instance, the delivery of new weapons systems or the demonstration of an emerging partner capability in the context of a joint exercise might be timed to occur in response to real-time developments, such as feature reclamation in the South China Sea or election interference. To maximize the signaling potential of assistance, planners should incorporate strategic messaging into their assistance plans, understanding how to time, sequence, and announce aid delivery. The State and Defense departments should also develop the ability to mount rapid responses.

Finally, although the United States will need to work with illiberal states at times, it also needs to account for how the assistance it provides and arms it sells will be used by recipients and perceived by third parties in ways that impact overall support for a free and open international system. For example, there are valid reasons for the United States to sustain its longstanding partnerships with Gulf nations like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, but these partnerships carry costs that can undermine accountability to U.S. democratic and human rights principles. Put simply, the actions of U.S. allies and partners can implicate the United States, and it should calibrate assistance, especially arms sales, accordingly.

We recognize but reject several of the arguments that can be made for overlooking the behavior of countries that receive assistance or purchase arms from the United States. Policymakers may be concerned that if the United States makes it harder to buy U.S. weapons then foreign governments will turn to Russia and China, thereby robbing it of the economic and political influence it currently enjoys. The economic argument does not stand up to scrutiny. Military spending may create fewer jobs than public spending in other sectors, and arms exports in particular appear less likely to positively impact job growth because they often require offsets. Policymakers also may believe that arming partners, even if they behave irresponsibility, is the best or perhaps only option for achieving deterrence against shared competitors and adversaries. In reality, clearly articulating redlines and retaining pre-positioning agreements and emergency basing rights for military access may be a better option. Additionally, we would point out that in both case, the United States has more leverage with recipients than it might appear. Countries that are critical to U.S. national interests are already longtime recipients of security assistance and purchasers of American arms, meaning they are already reliant on U.S. trainers and support systems. These countries may be able to diversify their arms sourcing — and many partners are already seeking a strategic hedge by purchasing defense systems from multiple security providers — but they will find it difficult to shift completely from the United States to another primary patron. Because of the long support tails and interoperability requirements associated with most sophisticated weapons systems, partners would pay a significant cost, in terms of both finances and functionality, to end assistance relationships with the United States.

There is value in using arms sales for strategic influence or to undermine U.S. competitors, but these gains should be weighed against the costs of arming unreliable partners. In general, the United States should be wary of using arms sales and military aid to compete with Russia and China for the allegiance of countries that both lack strategic value and have poor records when it comes to governance, rule of law, and respect for human rights. This does not mean zeroing out assistance to any country that fails to meet U.S. expectations in these areas. To avoid falling into the trap of believing the United States needs to outbid Russia and China by lowering its standards, the State Department should reassess positive and negative incentives built into security assistance planning. A more sophisticated range of options, including offramps, redlines, and positive conditions, should be routinely included in security assistance planning for risky partners, improving both U.S. leverage and its ability to walk away when needed. These incentives and redlines should be clearly communicated to partners early and often.


Security sector assistance was critical for building the web of U.S. alliances and partnerships that endures across the globe, as well as the military capacity of many countries in these regions. That was then. This is now. Today, the United States is no longer well-positioned to use security sector assistance to compete with China and Russia — especially in “gray zone” activities short of war — or to prepare for a potential conflict with either of them. Security sector assistance can be a vital tool of American statecraft. Using it effectively will require rethinking the types of assistance the United States provides, reorienting this assistance toward the regions that matter most, and better integrating it with other instruments of national power. Much of the heavy lifting will take place behind the scenes, in Congress and the interagency process, where reforms to the ways in which security assistance is prioritized, planned, and implemented are desperately needed.



Stephen Tankel is an associate professor at American University, and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He has served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. His most recent book is With Us and Against Us: How America’s Partners Help and Hinder the War on Terror.

Tommy Ross is a non-resident senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for security cooperation and was the senior defense and intelligence adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. He has also held other senior positions in the House and Senate.

Image: U.S. Army (Photo by Sgt. Gregory T. Summers)