The Hard Power of Security Cooperation

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America’s strategic leaders are quick to use the phrase “allies and partners” in today’s dynamic global security environment. They describe it as a unique American advantage, the nation’s most significant strategic asset, and the core of strategic competition and integrated deterrence. Sometimes, though, it is difficult to understand how such soft-power concepts translate into actual hard-power. With all eyes today focused on the strength of European partnerships, air-force activity over NATO’s eastern flank provides a powerful example of this concept. It is the result of a firm foundation constructed through intentional long-term relationship-building and security cooperation activities.



International relationship-building among allies and partners is more than a soft-power activity. Yes, these activities build collegiality, credibility, and trust. But they also facilitate the hard power of combat effectiveness by fostering interoperability, building a portfolio of complementary weapons systems, and demonstrating success in combined operations through training and exercises. International activity that thoughtfully and intentionally develops, equips, educates, trains, exercises, and integrates forces ultimately provides the fertile ground that knits together allies and partners who are able to reliably and effectively operate together. Doing so facilitates deterrent and operational objectives. The allied air-force response to Russian aggression in Ukraine has powerfully demonstrated these important truths.

Allied Air Response to Russian Aggression

On March 10, 2022, Gen. Jeff Harrigian, commander of NATO Allied Air Command and United States Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa, hosted the NATO Air Chiefs’ Symposium in Germany. This was not a meeting called in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Instead, it is a regular and established meeting held semi-annually for over 40 years that happened to fall at a particularly meaningful time for NATO and the pending rollout of two major U.S. strategy documents. The symposium brought together air chiefs or their national senior representatives from 31 countries, most of them in person. While the collegial atmosphere of friendly partnerships in the room at Ramstein Air Base was evident to all of us who were involved, the meeting was characterized by the potency of hard-power that had been fostered by those long-standing relationships. It was a meaningful manifestation of soft-power translated into combat effectiveness, cemented by a common cause, and punctuated by a poignant video teleconference with Lt. Gen. Mykola Oleschuk, the commander of the Ukrainian air force.

The rapid ability of NATO’s Allied Air Command to establish defense and deterrence as the result of the Russian aggression in Ukraine has been staggering. All along NATO’s eastern flank, advanced aircraft perform around-the-clock air policing, homeland defense, and enhanced vigilance. The air tasking order includes a slew of combat capabilities carefully woven together. For the last four weeks, these forces have collectively demonstrated stunning flexibility, integration, responsiveness, and effectiveness in ways that strategic competitors could only dream of.  It has been allies and partners in action at a critical moment. None of this happened by accident, and it didn’t come out of nowhere. American senior leaders and security cooperation professionals have deliberately developed strong relationships with allies and partners over time, thereby providing a solid foundation for integrated deterrence and strategic competition. While these efforts have been largely effective, some security cooperation policies and processes continue to hinder successes.

Air and Space Interoperability

For years, senior leaders and security cooperation professionals have carefully crafted strong relationships, superb interoperability, and shared capabilities. These efforts have created a large fleet of common fighter aircraft — like F-16s, F-18s, and F-35s — that seamlessly patrol the skies over NATO allies alongside their Gripen, Rafale, Typhoon, and even MiG counterparts. These fighter aircraft also fly alongside American bombers as a part of bomber task forces. MQ-9s gather imagery and data alongside NATO RQ-4s. E-3s and E-7s from multiple nations provide shared surveillance and command-and-control while C-130s, A400s, and C-17s execute airlift. KC-135 aircrew establish refueling tracks alongside their A330 partners. Nonetheless, security cooperation activities that equip ally and partner air forces are only part of this success.

Close collaboration fosters trust and understanding that is essential to enduring and effective partnerships. These air chiefs grew up together. They were educated together. They have researched, developed, tested, and evaluated capabilities together. They have created tactics together, deployed together, and fought together. They regularly engage with one another, and — recognizing the value of these interactions — insist that members of their air forces do the same through combined exercises, training, and exchanges. Furthermore, these air chiefs have created integrated command-and-control structures, interwoven networks, established common data links, operationalized a mission partner environment, and shared intelligence. Finally, they have enjoyed consistency through the long-term benefits of the State Partnership Program, and have employed a wide range of security cooperation tools to meet their common objectives. Today, their bonds of trust are fortified by a shared threat and their unified response to it.

This manifestation of hard-power is not only related to the skies. Many of these air chiefs control large portions of their national space capabilities while some are dual-hatted as space chiefs. Collectively, they enjoy shared space situational awareness and other space-based data agreements; collaborative launch and payloads; and complementary satellite communication, navigation, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Recognizing the challenges of a contested space environment that is a warfighting domain, they understand the urgency of space control. They also realize they are interwoven into joint forces that span all domains and are part of whole-of-government strategies. It is hard-power on display.

Soft Power Translated to Combat Effectiveness

While the hard-power example of allied air and space force activity on NATO’s eastern flank during the last month has been striking, the principles are generalizable and translatable to other theaters and other situations. For decades, American senior leaders and security cooperation professionals have carefully crafted strong relationships among allies and partners around the world that provide the necessary foundation for a strategy of integrated deterrence in an environment of strategic competition. They have created common or interoperable fleets of aircraft that can fly together and fight together. These weapons systems are operated through integrated command-and-control systems and with shared data-link architectures. Their effectiveness has been shaped through common education, refined through combined training, and proven through robust exercises. Ally and partner relationships are not simply a flaccid display of soft power, nor are they a federalized force that operates separately in the same general areas of responsibility. They are actually an operationally effective, integrated force. Yet, some security cooperation processes continue to hinder progress and harm effectiveness.

Barriers to Further Progress

There is still much work to be done to overcome security cooperation obstacles and properly create a force that is fully ready for strategic competition and ideally postured for integrated deterrence. First, onerous security barriers hinder progress in interoperability and integration, creating operational risk to avoid minor technical risk. When making exportability rulings, decision-makers too heavily and strictly consider security risk or concerns about technological exploitation, preventing the export of U.S. weapons systems without a proper consideration for the operational necessity of offering that capability to allies and partners in order to share burdens and develop interoperability. As a result, in the name of maintaining a unilateral technological advantage, bureaucrats pass on operational risk to combatant commanders and warfighters who expect to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with fully-capable allies and partners. Second, exportability of combat-relevant systems remains an afterthought of the acquisition process. Though American policy directs that new systems be designed for exportability, waivers to this policy are liberally applied and commonplace. Finally, slow security cooperation processes often deliver certain systems late-to-need, in part because of plodding security-focused decision-making mechanisms that are a part of exportability rulings. Delayed delivery schedules create a competitive disadvantage as compared to strategic rivals while frustrating the allies and partners that the United States will rely upon in the next conflict. In the end, some Defense Department and interagency policies and processes continue to zealously guard capabilities while hindering interoperability and harming operational effectiveness. American leaders and security cooperation professionals need to systematically eliminate these remaining obstacles to properly meet integrated deterrence objectives.

Soft power has strengthened alliances and attracted new partners, translating strong and trusted relationships into effective forms of hard power through security cooperation. As a result, effective international partnerships will be on the minds of any strategic competitor the next time they weigh the benefits and costs of aggression. A large and trusted network of allies and partners is indeed a unique American advantage, and today’s successes in the skies over NATO’s eastern flank should be the catalyst to fully translate relationships and security cooperation processes into the hard power needed by ally and partner nations to meet common objectives.



Brig. Gen. E. John Teichert is currently serving as assistant deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for international affairs. His previous positions have included the senior defense official and defense attaché to Iraq, the commander of Edwards Air Force Base, and the commander of Joint Base Andrews. The views expressed herein are his own and do not reflect those of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Air Force (Photo by Staff Sgt. Megan M. Beatty)