The Power of Proper Security Cooperation
The United States aims to be the security cooperation partner of choice, but competitors get a vote. Chinese and Russian security cooperation activities span the globe, looking to gain access and influence, and often to supplant America’s positions. These competitors are active suitors with a broad portfolio of offerings to potential partners, and America’s missteps cede ground to Beijing and Moscow. As a result, key elements of American security cooperation ought to take this competitive environment into account to seize strengths and opportunities while stiff-arming weaknesses and constraints. With eyes around the world fixed on Eastern Europe, one oft-discussed topic is America’s record of security cooperation with Ukraine since 2014. But some of the most important lessons about U.S. security cooperation might come from another country: Iraq. My experience leading security cooperation efforts in Iraq offers a useful case study from which policymakers and practitioners can draw lessons for U.S. efforts elsewhere in the world.
When allies and partners consider America as a security cooperation partner, their leaders take a variety of factors into account, but foremost among these are quality, cost, and schedule. In general, American security cooperation activities provide quality weapons systems at a reasonable cost, but delivery schedules tend to lag, frustrating partners and empowering competitors. In order to meet American needs, security cooperation ought to be more timely, sustainable, consistent, and holistic.
As the senior defense official and defense attaché to Iraq during a recent 14-month period, I managed a security cooperation portfolio with the Iraqi Ministry of Defense’s five military services, in addition to programs with the Counter-Terrorism Service, the Kurdish Peshmerga, and the Ministry of Interior’s Border Guard Force. This $20 billion portfolio included programs ranging from long-term support for M1A1 Abrams tanks to pop-up security needs within the International Zone during high-threat conditions. It was an environment rich with examples of strategic competition. There, I learned of the power of properly applied security cooperation programs and the pitfalls of security cooperation missteps. These lessons have only been reinforced in my current position.
Accelerating Capability Delivery
From a quality perspective, the equipment that the United States can offer to a partner nation is often superior (with notable exceptions). A partnership with the United States should be considered a competitive advantage, especially when viewed through a long-term lens in which the U.S military commits to effective and sustainable capabilities known as the total package approach. This approach provides not just the weapon system itself, but a broader package of material and services including training, support equipment, spare parts, publications, lifecycle maintenance, and technical assistance. This stands in sharp contrast to security cooperation deals with competitors that rarely provide more than the initial weapon system as a part of their offerings.
Effective and reliable host nation activity on the ramp or on the range tangibly demonstrates the power of a thriving relationship, and a lack thereof can quickly embitter a partnership. This is notably true in Iraq as foreign-made T-90 tanks, CH-4 drones, T-50 aircraft, and Mi-28 and Mi-35 helicopters languish in an inoperable state while American equipment is largely reliable and operational. While the partner nation has to pay for such quality and longevity, they can at least trust that they are getting what they pay for and can expect to rely upon such systems for decades to come. Thus, cost should be considered neither a competitive advantage nor a competitive disadvantage, although the American total package approach undoubtedly provides an initial sticker shock until the benefits of this method of sustainability are thoroughly explained to a partner.
Timeliness, however, is a different story.
American security cooperation faces a notable competitive disadvantage in meeting the desired schedules of partner nations. The Title 22 Foreign Military Sales process, developed to provide a deliberate roadmap towards approval with a slew of checks and balances, often takes years to deliver even simple off-the-shelf capabilities. Meanwhile, strategic competitors offer quick-turn solutions to immediate problems that can satisfy demands in countries around the world.
In the case of Iraq, the security cooperation office could expedite the delivery of capabilities when necessary through the unique benefits of access to Title 10, Section 333 resources (known as Authority to Build Capacity) and some influence over the Counter-ISIS Train and Equip Fund that circumvented normal Title 22 processes. Security cooperation offices in most other countries do not enjoy the flexibility that comes with multiple authority and resource options, and are often forced to rely upon slow and methodical Foreign Military Sales processes. In the end, improved responsiveness and shortened delivery timelines are essential to meet an array of partner nation requirements around the world. Strategic competitors are actively trying to exploit this weakness in the American security cooperation portfolio by offering what appear to be immediate solutions.
In an attempt to ensure America’s standing as the security cooperation partner of choice, security cooperation professionals are often tempted to give or sell equipment that exceeds host nation requirements, burdening their long-term sustainment resources. Practitioners rationalize this temptation by arguing that it creates instant interoperability while providing a boost to a U.S. industrial base that greatly benefits from the high price of such systems. As a result, a host country sometimes receives high-end, prestige-focused weapon systems that they either do not need or cannot reasonably maintain, creating an albatross around the neck of a partner that impedes their ability to manage long-term security resources. Over-equipping partners also creates conditions where they question the quality of U.S. security cooperation because of their inability to maintain and sustain these systems in the out-years, thus eroding what was originally considered a competitive advantage of partnering with the United States through a total package approach. Iraq’s struggling F-16 program should be considered an illustration of these challenges where long-term burdens can quickly hinder a partnership and sour a relationship.
Sometimes even matching quality, cost, and schedule to realistic and sustainable requirements is not enough, especially in areas where the United States will not provide high-end capabilities, but where America’s competitors will. Air defense systems are a particular challenge as the United States is often unwilling or unable to provide cutting-edge technology, while Russia is willing to offer more advanced systems. Additionally, a much cheaper offering by a competitor, often the result of a mismatch between a deal that includes the benefits of sustainability via a total package approach and one that does not, provides temptation to a partner when they consider competing costs. Such cases are perfectly suited to a wise application of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. Its potency stems not just from its ability to prompt sanctions against countries, but also its mandate to implement sanctions against companies and individuals involved in a deal.
Yet, the act is only credible if its impacts are recognized by a partner, and if it is consistently and reasonably applied. Consistency creates unique challenges when there are substantial strategic benefits to making certain security cooperation agreements with transgressors. The application of the act against a NATO ally like Turkey provides a powerful example to another partner who may be tempted by a seductive Russian offer, but it also demonstrates the challenges of consistency when trying to pursue strategically advantageous deals with countries (such as India) whose transgressions are similar to those of Turkey. In Iraq in particular, the threat of sanctions under the act, explained consistently throughout the Iraqi chain of command, played a large role in America’s ability to dissuade Iraq from embracing the offers of other suitors. The example of Turkey was particularly powerful in emphasizing American willingness to actually apply such sanctions.
Utilizing a Full Range of Security Cooperation Tools
While equipping allies and partners with military weapon systems to meet host nation requirements is an important security cooperation tool, it is not the only one. In fact, strategists and security cooperation experts enjoy a wide range of less expensive options that meet U.S. interests and provide long-lasting ties between the United States and a partner.
Cooperative research and development activity ensures that interoperability is designed and developed into systems from the outset, and should be used in key areas where there are opportunities for mutually beneficial collaboration. Education and personnel exchanges build trusting relationships, create shared perspective, and enable long-term access and influence. Services utilize these avenues extensively to create enduring relationships and connections, and alumni of these programs often go on to senior positions within a partner military. Training and exercises nurture and apply interoperability to foster confidence and credibility in a partnership in realistic tactical and operational conditions. For example, consider the return on investment when an international Red Flag alumnus leads a four-ship formation of F-35s into combat on night one of the war as part of a multi-national package that is being commanded by a former U.S. exchange officer who had been a squadron-mate. The cost-effective benefits created by these other security cooperation tools can yield powerful results, furthering U.S. strategic interests. They are best applied as a part of a holistic approach that matches country-by-country security cooperation requirements with the right tools to meet those requirements as a part of an overarching strategy.
In light of these important considerations in a world characterized by strategic competition, policymakers and security cooperation practitioners should adjust their playbook in four important ways.
First, the United States should pursue policy change to streamline general Title 22 Foreign Military Sales processes to shrink case timelines and accelerate delivery in ways that better satisfy host nation requirements. While this shortcoming has been unsuccessfully tackled before in different geopolitical circumstances, success in integrated deterrence and strategic competition requires a holistic review and refinement of these processes today. Additionally, U.S. officials should provide broader access to Title 10 resources to meet quick-turn solutions, and demonstrate more coherency and agility among various security cooperation activities.
Second, policymakers, services, and security cooperation offices should always carefully consider the requirements of the host nation, and their current and future ability to fund long-term sustainment costs, before making a deal for a specific weapon system. Creating a burden on a host nation sours the relationship, hinders long-term effectiveness, and harms U.S. strategic interests.
Third, security cooperation professionals should carefully educate allies and partners about the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act early to prevent inadvertent missteps and inoculate them against activity that would trigger it. Policymakers should also carefully consider how the act is applied across the entire security cooperation portfolio to make wise tradeoffs between risk, consistency and strategic advantage.
Finally, strategists and security cooperation experts should regularly consider the wide range of security cooperation tools at their disposal, beyond simply equipping, in order to apply the right ones, to the right partner, at the right time, for the right strategic context.
Improvements and emphasis in the areas described above would be particularly beneficial to strategic competition. In accordance with a strategy of integrated deterrence in such an environment, the United States should aggressively and effectively find new ways to utilize its most significant strategic asset: properly applied and structured security cooperation with its broad network of allies and partners. Doing so would allow the United States to fully enjoy a unique American advantage.
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.