What Allies Want: Delivering the U.S. National Defense Strategy’s Ambition on Allies and Partners
In contrast to first president George Washington’s advice to “steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world,” a core principle of U.S. grand strategy since 1945 has been to grow and nurture its unrivaled network of allies and partners. This approach took a brief hiatus during the Trump administration, when it was replaced by a more questioning and bellicose tone under its “America first” policy. The Biden administration was quick to return to a more traditional approach, declaring in interim National Security Strategic Guidance: “Alliances are back.” Or as Colin Kahl, outgoing undersecretary of defense for policy, puts it: “Even Michael Jordan Needed 4 Other Bulls.”
The 2022 National Defense Strategy elevates the role and importance of America’s friends to a “center of gravity” — a loaded term in military planning jargon. The document commits to “anchoring our strategy in allies and partners.” The “centerpiece” of the strategy, integrated deterrence, “entails working seamlessly across … our network of Alliances and partnerships.” The reason for this approach is simple: strategic competition demands no less. In Europe allies and partners have proved their worth supporting Ukraine while the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy is based on leveraging a wide network of regional friends, from the trilateral AUKUS partnership to Japan, South Korea, and growing ties with India and Pacific partners.
Yet just as the United States wants its friends to rally behind efforts to compete with China and beat Russia in Ukraine, the allies and partners themselves also have demands of Washington. They want transformational change to Department of Defense policies and processes that hamper their efforts to support U.S. strategy. The three areas most ripe for reform are information sharing, export and technology controls, and joint strategic planning.
A case in point is the trilateral AUKUS initiative. AUKUS is a flagship policy for the Biden administration, which the president lauds on page one of his National Security Strategy. Yet the key risk to AUKUS — both the “pillar one” submarine agreement and “pillar two” advanced capabilities — is existing U.S. export controls and information-sharing practices. Each hampers innovation and undermines trust, just at the moment when both are needed in spades to compete with China. Meanwhile, failures to involve allies in U.S. strategic planning threaten to leave integrated deterrence — the “centerpiece” of the National Defense Strategy — “dead on arrival.”
Without bold action by military leaders, the administration, and Congress, the “allies and partners” strand of the National Defense Strategy will remain a bumper-sticker slogan rather than a real source of advantage in the strategic competition with U.S. adversaries, potentially hamper key U.S. initiatives in the Indo-Pacific, and undermine partnership with NATO allies.
Information Sharing: From NOFORN to YESFORN
The first item on the wish list of U.S. allies and partners is reform to information and intelligence sharing. As Daniel Byman of Lawfare puts it: “Access to U.S. intelligence is high on the list of what allies want and need. Department of Defense procedures allow for intelligence sharing, but … the procedures are complex, confusing, and often overly restrictive.” Part of the reason is overclassification within the U.S. system, a habit described by Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as “unbelievably ridiculous.”
Information sharing with allies is a perennial issue. In 2007 a report on intelligence reform, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence included a “100 Day Plan” to “dismantle barriers to information sharing” with “key foreign partners.” While those 100 days have long since passed, key allies remain frustrated at the lack of progress. The United Kingdom is a case in point. The U.K.-U.S. intelligence relationship is the closest in the world, described as the “special relationship within the special relationship.” Yet despite decades of cooperation “there exists today a significant misalignment between the strategic prioritization of this “special relationship” and the regulations, policies, organizational cultures, and technologies that facilitate its day-to-day activities.” The same goes for the U.S.-Australian relationship, where information-sharing practices “reflect a strategic and technological age that has long since passed us by. It’s a self-inflicted Achilles’ heel.”
The basic problem is the need to balance two important policy imperatives: protecting classified military information from foreign disclosure vs. “anchoring our strategy in Allies and partners.” Unfortunately, U.S. policy remains stuck in “Cold War” mode. As Andrew Radin points out, “National Security Decision Memo 119, issued in 1971, remains the central document for today’s Defense Department disclosure policies.” This means that allies and partners — who played an important but ultimately peripheral role in U.S. Cold War policy — lose out. According to a previous director of national intelligence, Lt. Gen. (Ret.) James Clapper: “With a federated approach to intelligence and an emphasis above all on protecting national capabilities, the priority has remained firmly on risk aversion. This has been a source of frustration for the United States’ most trusted international allies.”
This policy belies an outdated mindset. The United States can no longer afford to treat the friction and inefficiencies associated with information sharing as a byproduct of alliance management. Instead, reforming information sharing practices should be seen as an opportunity to find marginal — or even transformative — gains in the strategic competition with China.
The solution is contained in the National Defense Strategy. The primary interagency policy for disclosure requires that “disclosure is consistent with U.S. military and security objectives.” The fact that U.S. military and security objectives are now anchored in allies and partners provides ample justification for routine disclosures. This requires modernizing outdated and labor-intensive approaches to foreign intelligence disclosure and information sharing. Current practice is based on creating “tear-lines” that treat all allies the same, applying the NOFORN (Not Releasable to Foreign Nationals) marking by default. This should be replaced with a system based on “tiered risk management” designed around tiers of allies and partners, calibrated to share critical information with those closest (AUKUS, Five Eyes) and more routinely through other vital partnerships (NATO, Japan, and the Republic of Korea). In practice, this could be achieved through replacing NOFORN with a new default, such as “Releasable to Five Eyes” (REL-FVEY).
Making information-sharing policy fit for strategic competition also requires adapting to the new information age. As the United States and its allies accelerate the development of critical cloud capabilities they should design for interoperability and common standards, even developing shared networks. The Department of Defense’s move to expand its Joint All Domain Command and Control initiative to incorporate allies under is encouraging. The same goes for the Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Office’s initiative to test and deploy data integration solutions through the global information dominance experiment. More broadly, the addition of a dedicated information sharing strand of the AUKUS pillar two agreement on advanced capabilities is a also good opportunity to pilot more competitive information sharing practices.
Modernizing information-sharing culture and practice would meet the commitment in the National Defense Strategy to reduce the institutional barriers that inhibit intelligence and information sharing. More importantly, it would strengthen U.S. national security.
Export and Technology Controls: Where There Is a Will, There Is a Waiver
Second on the wish list of America’s allies is reform to U.S. export and technology controls. Designed to prevent sensitive technology ending up in the hands of adversaries, their current application hinders cooperation with allies and the competitiveness of U.S. industry. The two main culprits are the International Traffic in Arms Regulations and the Foreign Military Sales program, both developed during the Cold War and barely updated since.
The State Department’s current approach to export control forces a significant burden on allies. One assessment reveals that the United Kingdom spends at least half a billion dollars every year complying with U.S. export controls — nearly 1 percent of its defense budget. International Traffic in Arms Regulations also harms U.S. innovation by discouraging firms from bidding on military contracts for fear of being hampered by U.S. export controls. For example, U.S. company Boeing recently decided to develop its Ghost Bat drone in Australia, while Anduril Australia aims to develop autonomous submarines without U.S. export-controlled components. How to fix U.S. export controls has become a hot topic in recent months as politicians and officials realized it could hamper AUKUS, as well as other priorities such as the burgeoning U.S.-India defense and technology partnership.
Several positive signs have emerged recently but require the executive branch and Congress to follow through. In May Sen. Jim Risch introduced the aptly named “Truncating Onerous Regulations for Partners and Enhancing Deterrence Operations” — or TORPEDO — Act to reform export and technology controls for AUKUS. Three weeks later two senior State and Defense department officials in testimony to Congress committed to “seek legislative change that would clear a path to new exemptions to licensing requirements for much of our defense trade with the U.K. and Australia.” In June U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and President Joe Biden signed the Atlantic Declaration and Action Plan which included steps to “modernize export control laws to enhance collaboration between and among AUKUS nations.” Such rhetoric is welcome but requires action. AUKUS provides U.S. leaders an opportunity to signal a change in mindset through new exemptions and a light-touch approach to implementation. Increasing U.S.-Indian cooperation also highlights the need for allies to play their part by demonstrating their own export control regimes can be trusted to protect U.S.-origin technologies.
Foreign Military Sales, the program that facilitates sales of U.S. arms and services to foreign governments, creates fewer headlines but gives allies and partners just as many headaches. The process is slow, even by defense procurement standards: Standard contracts take on average eighteen months to award. The Foreign Military Sales process and U.S. export controls also undermine the ability of America’s allies to deploy and maintain forces at readiness. This process delayed a routine sonar upgrade on British Royal Navy submarines by several months, while another submarine could not be serviced until the State Department approved an export-controlled component.
Here too, the Department of Defense agrees there is a problem. In July, the secretary of defense approved the recommendations of a Foreign Military Sales task force. But even if the department follows through on these actions it can only do so much, given that the State Department owns this policy and Congress has a key legislative role. The proven task force model should be expanded to investigate and recommend changes across the Foreign Military Sales ecosystem, beyond the Department of Defense.
As for information sharing, a new mindset is required for U.S. export and technology controls. The question is not how to strengthen controls, but how to leverage America’s unique advantages in innovation and allies to out-compete China. More stringent controls that fail to keep up with changing economic and strategic realities will do more harm than good. Old habits die hard, but as two authors at the Center for Strategic and International Studies point out: “the mission focus of the government means that where there is a will, there is a waiver.”
Joint Strategic Planning: A Call to Action
Finally, meeting the ambition of the National Defense Strategy will also require steps to better integrate U.S. allies and partners into strategic planning. The U.S. has not fought any major conflict alone since the Mexican-American war of 1846. Today, America’s allies and partners can help solve its “two-front predicament,” providing political support and legitimacy, enhanced capacity, and niche capabilities — but only if they are able to align their operational and strategic planning efforts with those of the United States.
The Biden administration’s defense strategy was a “call to action for the defense enterprise to incorporate Allies and partners at every stage of defense planning.” A host of flagship policies depend on improving joint planning, from integrated deterrence to AUKUS. Improved joint planning can also address perennial burden-sharing concerns. As Kahl puts it, the point is not “for allies and partners to do more so we do less” — rather “we need to do more and others need to do more alongside us.”
However, U.S. rhetoric on allies and partners is ahead of practice. Previous attempts to introduce “Guidance for Development of Alliances and Partnerships” was too focused on foreign military sales, while failures in the Department of Defense’s Global Force Management System drive a “whiplash effect” that ends up “peanut-butter spreading” U.S. forces across the globe with scant regard for the contributions of allies and partners. The current administration also missed opportunities to improve the situation. The 2021 Global Posture Review failed to consult with and reassure allies about global U.S. force presence, while the recent update to the chairman’s “Joint Planning and Execution Overview and Policy Framework” fails to mention allies and partners even once.
The Biden administration and Defense Department leaders should meet their own “call to action.” A Center for New American Security report calls for a new review of strategic alignment with allies and partners, focusing on threat perception and prioritization. This exercise could generate the meaningful dialogue that the Global Posture Review failed to deliver and signal that the administration is serious about the “center of gravity” of its National Defense Strategy. Based on the review’s findings, U.S. leaders should specify what they need from allies and partners to implement integrated deterrence in the European and Indo-Pacific theaters, including global posture, presence, modernization, a multilateral exercise schedule, and division of labor. For example, European allies need to understand the trajectory of U.S. force posture in Europe so they can design their forces to fill any gaps and do what they can further afield to support a free and open Indo-Pacific.
America’s network of friends is unrivaled — and a critical source of advantage in the strategic competition with the Chinese Communist Party and other lonely autocrats. Yet without bold action to reform information sharing, export and technology controls, and joint strategic planning, the “Allies and Partners” strand of the National Defense Strategy will remain a bumper-sticker slogan. Time is of the essence. While allies and partners are a priority for Biden, this may not be the case for the next administration. The U.S.-led campaign to support Ukraine hints at what good looks like with intelligence sharing, joint planning, training, co-production, and coordination with allies central to these efforts — and the benefits of getting it right. The challenge is doing it before war breaks out, to deter it in the first place.
Sean Monaghan is a visiting fellow in the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where he focuses on NATO, European security, and defense. You can find him on Twitter at @SMonaghanCSIS.
Deborah Cheverton is a visiting senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Forward Defense program within the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.