Getting Serious About Security Cooperation
To compete with Russia and China, Washington needs partners. One key way in which Washington has, can, and will secure these partners is by sending them weapons. This, in turn, requires the United States to produce enough weapons, produce the right weapons, and effectively transfer these weapons.
Unfortunately, America is currently failing on all three fronts. Shortcomings in the defense industrial base have hobbled Washington’s ability to produce weapons. A flawed approach to security cooperation has prevented Washington from focusing on the “value weapons” that many small and middle powers want. Finally, foreign military sales requirements have created a number of well-known frustrations in sending weapons to the countries that need them.
It is high time for the administration and Congress to resolve all of these problems — not piecemeal but as part of broader framework that recognizes their centrality to great-power competition. This requires Congress to help create such a framework while also empowering the necessary departments to bring industrial production, security cooperation, and foreign military sales in line with America’s national interests.
In recent decades, U.S. sales of military equipment have been largely uncoordinated and not tied to a strategy of global competition. Iraq’s security assistance, for example, is still provided under anti-Islamic State auspices. While “building partner capacity” remains a consistent mantra in Washington, military sales have been conducted on a country-by-country basis. Too many people still see the main goal of security cooperation as improving military capacity, whereas in most cases the goal is to improve political ties.
There are now three key areas of security cooperation focused on equipping that fit with Washington’s policy of “out-competing China and constraining Russia.” In each area, Washington faces challenges that a coordinated policy could help to address.
The first area is the desire of NATO partners on or near the Russia border — read, former Warsaw Pact states — to upgrade their former Soviet military equipment to NATO standards. While there can be political pressures to “buy European,” there is often a desire for U.S. manufactured items, both for capability and political signaling. The recent purchase of M1 tanks and Patriot missile batteries by Poland is a major example of this trend, as is the Czech Republic’s current negotiations over procuring F-35 multi-role fighter aircraft. Unfortunately, America’s lack of robust production capacity in the industrial base continues to hamper improved cooperation here.
The second area is the nascent AUKUS security pact, which has an explicit goal of integrating allied industrial bases and supply chains in high-tech fields. This starts with nuclear submarines in the first phase and then expands into hypersonics, cybersecurity, and anti-submarine technology. AUKUS could also expand to include other allies with interests in the Pacific — New Zealand, Canada, and Japan being the most frequently mentioned. Here, the primary weakness is U.S. bureaucracy — and legislation — that slows or hinders arms transfers.
Finally, a key component of “out-competing China and constraining Russia” will be limiting their influence in middle powers and smaller states throughout the world — what is commonly, if misleadingly, called the “global south.” Large numbers of states are totally or partially equipped with military hardware on the former Soviet model that Vasabjit Banerjee and Benjamin Tkach have called “value arms.” Whether produced by Russia or China, these value arms are less capable but also considerably less costly to procure than NATO equipment. Further, they require far less state institutional capacity to utilize, as they have significantly lower training and sustainment thresholds.
The issue for the United States is that it does not have a value arms line to compete in this space. As a result, potential partners continue to purchase low-cost military hardware from Russia and China even if they have serious concerns about its performance, the challenge of spare parts and ammunition, and the political strings attached.
These three areas exemplify the problems facing America in its effort to strengthen partnerships through security cooperation. There is no U.S. value line to sell to lower capacity partners. The U.S. industrial base is not equipped to generate the quantity of munitions required for industrial-scale ground combat. And the regulatory environment, including but by no means limited to the foreign military sales process, provides significant obstacles to cooperation with partners.
The last of these might be easiest to tackle. The United States should begin thinking creatively about how to compete in the value arms space. The military-to-military ties that are engendered by purchases of defense equipment are often a key component in nation states in which the military has a far more significant political role than in Western states.
There are three possible avenues that Washington could pursue. First, it could extend the lines of selected current defense items even as they are phased out by the U.S. military. Just as the F-16 continues to be produced for export despite being phased out by the U.S. Air Force, other product lines could be extended — and perhaps subsidized — for partners around the world. A second possibility would be for the United States to encourage large producers just below the level of the primes to produce a value line of products for export and additionally encourage them to enter into licensing agreements for production abroad.
Alternatively, if the United States determined that the real issue for other countries was the price point, then it could promote a system of industrial base cooperation, or simply outsourcing in coordination with states that have considerably lower fixed and variable costs. Turkey and India are two countries that could fill this role with relative ease, though other locations like central and eastern Europe could also be explored. Regardless of what approach Washington took, the federal government would need to have a candid conversation with the defense industrial base to bring in their viewpoints.
Fixing the Defense Industrial Base
While the invasion of Ukraine has exposed its vulnerabilities, the current problems in the defense industrial base date to the end of the Cold War. In the early 1990s, the Department of Defense took a deliberate decision to encourage, even subtly mandate, consolidation in the industrial base through mergers and acquisitions. The goal was to make industry respond more to market forces, rather than significant government subsidies, thereby reducing overall costs to the government. This consolidation reduced the number of major contractors, or “primes,” to just single digits. Similar consolidation occurred in supply chains further down, often creating single points of failure for key components. Many of these went unseen by either the primes or the Defense Department due to the number of steps between the single supplier and the prime or the final customer.
This policy of encouraging consolidation has left the industrial base without any “surge” capacity, meaning that significant increases in production are difficult at best and disproportionally expensive. While boutique solutions can — and are — being sought in high-priority situations, in general, increasing production means commissioning new facilities from scratch and searching for increasingly rare highly trained technical workforces. These procedures are both slow and expensive.
But more simply, the industrial base simply has too many single points of failure. These occur in more high-tech areas such as computer chips and rare earth materials, as well as in “old economy” areas like black powder and machine tools. Consolidation and the quest for efficiencies, combined with frequent lapses in orders that can bankrupt small businesses, have created numerous gaps in the supply chain, or dependencies on China and other unreliable providers. These single points of failure and the limited ability to grow production are now particular evident in both ammunition and missiles. This has created uncertainty among allies and partners as to whether there will be sufficient materiel for their security needs.
The fixes for the defense industrial base are fairly obvious, but not easy, not quick, and not cheap. First, the base requires expansion, almost across the board. The Department of Defense has focused on the 155mm production line to great effect, but fixing one line does not fix the entire base. Second, the supply chain underneath the major primes needs to be fortified. In trying to generate the political resolve necessary to take these steps, America’s leaders should appreciate not only how central they are to the country’s immediate military needs, but also to its broader geopolitical goals.
Sales to Foreign Militaries
Frustrations with foreign military sales (which is larger than the Foreign Military Sales program of the same name) are well known. A senior defense industry executive once described it as “all the frustration of government contracting, but slower, more byzantine, and with lesser priority.” And he neglected to mention the very real political risk — domestic and international. Defense industry involvement in security cooperation entangles the Department of Defense, Department of State, Department of Commerce and, in the case of the AUKUS nuclear sales, the Department of Energy — with everything overseen by the Department of Justice.
While suggestions to “improve” and “streamline” the foreign military sales system abound, it may be time to take a “blank sheet of paper” to the system. Past attempts at reform have been uniformly unsuccessful, leading to questions as to whether the system is reformable. While an interagency task force could be engaged to examine this issue, it is an open question as to whether any insider could hope to succeed. An outside look with a mandate that includes legislative relief may be necessary, ideally a congressional commission specifically empowered to look for legislative fixes.
Deficiencies in the defense industrial base are weaknesses in America’s efforts to confront Russia and China. Limited industrial base capacity prevents Washington from supporting European allies against Russia while the absence of a “value line” of weaponry is an obstacle in winning over smaller and middle powers. Finally, the legal and policy regime surrounding weapons sales can handicap good policy.
Fixing these problems requires an overarching framework that both expands and fortifies the industrial base, while creating sensible and streamlined processes for military sales. It also requires properly conceptualizing security cooperation, which has been stuck in a counter-terrorism mindset over the past couple decades, within the framework of great-power competition.
With this in mind, political leaders should seize the opportunity to rethink security cooperation, the defense industrial base, and the interaction between the two. Absent such resolve, America’s allies and potential allies will remain in want of the weapons that would win them over.
Douglas Ollivant (@douglasollivant) is a retired Army officer, former National Security Council director, and managing partner at Mantid International