America spends billions every year on security cooperation and assistance programs, but the results don’t match the investment. To help improve efficiency, the Center for American Progress recently proposed to consolidate all of these programs within the State Department.
This would be a grave mistake, as it would downplay the role of the Pentagon in shaping and directing security assistance, and ultimately the military objectives of the program would be subordinate to the interests of the State Department, such than judicial reform and humanitarian programs. These are not the values on which such security assistance programs should only be judged.
Security Sector Assistance Programs provide weapons, military training, and other defense-related services to allies and partner nation governments through grants, loans, credits, cash sales or rentals. By definition, these programs should prioritize national security. To this end, reforms should strengthen joint state and defense authorities so that programs are evaluated against US national strategic objectives.
In the existing system, the State consults Defense on its security assistance designs. Defense then implements State programs, as well as its own security cooperation programs, such as multinational military exercises and military training and advice.
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The departments differ in the scope of security assistance. Defense programs target narrower national security objectives, such as the Maritime Security Initiative, launched in 2015 to increase awareness of the maritime domain. State programs, such as the Central American Regional Security Initiative, emphasize broader regional stability and humanitarian goals.
Assistance programs may be better suited to their objectives when the state shares directing authority and decision-making power with the entity most relevant to the objective of each program. For example, when the objective is the strengthening of military capabilities, the Ministry of Defense should be an equal partner; when the objective is the reform of the justice system, the Ministry of Justice should be a full partner.
Consider how the Philippines used the U.S. Coast Guard when respond to intrusions from China at Whitsun Reef earlier this year. Given President Biden’s emphasis on strategic competition with China, strengthening partner countries to resist maritime coercion from Beijing should be a given. In this context, the state should ensure that the objectives of its arms sales program are linked to the priorities of the Department of Defense, such as improving maritime domain awareness, enabling the Philippines and, possibly to other countries, to increase patrols of exclusive economic zones.
Another report released this month by the Center for a New American Security rightly suggests that security assistance in the Middle East should be strategy-driven and narrowly applied to military effects. However, the report’s recommendations are limited to counterterrorism activities and a strategy of deprioritization of the Middle East for the benefit of the Indo-Pacific. If limiting security assistance to military purposes would make programs more effective in a region of declining importance, it goes without saying that this should be the formative basis of all security assistance programs, in particular. when the strategy calls for increased investment in the security capacities of partner countries. .
Security aid reforms should push agencies in this direction, by encouraging – or forcing – the state to design its programs in closer coordination with the Pentagon and support the operational needs of the Defense Ministry, such as improving the forward military presence, wartime resilience and interoperability.
Congress should also recognize and reassess its role in these decisions, as legislative assignments can limit the state’s agility and responsiveness to directives. But even the best-laid plans cannot succeed without follow-through.
The Global Security Contingency Fund (GSCF), for example, has attempted to catalyze state-defense cooperation, but neglected assessment processes. As a result, he failed. This pilot program required the agreement of each ministry on any GSCF project and offered greater flexibility in the funding of the program. But two years after the announcement of the first seven projects, none had materialized. State and Defense have not clearly defined timelines and tracked GSCF projects against these criteria, only beginning to implement these standards years into the program. In 2016, execution still lagged behind expectations and a frustrated Congressman stopped paying for the program.
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Regular evaluation that prioritizes timely and tangible measures of success directly related to U.S. strategic interests is critical to ensuring programs are meeting their objectives. But as the GSCF has shown, implementing evaluations only after problems arise is damage control, not effective program design.
In designing reforms to ensure that US funds, arms, and training are directed to viable projects that serve our national strategy, keeping the basics alive is essential. The State Department’s security assistance priorities should focus on specific national security objectives that enable a better Department of Defense presence, resilience, and interoperability with our security partners.
Continuous evaluation is also essential. Assessment processes must be implemented upstream, not after the fact. Reforms must be carried out with one end in mind: security assistance for security purposes.