Small Wars Journal

The Importance of Educating Foreign Military Officers

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The Importance of Educating Foreign Military Officers
Diana Myers

“I am 21 years old and upon graduation next year, I will have a network of dozens of foreign military officers overseas ranging from Colombia to Kazakhstan.”

The United States’ network of alliances and partnerships is an often heralded military advantage. Yet, this advantage is in many ways shaped, advanced, and maintained through military to military relations, especially those built through military training. Training foreign military personnel in American military institutions is an effective form by which to enhance defense familiarity with allies and partners—it’s a valuable program for our country.  In addition to educating and training foreign military officers, these education programs build lasting relationships among officers of different countries contributing to a critical network of defense personnel around the world. As a cadet at the United States Air Force Academy, I can attest to the value of these programs. Upon graduation, I will begin my service with a robust network of officers from around the world. This network I developed at my time at the Academy is a clear advantage for me individually and when you compound my experience across the US armed forces, it becomes clear the strategic advantages of relationships with foreign military corps.

The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) published “…that the strength and influence of the United States is deeply intertwined with the fate of the broader international system—a system of alliances, partnerships, and multinational institutions that our country has helped build and sustain for more than 60 years.” However, it is difficult to define what measurements should be used in gauging an investment value of educating and training foreign military personnel in the US—is it the effectiveness of every dollar of government budget spent on training foreign officers, is it the number of adversaries we defeat and deter abroad via joint alliance, or is it the success ratio of multinational missions? The answer is conditional based upon who is asking and being asked the question. The human factor cannot be purely quantified and many of its impacts on the battlefield and strategic planning are gauged more qualitatively than quantitatively. One of the most effective weapons that a military can have is the power of “mil to mil” relationships. The human relation that makes cooperation in military cooperation effective cannot measured in the same way as a supply chain of aircraft parts. Thus, the real question centers on how valuable foreign military training and education programs are for the effectiveness and security of American forces. 

The most robust international-focused programs that exist inside the United States is the International Military Education & Training (IMET) program that is operated by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA).  The primary objective of the IMET is to educate and train foreign military officers in the US in order create a close rapport between US and foreign military members. IMET is a joint mission between the Department of State (DoS) and the Department of Defense (DoD) where the former funds the program and the latter executes the mission. In the fiscal year of 2016 and 2017, the Department of State allocated $110.9 million dollars in IMET programs for 118 partner nations. The program has been considered to be “a low-cost, highly effective component of US security assistance.” The Foreign Military Training Report of the 2016-2017 Joint Report to Congress stated that the IMET programs are “low-cost, highly effective component of US security assistance.” The DoD has an undoubted comparative advantage against its adversaries when it comes to training foreign military personnel; this is because we have learned to harness the benefits from the diversity of the military. Through some hard lessons learned, the United States has become more effective at training and unifying service members from diverse backgrounds.  The importance of diversity is not just a DoD talking point—it’s a proven study adopted by civilian corporations and academics alike. The method of cultural and militaristic integration of diverse personnel is integral to bridging gaps in cognitive dissonance amidst chaos and disarray in future conflicts and joint defense planning. It builds trust and familiarity in the way the officers think which will make joint missions more efficient and cooperative.

For the critics who decry professional military education, especially ones that utilize the US budget to extend the opportunity to foreign officers, perhaps the emphasis should not be centered on what is taught, but rather in the relationships and networks that are created outside of it. These professional social networks create opportunities for valuable human interactions that can be later used by defense personnel for future joint missions. As a cadet at the United States Air Force Academy, I experience this first hand. Some of my closest friends at the Academy are foreign exchange cadets who have gone through the worst and best parts of the service academy experience together. These exchange cadets leave their home military institutions to start the four-year journey all over again in the United States, and are selected from pools of highly competitive applicants. The opportunity to train and go to school with the best foreign officer candidates from all over the world is a privilege and truly an invaluable exposure for my future career. The trust and comradery I have with these cadets are strong, and were forged during times of literal blood, sweat, and tears. Upon graduation, I will have a vast network of foreign military officers who will be serving in regions of key strategic interests. Training with these cadets has given me an invaluable resource of networks that can aid me in future joint operations. Sometimes, the most effective and efficient forms of military diplomacy between countries can be an informal phone call between officers, and having this vast network of partners abroad is a good thing for our military.

Training in the IMET environments builds trust and familiarity between US and foreign officers, henceforth expanding cooperation in our militaries and ultimately our ability to effectively respond to threats in the future. Our military alliance with Japan is an excellent example of IMET programs at work. Each year a multitude of Japanese Self-Defense Force officers come to participate in various IMET programs in the United States. These officers are valuable investments for the future of Japanese-US military partnership because they will most likely be commanders of major strategic cooperation missions where coordination is important. The 2010 QDR noted the importance for the DoD to “reform its ways of doing business to be more agile, innovative, and streamlined in adapting to the diverse challenges of a rapidly changing international security environment and in using limited resources efficiently.” In times where frustration is higher than ever for the amount of “free riders” in US defense alliances, it is crucial for our DoD to reach out to the network of foreign colleagues it has trained to bring like-minded individuals to the negotiation table. These talks may not be enough to fix the defense alliance frustrations of our government, but every phone call and every relationship built allows us to maximize the efficiency of our military assets abroad. This allows the DoD to use limited resources efficiently, utilizing the assets that the US military has already trained and produced. In times when the DoD is expected to take the lead in “shaping the international security environment”, such endeavor can only be completed in joint partnership and effort. This strategic goal needs an integrated approach in coordinating with foreign military which can be best achieved by utilizing pre-established foundations of trust and familiarity stemming from IMET connections. However, this makes it even more difficult to quantify the effectiveness of training foreign officers on a purely quantitative basis because the effectiveness of an alliance and coalition relies on these human relationships.

The return value of investing in educating foreign military personnel is impalpable, but also priceless. The combined training and education of foreign military in the US is a positive force multiplier that makes the US military effective in defense partnerships and in spreading its influences abroad. The DoD has a comparative advantage in training and integrating foreign officers and we should continue to support and expand IMET programs to foster military to military relationships. Guns, planes, and ships are great, but at the end of the day, the key to strategic relationships are fostered via alliances, coordination, and strategic thought—we need our allies to trust and communicate with us. By having more like-minded foreign military personnel abroad, significant cultural and cognitive barriers in perceptions can be broken, thereby making alliances more efficient and lethal.

About the Author(s)

Diana Myers is currently a first-class cadet at the United States Air Force Academy and works as a summer research intern at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center as a Fund for American Studies scholar. She has extensive experience in foreign policy and defense research. The United States Air Force has sponsored her to study abroad in locations such as Taiwan, China, Tibet, and the Balkans to conduct research. Additionally, as a native Korean speaker, Diana also has experience in policy research on the question of North Korea as well as in revising the current Concept of Operations (CONOPS) of the US Armed Forces in Korea. In addition to her academic background, she is an active member of various cadet leadership positions at the Academy. Diana will graduate with a Bachelor’s of Science degree in political science and philosophy next May and hopes to become a pilot in the United States Air Force.