Shifting Focus from U.S. Technological Dominance to U.S.-Allied Dominance

Shifting Focus from U.S. Technological Dominance to U.S.-Allied Dominance

Elizabeth Royall1

“Everyone’s focused on the Defense Innovation Initiative.  But the Department doesn’t need a high tech solution to protect its dominance,” a combatant command science and technology advisor argued.  “It needs low tech military systems in the hands of its allies and partners as soon as possible.”  The choice between inventing and developing the next generation of cutting edge technology and deploying existing military capabilities around the world is a false one; the Department of Defense (DoD) should pursue both ends of the spectrum.  However, while DoD leaders discuss the Defense Innovation Initiative, the Offset Strategy, and maintaining and strengthening the United States’ technological edge, how DoD uses existing technology has received much less attention, critical thinking, and press.  Inventing the future has significant promise, but with that comes pitfalls, delays, and false leads.  Using existing technology to build the capabilities of the United States’ allies and partners is a more effectual way to dramatically improve the United States’ defense posture while strengthening defense relationships and deterring aggressive action by potential adversaries.  DoD should shift from predominant reliance on high-technology empowered U.S. military dominance towards prioritization of U.S.-Allied dominance, with a mix of high and low technology solutions to provide a united, capable deterrent threat among U.S. allies and partners against any potential adversary.  Amid diversified, mutating threats and a constrained defense budget, the United States must prioritize allied over sole dominance, allies over partners, and technologies and mechanisms that support allied dominance over those that solely benefit the United States.  Such allied-focused technologies and engagements should include intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); logistics; exchange programs; and foreign military sales (FMS)/foreign comparative testing. 

The U.S.-Allied Picture

The United States has 48 treaty allies, mostly under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or the Rio Pact (the Americas) and dozens more partners (countries with varying levels of political and/or defense ties but without a mutual defense treaty).2  While political considerations play a role, signing a mutual defense pact presumes that the new ally will provide a greater military capability and/or deterrent value than the likelihood of the ally entrapping the United States into a conflict it would otherwise avoid.3  U.S. engagement with some of the major allied partners in NATO and the Asia-Pacific has remained fairly consistent; however U.S. attention to some of its weaker allies has been largely absent, laying bare vulnerabilities.

Alliance Vulnerabilities

Alliances and partnerships bring capabilities to the U.S. force posture and strengthen deterrence, but they also create new weaknesses by expanding the “homeland” that the United States is required to protect.  If an ally has a limited ability to defend its terrain, due to a minimal defense budget, poor military equipment, nominal training, and/or significant threats, the alliance vulnerability is heightened.  Deterrence value is akin to a wall: the larger number of allies and the more technologically and militarily advanced the alliance is, the higher the wall; however a lack of unity or vulnerabilities due to geopolitical threats or a weak military creates gaps or weak spots in the wall, rendering the wall’s height irrelevant.  Allies with poor militaries and/or significant threats are a U.S. vulnerability because they can draw the United States into a war by their inability to deter conflict or defend against hostile actions.  Likewise, a U.S. adversary may target a weak U.S. ally to attempt to splinter U.S. alliance relationships or draw the United States into a war on poorly defensible territory.  Instead of focusing narrowly on unilateral U.S. dominance, the United States should focus on establishing U.S. dominance by making its existing alliance relationships impenetrable both politically and militarily, strengthening its weakest allies so as to deter aggression and coercion, and increasing and sharing technical capacity of the United States and the Alliance as whole.

Further discipline and prioritization is required to quickly mitigate existing alliance vulnerabilities.  Rather than relying on precedence of which countries have been the most reliable partners and/or allies with a breadth of past cooperation to determine DoD’s level of effort with each country, DoD should triage by the level of vulnerability the other country introduces to the alliance. Those vulnerabilities should be addressed quickly until the country can achieve minimal credible defense as longer-term strengthening of higher performing allies continues and sustaining engagement with important partners as money and time allow.

This paper does not seek to minimize the importance of various defense partners and advanced U.S. allies that may have close political and defense ties; however in a time of budget austerity with a diverse threat picture, to prioritize cooperation with every partner and/or ally in every region is in effect prioritizing nothing.

Finally, the U.S. reliance on coalitions in the past several decades blurred lines between allies and partners, as has too-casual statements by politicians defending U.S. “allies.”  What non-treaty allies would the United States militarily defend if the partner or its interests were attacked?  Poorly defined partnerships are an invitation to salami tactics—where a state gradually grabs small slices that are insignificant enough to avoid a military response, but over time noticeably changes the status quo—something China is attempting in the Asia-Pacific.4  Russia’s wars in Georgia and Ukraine show the danger of countries believing that their U.S. alignment and participation in coalitions would ensure a U.S. military response while Russia bet the opposite.  In order to mitigate vulnerabilities from strategic uncertainty, the United States should clarify what defense partners it is prepared to defend militarily if they are attacked.  A good effort is underway to clarify the U.S. position on attacks upon disputed islands claimed by U.S. allies in the South and East China Seas (SCS and ECS), but further clarifications are needed to prevent wars of miscalculation and limit salami tactics.

Technologies to Empower Alliances

The U.S. security cooperation community should redouble efforts to strengthen the militaries of and defense relationships with weaker U.S. allies while continuing cooperation with more advanced allies.5  As such, the technologies necessary for this effort are a mix of high- and low-end that can unite militaries from across the technological spectrum while increasing overall capabilities.  Expanding cooperation with a greater variety of countries alone is not a coherent plan.  DoD has a finite amount of financial and personnel resources, and so it must dedicate its money and energy to countries and capabilities that are deemed most important to accomplish U.S. strategic and security objectives.  The below technology areas show great promise for mitigating weaknesses in the U.S.-Allied force posture by enabling highly credible defense postures for militaries with limited technological capacities.

Information Sharing Platforms with High-Tech Security and Low-Tech Usability.  Securing visibility of potential threats within a country’s vicinity is a vital capability that is alarmingly missing from some U.S. allies, particularly in Southeast Asia.  A top priority should be a secure joint ISR platform that shares commercial, military, and law enforcement maritime activity in the Indian Ocean, SCS, and ECS, collected by advanced allies but comprehendible by less-advanced allies.  If Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia can access and/or field advanced surveillance systems—and the United States can support a data-sharing and fusion architecture that would create a common operating picture of the ECS, SCS, and Indian Ocean—the strategic benefits would be significant.6  Efforts are currently underway with this capability, including the National Coast Watch System in the Philippines7 and maritime shipping information sharing agreements between India and Japan (among others),8 but careful consideration must be made to ensure that the platforms are secure from hacking and manipulation while also remaining intuitive and simple to analyze.  An interim existing technology, such as those used for Amber Alerts in the United States, could be used to notify pre-identified individuals in a host nation’s military of suspicious maritime activity in their vicinity identified by the United States or another ally; such a system may have prevented Chinese fishing boats from de facto taking possession of a contested island in the Scarborough Shoal claimed by the Philippines.9  Investment in this ISR sharing technology would strengthen allies so they are better equipped to defend themselves and protect against hostile changes to the status quo, and in the case of U.S. allies, reduce a key U.S. vulnerability.

Visibility for an Allied Common Operating Picture (COP). Technologies being developed by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) provide excellent options for developing an allied COP.  Its Insight program, currently being transitioned for Army and Air Force use, has open, standards-based, plug-and-play architecture that integrates existing ISR technologies and sources and an intuitive, multi-user interface designed to enhance understanding, collaboration, and timely decision making. DARPA’s Distributed Agile Submarine Hunting (DASH) program, currently in prototype testing with the Navy, is creating fixed and mobile underwa­ter observing systems that see submarine threats passing overhead across vast expanses of ocean.10  These technologies should be rapidly evaluated for use, and modification if necessary, for sharing with U.S. allies and partners.

Foreign Comparative Testing. The United States does not have a monopoly on the best technology in all areas.  DoD’s Foreign Comparative Testing program should be expanded to proactively assess existing foreign technologies and weapons systems to determine whether they can and should be purchased by DoD.  U.S. procurement of foreign materials saves time and money by acquiring Commercial-Off-The-Shelf technologies (COTS), enabling DoD to tap into global innovation.11  These technologies provide a solid starting point to delivering needed capacity with prioritized allies and partners and key technologies, providing significant capacity to the U.S. allied defense.

Non-Technology Areas of Engagement to Build Capacity

In some cases, U.S. allies may have little technological infrastructure or capacity to absorb new technology in the near term.  In these instances, U.S. cooperation should be leveraged to provide sustainable improvements to technological capacities.  However, these types of cooperation are appropriate for more advanced militaries as well.

Targeted Foreign Military and Commercial Sales.  The DoD may pursue a number of avenues to build partnership capacity.  Foreign military sales and direct commercial sales remains an important part of expanding allied capabilities.12  However, too often immature militaries pursue procurement of flashy military hardware, such as fighter jets, rather than the practical enabling equipment such as Humvees and transport aircraft.  DoD should expand engagement with their foreign partners to assess their capabilities and threats and provide recommended military equipment—which may not be U.S.-made due to cost and technological limitations.  Some efforts are underway in this regard, however they remain in the nascent stage and should be expanded and expedited.

Engineer & Scientist Exchange Programs.  A number of exchange programs currently exist within DoD, however they are concentrated among established partners and military personnel exchanges.  These provide important value to both partners, but for the United States’ less capable allies, increasing technological capacity is an underserved part of their defense establishment.  Exchanges of partner countries respective military engineers and scientists can strengthen relations, capacity, and provide ideas and dialogue to reduce duplicative efforts or find commonalities.  DoD should pursue exchanges with some of their lesser capacity partner countries in order to build the relationship and capacities and build the groundwork for more advanced cooperative work.

Logistics Cooperation and Planning Concentrated on Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HA/DR).  Effective and resilient logistics networks and planning are the backbone of any military operation, whether it is an invasion or a hurricane response.  Logistics is a force multiplier, enhancing operational readiness and supporting contingency operations.  The United States should pursue logistics engagement through multinational fora and logistics agreements.  The primary importance of logistics capacity and planning during HA/DR operations also makes it a good entry point for military engagement with countries who are more hesitant about relationships with the United States.  Likewise, logistics cooperation is particularly important in Southeast Asia, as trillions of dollars of trade and resources goes through a few chokepoints amid contested maritime claims.  Establishing strong and hardened logistics chains in this region would mitigate this vulnerability.  Furthermore, as part of resilient logistics chains, the United States and allies should establish a communications network of fiber-optic cables buried underground (and water), providing secure communication in case satellite-based ground positioning systems are compromised.13

Applying a higher level of effort in these existing technology and engagement areas, along with a strategic shift towards a unified, strong allied force posture rather than ad hoc measures with an ad hoc collection of defense partners and a U.S.-only force posture will strengthen U.S.-Allied defense, spur innovative technologies and practices and provide a significant deterrent to any potential adversary.

Recommendations to Enhance DoD’s Partnership-Building Capacity

Strengthening allied capabilities requires coordination, well-defined roles and responsibilities, and cooperation across DoD, from the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, the Services, the Intelligence Community, and within the Office of the Under Secretary for Acquisition, Technology, & Logistics Research & Engineering and the International Cooperation Directorate.  The recommended technology and engagements areas generally fall into three categories and are managed by different offices within DoD.

Expanding International Armaments Cooperation.14  The United States may have the world’s most capable military, however that does not preclude it from having its own vulnerabilities and capability gaps.  The United States should prioritize building joint capabilities with its allies and partners, where all partners invest together in increased capabilities, which saves defense dollars, strengthens ties, increases interoperability, and captures insight and technology from each other.  Armaments cooperation benefits the United States, the partner country, and the alliance as a whole; and as such four of this paper’s recommendations (ISR information sharing, logistics cooperation, engineer and scientist exchanges, and foreign comparative testing) represent facets of international armaments cooperation.  Due to the reciprocal nature of armaments cooperation, much of the existing effort is with well established partners and allies with advanced militaries and technological bases, largely concentrated in Europe and East Asia.  While these partners remain important to U.S. strategic interests, the highly diversified threat picture as well as the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific requires an expanded focus on nontraditional partners for engagement and armaments cooperation.  If the United States and a partner are able to contribute to a cooperative activity, they should be encouraged to pursue that effort barring any insurmountable technology security, foreign disclosure, or similar obstacle. 

Increasing Research and Development (R&D) in Technologies to Strengthen Alliances.  DoD’s scientists and engineers have historically looked at new technology possibilities with blinders, focusing narrowly on inventions that would benefit solely the U.S. military, or even a single Service within the military.  But as the last several decades have shown, the United States rarely fights alone.  DARPA, Service labs, and OSD’s Research and Engineering office should explore what technologies could strengthen U.S.-Allied capacity, functionality, and dominance and pursue them alongside other efforts, rather than leaving it to the international affairs professionals to identify useful technologies and try to work through interoperability issues on systems that were designed for U.S.-exclusive use.  This overlooked aspect of R&D could identify (and solve) some low-hanging fruit capacities as well as create technology breakthroughs that change the way the U.S. fights and operates with its allies.  Building a strong allied deterrent posture requires that the right technologies and capabilities are in the hands of the right partners.  Developing cutting-edge technology will always be vital to DoD’s mission to bend the arc of the future in a direction favorable to the United States.  But while DARPA and Service laboratories pursue that mission, there is much more DoD can do with existing technologies to shape the world around it and shore up vulnerabilities of the United States and its allies. 

Strengthening defense relationships that have been left fallow is an uphill battle compared to relying on well-established defense relationships; but that perpetrates continued vulnerabilities.  Only focusing on high-end partners and technologies is akin to building a tall wall but failing to patch its holes.  Instead, the United States should spend less effort building the wall taller and more effort patching the holes and making the existing wall impenetrable. Creative thinking will be necessary to overcome bureaucratic resistance, but they should not be a stoplight for work before such agreements can be negotiated and signed.  Allies like Estonia and Thailand, for example, do not need to match U.S. military capabilities or technological dominance, but they do need to have a credible defense posture to be able to defend themselves against minor aggressions and deter salami tactics.  Military exercises are not sufficient to build a competent military; they must be complemented by hardware and software to establish needed capabilities as well as military planning, acquisition, and business practices.  Furthermore, cooperative activities, such as scientist and engineer exchanges, that help build military-to-military and political-to-military ties, provide the added benefit of assuring potential adversaries of the U.S. commitment to its allied relationships.  Shifting from a singular focus on U.S. dominance to a focus on allied dominance will require a change from seeing technology and capability transfers as a vulnerability to a necessary asset that has the potential to dramatically upset how existing technology is used while strengthening the U.S.-Allied position in a contested world.  Widespread threats and tight budgets mean difficult choices.  DoD must invest most of its energy and money in its most fragile and important allies and in technologies that can provide a force multiplier for the United States and its allies.  As Winston Churchill once realized, “We have run out of money; now we have to think.”13

End Notes

  1. Elizabeth Royall is an international defense analyst at Defense Analytics Corporation.  This paper is an opinion piece and does not reflect the views of her employer or of the Department of Defense.
  2. “U.S. Collective Defense Arrangements,” U.S. Department of Defense.  Accessed 30 March 2015.
  3. Emerson M.S. Niou & Peter C. Ordeshook, “Alliances in Anarchic International Systems,” May 1991,
  4. Eric Voeten, “’Salami tactics’ in the East China Sea,” The Washington Post, December 3,2013,
  5. Shawn Brimley and Jerry Hendrix, “Let’s Lock in the Rebalance to Asia, Defense One, March 26, 2015,
  6. “U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency Hosts National Coast Watch System Tabletop Exercise in Manila,” U.S. Department of State, May 17, 2013,; “Executive Order 57: Establishing a National Coast Watch System, Providing for its Structure and Defining the Roles and Responsibilities of Member Agencies in Providing Coordinated Inter-Agency Maritime Security Operations and for Other Purposes,”  Office of President Benigno Aquino III, September 6, 2011,
  7. Rajat Pandit, “India, Japan Likely to Share Shipping Data in Indian Ocean, South China Sea,” The Times of India, March 31, 2015,
  8. Jane Perlez, “Philippines and China Ease Tensions in Rift at Sea,” The New York Times, June 18, 2012,
  9. “Breakthrough Technologies for National Security,” U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, March 2015,
  10. “Systems Acquisition and International Armaments Cooperation,” The Management of Security Cooperation, 22rd ed, April 2014,
  11. Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., “How to Deter China,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2015,
  12. International Armaments Cooperation consists of mutually beneficial government-to-government partnerships where each government provides reciprocal contributions to similar military capability requirements.
  13. Lawrence P. Farrell, Jr., “Gentlemen, We Have Run Out of Money; Now We Have to Think,” National Defense, November 2011,
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