Small Wars Journal

Taking a Bite out of the Elephant: How to Improve Security Cooperation

Sat, 07/17/2021 - 2:50pm

Taking a Bite out of the Elephant: How to Improve Security Cooperation


By Maj. Carlos De Castro Pretelt


Demonstrating the effectiveness of security cooperation initiatives is an elusive challenge.  Recently, an article written by Maj Rose Croshier, an Air Force Foreign Area Officer who served as the Regional Director for the Lake Chad Region, Gulf of Guinea and Central Africa in the Intelligence Security Cooperation and Engagements Branch for USAFRICOM, illustrated in detail some of the main challenges affecting the implementation of security cooperation initiatives within the continent.[i]  As I read the article, I came to the realization that security cooperation stakeholders in the Western Hemisphere were experiencing many of the same challenges.  This led me to believe that perhaps these challenges have much less to do with cultural and geographical variables and more to do with the current training and organizational structure implemented throughout the security cooperation environment.


For context, the aforementioned security cooperation challenges mentioned by Maj Croshier, and found throughout many parts of the world, tend to follow a similar pattern.  A partner nation is experiencing internal security challenges that preclude it from achieving a desired security objective.  The security objective is of interest to both the partner nation and the United States.  In view of this, the Department of Defense (DoD) conducts security cooperation activities with the partner nation in the form of visits, conferences, equipping, or some other type of aid, to help them address the security shortfall.  According to JP-3 “SC [security cooperation] requires a commitment of USG [United States Government] resources and funds to execute security cooperation activities that benefit PNs [Partner Nations] and the US [United States] in their achievement of mutual foreign and defense policy objectives.”[ii]  This is the main intent of security cooperation and it is a fairly straightforward concept.  Regrettably, it is in the application of this upfront mandate that we stumble across our global challenge.


Elusive and Misunderstood


It is difficult to ascertain if a security cooperation initiative is effective or not.[iii]  This could be in part because most of the indicators of success used by security cooperation stakeholders may not be focused on measures of effectiveness, but of performance, i.e., quantity of equipment delivered and number of units trained.  As one begins to peel back the layers of an initiative, it becomes apparent that the necessary in-depth analysis which forecasts secondary and tertiary orders of effect may have been overlooked, along with critical, measurable metrics that explain how an initiative would specifically elicit a proposed reaction.  The example utilized by Maj Croshier described the unanticipated difficulties of providing a C-208 fixed-wing reconnaissance aircraft and Command and Control (C2) equipment to Niger, Chad, and Cameroon.  The focus of this initiative was placed mainly on the equipment, without fully accounting for the significant personnel, doctrinal, and maintenance challenges that would ensue.


It is also worth highlighting that these types of issues are not solely to the DoD.  A few years back, the Department of State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, Office of Security Assistance (PM/SA), created an Assessment, Monitoring, and Evaluation (AM&E) team to evaluate the efficacy of Foreign Military Sales (FMF) and International Military Education and Training (IMET).  This year, the team released a study that found that initial reporting from the field demonstrated various issues with the way FMF is being implemented.  In particular, a lack of understanding of the long-term maintenance requirements for military equipment grants.[iv]  The report also mentioned that most of the current initiatives do not sufficiently take into account the economic viability of a partner nation.  This often results in the partner nation feeling forced to keep the donated equipment operational, straining their maintenance budget and reducing their funding for other programs.  This generates negative consequences for the bilateral relationship and potentially creates additional security challenges for the partner country. 


The Million-Dollar Paperweight


Unfortunately, as mentioned above, it is difficult to ascertain if a security cooperation initiative has achieved its objective solely by measuring the delivery of equipment.  This is due in part to the use of subjective measurements to evaluate them, such as narratives, and the still nascent and limited implementation of standardized AM&E efforts.  However, based on the recurrence of this issue and the results from the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, Office of Security Assistance (PM/SA) report, one could deduce that perhaps the root of the problem is an overreliance on military equipment grants by security cooperation practitioners.  And, although it’s hard to pinpoint why exactly, there could be a very simple reason why stakeholders prefer this option.  The most likely answer is because the system itself is built to reward those who demonstrate something measurable happened during their evaluation period. 


Whereas developing a strategic bilateral document could substantially help mature a bilateral relationship, it could take years to accomplish and there is no guarantee it will come to fruition.  Amongst security cooperation stakeholders, ordering equipment is a far less risky endeavor with a substantially higher chance of completion.  The problem is that the equipment itself is seldom the answer to complex security challenges.  For every piece of equipment, there must be a sizable support footprint that ensures its continued operation.  Far too often, security cooperation practitioners become fixated on the metrics associated with the number of individuals trained or the costs of the equipment donated, not fully understanding if either the training or the equipment will demonstrably resolve the security challenge.


In 2017, Congress sought to address this conundrum through the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  The NDAA directed the Secretary of Defense to implement an Assessment, Monitoring, and Evaluation (AM&E) framework to improve the accountability of all security cooperation initiatives; something akin to what PM/SA had been working on since 2015.[v]  In theory, all security cooperation initiatives should be assessed to ensure USG funds are being used to advance or achieve a specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) objective that ultimately benefit US interests.[vi]  It has been a number of years since the release of the NDAA, but this mandate is finally creating substantial ripples across the security cooperation community.


How to Improve Security Cooperation


There are a number of challenges that hinder our ability to measure the effectiveness of security cooperation initiatives.  Chief amongst these is the large number of stakeholders involved in security cooperation, the ever-changing nature of international relationships and security interests, and the nuances of gathering the necessary data to quantitatively evaluate their effectiveness.  To remain relevant and continue to add value in this challenging environment, security cooperation stakeholders will need to receive additional training, specifically focused on answering these persistent challenges.  In addition, the process through which initiatives are created and approved would also have to be reorganized to ensure the right level of scrutiny is being applied to past, current, and future initiatives.  These changes would enable practitioners to create long term initiatives which take into account not only equipment requirements, but the provisions to ensure their long-term relevancy.


Learning to Measure What Matters


To achieve this, the Defense Security Cooperation University (DSCU), in partnership with the Project Management Institute (PMI), could develop a virtual or in-person advanced certification program tailored to security cooperation practitioners.  This program would utilize some of the tenets from PMI’s Project Management Certification, in particular, how to develop measures of effectiveness to evaluate goals while creating consensus amongst stakeholders.  The certification could help practitioners develop the right metrics to satisfy AM&E requirements and, if needed, multi-year congressional funding.  This training could prove imperative towards addressing the planning deficiencies that have prevented security cooperation stakeholders from effectively assessing initiatives, but it would not be enough.  As these enhanced initiatives began to take hold, they would generate an increased need to gather the right type of information.  This is bound to cause some pushback from partner nations, as some of the data could include operational rates and other types of sensitive information. 


This growing need for accurate, pertinent data is quickly becoming a significant issue amongst security cooperation practitioners, as AM&E teams struggle to attain the right information to support and justify past and future initiatives.  Habitually, this unwillingness to share the required information by the partner nation has simply been explained away as a lack of trust in the partnership.  However, it could also be a lack of communication.  If the partner nation does not believe the security cooperation initiative benefits them substantially, as it should, they may feel less inclined to share potentially compromising information.  If the security cooperation practitioners had received the right training, they could better convey the benefits of the proposed initiative and allay any fears or concerns the partner nation might have. 


Conveying Trust and Partnership


DSCU could work with Harvard University’s Program on Negotiation (PON) to develop customized seminars focused on generating consensus with sovereign representatives to enhance trust and mature relationships.  The main goal of this training is to equip the security cooperation practitioner with the tools to convey, in the most effective manner, the net benefits the partner nation would receive from agreeing to the security initiative, as well as better understand and address their valid concerns.  This training, in coordination with the knowledge gained from the joint DSCU/PMI course, could help guide the expansion of strategic bilateral agreements by effectively conveying to the partner nation the basis for the specific information requirements to evaluate the effectiveness of current and future security cooperation initiatives.  These agreements would open the door for the continued evolution of the relationship, developing increasingly complex strategic documents that promote increased dialogue. 


Focusing the Aperture


The last step, and potentially the most challenging to implement, will be to restrict the number of individuals able to create initiatives.  This is not meant to decrease the amount of participation and interest in security cooperation, but to ensure that only individuals who have received the necessary training and have the required in-country experience, are held accountable for the success of each initiative.  Without this safeguard, security cooperation practitioners run the risk of continued overreliance on equipment-focused initiatives, which have proven problematic to measure in effectiveness.  In addition, individuals without the necessary training are more likely to fail to fully appreciate fundamental differences between the U.S. and a partner nation, due to a bias that may trick them into believing that the best way to interpret unfamiliar, foreign data is by filtering it through their current experiences.[vii]  This often results in individuals trying to force U.S. standards on a partner nation, resulting in the creation of unforeseen problems.


Due to the significant costs and time involved in developing and executing the proposed training courses, this initiative should be first implemented on individuals who have already received advanced education on international relations and have the current cultural expertise to ensure this model is applied without major setbacks.  Based on this, Foreign Area Officers (FAOs) serving in each country’s Office of Security Cooperation should serve as the pilot group for this new approach to security cooperation.  Based on the specific, lengthy, and costly training FAOs already receive, along with their particular expertise as the subject matter experts on the ground, this could notably enhance the effectiveness of future initiatives and AM&E efforts.


Some Brief Counterarguments


One potential disagreement with granting this level of authority to FAOs at the country level is that they may lack awareness of fundamental strategic guidance that is created and managed at each Geographical Combatant Command.  This could be true, but it does not explain the current overreliance on equipment and inability to demonstrate the effectiveness of current initiatives.  In fact, one could make a better argument that what is needed is not more high-level guidance, but the ability to translate the subjective intimations found throughout these strategic documents into the measurable objectives and subsequent actions which will achieve them.  Developing and imparting this particular ability amongst participants will be a core tenet of the joint program between DSCU and PMI.


Another potential issue with implementing additional training, focused on a measurement-centric approach to security cooperation, is that some very positive engagements with the partner nation could be erroneously categorized as irrelevant.  For example, Key Leader Engagements are pivotal in security cooperation since they bestow a number of intangible benefits to a bilateral relationship.  However, due to their personality-driven nature, capturing their specific value or replicating their effects elsewhere is particularly difficult.  Similarly, any event that increases political and cultural ties can significantly influence the strength of alliances.  If DSCU were to implement the suggested training model for FAOs, they would have to build some flexibility into the evaluation rubric to ensure it does not become myopic and overlook these high-value events. 




Measuring the effectiveness of security cooperation has long been an elusive, pervasive and complicated ordeal.  Due to congressional guidance, there is a building impetus to ameliorate the established approach and develop new ways to meet this challenge.  To remain relevant, security cooperation practitioners must become creative, methodical, and rigorous in their assessments of past and future initiatives to unambiguously demonstrate the positive impact of their proposals.  Customized training will go a long way towards addressing this, but there will also have to be organizational changes.  Security cooperation is an important program that grants the DoD the opportunity to develop stronger bilateral ties with partner nations and strengthen alliances.  Unfortunately, its effectiveness has greatly varied due to the frequent creation of poorly justified and/or planned initiatives that oftentimes have no discernable long-term effect, at best, and, at worst, create more security challenges for our partners.


[i] Rose Croshier, “Implementing Security Cooperation Reforms: Challenges and Practical Approaches for USAFRICOM,” Small Wars Journal, 19 June 2020, accessed 11 June 2020,  

[ii] Joint Publication (JP) 3-20, Security Cooperation (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Publishing Office, 2017), III-16, accessed 25 March 2021,

[iii] Michael McNerney et al., SMART Security Cooperation Objectives: Improving DoD Planning and Guidance, RR1430 (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2016), XV, accessed 11 June 2021,

[iv] 2020 Annual Report: FMF and IMET Military Grant Assistance Programs (U.S. Department of State Bureau of Political-Military Affairs Office of Security Assistance, 2020).

[v] United States. Congress. House. Committee on Armed Services. National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017: Subtitle E—Reform of Department of Defense Security Cooperation (Washington: U.S. Government Publishing Office, 2016), 130 STAT. 2477, accessed 15 April 2012,

[vi] McNerney, SMART Security Cooperation Objectives: Improving DoD Planning and Guidance, III.

[vii] Lauren Witlin, Mirror Imaging and Its Dangers,” The SAIS Review of International Affairs 28, No. 1 (Winter-Spring 2008), 89-90, accessed 7 June 2021,

About the Author(s)

Maj. Carlos De Castro Pretelt, U.S. Army, is a Foreign Area Officer serving as the Operations
Section Chief at the Office of Defense Coordination in Mexico City. He holds a Bachelor of
Science in social psychology from Park University, a Masters of International Management from
the University of Phoenix, and a Masters of International Policy and Practice from George
Washington University.



Wed, 09/22/2021 - 4:38am

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