Security Force Assistance: It’s Not Just for Weak States

French troops to be airlifted by USAF to Mali

Doctrinally, security force assistance (SFA) is a set of activities to develop the capacity and capabilities of foreign security forces and their supporting institutions. We often associate SFA with weak states, where the United States enables partner countries such as Pakistan, Colombia, and Yemen to combat challenges that threaten their own security and regional stability.

 Yet, Harlan Ullman recently reminded us that European countries need security assistance too since “European militaries lack the ’enablers‘ for expeditionary operations to include aerial tankers, logistics including air and sea lift, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and large stocks of smart munitions.” 

As France recently learned in Mali, it could not sustain its forces without US security assistance. Though France has capable ground forces and combat aircraft, it has a limited ability to sustain these forces even a mere 2000 miles from home. To support its foreign policy agenda, France needed the United States (and Canada) to fly its forces into Mali and to refuel its attack aircraft. To date, President Obama has authorized US assistance of $50 million for France and this number is likely to grow as more American enablers are used to support French and African ambitions in Mali.  

What is true for France has been common among developed countries for the last several decades. Almost every one of the fifty countries with forces serving in Afghanistan today relies on American logistics for food, fuel, and transportation. What we see in Afghanistan is merely a repeat of NATO interventions in the Balkans and Libya or Australian intervention in East Timor. Developed countries and advanced militaries need American enablers to fulfill their foreign policy aspirations. 

Pragmatically, the United States likes to see its partners fulfill regional and global security roles. However, underinvestment in logistics, intelligence, and weapons limits partners’ abilities to meet their foreign policy goals. This regularly causes concern on both sides of the Atlantic. More recently, NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow said, “This transatlantic capability gap is simply not sustainable in the long term . . . we should be aiming for the day when no single Ally needs to provide more than 50 percent of certain critical NATO capabilities.” To guarantee Alliance operations are not simply American ones, NATO’s smart defence initiative attempts to generate the defense capabilities the Alliance needs. As defense budgets decline further, this problem will be exacerbated unless developed countries begin to match their strategic objectives with the military means required.  

What is true for developed countries in combat zones is also true for America’s partners in unstable regions. Allies such as South Korea and Japan look to the United States for security assistance to protect against North Korean provocations. The United States features prominently in Japan’s Defence White Paper, noting the relationship plays an “important role in promoting the shared fundamental values in the international community such as democracy, the rule of law, respect for human rights, and a capitalist economy.” Or in South Korea’s case, it relies on US extended deterrence, missile defense, and surveillance. While North Korea’s nuclear test is an outrage in New York, it is a real danger in Seoul. 

To be sure, developed countries do place significant demands on the United States, but we cannot overlook how partners support a shared basis for international security. This comes in the form of allies deploying forces (Germany is the core country in Kosovo), allies providing host nation support (Japan provides billions annually to support US forces), and allies bringing their own unique capabilities to coalition operations (Italy trains Afghan police). Recognized by President Barack Obama, he intends to continue the American tradition of enabling partners and reinforcing allies throughout the globe. As he noted in his second inaugural address, “America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe. And we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad. For no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation.”

Derek S. Reveron, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is a professor of National Security Affairs and the EMC Informationist Chair at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. The views here are his own and do not necessarily reflect US government policy.

Photo credit: US Air Force

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