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Seizing the advantage March 18, 2021

US national defense strategy and the future of foreign military sales

By Charles W. Hooper

Join Forward Defense for leading-edge commentary and key recommendations as we help chart the course for the United States’ next National Defense Strategy.

As the Biden administration’s Pentagon begins developing its new defense strategy, it should consider the future of one of the most important tools of foreign policy: foreign military sales (FMS).

There’s a debate underway about the role of FMS in US statecraft. Some argue it is overused, represents a “militarization” of foreign policy, and produces unintended consequences for global security. Others believe the domestic economic benefits and historical successes—such as its role in the peace between Egypt and Israel—more than justify its prominence. In this debate, one thing is certain: Ongoing great-power competition, US efforts to strengthen alliances and partnerships, and the global dominance of the US defense industry will ensure that FMS remains a policy tool of first resort. This being the case, US policymakers need to ensure that it is the most efficient tool that it can be.

The Pentagon’s new leadership, however, should be aware that it will face several challenges in deploying FMS to foster security cooperation.

Cyberspace is redefining security and foreign military sales

In the Information Age, alliances and partnerships are not only defined by frontier, maritime, tribal, or even aerospace boundaries. They are also simultaneously cloud networks that support encrypted communication, rapid information transfer, and precise data targeting necessary for coalition warfare. An alliance’s members are nodes in that network. Whereas the strengths of traditional alliances are defined by their strongest members, the strengths of networks are defined by their weakest nodes.

Accordingly, the United States will have to move forward with a measured response to the increasing crescendo of calls that it share its cyber capabilities in order to protect these nodes and improve the strength of future alliances and partnerships. Given the increased probability of cyberattacks by state and non-state actors, these calls from allies are not surprising. But this presents the United States with a dilemma. The US Department of Defense has spent years analyzing capability gaps in foreign militaries so that the United States can offer comprehensive combinations of weapons, spare parts, logistics support, training, professional military education, and exercises—the “total package approach.” Working alongside US industry partners, the Defense Department can estimate almost to the penny how much such a package will cost because it is grounded in kinetics, mechanics, and metallurgy.

This is not the case for cyber capabilities, which cannot be so easily commoditized. There are certainly devices involved, but most of the capability resides in computer programs, databases, and algorithms. How do you package and commoditize such items? Additionally, how do you scale those capabilities so that your closest and most capable allies receive the most advanced access and technologies while others receive lesser configurations? As the US military comes to terms with its own development and employment of cyber capabilities, it needs to consider how, and to what extent, it will share these capabilities with allies and partners.  

Allies may push back against replacing legacy American-made equipment

Many key allies and partners are dependent upon legacy US military equipment that is reaching the end of its service life, is being or already has been retired or replaced within the Defense Department, or both. Many of these partners are unwilling or financially unable to upgrade or replace this older equipment with new American-made equipment. Simultaneously, maintenance and sustainment costs for this legacy equipment continue to increase as manufacturers with knowledge specific to the equipment dwindle and expertise on the legacy equipment fades away. The movement away from kinetics and mechanics and towards information technology will only exacerbate this trend. To extend the service life of the equipment, partners may look to locally fabricated solutions or non-US suppliers.

Due to allies’ continued preference for equipment quantity over quality, efforts to encourage them to decommission or retire legacy equipment often receive, at best, a mixed reception. US leaders must give thought to how the “Security Cooperation Enterprise”—the consortium of Defense Department, State Department, and congressional entities directly responsible for FMS—and US industry leaders will address the challenge of aging fleets of American-made equipment. Not only are allied capabilities at stake, but so is the US brand if this legacy equipment fails in action.

Systems exportability is still an afterthought rather than a forethought

Historically, efforts to research, develop, and acquire US military systems have, unsurprisingly, focused on developing “program of record” systems exclusively for US forces. The developers of these systems have not considered the exportability of these systems to allies and partners as a significant factor until late in the process, if at all. This oversight has required developers to “re-engineer” the systems to render them suitable for export. The time this takes, coupled with the need to modify systems to meet the specific requests and requirements of buyer countries, results in years of delays between the time allies and partners show interest in a US system and when it is available for delivery.

The United States no longer has the luxury of time. In an era of ruthless great-power competition, allies and partners have choices from among foreign competitors. There are signs that the traditional US approach is changing; the consortium approach to build F-35 fighter jets—which included Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States as the original eight partner countries—is one example of successful international end-to-end collaboration. But the United States must increase its efforts to ensure US systems are available for export to allies and partners as early and as quickly as possible to maintain coalition interoperability and global market dominance.

There is room for improvement in the US government-industry relationship

US policymakers must improve the partnership between the US defense industry and the Security Cooperation Enterprise, as well as within and among the Enterprise’s members (the State Department, Defense Department, Congress, etc.). The security-cooperation reforms in the fiscal year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, the 2018 changes to the Conventional Arms Transfer Policy, and the 2018 National Defense Strategy have all contributed to creating and sustaining efficient and effective collaboration across federal agencies on FMS matters. Continuing this already robust engagement—both bilateral and via industry associations— can raise the level of transparency for FMS, reduce systemic friction in the FMS process, and allow the United States to move with more speed and efficiency. 

Due diligence, transparency, and values-based FMS are as important as speed

The United States’ process for foreign military sales is a complex one: It is a State Department program executed by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), requiring congressional approval and relying on private industry. While complicated, it’s a process that mirrors the checks and balances of our democratic society.

The United States’ strategic competitors, especially China and Russia, have arms-sales processes that reflect their autocratic, government-directed, and subsidized defense industries. Some argue that the United States can reduce its delivery times and make FMS more efficient by adopting the “streamlined” processes of such competitors. But the United States cannot win this strategic competition by trying to “out-China” China or “out-Russia” Russia. Each stakeholder in the FMS-policy process—Congress, the State Department, the Commerce Department, and others—plays a critical role in ensuring that each sale is consistent with US values and interests. 

What the United States can do is increase outreach to, and transparency with, its allies and partners by, for example, guiding them with FMS instructional videos on the DSCA website and attending more trade shows. The United States must also continually emphasize to its allies and partners the benefits of the due diligence, accountability, transparency, and values that it applies to its FMS process—and the domestic political and international value it creates for them, such as an absence of bribery, scandal, and corruption and the ability to account for how their people’s money is spent.

This approach is not perfect. There will always be uncertainty when the United States provides sovereign nations with weapons systems. That said, the United States is the onlygreat power in this competition that prioritizes and emphasizes an approach based on accountability, due diligence, and values.

Lieutenant General (Retired) Charles “Hoop” Hooper is a nonresident senior fellow in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security’s Forward Defense initiative and the former director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, where he was responsible for the overseas sale of all weapons, military equipment, support services, and training packages for the United States government.

Further reading

Image: An F-35 pilot prepares for take off from the Vermont Air National Guard Base with the flag of the United States, before a flyover honoring Vermont’s front line coronavirus disease (COVID-19) responders and essential workers in South Burlington, Vermont, U.S. May 22, 2020. U.S. Air National Guard/Miss Julie M. Shea/Handout via REUTERS.