Taking Stock of RAND's Security Cooperation Research

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The term security cooperation refers to the broad category of activities undertaken by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) "to develop partnerships that encourage and enable partner nations to act in support of US strategic objectives" A variety of other programs and activities (and associated terms) spanning the strategic, operational, and tactical levels fall under the umbrella of security cooperation. These include efforts to build partner capacity, security force assistance, and defense institution building. Security cooperation activities range from the expensive and visible—training, equipping, and exercising together—to low-key but valuable bilateral talks, workshops, personnel exchanges, professional military education, and efforts to achieve interoperability with partners in terms of processes and equipment.

Security cooperation is an important and expanding instrument of U.S. foreign policy that is employed widely to accomplish a diverse set of objectives. Security cooperation goals vary depending on current U.S. strategic and operational objectives and the partner nation that is being engaged. Goals can include building the capacity of partner security forces to improve the security environment, strengthening relationships with foreign militaries and governments, and securing access for U.S. military forces so they can more effectively operate abroad.

The type of security cooperation that DoD deploys depends on the objective at hand and capabilities of the partner nation. DoD tends to deploy building partner capacity programs and security force assistance to less developed partner nations in an effort to improve their tactical and operational capabilities, while defense institution building initiatives are used in similar contexts to strengthen ministries of defense at the strategic level. On the other hand, programs aimed at interoperability tend to be targeted at more-developed allies. DoD conducts about 3,000 to 4,000 security cooperation events each year in more than 130 countries, while total U.S. assistance to foreign militaries and police forces runs from $15 billion to $20 billion per year. Security cooperation activities touch tens of thousands of foreign security forces around the world every year. What do we know about security cooperation? Are the strategic and operational goals of the enterprise being met? Does security cooperation "work"? If so, under what conditions?

RAND has studied the field of security cooperation extensively over the past two decades. By pulling together RAND's security cooperation research in one collection and highlighting what we have learned about the enterprise in this document, we seek to help answer these questions. The bulk of the works in this summary focus on DoD security cooperation, although a few studies also look at the security sector assistance activities of other agencies and departments, including the U.S. Department of State. Notably, in recent years, resources and authorities for security cooperation have shifted toward DoD and away from other agencies. The large number of security cooperation actors, programs, and activities across departments and agencies presents a number of challenges, particularly in measuring the effects of a specific program that is part of a broader U.S. engagement strategy.

This brief introduction discusses the main findings from RAND research in the main areas of security cooperation. The first section addresses the < href="#authorities-and-planning">literature on security cooperation authorities and planning. The second section focuses on security cooperation activities aimed at building partner capacity, security force assistance, and defense institution building, while the third distills the findings from research on security cooperation activities aimed at enhancing interoperability. The fourth section discusses RAND work on the relatively new area of assessing, monitoring, and evaluating security cooperation activities. In conclusion, the final section highlights lessons learned and best practices in security cooperation.

Security Cooperation Authorities and Planning

One thread of RAND research has focused on how to improve security cooperation authorities, prioritization, and planning. Although sometimes overlooked, the issue of authorities is essential to the execution of security cooperation activities and one that continues to create challenges. There are a large set of potentially overlapping authorities that security cooperation planners need to navigate.

A 2016 study entitled From Patchwork to Framework: A Review of Title 10 Authorities for Security Cooperation analyzed legislative authorities for security cooperation and found 160 total authorities, 123 of which are under Title 10. The report identified 106 "core" statutes that directly authorize activities and 17 supporting ones that legislate the transfer of funds or mandate reports to Congress. Dozens of interviews and focus group sessions revealed frustration and confusion about perceived gaps, overlaps, and ambiguities surrounding these authorities, a need for greater flexibility in addressing multifaceted or emerging threats, and a desire to improve on this patchwork that has developed over many years.

The study created a framework to organize authorities into several categories: authorities focused on particular activities (e.g., exercises), particular missions (e.g., counterterrorism), and particular partners (e.g., Pakistan). The study also identified opportunities for consolidating and revising existing authorities, starting by reducing the 106 core authorities to 91. Although the U.S. government has made recent progress in clarifying and reducing security cooperation authorities, much still needs to be done to better integrate Title 10 and Title 22 authorities, assess the effect of appropriations on security cooperation, and align notification and reporting requirements.

Even with clear authorities, working with foreign militaries is more art than science. But it certainly should not be abstract art, argued RAND's Michael J. McNerney in his 2016 Senate testimony entitled Department of Defense and Security Cooperation: Improving Prioritization, Authorities, and Evaluations. Observers might assume that security cooperation failures in such places as Iraq, Mali, and Syria are the result of DoD having no strategy or no plan to manage this vast effort. But this assumption oversimplifies the problem. DoD produces thousands of pages of guidance, strategies, planning documents, and after-action reports. Hundreds of officials coordinate their plans and share information. Success stories abound concerning more-professional forces, successful counterterrorism missions, countries that can better protect their borders, and countries that can deploy on peacekeeping missions or in coalitions with the United States. But to what end? A true strategy aligns ends, ways, and means and links to detailed strategic plans.

RAND researchers have identified several strategies for improvements in planning. RAND research shows that security cooperation is most effective when it is based on coordinated planning and informed by rigorous analysis. Strategy and planning documents should provide sufficient detail for senior leaders to understand what is likely to work, what is working, and what is not. A 2013 study, The RAND Security Cooperation Prioritization and Propensity Matching Tool, created a customizable diagnostic tool to help planners better understand when security cooperation is likely to work in a given country.

Also relevant to authorities and planning is the question of setting up a set of useful metrics to guide evaluation. In a 2016 study, SMART Security Cooperation Objectives: Improving DoD Planning and Guidance, RAND researchers evaluated DoD's effectiveness in developing security cooperation objectives that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and results-oriented, and time-bound (SMART). The study found that most individual country objectives did not meet the SMART criteria. In particular, most objectives were not yet measurable or time-bound, and their achievability could not be determined. Combatant command security cooperation planning was "SMARTer" than individual country objectives. Although most country plan objectives failed the SMART test, country plans overall and other supporting documents showed more-positive results.

The SMART framework develops a five-step cycle for integrating ways to assess, monitor, and evaluate security cooperation activities. The framework consists of an initial environmental assessment, incorporates the results into planning (step two) and program design (step three), monitors plan and program implementation (step four), and concludes with centralized evaluation (step five). An organization can create a SMART system by combining detailed objectives and tasks with measures of effectiveness for use in future evaluations. Such a system can help clarify exactly what an organization is trying to do, how it plans to do it, and how senior leaders will know whether it is making progress. Other RAND research has also focused on how to improve security cooperation planning and prioritization for the Army and Air Force, and in specific geographic regions, based on resources, strategic objectives, and opportunities.

RAND research on security cooperation planning shows that although inherently difficult, DoD components have made considerable strides in this area. DoD has added rigor to its planning processes through more-detailed guidance, theater campaign plans, country cooperation plans, and extensive coordination processes. Various stakeholders help shape these planning processes, with combatant commands and Ambassadors playing an important role. Recent component- and geographic-specific research provides strategies to help further improve security cooperation planning. The vast scope and scale of these activities, however, creates enduring oversight and evaluation challenges.

Selected Publications

Building Partner Capacity and Security Force Assistance

Another thread of RAND research has focused on building partner capacity, security force assistance, and defense institution building. These activities focus on states with less capacity and weaker security forces and are intended to improve the skills and processes of partner militaries as a way to support domestic and regional stability and rule of law. DoD defines programs falling under the building partner capacity rubric as "targeted efforts to improve the collective capabilities and performance of the Department of Defense and its partners." Past RAND work has used the terms building partner capacity and security force assistance interchangeably.

In a 2013 study, Review of Security Cooperation Mechanisms Combatant Commands Utilize to Build Partner Capacity, RAND researchers sought to better understand the real value of building partner capacity activities. The study found uneven security cooperation mechanisms and results across the combatant commands that may reflect both different partners and also different strategies. It revealed that U.S. European Command has been able to effectively utilize some funding programs with coalition partners that other commands find less effective, while a lack of training and equipping authorities in the Southern and Pacific Commands forced reliance on indirect mechanisms for building partner capacity in counterterrorism. Other RAND research has examined the conditions that are most conducive to successful building partner capacity efforts and how developmental approaches can be utilized to more effectively build sustainable security-sector capacity abroad. RAND researchers have also considered steps that the United States can take in planning and resourcing security cooperation to support effectiveness. A 2009 study, International Cooperation with Partner Air Forces, suggested three focus areas: (1) increased visibility into activities; (2) strengthening processes for planning, evaluation, and resourcing; and (3) creating institutions that treat security cooperation the same as other major Air Force priorities.

A series of RAND studies also focus on security force assistance. In a 2018 study, Building Armies, Building Nations: Toward a New Approach to Security Force Assistance, RAND researchers used six case studies (South Korea, South Vietnam, Iraq, Ghana, Mali, and Nigeria) to analyze the relationship between building armies and building nations and potential U.S. contributions. The study found that the extent to which a client military contributes to nation-building by enhancing state legitimacy might be more important to U.S. security force assistance goals than its military capabilities. It also revealed that national cohesion and identity can matter as much as, if not more than, military capability.

Several RAND studies have focused on security force assistance in Afghanistan, an important question given the amount of resources dedicated to this effort. In a 2011 study, Security Force Assistance in Afghanistan: Identifying Lessons for Future Efforts, RAND researchers analyzed U.S. and international approaches to building the Afghan National Security Forces from 2001 to 2009. The report offered lessons for how to better provide security force assistance during active combat operations, recommending that U.S. military leaders need to understand the interdependencies between operations and security force assistance and be able to link security force assistance to success in operations. Other RAND work in this vein focuses on how best to conduct security cooperation in challenging contexts that lack favorable characteristics and how to improve Army, Air Force, and special operations forces' efforts to build partner capacity and conduct security force assistance.

Another strand of RAND research has focused on defense institution building. DoD defines defense institution building as follows: "Security cooperation activities that empower partner nation defense institutions to establish or re-orient their policies and structures to make their defense sector more transparent, accountable, effective, affordable, and responsive to civilian control." A 2016 study, Defense Institution Building: An Assessment, found that defense institution building roles and responsibilities were not adequately defined at the program and project levels. In particular, the relationship among the regional centers, combatant commands, and defense institution building programs were not adequately defined in current policy or guidance documents. The study concluded that more and better coordination mechanisms are needed to avoid the implementation of redundant security cooperation programs.

Overall, this strand of research has found shortcomings in the support provided in the context of defense institution building, resulting in a situation in which partners may make cosmetic changes to defense institutions and best practices but lack the skills and understanding to maintain and operate within these institutions without U.S. support. Yet RAND research found that defense institution building can play an integral role in delivering positive security cooperation outcomes. In a 2018 study, Reforming Security Assistance for Africa, RAND research concluded that durable improvements in security typically occur only when the United States makes long-term commitments to a partner, constructs a comprehensive political-military strategy, invests in building security governance institutions, and provides personnel on the ground over long periods.

RAND's work on building partner capacity, security force assistance, and defense institution building again demonstrates that the success of these activities depends heavily on the local context, perhaps even more so than on the nation's military development.

Selected Publications

Security Cooperation Activities Aimed at Enhancing Interoperability

Although the U.S. military often works to build the capabilities and capacity of less developed partners, for more-developed allies, security cooperation activities tend to focus on interoperability. RAND's research on this topic has considered both the value of interoperability and how best to increase it. Significant literature exists on all types of interoperability, with the common refrain being that more and better interoperability is needed. And, with few exceptions in recent decades, the United States tends to engage with multinational partners and allies in military operations, thus bringing multinational interoperability to the fore.

In a 2019 study, Targeted Interoperability: A New Imperative for Multinational Operations, RAND researchers sought to understand the impediments to interoperability. The study developed a framework consisting of five main interoperability "outputs": (1) having common equipment, (2) sharing the art of command, (3) having individual interoperability, (4) having interoperable communication and information systems equipment, and (5) having interoperable processes. It argued that interoperability allows access to additional forces and that building interoperability is also linked to having alliances and building coalitions.

Other RAND research focused on interoperability in specific regions. In a 2012 study, Working with Allies and Partners: A Cost-Based Analysis of U.S. Air-Forces in Europe, RAND researchers assessed how the Air Force could build partnerships most efficiently in European Command's theater while ensuring that the requirements for maintaining key alliances and partnerships continued to be met. The study found that forward basing facilitates important capacity-building activities along with coalition operations and forecasted that the need to build relationships, capacity, and access in the European Command's area of responsibility for coalition operations will continue beyond Iraq and Afghanistan.

RAND research in this area reveals the challenges to improving interoperability. These challenges include a lack of understanding of the significant resources that interoperability takes, a reluctance to expend time and money when the value of doing so is not clear, and a one-size-fits-all attitude toward finding solutions. Interoperability requires not only having compatible platforms and equipment but also common processes and the means to communicate and share information. RAND research also reveals the need for better prioritization and planning regarding interoperability. Indeed, simply "more" interoperability is insufficient.

Selected Publications

Assessing, Monitoring, and Evaluating Security Cooperation

Given the large scope and scale of security cooperation activities—and severe limitations on available data and challenges—tracking progress and unraveling causal relationships to evaluate impact in a systematic way are difficult tasks. But at a time when the United States is increasingly relying on foreign partners for its security and attempting to build their military capacity, security cooperation activities and expenditures can no longer be justified with anecdotal evidence. What is working and what is not? How do we know?

To understand these critical questions, DoD has begun to develop a process of assessment, monitoring, and evaluation, consisting of baseline assessments, monitoring of performance, and evaluations of effectiveness. RAND research in this area has focused mainly on two areas: (1) how DoD and service components undertake the process of assessment, monitoring of performance, and evaluation and (2) conducting actual evaluations of security cooperation activities and programs.

Assessments aim to provide senior leaders with a baseline assessment. Monitoring means that priority efforts must be closely tracked to determine whether inputs (e.g., money and effort) are translating into outputs (e.g., equipment, training, education, and information). These outputs then serve as the basis for evaluating progress toward objectives (i.e., outcomes). Evaluation is the ultimate goal of this overall process and requires that all other components work well. Providing a piece of equipment or training a military officer is not an end unto itself. Investments require follow-up to make sure that they yield the full potential benefits that were expected.

In a 2016 study, Developing an Assessment, Monitoring, and Evaluation Framework for U.S. Department of Defense Security Cooperation, RAND researchers addressed the numerous challenges involved in creating a DoD-wide security cooperation assessment, monitoring of performance, and evaluation system. The report found that although many parts of DoD conduct some form of security cooperation–related assessments, monitoring, and/or evaluation, the processes were ad hoc, irregular, and understanding and implementation of such practices varied widely. Building on the SMART framework outlined earlier, the authors explain how assessment, monitoring of performance, and evaluation methods could be applied, integrated, and implemented by major security cooperation organizations so that they conform as closely as possible to analytic best practices and existing DoD policies, plans, and processes. Other RAND research included in this volume focuses on developing assessment, monitoring of performance, and evaluation frameworks for the Army and Air Force and evaluating specific security cooperation efforts, such as DoD's Global Train and Equip program.

An important challenge facing policymakers in the area of assessment, monitoring of performance, and evaluation is what metrics should be used to evaluate security cooperation activities. Ideally, researchers would be able to observe directly how security cooperation activities contribute to such goals as regional stability, stronger alliances, deterrence of adversaries, and others. In reality, however, it is exceedingly difficult to collect data on many of these outcomes. Nevertheless, several RAND studies have focused on evaluating past security cooperation activities, using what observable metrics are available and relying on proxies for these outcomes elsewhere. For example, some studies have attempted to qualitatively assess partner capacity before and after security cooperation activities. Others have looked at the stability and conflict propensity of a given country or region before and after security cooperation activities. Still other studies have considered whether security cooperation increases U.S. influence or the alignment of partner nations with U.S. policy preferences.

In a 2013 study, What Works Best When Building Partner Capacity and Under What Circumstances? RAND researchers collected and compared 20 years of data on 29 historical case studies of U.S. involvement in building partner capacity. The report found that capacity-building efforts since the September 11, 2001, attacks have been far more effective at improving the ability of partner militaries to carry out core tasks (e.g., counterinsurgency, reconnaissance, rapid deployment, maintenance and sustainment, and others) than those of the preceding era. It also revealed that higher spending correlates with greater effectiveness, but when resources are used to "buy friends" (or to win influence), the correlation between expenditure and capacity built is weaker. The study also found that the characteristics and regional context of the partner nation are critical to the effectiveness of capacity-building efforts, and that a broad alignment between the interests of the United States and the interests of the partner is a powerful contextual predictor of effectiveness.

A 2014 study, Assessing Security Cooperation as a Preventive Tool, used statistical analysis to assess the relationship between security cooperation spending and state fragility using data on security cooperation spending and fragility scores over the period from 1991 to 2008. The study found a strong relationship, especially at lower levels of spending and in countries that were more democratic and had a higher level of stability in the first place. Education-based funding impacts had the largest positive effects, while foreign military financing (to support weapons or equipment sales) had the smallest benefits. Yet more recent RAND research found that these findings do not hold across all geographic regions. A 2018 study focused on security sector assistance—a broader category than security cooperation that includes Department of State programs. The study, Reforming Security Sector Assistance for Africa, found that during the Cold War period, security sector assistance to Africa was correlated with an increase in the incidence of civil wars, while security assistance appears to have had little or no net effect on political violence in the post–Cold War era.

More recent RAND research has reported related results. A 2018 study, Assessing, Monitoring, and Evaluating Army Security Cooperation, conducted a statistical analysis reviewing more than 9,000 security cooperation activities carried out between 2009 and 2014. The report found that three types of countries tend to be most engaged in U.S. security cooperation—those in need of greater engagement, those with which the United States would like to improve relations, and those with which greater engagement will be most productive. The report goes on to identify a variety of ways that the outcomes of the benefits from each type of cooperation can be tracked over time. Possible metrics could include achievement of specific objectives, characteristics of the political, economic, or security environment, or performance on various dimensions as assessed in an operational context or through after action reviews.

RAND's work on developing the SMART framework has helped to establish best practices in the assessment, monitoring of performance, and evaluation space and RAND's own evaluations have helped identify ways in which the measurement challenges associated with security cooperation activities can be overcome. The research in this area demonstrates that security cooperation programming can work, but it is much likelier to succeed in specific contexts, specifically in well-developed democracies with strong militaries where the United States makes substantial investments and U.S. and partner country goals align.

Selected Publications

Lessons Learned and Best Practices in Security Cooperation

Much of RAND's security cooperation research, including many of the studies highlighted in this document, sought to answer the critical question of whether security cooperation works, and, if so, under what conditions. Despite myriad anecdotes of high-profile security cooperation failures, RAND researchers have established a statistically significant correlation between U.S. investments in security cooperation and desired outcomes, such as reduced regional and domestic fragility, improved partner military capacity and competencies, stronger relationships, and in some cases closer alignment with the United States. This correlation, however, is stronger with certain types of countries (less autocratic, less fragile), in certain regions, and with certain types of security cooperation tools. Indeed, one of the most consistent findings from RAND researchers is that the specific characteristics of the partner nation matter greatly in determining security cooperation successes or failures.

Security cooperation spending has also advanced U.S. interests more directly by building the ability of partner militaries to support those objectives, for example supporting counterterrorism or counternarcotic efforts. For instance, focused train-and-equip programs have certainly been valuable in supporting U.S. counterterrorism objectives in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere. In sum, security cooperation can work, under certain conditions.

Yet RAND research suggests that we should be wary of overvaluing these expedient and near activities at the expense of longer-term efforts to create more-resilient, well-governed, and stable partners. Security cooperation spending to support "partners of convenience" that does not also work to support efforts to impart best practices, to root out corruption, and to support the long-term health and effectiveness of the partner military will fall short. These findings have significant implications for how DoD can and should deploy security cooperation around the globe.

RAND's research on defense institution building underscores this tension between near-term and longer-term objectives. RAND's research on defense institution building found that many of those involved in security cooperation had a poor understanding of institution-building tools and were inadequately trained in explaining relevant U.S. programs to officials from partner countries. These gaps have contributed to a significant imbalance in U.S. security cooperation. A former U.S. official revealed to RAND researchers that "because of the U.S. focus on immediate operational objectives. . . . The whole model is upside-down. We train and equip our partners first, then worry about institution building."

Much work remains to be done to fully understand the impact of defense institution building specifically and security cooperation more generally. But these findings suggest that such security cooperation tools as the International Military Education and Training program, the Institute for Security Governance (formerly the Defense Institutional Reform Initiative), DoD's Regional Centers, and other professional military education programs should play a more prominent role in security cooperation efforts moving forward. Such a rebalance away from the operational and toward the institutional level could help mitigate a variety of unintended consequences and potential security cooperation pitfalls, including the possibility of strengthening the military at the expense of civilian oversight institutions.

In addition to readjusting the types of security cooperation tools that DoD employs, RAND research also shows that DoD may wish to reconsider how it prioritizes and where it targets its security cooperation. When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority, and DoD could do better at managing expectations in contexts that do not have conditions that are conducive to success. One simple way to improve this process would be for each combatant command to identify three countries where they expected the greatest return on investment for the next two to five years. For these bullish partners, there would be a surge in security cooperation activities or efforts to substantially deepen interoperability. On the flip side, the combatant command could also identify three countries where a strong return on investment is less likely for the next two to five years. For these bearish partners, activities could be reduced to offset costs to support increased investments in bullish partners. Return on investment should take into account the importance of the objectives being pursued, expected benefits, relative costs, and risk.

Selected Publications

Sources of This Research

The studies highlighted and synthesized here were sponsored by the U.S. Army, the U.S. Air Force, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted in three federally funded research and development centers managed by RAND: RAND Arroyo Center, Project AIR FORCE, and the National Defense Research Institute.

RAND conducted each of the analyses at the request of a senior leader, uniformed or civilian, who faced a major decision and required high-quality, objective research to help inform it. As a result, each analysis was designed to be not only rigorous and reliable, but also responsive, relevant, and immediately useful.

This bibliography is one of a series initiated by RAND Arroyo Center, the Army's federally funded research and development center for studies and analysis.