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Research Questions

  1. What are the United States' and specifically the U.S. Air Force's security cooperation and engagement practices?
  2. How do Russia, China, and selected U.S. allies and partners employ security cooperation and related engagement practices for strategic advantage?
  3. How can the United States enhance its security cooperation policies and activities to its competitive advantage?

In this study, RAND researchers examined the current role of security cooperation efforts as a tool in the emerging strategic competition among the United States, Russia, and China. The researchers did not assess the effectiveness or measure outcomes of security cooperation efforts but rather sought to identify how, where, and to what degree the three major competitors — plus Australia, Japan, India, and several countries in Europe — are using security cooperation. To answer this question, the team gathered all available data on the programs of the major countries that lead and usually fund security cooperation activities, examined the national security strategies and official statements of those countries to discover the intent and approach of their security cooperation efforts, and conducted case studies of major junior partners in (or recipients of) security cooperation efforts to see how the competition is playing out on the ground. The researchers found that security cooperation is a growing area of competition; that the United States and its allies enjoy a significant competitive advantage in this space; and that U.S., and particularly U.S. Air Force, security cooperation programs should have a geopolitical and an operational focus. Research for this report was completed in late 2019, and the analysis is supported by the data available at that time.

Key Findings

  • Neither China nor Russia has a formal doctrine or strategy for security cooperation.
  • Russia's and China's security cooperation profiles are very different.
  • Russia and China enjoy some comparative advantages over the United States with some clients.
  • Nonetheless, the United States and its partners and allies have the dominant role in global security cooperation.
  • Persistent commitments leave the U.S. security cooperation portfolio somewhat misaligned to the demands of the strategic competition, even if legacy commitments continue to serve important U.S. interests.
  • The strategic competition is playing out primarily in day-to-day contests in the space below the level of armed conflict.
  • U.S. partners and allies are major players in security cooperation; multilateral coordination is essential to obtaining the full value of U.S. security cooperation programs.
  • Many critical countries are determined to avoid taking sides in the emerging strategic competition, and U.S. security cooperation strategies will have to respect this fact.
  • The countries using security cooperation as a tool in strategic competition have not made their efforts generalized or global but, for the time being, are focused on a handful of countries.
  • There is not necessarily a competition in security cooperation per se, and security cooperation activities among major rivals are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
  • The major barriers to U.S. security cooperation's competitive standing are well known — high prices, long delays, and extensive and unpredictable conditions and constraints.


  • Develop targeted programs for the priority countries in the competition over security cooperation.
  • Develop expanded programs for security cooperation in nonmilitary areas.
  • Research new ways to streamline U.S. policy for security cooperation activities.
  • Combine security cooperation activities with engagement strategies.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was commissioned by the Office of the Director of Strategy, Concepts, and Assessments, Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Plans and Requirements, Headquarters U.S. Air Force, and conducted within the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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