“In the economy, an act, a habit, an institution, a law, gives birth not only to an effect, but to a series of effects. Of these effects, the first only is immediate; it manifests itself simultaneously with its cause—it is seen. The others unfold in succession—they are not seen: it is well for us if they are foreseen. Between a good and a bad economist this constitutes the whole difference—the one takes account of the visible effect; the other takes account both of the effects which are seen and also of those which it is necessary to foresee. Now this difference is enormous, for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the ultimate consequences are fatal, and the converse. Hence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good, which will be followed by a great evil to come, while the true economist pursues a great good to come, at the risk of a small present evil.”
Frederic Bastiat, That Which Is Seen, And That Which Is Not Seen (1850)
The timeless wisdom contained within Bastiat’s famous essay can be summarized neatly and applied across nearly any aspect of decision making: because of our human fallibility we continually favor choices whose effects are seen over choices whose effects are hidden. One could substitute military strategist for economist in Bastiat’s famous essay and the ideas contained within would hold remarkably true. Good military strategists understand the tradeoffs between a set of decisions and look for effects that do not manifest themselves until a later period. Economists eventually named this idea “opportunity cost”.
In traditional cost-benefit analysis one subtracts the expected cost from the expected benefit in order to come to a decision. If the difference is positive then that action is taken. However, analysis of opportunity cost does not stop there: instead, Bastiat’s model asks how the net benefit of one decision compares to all other possible options. The difference between the net benefit of the decision taken (the seen) and the benefits of decisions not taken (the unseen) is the opportunity cost. While a particular choice may produce a small advantage the opportunity cost would be enormous if another choice would have yielded an even greater advantage.
With the understanding that national security resources are limited and expected to become more restrictive in the future it is especially important to be introspective and thoughtful about what we request of American citizens. Questions such as “Would more Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, more Littoral Combat Ships, or more direct-action Special Operations Forces make us safer?” are not helpful. The answer to those types of questions is undoubtedly in the affirmative and could be used to justify any amount of defense spending. This ignores reality. The more germane question is “Given a fixed and possibly shrinking budget, what is the opportunity cost of purchasing those military forces?” or, in other words, “What else could be done with our limited resources that would be more beneficial to our national security?” Bastiat urges us to look not only at the seen but to look for the unseen as well.
Security assistance, broadly understood, is aid to a partner nation targeted toward increasing its national defense capabilities in a manner that advances our US national security interests. Practically speaking, this could be anything from helping an allied military integrate itself into a coalition war to aiding a country threatened by a jingoistic neighbor or a subversive internal threat. There are a plethora of security assistance programs, scattered between different agencies, that serve different aspects of this mission. The Department of State’s Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program strengthens our partner nation’s defenses through grants of money used to purchase weapons, equipment and training. The Department of Defense trains and equips friendly national counter-narcotics efforts with Section 1033 and Section 1004 authority and likewise does so with counter-terrorism forces through Section 1206 authority. The Justice Department’s International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program helps to strengthen the law enforcement functions of foreign governments in order to promote more professional and transparent institutions. These are just a few of the tools available to promote national security by strengthening the capability of foreign governments to protect its people from harm.
When applied consistently and over a long period, security assistance produces positive and lasting effects. When done poorly and haphazardly the effects are often negated or adverse. We must overcome the cognitive bias that prevents us from fully exploiting the potential of long-term security assistance efforts. As called for in the President’s 2010 National Security Strategy, a robust, consistent and active security assistance policy promotes America’s interests in having a peaceful and stable international order.
Security Assistance is a Vaccine: The Unseen Effects
As the United States approaches some difficult choices to be made with respect to how and how much we should spend on national defense this is an opportune moment to discuss the overlooked benefits of helping partner nations help themselves. Bastiat’s seen and unseen model is an excellent concept we can use to think about the national defense budget. Security assistance produces unseen effects because the benefits of these engagements do not accrue immediately but over time. In unseen ways they can prevent us from being pulled into non-existential wars. When applied properly and over a long period, security assistance inoculates the United States against the use of our own force. The commonly understood aphorism in the irregular warfare community to send fifteen advisors now in order to prevent having to send 15,000 conventional troops later.
Almost all of the effect of security assistance is preventative in nature. Like a vaccine, which strengthens an immune system and provides an invisible barrier of protection against certain diseases, security assistance works in much the same way. By increasing the capabilities of partner nation security forces the US tries to prevent an insurgency, a cross-border war or violent criminal organizations from taking hold in a country. The disease in this case is violence. We greatly desire the prevention of devastating violence from occurring instead of having to confront it with our own forces. However, there is a deep epistemological conundrum with respect to security assistance.
One of the justifications for mandatory vaccination is that many people who cannot visibly see hepatitis, measles, and polio and the consequences of those diseases will fail to get the proper vaccinations. Their inaction will thereby endanger themselves and others. When the needle penetrates our skin we feel the small upfront cost of pain but cannot see, and will never fully know, the unseen effects of the vaccine. The knowledge that a painful vaccination indeed prevented a much larger amount of suffering is unattainable except in a probabilistic sense. Without the immunization it is possible that we would never have fallen ill. However, we will know that the inoculation did not work if the disease appears afterwards. On an individual level we cannot know if the vaccine prevented contraction of the disease but we can know if it did not. Only by looking at disease contraction rates in the aggregate, across treated and untreated populations, can we know if a vaccination is effective.
The conceptual disadvantage for national security is that like vaccinations we will only know if security assistance failed to prevent a catastrophe. For example, a decade long security assistance engagement with a vulnerable partner nation will be successful if a large US military intervention is never required. However, there could be many reasons why the country did not implode other than American advisors and equipment. It could be that the threat was overestimated or the government was already adept enough to deal with it. One cannot separate the effect of security assistance from all other factors. Yet if the country does fall prey to violence then we will have learned that the security assistance effort was unsuccessful. We can never fully measure the impact of a security assistance mission but we will know if it was insufficient. Security assistance creates capabilities which can be measured and evaluated but the effect and impact of those capabilities towards promoting peace and deterring violence is difficult to isolate.
For instance, the 1998-2012 security assistance effort in Colombia known as Plan Colombia coincided with a dramatic drop in violence. While not resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, the fact that Colombia is a safer place to live is indisputable. During this period Colombia received several billion dollars in security assistance from the United States to include helicopters, training, advisors and more. Had the violence failed to decline precipitously or had increased it would have been understood by everyone that the mission either had no effect or a negative effect—a failure either way. However the positive trends in security over the last decade are difficult to attribute. We badly want to know how much the US’s support of Colombia during this period affected the outcome. Was it indispensible? Was it small and insignificant? Unfortunately we cannot quantitatively untangle the effect of the US’s assistance from everything else that took place in Colombia during this time. This represents the core of the security assistance knowledge problem.
In addition to inoculating the US against violent confrontation there are two other benefits that go unseen until the moment they are needed and found unavailable—access and intelligence. Reading information reports on numbers and types of foreign forces is only marginally useful and only partially reveals the truth. For example, knowing that a partner nation has assault helicopters and a counter-terrorism unit is a good fact to have. But, what the US truly wants to know is if our ally could plan and conduct an operation on its own or as part of a broader coalition. We need to know how the aircraft are maintained, if the pilots are trained, and if the ground forces are organized and able to shoot straight. The best way to understand the effectiveness of a partner nation’s security forces is to spend time training and advising them in the environment in which they are most likely to fight. Virtually no nation will simply invite us to assess their capabilities. However, a safety and capability assessment is usually a prerequisite for security assistance training. In that case it is in the host nation’s interest to share information. The benefits of this access and intelligence go mostly unseen and unrealized because we do not know when it will be needed. Much foresight is imperative to acquire that information because it cannot be delivered on demand.
The epistemological problem creates a profusion of difficulties for security assistance advocates. When weighing security assistance investment dollars against other defense programs we are arguing for effects that are unobservable versus capabilities that are observable. In the competition for defense funding a conventional forces advocate can point to a tangible soldier, tank, or airplane and persuasively champion the benefits of having more. Without concrete evidence the security assistance and irregular warfare community is forced to use hand-waving and storytelling. It is not difficult to imagine whose argument carries the day.
Security Assistance Spending
How do we evaluate our security assistance efforts? Is it possible to know if we are spending enough money and resources protecting ourselves against direct involvement in messy conflicts? Unfortunately it is difficult to answer in the definitive. No model exists that can tell us the right amount of spending. History and the case-study method are the only tools available. Instead of attempting a voluminous study of US security assistance efforts a review of our historical spending can serve as an effective proxy.
The best way to understand our commitments and efforts towards security assistance is to study the levels and trends of investment in this mission. Some stylized facts about security assistance spending can explain part of our deficiencies in this area. Because there is no absolute criteria to measure spending we cannot definitively know if we commit enough resources on security assistance by looking only at spending levels. However, by comparing security assistance spending to other activities we can at least gain an indication of relative priorities and how they have changed over time.
Simply comparing security assistance funding to DoD funding is problematic. Included in the DoD budget are compensation costs such as pay, healthcare, and other benefits for both military and DoD civilians. Also included in the DoD budget are research and development costs. Almost without exception US military advisors and trainers do not pay the salaries of foreign soldiers nor do our scientists develop new weapons technology exclusively for partner nations. It is not useful to compare lines of spending for activities that are nearly completely distinct. Instead the most appropriate comparisons to security assistance spending are the DoD Operations and Maintenance and Procurement budgets. Those two areas of spending best approximate security assistance “train and equip” activities and employment of the force. A cursory review of security assistance, Operations and Maintenance and Procurement spending illustrates several problems with our strategy of strengthening the capabilities of allies and partner nations.
From 1981-2010, spending on security assistance was 3.61% of what was spent on US military Operations and Maintenance and Procurement combined (Table 1). To some that number may seem too high and to others it may be insufficient. There are several explanations as to why this number could be considered reasonable. Obviously, our own nation’s military capability should be the first budgetary priority with respect to national security. Installing smoke detectors and fire extinguishers in everyone’s home is great but we still need a fire department to be prepared for the worst. Second, our weapon systems are more expensive to purchase and operate. We have big-ticket items like F-22 fighters and Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles in our Procurement budget that are not usually purchased for partner nations. Third, the scope of our war preparations is world-wide and not restricted to a defined geographical area like most countries. Despite the interconnectedness of the globe the security threats of most nations lie within their own borders or just across.
Nevertheless, the question as to whether 3.61% is too high, too low, or just right is not relevant. The question is whether security assistance investment has kept pace with the rhetoric about this mission’s importance. The answer is unequivocally negative. When we consider that in 1981 the spending ratio between security assistance and Operations and Maintenance and Procurement was 5.85%, rose slightly in the 1980s and then declined to 2.42% in 2010 it is undeniable that security assistance became a significantly lower priority in our national security strategy. When national defense budgets were slashed in the 1990s, security assistance took a disproportionally large hit and never recovered even after 9/11.
In real dollar terms defense spending on Operations and Maintenance and Procurement has roughly doubled since 1981. However, despite a massive thirty year economic expansion, US investment in security assistance has actually decreased significantly. In the first five years of this period, 1981-1985, the US spent nearly 74.7 billion dollars on security assistance. From 2006-2010 security assistance cumulative spending was 44.1 billion. That contraction of investment represents a net decline of 36%. Security assistance investment decreased both in real terms and relative to Operations and Maintenance and Procurement spending. Aside from Iraq and Afghanistan we are doing a lot less training and equipping of partner nations.
Not only did security assistance funding decrease relative to Operations and Maintenance and Procurement budgets the year-to-year changes were far more variable. Excluding 1990, the year after the fall of the Berlin Wall when security assistance dollars flooded Eastern Europe, the year-to-year changes in security assistance spending were 14.2 times more volatile over this period compared to the changes in the combined Operations and Maintenance and Procurement budgets. The volatility in the security assistance budget would be 170 times greater compared to the Operations and Maintenance and Procurement budgets if the data for 1990 were included.
This means that when the combined Operations and Maintenance and Procurement budget changed slightly the security assistance budget increased or decreased by a much larger percentage. These behaviors essentially mimic the investment philosophies of people saving for retirement versus day traders. A steady and consistent investment in our nation’s military allowed the Pentagon to build and sustain a well-trained force with high human capital and permitted it to take the long view with respect to procurement of new weapon systems. We know that the time required for an American unit to acquire a new capability is lengthy. Imagine how much longer it takes for a developing nation’s military to learn the same skill. In contrast to spending on our armed forces, the lack of focus and commitment to security assistance means many of our partner nations received inconsistent and therefore ineffective help. Investments in security assistance oscillate between the feast of Christmas and the fast of Good Friday.
While not all events are within our control we should at least wonder if a more vigorous approach to security assistance over the last 30 years could have kept us out of trouble. With which countries in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America could we have cultivated strong relationships to the extent that terrorists and violent gangs would not be present and active? It is not believable that all of our security problems would be solved by now had we invested modestly in security assistance from 1981-2011 but it is plausible that there would be fewer of them. Over the long run, the cost of security assistance today is less expensive than direct intervention tomorrow.
In sum, security assistance declined significantly as a budget priority over the last thirty years and therefore as part of the national security strategy. In this period, year-to-year changes in security assistance allocations swung wildly, experiencing both large increases and decreases. Our nation’s approach to security assistance is inconsistent. For all the talk about security assistance, partnerships, and international cooperation in our National Security Strategy documents the money has not followed the rhetoric. Relative to other DoD activities the US significantly deemphasized development of our partner nation’s military capability. This reading of our historical spending on security assistance leads to the conclusion that the United States does not extract the full benefits of these programs because it does not exploit them efficiently.
What Does Our Security Assistance Budget Buy Us Now?
The next question pertains to what specifically we are purchasing. Coupled with erratically decreasing investments in security assistance programs the added disadvantage is that what we spend is concentrated in a few countries. According to research by Gordon Adams and Rebecca Williams of the Henry L. Stimson Center, 21.9 billion in Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and Section 1206 “train and equip” programs was concentrated in Israel, Egypt, Pakistan, and Jordan during the period 2006-2010. Without a doubt those four countries are of immense strategic importance to the United States but why would almost half of our security assistance budget be dedicated to such a small subset of our partner nations? In the same publication, Gordon and Williams show that Latin America and the Caribbean combined receive 4.2% of what Israel, Egypt, Pakistan, and Jordan received in FMF and 1206 training and equipment. Similarly, the remaining African countries combined received only 1% of the FMF and 1206 investments made in the aforementioned four countries.
Aside from simple dollar expenditure we need only look at the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program administered by the Department of State to see a more tangible example. IMET is the largest of all education and training exchange programs and is described in the Joint Report to Congress on Foreign Military Training of FY2010 and FY2011 as a “low-cost, highly effective component of U.S. security assistance”. The goals are to enhance military-to-military relations, increase interoperability, and reinforce democratic values and respect for human rights. A typical example is enrollment of foreign military officers in US professional military education programs such as the Army’s Command and General Staff College.
The organization charged with tracking security assistance spending on IMET and other programs is the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA). Table 2 shows the cost versus the number of students trained each year from published DSCA data. Indicative of security assistance spending as a whole, IMET spending is lower today than thirty years ago. From 1981-1985, 97.7 million dollars was spent on the program while only 92.5 million dollars was spent from 2006-2010. Again, despite 30 years of massive economic growth our investment in a low-cost, highly effective security assistance program decreased.
And not only did IMET investment decline, the program reached 6,163 fewer students in 2006-2010 compared to 1981-1985. Mirroring security assistance funding as a whole, the changes in IMET student production varied wildly from year-to-year reaching a low of 2,597 in 1994 and a high of 11,818 in 2004. Assuming that the variation in student production was due to funding and not to capacity, that would mean that there was a deficit of tens of thousands of IMET students that could have been trained from 1981-2010. The opportunity was lost to demonstrate our values, create peer contacts and gain future access to partner nation militaries.
The narrowness in which our security assistance money is distributed coupled with the erratic delivery of international military training and education are concrete demonstrations of the weakness of our strategy. The preponderance of what we invest in security assistance goes to four countries and year-to-year education enrollment is unpredictable. The variability and lack of resources makes it difficult to plan and build partner nation defense capabilities effectively.
At the risk of overextending the vaccination analogy too far the side effects of security assistance should be acknowledged. There are real risks involved that range from ineffective engagements, which waste resources, to a recipient of our military aid turning its capability on us tomorrow. We need to keep at least three things in mind.
First, the actions of helping partner nations develop more capability to defend their borders and repel insurgencies and terrorism need to be divorced from unrealistic expectations about transforming countries into democratic free-market paradises. There is a slowly growing consensus, summarized in Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s book Why Nation’s Fail, that economic and political institutions are the cause of poverty. While security certainly has its place in development it is a necessary but not sufficient condition. We should continue to promote and champion freedom and democracy but understand that at best, security assistance can only indirectly help this development. We cannot expect that teaching allied commandos to fast-rope from a helicopter will transfer our values for property rights and law.
Second, are we helping countries that truly are our allies? Or is our security assistance mission merely a Machiavellian calculation? It is worth remembering that we helped Saddam Hussein fight Iran and aided Manuel Noriega in Panama before having to send massive conventional forces to dispose of them. Indiscriminate support of some useful-but-bad actors in the past makes it difficult to trumpet the virtues of the security assistance mission set to the American public. They are justifiably skeptical of us.
Finally, the mission cannot create dependency. It should create capabilities that can be sustained with limited or no further US assistance. Transferring tactical airlift aircraft without developing an ability to maintain and sustain them is a guarantee of failure. Training foreign special operators to conduct direct action missions without creating a cadre of instructors will ensure no end to the security assistance mission. Within a reasonable amount of time the capability created must be able to stand on its own.
In his 2010 Foreign Affairs op-ed piece, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made an eloquent case for security assistance to take a larger role in the years to come. Among the challenges he cited, Secretary Gates noted the lack of career path for military officers as a major obstacle towards getting the services more involved in helping our allies defend themselves. US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) is the only major organization of the armed forces that maintains a focus on foreign internal defense, a subset of the security assistance mission. However, not every talented officer who is capable of being a foreign advisor has the ability or desire to be an Army Green Beret, a Navy SEAL or an Air Force Combat Aviation Advisor. The skill sets of those types of forces are operationally essential in places like Yemen and Pakistan but might be overkill in other parts of the world. Also, special operations forces are extremely scarce and cannot be everywhere at once. Even if Congress were to expand and sustain security assistance spending the military has a very limited capacity to deliver more. Furthermore, officers outside of USSOCOM have little incentive to sign on for those duties. There are too few conventional units and organizations focused on delivering military skills and capabilities to foreign allies and virtually no rewards in terms of promotion and professional development for young officers. The military must reform itself to increase its capacity to produce military aid. This requires creating and incentivizing foreign advisor opportunities for talented officers as well as reshaping some units and organizations such as outlined by Dr. John Nagl of the Center for a New American Security in his publication Institutionalizing Adaptation: It’s Time for a Permanent Army Advisor Corps.
Security assistance is a unique blend of our economic, military and diplomatic instruments of power and it was neglected as a tool of national defense strategy over the last thirty years in favor of other defense spending priorities. In order for us to more fully exploit security assistance effects the US government must commit to less variable, broader and slightly larger funding streams even if that commitment comes at the expense of our own conventional military force.
In my opinion one of the most pressing needs is for advocates of foreign military aid to develop better methods of evaluation. Foresight, as Bastiat would agree, is always and everywhere in short supply. Instead of hoping that foresight will come along the more plausible strategy is to try and make the unseen effects seen. Blind faith is not sufficient justification to the American people as to why we send money and military assistance abroad. Military and civilian leaders who are skeptical of security assistance effectiveness and prefer to focus on the US armed forces need to be persuaded and educated with stronger evidence. We have to be able to show how our investments in partner nation capacity five, ten and twenty years ago made a difference and prevented the deployment of American troops into a foreign country. The great epistemological problem of security assistance must be overcome otherwise this national security tool will remain underutilized. The opportunity cost of not using security assistance is too large to ignore. Helping our allies to stop local terrorist groups, dismantle criminal networks, and deter cross-border aggression with zero or minimal US support is the goal and will allow us to commit our finite resources elsewhere. This attainment of this goal is absolutely paramount to our national security. The will and appetite of the American people to commit US forces abroad or to continue to write blank checks for us has been exhausted.