Nov. 20, 2017

Introduction: Defense Institution Building: A New Paradigm for the 21st Century

Today, the United States faces a security paradox. On the one hand, the U.S. military is unrivaled in size, strength, capacity, and budget; on the other hand, the global operating environment of the 21st century is diffuse and complex. Beyond the rise of geopolitical challenges from China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia, threats to the United States are increasingly unpredictable and often asymmetrical. From terrorist groups that thrive in the absence of strong governance to transnational criminal networks unhindered by state borders, such challenges stipulate that no single nation, regardless of its traditional military might, can completely address its security objectives alone. The United States is no exception. Developing a network of competent partners that can share the burdens and responsibilities of global security, embracing a strategy of coalition and cooperation, is therefore vital to U.S. interests.

Nov. 20, 2017


Defense institution building (DIB) must be studied, understood, and refined as a discipline in order to generate the knowledge and skills necessary to effectively support partner nations in building professional defense institutions. Yet, while DIB has grown in importance in the past two decades, the development of DIB programs at the Department of Defense (DOD) has primarily been a bottom-up effort, leaving a vacuum in top-level thinking on the issue. Despite growing knowledge and experience gained regarding DIB in recent years, there remains a gap in dedicated literature on this relatively new discipline. Aware of this gap, Thomas (“Tommy”) Ross approached the National Defense University during the summer of 2015 with the idea of developing a book devoted entirely to DIB. As the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Security Cooperation, Tommy recognized both the importance and the underutilization of DIB as a key instrument in the security assistance and cooperation toolkit, as well as the extent of untapped knowledge and expertise in the nascent DIB community.

Nov. 20, 2017

1. DIB in the Broader Security Architecture

Give us the tools,” Prime Minister Winston Churchill said in his famous Lend Lease radio address, to “finish the job.”1 The United States has been “giving tools” to strategic allies for the better part of a century. Historically, this assistance was used to buttress the defense sectors of key allies like Greece, Turkey, Israel, and Egypt against state threats.2 Although the programs varied across countries, U.S. security assistance throughout the Cold War involved long-term efforts to build infrastructure, such as runways, and the provision of major weapons systems, such as tanks or fighter jets, to countries seen as essential in the fight against communism. With few exceptions, little attention was paid to how these countries’ security sectors functioned internally or how their security institutions were managed and led.

Nov. 20, 2017

2. Defining the Discipline in Theory and Practice

January 2012 brought one of the more unexpected and profound international crises in recent years: the establishment of an al-Qaeda-controlled terrorist safe haven spanning a region the size of Texas, within a five-hour flight of western Europe. Groups of Tuareg rebels returning home after the collapse of Qaddafi’s Libya started an armed uprising in northern Mali that would soon be co-opted by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), sparking the utter collapse of state security in the region. The Malian Army should have been prepared for this challenge. For the previous 10 years, the United States had spent tens of millions of dollars training and equipping Malian forces to confront terrorist groups and to maintain control of their sovereign territory. In the three years leading up to the crisis, U.S. special operations forces had particularly focused efforts on training an elite counterterrorism unit, the Compagnie de Forces Speciales (CFS).

Nov. 20, 2017

3. Attributes of a Democratic and Competent Defense Partner

The ultimate goal of defense institution building (DIB) is to assist in the development of partner armed forces that are competently organized, trained, and equipped in accordance with democratic civil-military principles, and that plan and conduct military operations skillfully while under the full political direction of a democratic government. Historically, such partner nations have consistently served in coalitions with the United States against authoritarian regimes from the Soviet Union in the Cold War, through Serbia in the Balkans, to Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War, and the Taliban in the Afghan War. It is these nations that share the United States’ vision of a prosperous, peaceful, secure, and free world and are willing to use their armed forces to achieve that vision.

Nov. 20, 2017

4. Paradoxes of Partnership

Defense institution building (DIB) requires a well-calibrated approach to establishing working partnerships with host-country counterparts. The past 15 years of assistance leave no doubt that host-country officials are the change agents responsible and vital for ushering in new institutional processes, and ensuring they are underpinned by the necessary competencies of individuals and systems. This insight highlights two critical elements necessary for DIB success: local buy-in and local ownership. While this lesson is reflected in the discourse and increasing attention on DIB, planning and implementation are plagued by significant confusion about how partners and partnerships fit into the endeavor. Indeed, approaches to host-country partners and partnerships differ greatly. An ad hoc approach to partnership, and confusion on how to build effective relationships with host governments and individual officials, can pose significant impediments to sustainable and successful DIB activities—particularly when there is a tendency in the Department of Defense (DOD) and the U.S. foreign policy community to influence the behavior of host-country counterparts and institutions to primarily achieve U.S. interests.

Nov. 20, 2017

5. Assessment and Program Design

With the increased Department of Defense (DOD) focus on building partner capacity (BPC) activities since 2001—ranging from routine, steady-state efforts to encourage democratic and competent partners, to the more extreme cases of Afghanistan and Iraq—most stakeholders involved in security cooperation are conversant with the basic lessons captured in the chapters in this volume. Each country is unique; solutions must be appropriate for partner-nation realities and should not simply mirror U.S. organizations and processes. The influence of external actors, including the United States, is limited; change will be driven from within. There will be actors who actively oppose change. Even when change is desired, it may require cultural adjustments that take time. External actors should have patience; trust and relationship building are essential first steps in supporting change processes. And while the military is important, it is just one tool that a state has at its disposal to achieve national security objectives and serve its citizenry; effective engagement on security issues requires a comprehensive whole-of-government approach.

Nov. 20, 2017

7. Human Resources Management

Strategic human resource management (HRM) is a fundamentally important institutional capability for all defense organizations, and thus a key element of defense institution building (DIB). Although each nation manages its defense institutions differently, every nation needs its own overarching concept, along with policies, plans, and programs, to manage its security forces and the people in them. HRM combines with other technical elements, such as resource management and logistics, to form the pillars that support the overall administration of a nation’s defense sector. Successful strategic human resources (HR) systems provide not only for the armed forces themselves, but also for the organizations and institutions that support those forces. Absence or failure of this pillar would be a serious if not fatal flaw in a nation’s overall defense posture. Accordingly, partner nations have a significant interest in adapting and transforming their strategic HR systems to align with modern best practices.

Nov. 20, 2017

6. Strategy, Policy, and Defense Management Architecture

Defense institution building (DIB) activities help partner nations address gaps in how they manage their defense sectors. Ensuring that a nation’s defense management architecture includes a solid defense strategy and policy (DSP) framework is key to successful DIB initiatives. Effective strategy and policy are only achieved if a nation designates roles and missions for the defense sector and defense leaders, which can then be translated into defense guidance for planning and budgeting. Budgets not driven by strategy and defense guidance are at best, prone to status quo outcomes, and at worst, promote ineffective, inefficient, and corrupt flows of state resources. Good strategy and policy will also identify human resource and logistics needs. Strategy can then lead to analytically sound (ideally, “joint”) requirements for the defense sector to generate military units and operations—the ultimate test of DIB impact and partner-nation institutional capacity.

Nov. 20, 2017

8. Logistics

Logistics is an elemental component of all military operations; it is not only a major function unto itself, but also a vital consideration in every other aspect. Logistics essentially undergirds operational capability in support of national security. Rear Admiral Henry Eccles, the seminal logistics theorist of the twentieth century, is credited with the idea that logistics sets the reach of the operational commander. While every commander and senior leader understands the importance of logistics, it is too often seen that a failure to consider, plan for, and resource logistics has resulted in diminished operational capability or even mission failure.


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