News | Nov. 20, 2017

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

By Alexandra Kerr Effective, Legitimate, Secure: Insights for Defense Institution Building

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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.

In the contemporary context, however, many partner countries lack the capacity to defend their own populations and borders, never mind the capabilities necessary to contribute meaningfully to international coalitions, peacekeeping operations, or shared security goals with other countries. At a time when tangential conflicts and threats originating far from the U.S. homeland frequently have direct consequences for the United States, its security, and its allies, the ability of partner countries to maintain their own security and stability is critical. The challenge, then, for the United States is how to best invest its resources to help establish strong and capable defense partners. To this end, security cooperation and assistance programs are the main line of effort, but traditional approaches employed by these programs have proven insufficient to instate sustained improvements to partners’ defense sectors.

Defense institution building (DIB) seeks to fill the gap in these traditional approaches by supporting partners in developing the strong institutional foundations needed for legitimate, effective, professional, and sustainable defense sectors that contribute to the overall security and prosperity of the state—and in turn, to regional stability and U.S. national security. This chapter provides a wave-top introduction to the concept of DIB, the context from which it emerged and developed, what the DIB process entails, and its importance to the national security goals of the United States. It then lays out the structure of the book and reviews the content of the four main sections, concluding with a discussion of some of the major crosscutting themes that run throughout the chapters.


Defense institution building is a relatively recent concept that has grown in response to three distinct but related developments since the end of the Cold War. First, DIB’s operating theory is a legacy of the concept of security sector reform (SSR) that emerged during the 1990s; second, the practice of DIB has its roots in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Partnership for Peace (PfP) program, which began as a way to reform the defense sectors of former-Warsaw Pact states after the fall of the Soviet Union; and third, it has evolved in response to the increased spending on, and use of, U.S. security assistance and cooperation efforts in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 (9/11), particularly as these efforts shifted toward effectiveness and building capacity.1

Roots in Security Sector Reform and PfP

The link between functioning institutional governance and effective security emerged during the tumultuous decade following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. For the previous 40 years, the divide between Communism and the West had ordered the international system into two opposing camps. Almost every aspect of U.S. strategy—including the approach to both development aid, and security assistance and cooperation—was seen through the lens of containing the spread of communism, while extending the reach of liberal democracy. In the case of security assistance, the United States delivered weapons, equipment, and training to key partners and allies in order to forge or maintain relationships, and to strengthen their defensive postures (among other national priorities, like access for the U.S. military and bolstering the domestic defense industrial base).2 While U.S. security assistance aimed to strengthen its partners against Soviet-sponsored insurgencies, it did so from a strictly military standpoint, with little if any involvement in the governance aspects of the partners’ security and defense sectors.

The dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 prompted drastic changes in the global political and security landscape, and in turn, altered how security was conceptualized. While many had expected the end of the bipolar order to usher in an era of peace, instead there was an emergence of fragile, often predatory states and a shift from interstate conflict to intrastate violence, marked by deep divisions along ethnic or religious lines.

For the security community, the resulting operating environment was characterized by humanitarian interventions to end conflict, often coupled with peacekeeping operations to prevent violence from reigniting in post-conflict environments. While the U.S. security assistance and cooperation system remained largely unchanged in terms of equipment grants and sales—with an emphasis on sales to help offset the sluggish U.S. economic recovery after the 1990 recession3 and a redistribution of funds, giving larger sums to fewer countries (e.g., Egypt, Israel, and Colombia)—the goal of this assistance shifted from simply thwarting communism, to emphasizing the promotion of democracy and civilian control of the military.4 Thus, in addition to traditional Foreign Military Sales (FMS) and Foreign Military Financing (FMF), programs such as International Military Education and Training, the Center for Civil-Military Relations, the Defense Institute of International Legal Studies, and the Regional Centers were instituted in the nineties to further these objectives.5

For the development community, the concept of “human security” dominated assistance efforts in the post-Cold War context. Human security shifted the focus of security from the state to the individual, and moved beyond traditional security apparatuses to include the social, economic, and political conditions necessary for ensuring the protection of the individual. Where securing the sovereignty and territory of the state had, in many cases, superseded the protection of the basic needs of citizens, the human security paradigm maintained that the protection from harm and the provision of the basic needs of individuals were critical to both individual and national security.6 In the global South, the lack of social and economic development was perceived as a major threat to human security. The development sector thus concentrated resources on strengthening weak and post-conflict states through economic aid, focusing on liberalizing the economies of fragile states on the premise that this would reduce poverty and improve social progress toward liberal democracy. They did so while largely shying away from engagement with these countries’ security and defense sectors (many of which had supported or led authoritarian regimes throughout the Cold War, and remained tainted by corruption, human-rights violations, and ineffectiveness).7

However, prosperity and stability can seldom take hold when development is pursued without security.8 The problem with decoupling development from security was two-fold: First, at the same time that efforts were being made to improve the economies of fragile states, militaries that had been propped up by outside regimes during the Cold War remained bloated and rife with resource-syphoning corruption. The opportunity for development efforts to help downsize or rightsize militaries, promote civilian control, and reallocate the excess resources to civilian activities, was initially overlooked. Second, the state’s capacity to protect the population from threats within its borders and to defend those borders from external threats is a necessary condition in order for socio-political and economic development to take hold; human security requires functioning and effective security services. Insufficient attention had been paid to the correlation between fragility and the role of functioning security sector institutions in a state’s ability to deliver security to its citizens. As Kofi Annan would later put it, “We will not enjoy security without development, we will not enjoy development without security.”9

This gave rise to a reevaluation of the delivery of international assistance, both in terms of security and development. Clare Short, then UK Secretary of State for Development, recounted that at this stage,

we needed to re-examine all the instruments of policy. Aid could no longer be an instrument of Cold War policy propping up kleptocratic dictators such as Mobutu simply because they were firmly pro-Western. Arms sales, and export credits and military assistance programs needed re-examination. And the propaganda, which stressed the provision of aid as an act of charity for the poor and hopeless, also needed reconsideration. If we meant to seize this historical opportunity, we needed to re-examine all the old assumptions and develop policy focused on helping end conflict and building competent state institutions that would encourage economic growth and human development in the poorest countries.10

The resulting concept of SSR (which Short went on to champion) focused on governance and highlighted the nexus between development and security.11 Where the traditional security assistance paradigm focused on improving security force effectiveness and the traditional development assistance approach did not address the security aspects of the state, SSR instead argued for a holistic approach to enhancing partner capacity in all aspects of the security sector. The SSR approach would achieve this by improving the governance, oversight, accountability, transparency, and professionalism of security sector forces and institutions, in line with democratic principles and the rule of law.12 Importantly, SSR argued for the importance of functioning professional ministerial institutions to sustained security capacity. While SSR tended to focus on the domestic side of the security sector (e.g., law enforcement or justice), its emphasis on the governance of security institutions laid the theoretical groundwork from which DIB has developed.

Toward the end of the decade, the SSR construct enjoyed widespread support in Europe, particularly the UK, and from Canada, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the United Nations.13 While SSR did not received the same institutional acceptance in the United States, the idea gained traction among both the security and development sectors. One example of this was Plan Colombia—the security and assistance package developed by the United States and Colombia in 2000, when the country was overwhelmed by violence that emanated from drug trafficking and organized crime, as well as an armed insurgency, and in danger of becoming a failed democracy. Plan Colombia is discussed in greater detail in subsequent chapters, but it is worth mentioning in the context of SSR as it sought to reform governance of the entire security sector of Colombia, not just bolster its military capabilities.14

The United States was also deeply involved in the post-Cold War efforts of NATO in Europe—which strongly reflected SSR principles.15 The alliance had found new purpose in helping support the sudden influx of fledgling democracies that emerged from the former Warsaw Pact alliance. While these states sought to throw off their authoritarian past, many teetered on the brink of falling back into old, familiar habits, and, recognizing that imminent support was necessary to stop this regression, NATO pledged to provide assistance to help navigate the difficult transition to democracy. This included targeted security assistance and cooperation to help reshape Soviet-era defense sectors, primarily through the PfP program, which was established in 1994 and supported by the United States through the launch of the Warsaw Initiative Fund—later renamed the Wales Initiative Fund (WIF)—the same year. PfP attached the carrot of potential NATO membership to countries’ security sector reform efforts.16 States that desired deeper ties with NATO, and those hoping for eventual membership in the alliance, received security assistance to help bring their outdated defense sectors in line with those of NATO members. PfP aimed to ensure that new democracies had defense sectors built on Euro-Atlantic principles of civilian control and democratic governance in order to safeguard regional stability. Importantly, PfP did not just seek to provide the new states with training and equipment, but rather emphasized the implementation of governance mechanisms throughout the entire security sector, including the establishment or overhaul of democratic, accountable, and professional defense institutions.

The Short-Term Capability, Long-Term Capacity Disconnect

The 9/11 terrorist attacks prompted another fundamental shift in U.S. national security strategy. With the focus on combating irregular warfare and rising global terrorism, security swung back toward the type of war-fighting response seen during the Cold War, including arming and training partners to assist in the Global War on Terrorism alongside U.S. forces. Effective counterterrorism relied on the ability of states to defend their own territory and secure their own populations—sealing porous borders and shrinking ungoverned spaces. Security assistance and cooperation efforts were thus oriented toward providing tools—primarily in the form of training and equipment—to supplement the weak militaries and internal security forces of strategic partners (particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq) to improve their operational and tactical proficiency.

The magnitude of U.S. security cooperation investments after 9/11 accounted for billions of defense dollars annually, particularly in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan.17 Yet, these huge investments resulted in only (some) short-term progress: ultimately, the provision of more assistance did not mean the provision of better assistance. In the context of these conflict zones, Title 10 security cooperation was mainly used for putting out fires in the immediate term, primarily through a familiar train and equip paradigm, the provision of which was considered critical to counterterrorism and counterinsurgency efforts; partners were given the “stuff” they needed, such as trucks or weapons, to help fulfill a directive to contain the “bad guys” by countering an imminent threat. In this sense, short-term wins gave the impression that gap filling, e.g., the provision of trucks and weapons, was successfully building capacity. While these programs were also intended to build each country’s ability to deliver effective security and defense after the United States disengaged, within a short time it became clear that major investments in time, money, and personnel had not resulted in corresponding increases in institutionalized and sustainable partner capacity—and in some cases, overall security had even diminished.

Discussing post-9/11 security assistance and cooperation, then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted in 2010, “[t]he security assistance system, which was designed for the more predictable requirements of the Cold War, proved unequal to the test.”18 To understand why, look to the example of security cooperation in the form of large-scale military equipment. Through FMF or FMS, the United States may, for instance, provide a partner with helicopters in order to assist U.S. forces in a specific mission to fend off an insurgent group. And indeed these helicopters may serve that short-term purpose. But if the country’s military does not have functioning institutional logistics, resource management, and human resources systems, then that partner will not have access to the fuel to power the helicopters or the funds to buy fuel to power them, personnel with the knowledge to fix and maintain the helicopters, access to the unique parts necessary to fix them, or the funds to buy the necessary parts. And so those helicopters will most likely be rusting on the tarmac within a year.

This all too frequent scenario—perhaps substituting helicopters for F16s or empty U.S.-built training facilities—highlights that while such programs can sometimes serve U.S. interests in the short term, the partner’s long-term capacity to counter threats and secure its population is not correlatively strengthened; equipment and training that fill short-term gaps do not result in the capacity to deliver and maintain security in the longer term. Put simply, a piece of equipment is not a capability and its possession alone does not increase capacity. Therefore the delivery of training and equipment alone, regardless of the amount, did not lead to functioning defense sectors in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Problematically, the rapid responses necessary for countering groups like al-Qaeda and the Taliban left little time for considering post-conflict governance, and the illusion of success, as seen through short-term gains, further distorted the need for long-term governance planning.19 The critical flaw in the gap-filling approach is that it misses the inextricable correlation between institutions and absorptive capacity—i.e. that foundational institutions must be in place for a partner to be able to assimilate and apply the training, knowledge, skills, and equipment that the United States provides through other forms of security assistance and cooperation.20 In the case of Afghanistan and Iraq, the security sectors were at best dysfunctional and functioning defense institutions were often nonexistent. These partners thus lacked the capacity to absorb training and equipment, and to sustain it once the United States left; so even though there was a graduation goal, graduation was not possible.

In light of this, the past ten years have seen sustained partner capacity—that is, the capability to maintain effective security and defense once the United States is no longer involved—become a critical goal of security cooperation efforts. These conflicts revealed that while there is often tension between the provision of security in the immediate context and building institutions for the long run, the latter cannot be subverted if the ultimate goal is sustained partner capacity. “Building Partner Capacity” activities have expanded to reflect a more holistic approach to strengthening partner states by focusing on the effective, legitimate, transparent, and accountable governance of various elements that make up the security and defense sectors.21 These activities stress the importance of addressing the core, underlying problems in the institutional foundations of these sectors in order for a country to develop long-term capabilities to secure its population and defend its sovereign borders, and to ultimately contribute to shared security goals with the United States.

Within this context, defense institution building is one of the integral components of any effort to establish long-term defense capacity. DIB takes on the considerable challenge of helping partner nations establish or reorient their human resources, organizations, rules, norms, values, processes, and behaviors to develop a functioning and professional defense sector, in order to develop and manage security forces, subject to civilian control, that can defend and secure the state. In so doing, DIB helps lay the foundations of defense.

Defense Institution Building

Defense institutions are the foundation of professional defense establishments. At a fundamental level, defense institutions play an essential role in fulfilling the social contract: defending sovereign borders and territories of the state, ensuring the security and prosperity of the citizens therein, protecting the interests and values of the state abroad, and maintaining national and regional stability. They serve to deliver and maintain the present and future strategies and capabilities that the armed forces need in order to conduct their operations. Democratic defense institutions also safeguard civilian control of the military and are themselves accountable to the government, to legislation, and ultimately to the electorate.

In the United States, the Department of Defense (DOD) employs over 700,000 civilian personnel, in addition to the nearly 1.5 million active-duty members of the military and hundreds of thousands of reservists.22 While physically headquartered at the Pentagon, DOD utilizes sites covering over 30 million acres of land,23 and operates on the world’s largest defense budget: $590.5 billion for Financial Year 2017.24 While these figures are impressive, tangible assets do not in and of themselves constitute an institution. Rather, defense institutions are comprised of people, organizations, rules, norms, values, processes, and behaviors that enable oversight, governance, management, and functionality of the defense enterprise.25

For the United States, DIB is based on the recognition that in order to be effective defense partners, countries need professional defense sectors, which in turn require functioning defense institutions. If a country’s defense sector is unaccountable, poorly managed, and not subject to civilian control, it will be difficult for the rest of the government to govern effectively or to promote social wellbeing and economic prosperity—never mind for democracy to take hold. Unfortunately, countries that fall into this category outweigh those with accountable and democratic defense institutions: Transparency International’s most recent Government Defense Anti-corruption Index, which “assesses the existence, effectiveness and enforcement of institutional and informal controls to manage the risk of corruption in defence and security institutions,” places 80 countries (i.e. 70 percent of the 114 countries analyzed in 2015) in the “high” to “critical” risk range.26 Countries with such high levels of political, financial, operational, personnel, and procurement risk in their defense institutions pose a direct threat to the stability of the state and their respective regions. This shines a light on the extent of the challenge, and why practitioners must study and plan for DIB separately from (though in coordination with) other types of institution building and security assistance and cooperation.

An Emerging Discipline

Only in the past decade has DIB been approached as a separate discipline and employed as a distinct tool of national security. As mentioned above, recent U.S. activities that target partner institutional capacity at the ministerial level primarily date back to the establishment of PfP in the 1990s. The successes of PfP contributed significantly to the recognition of DIB’s importance as a fundamental element of security cooperation, and laid the groundwork for the development of targeted DIB activities at DOD. The term “defense institution building” also has its origins in NATO. It was first used officially in the Partnership Action Plan on Defense Institution Building, launched at the NATO Istanbul Summit in 2004, which laid out the following 10 objectives for NATO to assist its partners in developing democratic defense institutions:27

  • Effective and transparent arrangements for the democratic control of defense activities;
  • Civilian participation in developing defense and security policy;
  • Effective and transparent legislative and judicial oversight of the defense sector;
  • Enhanced assessment of security risks and national defense requirements, matched with developing and maintaining affordable and interoperable capabilities;
  • Optimizing the management of defense ministries and other agencies which have associated force structures;
  • Compliance with international norms and practices in the defense sector, including export controls;
  • Effective and transparent financial, planning, and resource allocation procedures in the defense area;
  • Effective management of defense spending as well as of the socio-economic consequences of defense restructuring;
  • Effective and transparent personnel structures and practices in the defense forces;
  • and Effective international cooperation and good neighborly relations in defense and security matters.

Use of the word “building” in DIB has proven somewhat controversial (particularly with partners), given that the large majority of efforts do not actually build institutions from scratch, but rather help partners to strengthen and reform the governance and management of particular elements of their existing institutional systems. The nuances of the concept are clarified in the 2016 DOD Directive 5205.82 Defense Institution Building, which defines DIB efforts as “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.”28 In the more recent National Defense Authorization Act for 2017, the term “defense institution building” was expanded upon to the more appropriate “defense institution capacity building,” though this terminology has yet to replace DIB in most instances.29

DIB includes missions that “improve the civilian control of armed forces; transmit values of respect for the rule of law and human rights; improve the management methods of defense institutions, as well as their support elements (most prominently: logistics, human resources, and financial management); [and] professionalize defense personnel.”30 DIB is therefore not one single program, but rather a process undertaken by a mosaic of programs and actors, primarily in the Department of Defense. Within DOD, the Defense Governance Management Team (DGMT) is the lead implementer of DIB efforts. The main programs and centers that deal specifically with DIB are the Center for Civil-Military Relations, the Ministry of Defense Advisors Program, the Defense Institution Reform Initiative, WIF-DIB, the Defense Institute of International Legal Studies, and the DOD Regional Centers.31 Other U.S. agencies (such as the U.S. State Department [DOS]), countries (including the UK and France), and organizations (most prominently, NATO) also engage in DIB-related activities. As a 2016 RAND report highlighted, coordination between and among these DIB (and DIB-related) activities, programs, and actors will need to be enhanced to avoid unnecessary overlap, miscommunication, and subversion.32

It is worth noting that DIB is an emerging and evolving practice, taking place in diverse contexts worldwide, and cannot be “owned” by any single proponent. While this book offers numerous descriptions and insights on DIB, any attempt to define the practice by administrative fiat, or rigidly codify its techniques and methods will restrict the intellectual space needed for DIB to remain adaptable in the face of diverse and ever-changing environments. While DIB has been codified in a DOD Directive and other publications, this does not mean that the definitions, characterizations, practices, and principles are universally accepted. As with any emerging discipline, there are predictable definitional disputes, bureaucratic competitions, and parochial rivalries. DIB is no different in this regard with various offices, commands, agencies, and even countries and individuals seeking to set the terms and parameters as the practice evolves. Thus, even in this book, the reader will perceive some nuanced differences in definitions, usages, and prescriptions.

DIB Engagements

DIB activities target defense institutions responsible for oversight, management, and governance of a partner’s defense sector at the national level. While the preferred entry-point is the Ministry of Defense, DIB requires working across multiple levels of the defense sector (e.g., general staff and service headquarters) and with multiple stakeholders; defense institutions are a system of systems and all must be involved in the process for the changes to truly take hold. The length of DIB engagements varies between programs and activities; DGMT projects, for example, tend to last multiple years, and engagements between the U.S. practitioners and the partner-nation counterparts are carried out on the ground, lasting generally one to two weeks at a time. The main phases of a DGMT DIB effort—which are not necessarily linear in practice, but rather necessarily blend and overlap—include scoping and assessment; capability-based planning and program design; implementation; continuous monitoring and evaluations; and ultimately, graduation (U.S. exit).

The scoping and assessment phase looks at the historical and current political, socio-economic, and cultural context to determine a useful baseline for the DIB engagement. This phase seeks to accrue an accurate picture of the existing defense institutions and culture (e.g., defense processes and structures, and how the defense establishment relates to other parts of government), the partner nation’s existing capabilities and resources, what U.S. assistance the partner nation desires and why, and who stands to lose or gain from the changes. The planning and program design phase uses the partner context that was determined by the assessment to link the project strategy to realistic resource availability and project feasibility based on pragmatic expectations about constraints. The planning phase is also when U.S. and partner-nations negotiate and determine goals and priorities. Determining the overarching security goals of the partner nation is as critical to this stage as identifying their DIB goals. Understanding broader security objectives can help practitioners guide the planning process toward the most useful place to start, which is not always the starting point the partner initially has in mind.

During implementation, the U.S. practitioners help the partner to reform specific areas of their defense institutions, including but not limited to strategy, policy and planning, human resources management, resources management, and strategic logistics. Steady assessments take place throughout implementation to determine if the original plan is working and to make course adjustments where necessary. U.S. and partner practitioners’ are also monitored to determine if they are fulfilling their agreed-upon role in the effort, and if sufficient progress is being made toward “North Star” goals—the overarching outcomes being sought by both sides. All DIB efforts aim to end with graduation, the partner having the developed institutional capacity to a point where the United States can disengage—though this is not an end-state, as all institutions continue to evolve over time. This layout of phases is, of course, a significantly simplified vision; in practice, DIB is far more complicated and convoluted by external events, human agents, and the specificities of context.

DIB in the Broader Security Cooperation and Assistance Context

While it is a distinct discipline, DIB does not exist in a vacuum; it is one important tool to advance U.S. interests. As Congress seeks to develop a broader comprehensive strategy for security cooperation in the 21st century operating environment, the indispensability of DIB is reinforced.33 DIB is not synonymous with building partner capacity or SSR, but complements efforts related to both. That said, DIB should not be seen as an “add-on” after the fact to make other investments sustainable; rather, it should be integrated into the front end of any security cooperation conversation and planning to ensure that the assistance provided, such as training and equipment, can be sustained.

Security assistance and cooperation efforts are the chief line of effort in the U.S. toolkit to help partners bolster their security and work with the United States to support common security objectives. In the context of this book, the authors often use these terms for their intrinsic meanings, as DIB efforts entail both “assisting” and “cooperating” with the partner to improve the partner’s institutional defense capacity. But it is important to note here that the official distinction between “security cooperation” and “security assistance” activities within the U.S. government has to do with the agency administering the program: in simplest terms, it is either an activity of the Department of Defense (security cooperation) or the Department of State (security assistance).

DOD and DOS have shared responsibility for engaging with foreign partner militaries since the mid-twentieth century, with the bulk of congressional security assistance funding allocated to the Department of State through Title 22 (Foreign Affairs) of the U.S. Code.34 Programs overseen and given direction by DOS but administered by DOD, however, are considered security cooperation activities. In the modern context, and particularly after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the legal framework for the funding and administration of such activities has evolved in response to emerging threats. Congress has increasingly granted funding and authorities directly to DOD under Title 10 (Armed Services) of the U.S. Code for security cooperation, particularly for improving the capacity of partners “to enable foreign forces to take greater responsibility for their own defense and for achieving mutual security goals in order to reduce U.S. costs.”35 Therefore, while DOS security assistance programs can include DIB components, the majority of DIB-specific programming is funded under Title 10 and is thus security cooperation. This tangle of authorities is difficult to unwind, even for those intimately involved in the security cooperation and security assistance enterprises, and in the case of DIB, it can be a point of friction within and between agencies.

The Strategic Role of DIB in U.S. Security Interests

With the number of programs that already exist to strengthen the security and defensive capabilities of U.S. partners and allies, questions arise about “if” and “why” DIB should be set apart as a separate discipline with specific programming. The answer to this lies in the distinct strategic role that DIB plays for the United States. While the partner’s objectives and perspectives have to be the starting point for all engagements, DIB efforts are not undertaken simply for the benefit of partner nations. DIB plays three major strategic roles for U.S. national security: sustaining security investments, increasing regional and global stability, and creating partners capable of sharing security burdens.

First, by increasing the partner’s absorptive capacity, DIB increases the sustainability of U.S. security investments.36 In order to ensure the effective oversight, management, and functionality of all other forms of security cooperation and assistance, partners must first have functioning institutional systems; without them, partners lack the ability to permanently assimilate and apply the training, knowledge, skills, and equipment provided by the United States. This is the necessity of functioning institutions for absorptive capacity. DIB enhances and complements the gains made by other capacity-building programs, ensuring that the United States gets the “most bang for its buck.” In addition to increasing the viability of investments, DIB complements the goals of other security assistance and cooperation efforts by maintaining and improving relationships with partners and allies, and by addressing some of the major problems other capacity-building programs have faced after the United States leaves, including the misuse of U.S. provided training and equipment.

Second, DIB reduces state instability and fragility, which can lead to regional instability, internal conflicts (which can spread beyond state borders), terrorist safe havens, and ungoverned spaces that transnational criminal organizations can utilize—all of which threaten U.S. national interests and security. The establishment of functioning defense institutions increases stability by enhancing the partner nation’s capacity to address its own security needs, protect its population, maintain governance, and ensure border security. DIB facilitates the preconditions for defense sectors to function as they should, and the resulting security allows governments and populations to focus resources on strengthening governance, civil society, rule of law, and economic prosperity—all of which are vital to long-term stability. In a 2014 RAND report assessing the utility of U.S. security cooperation as a preventive tool to reduce instability, researchers analyzed security cooperation efforts in 107 countries between 1991 and 2008 to test the hypothesis that “[security cooperation] to bolster a partner state’s security institutions can be used as a preventive measure to reduce fragility and decrease the need for larger and more- extensive U.S. military interventions.”37 The study revealed that the correlation is more nuanced: the effectiveness of U.S. security cooperation in preventing conflicts and reducing stability is more pronounced in countries that have strong institutions (including defense institutions) and “the capacity to project [their] governance functions throughout [their] territory.”38 DIB is thus a necessary first step for providing the institutional foundations necessary for stability.

Third, by building long-term partner defensive capabilities, DIB helps to create partners with the ability to contribute meaningfully to shared security goals with the United States and its allies, such as counterterrorism or peacekeeping efforts. At a time when emerging threats are difficult to predict and therefore difficult to plan for, DIB can serve to enhance the ability of the United States to be proactive rather than reactive in shaping the future security environment.

Overview of the Book

This volume was born of the recognition that there is a dearth of thinking, writing, and analysis dedicated to the emerging practice of defense institution building in the United States, despite the fact that it has become and will remain a powerful tool of national security. While insights that are derived from existing SSR literature are often directly applicable to DIB, much of what is written about SSR focuses on the internal security apparatuses of the state—such as the police, border guards, or the justice system.39 Similarly, while institutional capacity-building literature exists and can be useful to DIB, building defense institutions stands apart from other institution building because defense institutions are unique in their global scope, inherently more sensitive nature, and existential role for the state.40 As a product of bottom-up evolution, there has only recently been high-level thinking on DIB in the Department of Defense. While DIB practitioners agree that DIB is not yet as good as it could be, insights and lessons from their experiences around the world have not been systematically recorded. Without looking to past and existing efforts, little can be done to improve DIB undertakings in the future. This book is therefore motivated by a desire to take a first step toward formalizing the study of DIB, laying the groundwork for refining the discipline.

This is not, however, a handbook for “how to do DIB.” Instead, it is a collection of reflections, opinions, analyses, insights, and suggestions. The authors range from DIB practitioners to high-ranking policymakers and former members of the military, to diplomats, academics, and experts from other fields and countries. They have obtained their data through experience on the ground, historical accounts, intimate knowledge of the decision-making processes, and interviews. Their thoughts on DIB do not reflect a single or unified position, and indeed in some cases authors sharply diverge in their analysis, interpretations, or opinions. This diversity of thought gives the reader the opportunity to form a rounded perspective on where the DIB discipline has come from, where it stands now, and how it may evolve in the future. The chapters seek to answer, or at least begin to address, the following questions:

  • What is DIB and what is its purpose?
  • How is DIB undertaken within the current security cooperation architecture?
  • How does DIB support U.S. security assistance and cooperation goals?
  • Why is DIB important to achieving high-level U.S. policies?
  • What are the U.S. and partner-nation goals, how are they determined, and how can they be reconciled?
  • What role does the partner play at each phase from planning to implementation to evaluation?
  • How can we gain and maintain genuine partner buy-in and ownership?
  • What does the United States want its partners to be able to do, and are the right tools in place to help them achieve this?
  • Why has the United States either failed or succeeded in past DIB efforts?
  • What will ideal DIB scenarios look like?
  • What will the major impediments be, and how can the road blocks be mitigated?
  • Who makes up the DIB workforce?
  • How can practitioners be better equipped for the task?
  • How can we improve the current approach to assessing, monitoring, and evaluating DIB efforts?

The book is divided into four sections that explore the origins and meaning of the DIB discipline, detail the technical elements of a DIB effort, draw on the relevant insights of related experiences, and extract lessons learned from DIB case studies. The conclusion looks to the future of the DIB enterprise in the United States and offers insights for policy makers and practitioners on the major outstanding challenges.

Section One

Section one traces the evolution of DIB from its conceptual origins in the historical events and policy discussions of the post-Cold War period, through the terrorist attacks on 9/11 that brought the abrupt return of operational effectiveness as the primary goal of national security policy, to the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan that demonstrate the limits of relying solely upon training and equipping operational forces to build partner capacity. This historical context sets up the backdrop upon which DIB has emerged as a critical component in assisting partner-nation security forces and institutions to be more effective and accountable.

The theoretical and practical applications of DIB, and how DIB fits into a broader strategy for building partner-nation defense sector capabilities in support of U.S. strategic objectives, are then examined. This includes a description of “what good looks like” in a professional defense partner, and also looks at what DIB efforts have the potential to achieve. While many DIB missions take place in non-democratic countries, DIB activities have the potential to guide our partners in a democratic direction by encouraging transparency, professionalism, and accountability, and by demonstrating how these practices benefit the partner nation more than systems that are rife with nepotism and marred by endemic corruption.

Finally, this section turns a critical eye to the very crux of DIB: partnership. It details the concept of partnership and the crucial role that it plays in DIB endeavors, while examining the challenges and inherent tensions partnership entails. It considers whether the development of a partnership is a means or an end for the United States; whether partnerships are grounded in national security imperatives or the more altruistic, long-term notion of capacity building; the problem of viewing partnerships primarily as a source of interoperability aimed at helping the foreign assistance community; and the paradox inherent in the differing conceptions of partnership.

Section Two

Section two delves into the integral technical elements of DIB from the experiences and perspectives of seasoned DIB practitioners. It begins by detailing the nested levels of the initial assessment and planning phases, which are critical for guiding the long-term effort, and then turns to how to plan a strategic DIB engagement. The planning and assessment phases lay the groundwork for establishing effective defense governance, including the cultivation of several integral systems that make up defense institutions. The second section includes chapters on three of these fundamental “pillars” of a defense institution—strategy and policy development, strategic human resources management, and logistics. A fourth pillar, resource management, is discussed in the specific context of Guatemala as an exemplar in the fourth section.

The second section concludes with one of the most important, but least developed elements of the DIB enterprise: monitoring and evaluation. Evaluation is critical for understanding what is going right and what needs to be altered in a DIB engagement; for communicating to policymakers what is needed for the DIB effort and why; for showing how a program is achieving its intended goals; and for determining if a particular system is working for the partner, as well as whether the partner is playing its mutually agreed part in the endeavor. Yet, practitioners face a challenge in monitoring and evaluating both U.S. DIB efforts and the partner-nation institutions that are the focus of the work, as the North Star goals—a professional defense partner and enhanced U.S. security—are difficult to quantify or connect to specific inputs, and may take decades to come to fruition, while engagements are rarely more than episodic. This chapter examines the potential of a layered, outcome-driven evaluation system for measuring progress and successes in DIB efforts.

Section Three

Section three looks further afield to gain insights from other sectors, agencies, countries, and organizations that have undertaken institution building efforts or have applicability to the DIB enterprise. Defense institution building, while idiosyncratic, is not unique; development agencies have for decades understood that social change depends on the consolidation of robust and inclusive institutions. Any attempt to develop this practice independent of the broader developmental context of institution formation and reform would deprive practitioners of the insights derived from many decades of experience in other sectors. Thus, this section looks first to the development sector, where authors draw insight from New Institutional Economics—a concept that has shown that “how” people manage their relations through institutions (primarily government, but also through informal norms and customs) affects the efficiency and distribution of service delivery and the provision of public goods (in this case, security and defense).

It then examines the State Department’s Security Governance Initiative (SGI), which recognizes that weak or mismanaged security sectors represent significant obstacles to sustainable development, democracy, and peace. President Obama launched SGI in Africa to help develop effective and democratic partner-nation institutions and professional forces rooted in the rule of law and accountable to civilian oversight. Section three then looks at applicable lessons from the United Kingdom’s 20th century experiences in Oman, South Africa, Sierra Leone, and Zimbabwe. Finally, NATO’s DIB efforts, primarily through the PfP program, are examined, and the strengths and weaknesses in NATOs approaches over the years are analyzed.

Section Four

Section four details and analyzes contemporary DIB case studies. Though still an evolving and dynamic activity, the United States has tested and developed approaches through the trial and error of mid-conflict experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the implementation and adaptation of highly successful programs in South America. The DIB effort in Colombia is a salient demonstration of what strong partnerships can accomplish. U.S. DIB efforts in Colombia are reviewed within the context of a long historical relationship, which, over time, established mutual respect and understanding. This section then looks at the recent and highly successful case of DIB in Guatemala. It details how a U.S. team helped the Guatemala Ministry of Defense transform itself from an organization shaped by the demands of past civil wars into a professional defense institution structured to handle new national security paradigms. The case of Guatemala highlights the importance of taking a holistic approach to defense reform and adds to the debate on measuring success in DIB.

Finally, section four looks at the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq. In both countries, U.S. and allied forces focused primarily on raising, training, equipping, and advising army and police forces, but belated attempts were also made to help establish effective ministries in both countries. In Afghanistan, the United States’ main focus after the attacks on 9/11 was to defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda, with little regard or planning for post-conflict governance, and in the case of Iraq, the United States did not anticipate widespread post-conflict instability or plan for the need to rebuild or reform basic defense institutions in the face of this instability. The challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan were (and are) formidable—from financial, materiel, and time constraints, to lack of direction from Washington and training for those carrying out the job, to cultural and linguistic differences, political upheaval, widespread corruption, and sectarian turmoil on the ground. In both cases, U.S. and coalition personnel on the ground found themselves adapting to the evolving post-conflict environments and, when it came to DIB, building the plane while they were flying it.

Crosscutting Themes

Throughout the chapters, the reader will find several important crosscutting themes. These may seem familiar and somewhat self-evident to those in the field, but their importance to the DIB enterprise is paramount.

The first is the time factor in DIB efforts. Defense institution building is not a quick fix. It seeks to catalyze institutional change, to address the core of a systemic problem, so that the outcomes of the activities conducted in the near to medium term will be sustained in the long term. While DIB engagements are relatively limited, the time necessary for an institution to undergo the changes set in motion by DIB can take decades or even a generation. Even then, there is no definitive end-point at which an institution becomes perfectly complete: indeed, even institutions in the world’s most advanced democracies continuously change, adapt, and improve. For DIB activities, this gradual pace of change presents a unique set of challenges, from long-term planning, staffing, and funding, to the need for constant adaptation to shifting political environments, to congressional reporting, assessments, and evaluations. This requires both the United States and the partner to develop and agree upon a long-term strategy from the outset that guides the DIB process consistently in the long run.

The second is that one size fits one: that is, the importance of approaching each DIB case without a preset template. A common pitfall is to think of DIB as the transfer of institutional culture. Indeed, there are plenty of cases in which this “mirror-imaging” approach was applied and summarily failed, or resulted in isomorphic mimicry (when a partner’s defense institutions take the form of the donor country’s defense institutions, but have none of the substance or capabilities in practice). Moreover, lessons learned from one DIB endeavor will be largely informed by the cultural and contextual particularities—historical and contemporary—of that country at that time: lessons learned in extreme cases like Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance, are undoubtedly important to identify, but do not always translate seamlessly into best practices for, say, Colombia or Indonesia.41 This reinforces the importance of focusing on customized plans for each country, informed by applicable lessons drawn from related experiences from a variety of sectors, and based on what is realistically possible in that context. Engagement with each country will be different and in order to be sustainable, the institutions that DIB efforts help to form must be appropriate for the unique defense culture of each partner.

Third, partnership and ownership are the crux of defense institution building. The U.S. role in DIB is building defense institutions with, not for, the partner; external influence, after all, can only guide, not drive, real change. DIB starts with the default position that the partner must be all “in” at all stages and at the highest-levels; experience demonstrates that otherwise the institutional changes will fail to take hold. At the outset, this means identifying and clearly defining the partner’s security challenges and priorities, while clearly laying out the overarching objectives of the United States.42 In planning and implementation, partners must be fully engaged in a genuine discussion of competing interests and adjustments of proposals to mutual satisfaction; the role of the United States is to offer actionable solutions, not ultimatums. A take it or leave it approach centered around U.S. demands can lead to the wrong plan being forced on the partner and in turn a misconception about lack of partner will to implement change. Inclusion, flexibility, diplomacy, relationship building (both between the United States and the partner, but also between the partner’s defense ministry and other government ministries in that country), and negotiation with the partner must be employed at every stage of a DIB engagement if the institutional enhancements are to last.

This book is not a blueprint for building defense institutions; rather, it frames the challenge and asks the right questions for further development of the DIB discipline. The chapters herein reinforce the fact that DIB efforts will not be easy, and that while bolstering institutional and governance capacities within a defense sector fills a glaring gap in the traditional approach, DIB is not panacea. But the United States cannot and should not be everywhere at once, and as instability increases and defense budgets shrink, the United States must rely on its partners to share some of the security burden. By using our own strengths to strengthen our partners, DIB can help create security that is lasting.


1 Jeanne Giraldo, “DIB 101,” March 1, 2017, PowerPoint Presentation, slide 3.

2 For a more detailed account of the U.S. security assistance policy during the Cold War broken down by administration, see “Appendix 2: History of Security Assistance and Security Cooperation,” in Green Book: The Management of Security Assistance, Edition 1.0, Defense Institute of Security Assistance Management (Fairborn, OH: Defense Institute of Security Assistance Management, March 2016) available at < >, 4-13.

3 While there was an acknowledgement of the unintended negative consequences of the prolific and under-scrutinized arms transfers that took place during the Cold War, the policies put in place during the 1990s to make arms transfers more judicious were not intended to slow down foreign military sales or grants for the United States.

4 “Appendix 2: History of Security Assistance and Security Cooperation,” op. cit., 15.

5 The George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies was established in 1993; the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies was established in 1995; the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies was established in 1997; and the Africa Center for Strategic Studies was established in 1999. The Near East-South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, however, was not established until the year 2000.

6 Gavin Cawthra, Securing South Africa’s Democracy: Defense, Development and Security in Transition (London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1997), 7-26.

7 Nicole Ball, “The Evolution of the Security Sector Reform Agenda,” in The Future of Security Sector Reform, ed. Mark Sedra (Ontario: The Centre for International Governance Innovation, 2010), 30.

8 Ibid., 32.

9 Kofi Annan, “Secretary-General’s Address to the Commission on Human Rights,” April 7, 2005, available at <>.

10 Clare Short, “Foreword,” in The Future of Security Sector Reform, ed. Mark Sedra (Ontario: The Centre for International Governance Innovation, 2010), 11.

11 The concept of “Security Sector Reform” is also referred to by the terms “Security System Reform,” “Security Sector Transformation,” and “Security Sector Development.”

12 Querine Hanlon and Richard H. Shultz Jr., eds., Prioritizing Security Sector Reform (SSR): A New U.S. Approach (Washington, DC: United states Institute of Peace, 2016), 15.

13 Ibid., 15.

14 See Michael Shifter, “Plan Colombia: A Retrospective,” Americas Quarterly (Summer 2012), available at <>.

15 David G. Haglund, “From USSR to SSR: The Rise and (Partial) Demise of NATO in Security Sector Reform,” in Intergovernmental Organisations and Security Sector Reform, ed. David M. Law (Zurich: LIT Verlag Münster, 2007), 103-122.

16 Yuksel ─░nan and Islam Yusuf, “Partnership for Peace Perceptions,” Journal of International Affairs 4, No. 2 (June - August 1999).

17 Hanlon and Shultz Jr., op. cit., 227.

18 Robert M. Gates, “Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates at the Nixon Center’s Distinguished Service Award,” Remarks at the Nixon Center, Washington, DC, February 24, 2010, available at <>.

19 T.X. Hammes, “Raising and Mentoring Security Forces in Afghanistan and Iraq,” in Lessons Encountered: Learning from the Long War, ed. Richard D. Hooker, Jr. and Joseph J. Collins (Washington DC: National Defense University Press, September 2015).

20 Christopher Paul et al., What Works Best When Building Partner Capacity and Under What Circumstances? (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2013) available at <>, 87-93.

21 Building partner capacity (BPC) is a catchall term used by the U.S. government for a multitude of new security assistance and cooperation programs employed after 9/11.

22 Katherine Blakeley, Analysis of the FY 2017 Defense Budget and Trends in Defense Spending (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2016) available at <>, 1.

23 “About the Department of Defense (DOD),” available at <>.

24 Press Release, “Department of Defense (DOD) Releases Fiscal Year 2017 President’s Budget Proposal,” February 9, 2016, available at <>.

25 Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy, DOD Directive 5205.82 Defense Institution Building (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, January 27, 2016) available at <>.

26 Transparency International Defence and Security Programme, Government Defense Anti-corruption Index 2015, available at <>.

27 NATO, “Partnership Action Plan for Defence Institution Building,” June 2010, available at <>.

28 DOD Directive 5205.82 Defense Institution Building, op. cit.

29 “Chapter 16 Security Cooperation, Section 332” in National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 (November 2016) available at <>.

30 Michael J. McNerney, et al., Defense Institution Building in Africa: An Assessment (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2016), available at <>.

31 In 2014, the Wales Initiative Fund was expanded from Eastern Europe and Central Asia to include countries in the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative.

32 Walter L. Perry, et al., Defense Institution Building: An Assessment, (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2016) available at <>, 87-109.

33 National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, op. cit.

34 Nina M. Serafino, Security Assistance and Cooperation: Shared Responsibility of the Departments of State and Defense (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, May 26, 2016) <>.

35 Ibid.

36 DOD Directive 5205.82 Defense Institution Building, op. cit.

37 Michael J. McNerney, et al., Assessing Security Cooperation as a Preventive Tool (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2014) available at <>, 9.

38 Ibid., 58.

39 For additional reading on SSR, see: The Future of Security Sector Reform, ed. Mark Sedra (Ontario: The Centre for International Governance Innovation, 2010); Hanlon and Shultz, Jr., op. cit.

40 For information on the delineation between the terms “security sector reform,” “security sector governance,” “defense sector reform,” and “defense institution building,” see McNerney, et al., op. cit., 10-12.

41 Sedra makes a similar point about the translation of SSR lessons learned from “basket cases” versus “normal cases” in The Future of Security Sector Reform, op. cit., 17.

42 For more on the importance of the partner’s priorities and goals, see Christopher Paul et al., op. cit.