July 24, 2024

In the last decade, both China and Russia have significantly increased military diplomacy efforts.

From post-WWII European reconstruction efforts (such as the Marshall Plan), to today’s multinational security partnership programs (such as the joint strike fighter program and international military education and training), the United States has relied upon Foreign Area Officers (FAOs) and U.S. Army Special Operations Forces (ARSOF) to synchronize military activities with U.S. diplomatic efforts through planning, managing, and conducting security cooperation and security assistance (SC/SA) programs. While many of these programs have successfully supported American global interests, there is a fundamental challenge that decreases U.S. SC/SA effectiveness: many FAOs and ARSOF personnel (including those in Civil Affairs, Psychological Operations, and Special Forces career fields) do not know enough about each other. Increasing educational opportunities to learn more about each other’s missions, organizations, and similarities and differences could significantly improve SC/SA program effectiveness.

While improved understanding between FAOs and ARSOF will most directly and positively impact internal operations, the effects of improved understanding will contribute to America’s ability to conduct more integrated and effective security cooperation and enable the United States to remain a leader in an increasingly competitive global security cooperation environment.   In the last decade, both China and Russia have significantly increased military diplomacy efforts. In response, Department of Defense (DOD) officials have noted the need to reform SC/SA activities to strengthen U.S. diplomacy and maintain security relationships with allies. In March 2018, while serving as the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) director, Army Lieutenant General Charles W. Hooper referenced the 2017 National Security Strategy and discussed the need to reform SC/SA efforts. He stated, “We have recognized a need to take a look at our practices and ensure those practices are as efficient and effective as [possible], so that the U.S. may remain the partner of choice around the world for security cooperation needs and fulfill the needs of our allies and partners.” While LTG Hooper spoke generally about broad organizational change to the DSCA, reform of SC/SA educational programs to better integrate FAOs and ARSOF personnel is a critical component of this undertaking.

To understand how improving cooperation and understanding between FAO and ARSOF personnel will lead to more effective U.S. SC/SA programs and increased success in U.S. diplomatic efforts, it is important to understand some key definitions and principles of military use in diplomacy. Security Cooperation activities are DOD activities that strengthen military relations with partner nations, build partner nation security capability and capacity, and support DOD “peacetime and contingency access.” Authorized by a variety of Congressional statutes, Security Assistance activities are authorized and funded by the Department of State (DOS); however, the DOD administers many SA activities – at which time those activities “are considered part of security cooperation.”  Thus, together, SC/SA programs are foreign assistance activities that utilize the American military to support greater diplomatic efforts. FAOs and ARSOF personnel are the specific Defense professionals who carry out many SC/SA activities.

Coming from all branches of military service (including the Coast Guard), FAOs are specially-trained military officers who work with service component commands, Geographic Combatant Commands (GCCs), and interagency partners such as the Department of State. Whether working on an embassy’s country team as a security cooperation officer, an attaché or a DOD liaison officer, FAOs receive extensive regional training that roughly corresponds to DOD and DOS’s global areas. Except for the Coast Guard, this training generally includes learning one or more relevant languages, obtaining a master’s degree in international relations (usually concentrating on the specific region), and living and traveling in that region for six months to a year as a form of residency. This training prepares these officers to transition from their basic military specialties to serve as central drivers of security cooperation efforts in their assigned country, service component, or GCC assignment.

Like FAOs, ARSOF are also regionally focused experts in their specific career fields. For example, professionals in all three ARSOF career fields, Civil Affairs, Psychological Operations, and Special Forces, receive cultural and language training, gain negotiation and relationship-building skills, and are prepared to work in a joint or interagency environment. Therefore, for both ARSOF and FAO personnel, regional and cultural expertise is central to their career development (albeit at different levels). Moreover, once complete with their training, nearly all FAOs and ARSOF personnel find themselves directly conducting or supporting SC/SA activities.

Even after years of training, many FAOs do not have a clear understanding of ARSOF missions and how their efforts affect DOD (and interagency) efforts in each country or geographical region.

Unfortunately, FAO and ARSOF training pipelines operate independently and fail to provide a sufficient explanation of each other’s training and missions, their institutional structures, and how the organizations could coordinate and collaborate to more effectively to support U.S. security goals. Even after years of training, many FAOs do not have a clear understanding of ARSOF missions and how their efforts affect DOD (and interagency) efforts in each country or geographical region. Similarly, when training for SC/SA missions, ARSOF personnel may receive training on DOS structure in an embassy (e.g., learning about the community liaison office or regional security office), but receive little training on FAO assignments in an embassy, how FAOs manage SC/SA programs, and how all of these programs support the country-specific, theater GCC security cooperation plans, and even global U.S. strategy.  As explained in the 2017 RAND study, “Implications of the Security Cooperation Office Transition in Afghanistan for Special Operations Forces,” this mutual lack of understanding can hinder the unity of effort and mission success for a specific country or theater, and even interfere with global security cooperation efforts.

Furthermore, a mutual understanding of FAOs and ARSOF responsibilities at the operational and tactical levels of SC/SA missions and military operations in general is necessary to increase situational awareness of and avoid conflict between each other’s activities.  This becomes even more important when both conventional and DOD Special Operation Forces conduct activities in a common operational environment – defined as a physical or virtual area within a specific country or region.  Hence, FAOs and ARSOF personnel should be in constant communication to represent their interests and minimize intra-organizational challenges. Communication between FAOs and ARSOF personnel must be fostered in each specialty’s initial training pipelines to ensure unity of effort and mission success.

To better integrate these activities and increase intra-organizational understanding, security cooperation training for FAOs should include an introduction into ARSOF missions and authorities.  Similarly, ARSOF organizations conducting SC/SA activities must study country, theater, and global security cooperation plans.  In addition, GCCs should establish routine conferences with all stakeholders executing security cooperation activities to maintain a military advantage throughout power competition in their respective regions. Applying these recommendations will increase understanding between FAOs and ARSOF personnel to identify cooperation and collaboration areas prior to execution in theater.

Strengthening the relationship between FAOs and ARSOF personnel will lead to greater unity of effort and increase GCCs’ abilities to successfully pursue U.S. strategic objectives.  The improved communication and greater networking will positively affect the GCC’s ability to coordinate and collaborate SC/SA programs with service components and U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). Establishing a mutual understanding of activities can minimize tensions that occur between conventional and SOF forces working in the same theater. This can lead to a better appreciation of each organization’s objectives, mitigate potential conflicts that could arise due to a lack of understanding, and help create an integrated global security cooperation plan which supports U.S. strategic interests and ability to compete with China and Russia.

Whether it is through inclusion and collaboration in training curriculums such as SOF Captain’s Career Course (SOFCC) or the Intermediate-Level Education course in which all SOF and FAO mid-career Officers participate, or through attending each other’s training and conferences, opportunities already exist for FAOs and ARSOF to interact and learn more about each other’s organizations and missions. It is time that FAOs and ARSOF develop deeper relationships and learn how to collaborate for maximum effect when working in a competitive global security cooperation arena.

Major Jonathan Swoyer is a U.S. Army Foreign Area Officer who has previously worked as a Psychological Operations Officer assigned to U.S. Embassy, Kabul and as the head of the security cooperation office, U.S. Embassy, Kathmandu. Currently, Jonathan is assigned to U.S. Army Central Command. Major Assad Raza is a U.S. Army Civil Affairs Officer who has served with the 82nd Airborne Division, 96th Civil Affairs Battalion, and 5th Special Forces Group. He is currently assigned to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

Photo Description: Egyptian and U.S. Special Operations Soldiers observe a small arms range, which was part of EXERCISE BRIGHT STAR 2018. The exercise is held to promote and enhance regional security and cooperation between the seven participating nations, which include the Arab Republic of Egypt, the United States, Jordan, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Greece, the United Kingdom, and France.

Photo Credit: Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Whitney Hughes


  1. One really cannot understand “security cooperation,” I believe, without first understanding the “internal development and defense” component thereof.

    In this regard, the following from Samuel P. Huntington, in his famous 1968 “Political Order in Changing Societies” (see Page 41) may prove useful:

    “The apparent relationship between poverty and backwardness, on the one hand, and instability and violence, on the other, is a spurious one. It is not the absence of modernity but the efforts to achieve it which produce political disorder. If poor countries appear to be unstable, it is not because they are poor, but because they are trying to become rich. A purely traditional society would be ignorant, poor, and stable.”

    Now, note how the following (from our Joint Publication 3-22, “Foreign Internal Defense,” dated 17 August 2018, in Chapter II, “Internal Defense and Development”) seems to mirror this understanding that (a) a nation’s modernizing and development initiatives (of which the U.S. expects to benefit and, thus, is working with the host-nation to achieve) (b) often leads to political and societal instability and disorder and, thus, (c) typically requires that such things as military, police and intelligence forces (to deal with those who do not want to be “modernized”/”developed”) be both “formed up,” and deployed (in advance of and/or in concert with) “their”/”our” modernization and development initiatives:

    “2. Construct:

    a. An IDAD program integrates security force and civilian actions into a coherent,
    comprehensive effort. Security force actions provide a level of internal security that
    permits and supports growth through balanced development. This development requires
    change to meet the needs of vulnerable groups of people. This change may, in turn,
    promote unrest in the society. The strategy, therefore, includes measures to maintain
    conditions under which orderly development can take place.”


    Given my suggestion above, that “security cooperation” really cannot be understood without first acknowledging and addressing the “cause and effect” of political violence and instability that (a) Huntington describes above and which (b) our own joint publication on FID also takes time to explain;

    Given my such suggestion, might this be a good place to start re: our effort to “improve understanding between FAOs and ARSOF that will most directly and positively impact internal operations, the effects of improved understanding will contribute to America’s ability to conduct more integrated and effective security cooperation and enable the United States to remain a leader in an increasingly competitive global security cooperation environment?” (From the second paragraph of our paper above.)

    Bottom Line:

    “Stability” is not the primary focus of either our, and/or our opponents’, efforts.

    Rather, “modernization and development” of other states and societies — so better meet our (and/or our opponents’) political, economic, social and value (i.e., “security?”) needs — THIS is the primary focus of both “our” and “their” efforts.

    Such things as “security cooperation,” therefore, must be understood in this context?

  2. As a follow-on to my initial comment above, let us look, for comparison, at what our rivals/ competitors are doing re: (a) dealing with the classic problems of “de-stabalization” which (b) routinely become manifest in modernization and development missions and campaigns.

    “In spite of the destruction caused by the Russians, Putin appears to have adopted Colin Powell’s famous Pottery Barn rule – ‘you break it, you buy it’. Between 2000 and 2010 the Russian government has spent 27 billion dollars on reconstruction in Chechnya (Shaefer 2011, p. 281), with a further $80 billion pledged to the North Caucasus region as a whole by 2025 (Judah 2013). When Ramzan became President of Chechnya in 2007 significant funds were given over to the republic and Grozny was rebuilt quickly. Kadyrov has undertaken a campaign of ‘Islamization’, building the largest mosque in Europe, enforcing the wearing of headscarves and limiting alcohol sales (Ucko 2016, p. 51). Whether this was a genuine drive to make Chechnya more pious, or simply a ploy to steal ground from the radicals, Kadyrov has consolidated control. After years of devastating war, peace is a high priority for many in Chechnya.”

    (See the Small Wars Journal article entitled: “The Other Side of the COIN: The Russians in Chechnya” by Joss Meakins)


    Michael Mazarr suggests, in his May 29, 2019, Foreign Affairs article “This IS Not a Great-Power Competition,” that “today’s versions of rivalry and competition will almost always play out in the economic, political, cultural, and informational spheres — not on the battlefield.”

    If such is the case, then might we say that the (“culture-accommodating”/”culturally-friendly”?) modernization and development approach — used for example by the Russians in Chechnya — may:

    a. Help us to understand what we are actually up against today and, thus,

    b. Help us to “improve understanding between FAOs and ARSOF that will most directly and positively impact internal operations …” ?

  3. FAO and ARSOF has different missions and chains of command. You can not compare both jobs or even put them at the same level. ARSOF looks for quick wins for the 6 months they are deployed and the FAO is looking at 2-5 year plans. FAO and Country Team develop the plans for the US Embassy mission and COCOMs support; therefore, ARSOF is part of that support. Outside of Afghanistan and Iraq, DoD’s role is to support. The level of responsibility and knowledge of security cooperation activities can not be compared to the CA teams small and narrow mission.

  4. While the authors have some valid points regarding the lack of knowledge of each others’ fields, they miss the broader picture of security cooperation.
    1) ARSOF plays a relatively minor role in most countries and is certainly not the dominant SC provider but in a very few. Believing that SOF is the primary SC implementer is a fatal flaw and often leads to myopic planning. SOF units generally interact in ways that are only mildly beneficial to the overall, long-term capabilities of units due to the SOF units’ requirements and short-duration contacts. This is not a detraction from the SOF mission or performance. Rather, it is a systemic problem of FAOs in Country Teams allowing engagements that are of limited value to pad SC statistics.
    2. GCCs do have regularly scheduled conferences and meeting regarding out-year SC planning. The issue is more often that SC providers want to conduct activities that do not align with the GCC or Country Team requirements. The simple availability of forces to conduct a specific SC activity does not make it inherently worthwhile.
    3. SOF forces play an important role in SC, as do conventional forces. However, all activities need to be undertaken with the goal of advancing US interests and objectives. Whether it be ARSOF or USAF, planners and Country Teams need to exercise the discipline to only execute that which meets those interests and objectives. Otherwise, we’re doing things to do things.

    COL Ian Murray
    USA, 48B

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