A Plan To Reform U.S. Security Assistance

Getty/Pete KiehartA Ukrainian soldier shakes hands with one of his instructors after taking part in a "Combat Lifesaver Course" at the International Peacekeeping and Security Center near Yavoriv, Ukraine, on April 22, 2015.

Overview: The U.S. security assistance system that provides arms, training, and support to foreign partners is not fit for today’s global challenges the Biden administration should reform it to ensure it supports overall U.S. goals.

Introduction and summary

U.S. security assistance is broken and in need of an overhaul. Over the past two decades, the bureaucratic system developed to deliver billions of dollars of military aid to partner nations has evolved and expanded not by design but as the result of a series of ad hoc legislative and policy changes. Though the U.S. Department of State was initially in charge of security assistance policy and accounts, since 9/11, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has established a separate, well-funded security assistance bureaucracy at the Pentagon. This has inhibited effective congressional oversight, harmed coordination between diplomacy and defense, and contributed to the growing militarization of U.S. foreign policy. It has created a dysfunctional and bifurcated security assistance system.

Under the current security assistance system, the returns on America’s security investments are limited, inconsistent, and not strategic. The consequences of today’s broken system include increased reliance on the military to solve foreign policy challenges a perpetuated status quo whereby nondemocratic partners receive U.S. assistance and where human rights abuses are ignored and an ineffective and unwieldy bureaucracy. This matters because the United States depends on capable allies and partners as a core component of its national security strategy, but the current system is not suited to the task. A new administration can change this by embracing wholesale reform of the security assistance system. To do so, however, a Biden-Harris administration must move quickly to work with Congress and include such reforms in any effort to rebuild and revive U.S. diplomacy. This will require talking not only about security assistance authorities, but fundamentally about money and resources as well. Any reform efforts intending to bolster the role of the State Department must start by examining how funding is oriented and balanced between the departments. This necessitates close cooperation with the Hill.

There must be a dramatic realignment of U.S. security assistance. This report provides an overview and a systemic critique of the current bureaucratic structure of U.S. security assistance and outlines how transferring resources and responsibilities for security assistance back to the State Department will better advance U.S. interests and address the current geopolitical challenges America confronts. It calls for reviving the centrality of diplomacy by restoring the State Department’s role, as originally intended under U.S. law, as the overseer of all U.S. foreign assistance. It also offers recommendations for expanding and training the security assistance workforce, improving interagency coordination, elevating human rights concerns in security assistance policy, and adapting best practices from the DOD.

Specifically, this report calls for transferring the following programs and funding from the DOD to the State Department:

The relatively newly created Section 333 train and equip authority, which replicates the State Department’s Foreign Military Financing (FMF) authority

The DOD’s security assistance authorities that focus on long-term security force reform to the State Department, including the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund, the Counter-Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) Train and Equip Fund, and the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative fund.

This would result in a roughly $7 billion transfer, significantly augmenting the State Department’s budget and capacity to guide security assistance policy.

Putting the State Department back in charge of security assistance will be a major reform and will require significant operational changes within the department, as well as a dramatic expansion of its administrative capacity. This will take time to implement and require significant reform within the agency.

The DOD has done an admirable job in setting

up a new institutional structure, in implementing assistance, and in coordinating with the State Department. However, officials across the U.S. foreign policy world acknowledge that the system is not working. Tommy Ross, a former DOD official in charge of overseeing the Pentagon’s security assistance, recently argued that U.S. security assistance is “not fit for purpose” and is “out of sync with U.S. priorities when it comes to where resources are needed most and the types of capabilities required by America’s allied and partners.” Indeed, throughout much of the last decade, it has been DOD officials who publicly argued for increased funding for the State Department. Ultimately, the current bifurcated security assistance system is suboptimal and results in the bureaucratic diminishment of the State Department relative to the military considerations of the DOD. Transferring resources and responsibility to the State Department would centralize responsibility for foreign aid under diplomatic control, while improving interagency cooperation, as DOD would remain the primary implementer of U.S. assistance.

Some of these ideas will likely be met with innate skepticism from a generation of security professionals whose experience in Washington has been characterized by an ever-withering State Department and an ever-strengthening Pentagon. This report anticipates and rebuts likely arguments against reform, including the capacity of the State Department to take on this responsibility, the benefits of the Pentagon’s current management, or the unnecessary disruption that would result from significant bureaucratic change laid out in this proposal.

Failing to reform security assistance not only leaves the United States with a wasteful and inefficient status quo, it also perpetuates the marginalization of diplomacy and locks in the military’s newly found dominance in driving U.S. foreign policy. The current security assistance system evolved to address the threats posed by the post-9/11 era and is now outdated and ill-suited for a new geopolitical environment characterized by competition. If the next administration is to revive U.S. diplomacy and rebuild the State Department, it must empower the agency to oversee and direct foreign assistance. The Biden-Harris administration should seize the opportunity to work with a new Congress to reform the system from its first days in office and restore an effective tool in the U.S. foreign policy arsenal.

A new security assistance system, centralized and coordinated within the State Department, would allow the United States to wield its security assistance more effectively and responsibly in today’s competitive geopolitical environment. Arms transfers, training, and support could also better support U.S. foreign policy goals, in particular bolstering democratic partners and emerging democracies, making them stronger U.S. partners to counter threats from authoritarian actors. Empowering the State Department to oversee and manage security assistance would also ensure that aid is used to advance a values-based foreign policy that respects and supports human rights.3 It would also give U.S. diplomats greater clout and leverage and potentially create greater coherence to the provision of foreign assistance overall. The result would be to strengthen a key tool in the U.S. foreign policy toolbox and increase the clout and authority of America’s diplomats, which is badly needed in this new era of geopolitical competition.

The strategic case for security assistance reform Security assistance is foreign aid. Providing weapons, training, and support to a foreign country is, by law, a foreign policy responsibility and therefore has historically been directed by the secretary of state. This is for a simple reason: Providing arms to a partner nation is a foreign policy act, a responsibility codified into law through the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act.4 Nevertheless, the provision of arms to a partner is also a military act, and, following 9/11, with the onset of the so-called war on terror and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, an operational argument was made for the DOD to gain expanded authorities to provide military assistance to partners. But the DOD authorities soon expanded and grew such that the operational intent of DOD assistance faded, and the purpose of its assistance became indistinguishable from the purpose of State Department assistance. During this period, as the DOD gained authorities and resources, the State Department’s assistance programs remained stifled by lack of funding, excessive congressional earmarks, and legacy commitments.

As a result, as the United States sought to provide more security assistance to partners, it did so through the DOD. This has created a bifurcated bureaucratic structure for administering security assistance that marginalizes the State Department. The current system is both inefficient and ill-suited for the present foreign policy environment. The new era of great power competition and today’s threats of climate change, pandemics, and other nontraditional challenges demand a new and more integrated, agile, and wholistic approach to U.S. assistance efforts.

Defining U.S. security assistance

For the purposes of this report, U.S. security assistance is defined as all arms, equipment, supplies, training, and support provided under the Title 22 and Title 10 authorities from the State Department and the DOD. The authors’ definition of security assistance encompasses the DOD’s new security cooperation programs that focus on arms, equipment, supplies, and training to build partner capacity.

The foreign policy environment has shifted greatly over the last decade. Today’s security assistance system emerged in the 9/11 era and was built for counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, with a focus on confronting threats from nonstate actors. This was encapsulated in the “building partnership capacity” strategy, outlined by then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in 2010, which called for increasing the capabilities of developing states to better police and patrol their neighborhoods and to close off space for insurgent groups.6 U.S. aid was often provided to nondemocratic states or partners that violated human rights but were considered critical partners in the “war on terror.” Decisions were viewed as primarily operational, and aid was provided as needed to help partners tackle imminent terrorist or insurgent threats. Almost all U.S. security aid provided year over year is driven by a strategic rationale that is centered on building better counterterrorism partners.

Today, U.S. aid to build up a partner’s military should be viewed through the lens of competition between states, in addition to the ongoing counterterrorism concerns and state fragility challenges, with much higher stakes for U.S. foreign policy and national interests. This renewed geopolitical competition is at its core an ideological competition between states. China’s rise and Russia’s resurgence require the United States to realign its foreign policy toward strengthening relations and bolstering democratic states. Security assistance is a tool to do so: It strengthens America’s closest partners and fosters closer relationships with other states. When a country accepts U.S. military equipment or enters into a long-term procurement or acquisition of U.S. defense equipment, they are tying their country to the United States. The U.S. decision, for instance, to provide military aid to the United Kingdom through the lend-lease program in the 1940s was not a simple military consideration but a foreign policy consideration with enormous consequences. Today, U.S. decisions to provide weapons or support tie American officials to how that support is used—whether they like it or not—as the case of U.S. support to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen demonstrates.

Moreover, countries that receive U.S. military systems are not just buying equipment off the shelf they are entering into a longer-term relationship with that country for training, maintenance, and sustainment. This is similar to when a consumer buys a smart phone, as they are not simply buying a piece of hardware they are reliant on the company to access its broader ecosystem of apps and software and trusting the company to safeguard important data. Over time, a consumer becomes locked in and dependent on a particular provider. Similarly, when a state commits to expanding military-to-military ties—often the most sensitive area for a country—they are making a diplomatic bet on that country. As they base their military on U.S. equipment and U.S. training and engagement, they similarly become locked in to the United States. This sets the ground for more productive American partnerships to tackle a range of geopolitical challenges. For example, U.S. security assistance has been key to building ties with Vietnam after the war between the two countries. American assistance provided to clear unexploded ordnance has helped repair diplomatic relations between Hanoi and Washington, while the recent provision of a retired Coast Guard ship to the Vietnam military can help strengthen military ties and potentially open the door to more U.S. assistance and security cooperation, which will further strengthen bilateral relations.

There are several reasons that today’s security assistance system must change:

Current security policy decision-making perpetuates the status quo. The current system perpetuates an ineffective status quo, whereby the United States often fails to effectively exert significant diplomatic leverage that it has through security assistance because the bureaucratic structure to administer it—both within the State Department and between the State Department and the DOD—is not designed to advance diplomatic efforts but merely to administer appropriated funds.9 This makes it challenging to change security assistance programs given shifting foreign policy dynamics or changes in a partner’s behavior that may make them a less suitable recipient of U.S. security aid, such as democratic backsliding or a pattern of human rights abuses.

U.S. engagement with partners could be dominated by military issues if foreign officials turn to DOD counterparts instead of diplomats for assistance resources. Because the DOD controls its own security assistance accounts, other foreign policy concerns may get trumped if partners go around the State Department to get aid from the Pentagon. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) worried at a 2017 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing that the shift to increasing DOD authorities could “send a fundamental message that the United States considers security relationships over all other U.S. foreign policy objectives or concerns, including human rights or good governance.” Under the current framework, the State Department’s ability to put the brakes on security assistance or military cooperation under DOD authorities is highly limited because the State Department does not control implementation and can often only approve or disapprove of DOD proposals. While State Department officials and ambassadors can and sometimes do halt or temper problematic efforts, doing so requires exerting significant political capital that is in short supply. Centralizing control at the State Department would help to fix this bureaucratic imbalance between diplomacy and the Pentagon.

Defense priorities often undervalue democratic and human rights concerns. Compared with the State Department, the DOD is less equipped to effectively weigh human rights concerns in its decision-making. This makes it harder to leverage U.S. military cooperation for economic or political concessions or changes that might bolster democratic goals. For example, U.S. military objectives to counter terrorist groups in Somalia called for continuously supplying Uganda with U.S. assistance despite growing human rights and democracy concerns. Putting the State Department in charge would make it easier to realign U.S. security assistance toward democratic states and effectively consider human rights issues in every security assistance decision.Security assistance in a tense era of great power competition is extremely sensitive and can increase tension and lead to miscalculation. The risk in today’s geopolitical environment is that providing sensitive and potentially provocative assistance will not receive the same scrutiny from policymakers and will become the norm for the administering agency, the DOD. In the last era of great power competition, the Cold War, security assistance often stoked tension between the United States and the Soviet Union and led to spiraling commitments. For instance, Soviet provision of nuclear missiles to Cuba led to a nuclear standoff, while U.S. military support for Vietnam led to deepening U.S. engagement.

As competition with China and Russia increases, security assistance could once again prove a major source of tension and cause miscalculation. Providing aid in this environment is not a mere technical military matter, but ultimately a political and diplomatic concern that is highly sensitive. Yet today, it is the DOD that is driving assistance to countries such as Ukraine and regions such as Southeast Asia. When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, the National Security Council became significantly involved in policymaking and limited types of assistance that could be provided, including lethal aid.

Such unique scrutiny was warranted because there was a crisis involving a U.S. partner and a nuclear-armed state. But the nature of White House intervention was necessary in large part because the security assistance process—for both decision-making and for providing assistance—was broken.

A military-led response can overprioritize military engagement and could unintentionally steer American engagements into high-risk confrontations. Without careful calibration and understanding of broader political context, there is real concern that the DOD could get ahead of U.S. policy or drive it in a more military-centric direction. For example, China could interpret the DOD’s provision of some security assistance through the agency’s Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative as an act of aggression if it is not carefully and effectively calibrated against broader political concerns in the region.

Given the political sensitivities of great power competition, responsibility and oversight for security assistance decisions should rest with the agency most in tune with broader U.S. foreign policy concerns and diplomatic developments: the State Department. Reforming security assistance by centralizing it at the State Department would help to elevate the diplomatic considerations of this policy area, while reducing the military-first priorities of the current system that are ill-suited to today’s geopolitical challenges.

How to fix the system

To change this, there is a straightforward solution: give the State Department the money. A new administration and new Congress should redirect almost all of the DOD’s security assistance resources to the State Department and build up the State Department’s capacity to administer assistance. Clearly, such a transfer must be accompanied by swift and far-reaching internal reforms at the State Department to enable this expanded role, but such reforms are long overdue and should not deter this bold step. This proposal would help to fix many of the challenges of a duplicative, bifurcated security assistance system that spans multiple U.S. agencies and involves thousands of personnel. It would enable more coherent overall policy on American security assistance, allowing aid decisions to be guided by general foreign policy concerns and current priorities. It would better allow for ensuring that U.S. assistance comports with American values, including working closely with democratic states and prioritizing respect for human rights.

This report focuses on the relatively new development of parallel security assistance authorities at the DOD that mirror the State Department’s traditional authority for long-term capacity building of partner forces to achieve U.S. foreign policy goals. The State Department’s FMF account is the primary vehicle for this it receives about $6 billion annually, about 80 percent of which goes to Israel, Egypt, and Jordan. The remaining $1 billion of FMF is also heavily earmarked, limiting the State Department’s discretion.16 The DOD’s security cooperation programs, which are challenging to track due to frequent changes in accounts and programs, received about $2 billion total last year.

The DOD accounts that most closely mirror the State Department’s FMF program, including the Section 333 capacity-building authority, the Maritime Security Initiative, and several other programs, received $1.3 billion in fiscal year 2020.18 Funding associated with long-term capacity building of partner militaries—such as the DOD’s funding to build partner capacity through Section 333—should be the domain of the State Department. DOD assistance accounts that currently fund U.S. involvement in endless wars or prolonged security assistance engagements meant to build the capacity over partners over the long term, such as the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund ($4.2 billion), the Counter-ISIS Train and Equip Fund ($1.2 billion), and funding for Ukraine ($250 million), should be reviewed with an eye to move the programs and funding to the State Department. Combined with Section 333 funds ($1.2 billion), this would result in a transfer of about $7 billion annually, more than doubling the State Department’s total security assistance resources. While it makes sense for the DOD to control authorities to provide operational assistance when engaged in combat, U.S. policy in Afghanistan has moved toward long-term projects of building up the security forces, which would point toward a larger role for the State Department.

The other programs are also more aligned with broader foreign policy goals of long-term capacity building of partners. While there are times when it is appropriate for the DOD to have the authority to directly provide assistance to a partner, these programs should be exclusive to when the United States is at war and fighting side by side with allied or partner forces. In these cases, such as in active combat in Iraq or Afghanistan, it may make sense for the Pentagon to have its own authorities to assist foreign partners. But outside these wartime situations, and especially in light of today’s efforts to end the forever wars, the State Department is fully able to oversee and manage the bulk of U.S. security assistance programs. While this report calls for realigning U.S. assistance toward democratic allies and partners, it avoids diving into the specific policy debates over what countries should or should not receive security assistance.

Those are obviously critical foreign policy debates, but the authors focus on improving the ability of U.S. officials to make coherent policy decisions by first creating an effective management and organizational structure of security assistance. This will also require major reform to the State Department’s own security assistance programs, which routinely and without deliberation provide billions in aid to nondemocracies. Security assistance should not be a diplomatic handout or entitlement it should serve U.S. foreign policy and be flexible enough in its administration to align with U.S. foreign policy objectives and values. That not only requires consolidating security assistance programs in one place, but also demands significant reforms to the decision-making structure and security assistance system at the State Department.

The Biden-Harris administration should therefore make rebalancing and reforming security assistance—and restoring the lead to the State Department—an immediate priority, working with Congress and pushing for shifting resources from the DOD to the State Department in its first budget. Anticipating and rebutting arguments against reform Of course, reforming the security assistance system will not be easy and will encounter challenges. But these would be outweighed by the benefits of a more coherent and effective security assistance policy guided by the State Department. Anticipated challenges and benefits might include:

The State Department must be scaled up in order to gain the capacity to absorb the DOD’s programs. Moving the DOD’s vast assistance budget to the State Department would be one of the most significant realignments of the U.S. national security agencies since the formation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2002. Such a bureaucratic change will require real reform and a significant expansion in the State Department’s capacity to manage and administer the substantial increase in resources, as well as demand significant internal reform and reorganization. To be clear, State Department bureaucracy has often been its own biggest enemy it is beset by turf battles, inefficiency, lack of clear and timely decision-making, and tangled lines of authority. As it currently stands, the State Department is far from capable of taking on the role this report suggests. However, these barriers should become the impetus for reform, not excuses to favor the status quo. Indeed, these efforts should be undertaken with other necessary reforms at the State Department to rebuild and improve U.S. diplomatic capacity.

Centralizing authorities and resources to the State Department would simplify the interagency process. As noted above, moving security assistance authorities to the State Department would represent a huge realignment in the interagency process. But this reform effort would align with long-term broad, bipartisan consensus that there is a diplomacy-defense imbalance in U.S. foreign policy agencies. Realigning assistance resources must be fundamental to any effort to reempower the State Department and would eventually improve interagency functionality by resulting in better-managed policymaking. The costs of moving authorities would be well worth the improvements in overall U.S. policy by making it more coherent, less wasteful, and more effective.

Reforming the State Department’s security assistance management could improve policy consideration and implementation. Many of the functions involving DOD security cooperation activities, such as funding related to exercises and certain training activities, should remain in the Pentagon. Unifying decision-making on policy—not the details of implementation—in the State Department system would also ensure hand-in-glove cooperation and coordination with the DOD because it is the DOD that, by and large, implements State Department programs.

The DOD would therefore continue managing U.S. government security assistance programs even if its programs were folded into the State Department’s authorities, as currently is the case with the State Department’s FMF program.

The U.S. defense industry would not be damaged by reforms. Despite the recent insistence of the Trump administration, the objective of U.S. security assistance should not be to support the U.S. defense industrial base or as a jobs program there are much more effective ways of supporting American jobs, such as through domestic infrastructure investments, than paying U.S. defense firms to build needless tanks. Unfortunately, this was the outlook for many in the Trump administration. Peter Navarro, the former president’s trade adviser, trumpeted that American jobs were sustained by continuing to build tanks for Egypt. This jobs claim has been challenged by academic researchers, who found that investments in arms sales do not create as many new jobs as other potential investments and offer underwhelming economic benefits for Americans.23 Security assistance should instead be viewed primarily as a diplomatic tool and thus controlled by diplomats. Hypothetical costs of reforming the system and disrupting current implementation of U.S. security assistance are likely to be significantly outweighed by improvements in the policymaking process and well worth the political capital a new administration and Congress would need to expend.

(To read the whole report, please go to www.americanprogress.org and look for the issue Foreign Policy and Security.)


Moving resources to the State Department to conduct security assistance would result in more effective aid that is less likely to be wasted or flow to abusive partners. It would also reduce unnecessary bureaucracy from the current system. This would be an important step toward undoing the militarization of U.S. foreign policy and would give an important foreign policy tool back to American diplomats. The new administration should move quickly to consolidate security assistance resources under the State Department, with accompanying reforms to the bureaucracy and workforce that handles these issues. Congress should support this realignment and transfer the necessary authorities and resources from the DOD to the State Department.

About the authors

Max Bergmann is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he focuses on European security and U.S.-Russia policy. From 2011 to 2017, he served in the U.S. Department of State in a number of different positions, including as a member of the secretary of state’s policy planning staff, where he focused on political-military affairs and nonproliferation special assistant to the undersecretary for arms control and international security speechwriter to then-Secretary of State John Kerry and senior adviser to the assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs. Prior to serving in the State Department, he worked at CAP as a military and nonproliferation policy analyst and at the National Security Network as the deputy policy director. Bergmann received his master’s degree from the London School of Economics in comparative politics and his bachelor’s degree from Bates College.

Alexandra Schmitt is a senior policy analyst on the National Security and International Policy team at the Center. She previously worked on U.S. foreign policy advocacy at Human Rights Watch and received her Master in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School.