It all happened quickly and quietly in the summer of 2035. Taiwan’s PavePaws radar system, which peered deeply into China, shut down unexpectedly. Soon after, a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) flotilla entered Kaohsiung harbor unopposed, while another small group of ships from Ningbo arrived quietly in Keelung. No shots were fired. With no request from the Taiwanese government, the U.S. administration lacked a justification to act under the Taiwan Relations Act. Remarkably few southeastern Asian allies complained, as the unopposed takeover of Taiwan was seen as a fait accompli.
Leading up to 2035, China had cemented its naval dominance and control of its near-coastal waters. Surprising to most, though, was its vigorous expansion of security cooperation activities mimicking many U.S. government programs. These included a lend-lease-type program offering “free” weapons, ships, fighters, tanks, etc., to developing Southeast Asian nations in exchange for Chinese access to bases and logistical support. Those factors, along with increased Chinese–Russian military collaboration, challenged the willingness of U.S. allies and partners to oppose Chinese hegemonic efforts. In fact, with its allied and partnership support waning, the United States realized that the cost was too high and chance for success too low to uphold effectively its long-standing policy to defend Taiwan’s independence.
To create a future that prevents the previous scenario from playing out, the United States first must recognize that its global network of alliances and partnerships is under attack by competitors across multiple avenues—political, military, and economic. Many have argued that this network is our asymmetric advantage during the reemergence of great power competition. Indeed, as the numerical and technological margins that traditionally favored the U.S. Navy dwindle, and the resources to support a swift maritime response to impose order are lost or diverted to other priorities, allies and partnerships have increased in importance.1 But from our adversaries’ perspective, they also have become an asymmetric attack vector.
Our competitors already have taken advantage of many exposed partnership nodes, especially using arms transfer and rival security cooperation–type programs. Turkey’s recent decision to purchase the Russian S-400 air defense system shows Russia’s willingness to challenge traditional alliance interoperability structures with high-technology arms transfers. Meanwhile, China is greatly increasing the scope and number of its military diplomacy activities (exercises, port visits, senior leader visits, conferences, etc.) and has PLA officers assigned as military attachés in at least 110 countries, mimicking U.S. defense cooperation efforts.2 China’s economic leverage achieved through its Belt and Road Initiative directly challenges economic and political foundations of the U.S. partnership network.
Fortunately, national- and service-level strategies recognize that our coalitions and alliances are as important today as coaling stations were for the turn of the 20th century Navy. But assuming a “business as usual” approach to strengthening our alliances and building new partnerships is a recipe for failure. The United States must dramatically increase collaboration with a constellation of traditional allies and newfound partners.
As a tool of diplomacy in a maritime nation, the Navy has a unique responsibility to lead the effort to build, sustain, and expand strong, resilient, and adaptive partnership networks. It needs to apply urgency and maximum energy at significant scale to achieve results that go beyond just “staying in the game.” To that end, there are three vectors it should pursue simultaneously: (1) continue to ensure unity of effort with key stakeholders at the fleets, across the Navy, and with the whole-of-government efforts; (2) dramatically improve alignment to and execution of security cooperation outcomes, focused on increasing speed, and (3) continue to change its incremental, gradual, risk averse “no, because” approach to security cooperation to a “yes, if” mind-set.
Unity of Effort
Unity of effort and a “mission command” approach in overall planning are essential to exploit the Navy’s dispersed security cooperation structure. The Navy has multiple organizations managing and overseeing the many different levers of security cooperation, and each interacts directly at different levels with combatant and naval component commands:
• The Navy International Programs Office manages and executes foreign military sales as an implementing agency for the Defense Security Cooperation Agency; provides direct commercial sales approvals via export licenses tasked to the Department of Defense via the Department of State; and implements cooperative acquisition programs under the purview of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition.
• The Deputy Under Secretary of the Navy oversees direct Secretary of the Navy security cooperation engagements and facilitates cross-department-level initiatives.
• The Strategy and Policy Division (N51) oversees Chief of Naval Operations and other key leader engagements, as well as Navy security cooperation strategy.
• The Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Dominance (N2N6) oversees all intelligence-based agreements and engagements.
• The dual-hatted Chief of Naval Research/Director, Innovation Technology Requirements and Test and Evaluation (N94), oversees all international requirements harmonization and collaborative science and technology and research, development, test, and evaluation efforts.
Together, these stakeholders oversee most of the critical tools of security cooperation that generate thousands of foreign partner interactions each year. The challenge with this dispersed organizational arrangement is to focus strategic effort and ensure the activity and outputs lead to common outcomes. With a unity of effort approach around national, defense, and service strategic goals, the Navy security cooperation team can combine its tools and levers at the right time and place to achieve these goals. Moving forward, the service must increase use of its recently established Navy Security Cooperation Council (NSCC) to better coordinate security cooperation engagements across the department.
Alignment and Execution
To ensure we cede no space to our competitors, the Navy must pursue urgent change at significant scale in alignment and execution. For the alignment imperative, this includes continuing to share across the NSCC a comprehensive but adaptive security cooperation roadmap, laying out global efforts through the lenses of partnership influence, combat capability and capacity, and the U.S. industrial base. When all stakeholders see how their activities align with fleet commander and other objectives, the Navy can flip its collective approach from reacting to partners and opportunities to actively prioritizing and pursuing opportunities that best meet U.S. security needs and our partners’ needs.
In short, the roadmap provides an enterprise view of security cooperation objectives, time-phased and visible to all stakeholders. Stakeholders see how their and others’ tools contribute to meeting specific needs, which allows for reprioritization, course correction, or improved collaboration to achieve a bigger impact.
For the execution imperative, efforts already are under way to transition from a post–Cold War, U.S. dominant, “no existential threat” mind-set of deliberate, serial, low-risk execution to one of parallel action. Navy stakeholders have worked together to deconstruct processes and assumptions and determined that much of our serial process execution is a habit born of incremental and often undocumented process changes, not grounded in or constrained from change by either law or policy. What cannot be done in parallel now must be assessed for delegation or even elimination.
The first round of evolutionary changes has yielded good results. The Navy’s foreign military sales have more than doubled in recent years, and we have seen improvements in many other security cooperation levers, including foreign disclosure policy, export licensing, and international cooperative agreements. All of this has been accomplished with a slightly declining workforce. But these execution improvement efforts alone are insufficient to scale to the level of collaboration we must achieve with partners and allies. We must continue to experiment, innovate, and challenge process habits that constrain our performance, especially the interagency processes that are so resistant to change.
In particular, we must continue the crusade to streamline the technology security and foreign disclosure (TS&FD) policy and international agreement process. These tools have not adapted to an era of rising great power competition. While protecting critical program information remains paramount, our TS&FD processes are clogged with many routine decisions that could be delegated. We must search for innovative approaches, and for our key partners, we should identify key capability areas where we assume a “yes” approval and require any “no” vote to justify the exception. This will accelerate critical capability delivery and allow a shrinking workforce to focus on emerging technology areas.
Continuing execution in a multilayered, unsynchronized fashion will set us up for failure, especially as our competitors are able to share equipment far more quickly than we can. Our adversaries are rapidly closing the technology gap and increasingly are offering higher levels of technology transfer to the same partners we are trying to attract. We no longer can let a serial and stovepiped TS&FD process delay the key interoperability and capability our warfighters desire for our partners.
‘Yes, If’ Mind-set
The final vector—the change of culture from “No, because” to “Yes, if”—has the greatest potential to strengthen our alliances and enable new partnerships. We must demonstrate a willingness to help our partners figure out what they need and how to achieve it, especially when that capability will benefit us. We can do that best by continuing to adopt a “Yes, if” approach. While we may sometimes have to say no for technology security, political, or industrial base concerns, the willingness to consider all alternatives and engage in discussions will go a long way toward showing how great a partner we can be.
The Navy is moving to a “Yes, if” culture by tracing assumptions to their point of origin, demonstrating different approaches, and emphasizing maximum delegation at all levels, to the full extent of authority. To be successful, however, new approaches to process and procedures must be heard and even tested without fear of failure. Professionals taking measured risks to achieve accelerated results must not be punished if they fall short. And we must continue to encourage those who are delegated authority to demonstrate it.
Now Is the Moment
The Navy has proved it can make significant improvements in supporting the security cooperation mission, but we must not relax or rest on past successes. Our adversaries are beginning to apply their considerable resources against our partnership network. The Secretary of the Navy and Chief of Naval Operations have challenged us to lean so far forward that they will be forced to call us and instruct us to dial it back a notch. To date we have not received a call from them, but we have on occasion from within the agencies. So, the vectors are correct, but they need to dramatically increase in length and alignment. Activity does not guarantee outcomes.
We have to earn our partnerships and alliances every day to blunt our adversaries’ efforts. We met this challenge at the end of the Cold War, as we watched former Soviet Union “partners” quickly switch sides.
We must continue to ask how we can best marshal our partners to support our security aims and how can we aid their endeavors with the levers of security cooperation, employed with greater speed and scale. The low hanging fruit has been picked. Further gains will require wider buy-in and structural change. We cannot risk waking up in five years to find we failed to reach far enough. Now is our moment.
1. S. Cropsey, Seablindness (New York: Encounter Books, 2017), 267.
2. Kenneth Allen, Phillip C. Saunders, and John Chen, Chinese Military Diplomacy, 2003–2016: Trends and Implications (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, July 2017), and Defense Intelligence Agency, China Military Power: Modernizing a Force to Fight and Win (2019).