In the past five years, the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard annually sold defense hardware and services ranging from $11 to $21 billion to partner nations through the Department of Defense’s Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program.1 Weapon systems sold include the latest from U.S. inventories: AEGIS weapon systems, F/A-18 Super Hornets, EA-18G Growlers, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter variants, E-2D Hawkeyes, P-8 Poseidons, MH-60R/S Seahawks, MV-22 Ospreys, CH-53K King Stallions, AH-1 Cobras, MQ-4C Triton and ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicles, and amphibious assault vehicles, to name a few. These sales are coordinated through the Navy’s International Programs Office (IPO) working with the Navy and Marine Corps systems commands, other U.S. government offices and agencies, and defense contractors.
It takes a fraction of the annual FMS sum—less than 1 percent—to fund the associated training for these systems. Yet, this critical training brings hardware capabilities to life, opening doors to expanded warfighting capacity and interoperability with U.S. forces.
A single Navy command—the Naval Education and Training Security Assistance Field Activity (NETSAFA)—orchestrates most of this training with its Marine Corps and Coast Guard counterparts. This one-of-a-kind command works with the Navy IPO, regional Department of Defense component commander staffs, material systems commands, international partners, Naval Education and Training Command (NETC) learning centers, and other learning institutions to schedule, resource, and complete training/education for typically 7,000–8,000 international maritime students per year.
NETSAFA also does much more than weapon-systems training. Each year it arranges training in a wide scope of
warfighting specialties, including:
• Surface warfare officer combat mission training
• Amphibious warfare operations
• Submarine tactical team training
• Tactical aircraft mission training
• Naval aviation training through initial qualification (“winging”)
• Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) operations
• Maritime domain awareness
• Coast Guard maritime security operations
• U.S. Marine Corps basic officer/infantry unit leader and team tactical training
• Intelligence officer, Combat Engineering Corps, and supply/logistics training
• Advanced aviation training at TOPGUN
In addition, each year several hundred international students complete training in explosive ordnance disposal (EOD); dive operations; air-intercept controller; small-craft operations; visit, board, search, and seizure; unmanned aerial systems, and cybersecurity.
Professional Military Education
Investing in international military student attendance at U.S. professional military education (PME) institutions yields even greater dividends. Each year more than 400 international students from 120 countries attend the Naval War College, Marine Corps University, or Naval Postgraduate School, learning side-by-side with their Navy and Marine Corps counterparts.2 These classmates often develop strong, lifelong professional and personal relationships. Most international officers attending U.S. PME institutions advance to senior positions in their militaries with a solid foundation for engaging with the U.S. Sea Services throughout their careers.3
At the Naval War College and Marine Corps University, international students study U.S. Defense Department organization, joint warfighting, strategy/policy, and U.S. government interagency activity in addition to core naval warfare concepts. Students also visit defense-related facilities, where they gain insight on operational units, command and control, staff operations, the defense industry, and research capabilities.
International students at the Naval Postgraduate School typically attend for two years and earn advanced degrees in various engineering disciplines, undersea warfare, special operations, information systems, space systems, network operations, oceanography, supply/logistics, civil-military relations, counterterrorism, defense acquisition, and other defense curricula.
Matching Education/Training to Requirements
Partner-nation defense requirements vary greatly. In many cases, a country requires a local or regional force capable of carrying out basic maritime security roles. This might include training and exercises in ship boarding operations, patrol craft operations, and equipment maintenance skills. Others require command-and-control capability development combined with low-cost, mobile surveillance systems and connectivity to a government interagency organization.
Congressional programs, such as the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act’s Section 1263 Maritime Security Initiative or U.S. Title 10’s Section 333 Authority to Build Capacity, target such priorities. NETSAFA works with Department of Defense offices to arrange and conduct supportive training. The staff also opens doors to learning opportunities in developing good governance (institutional capacity building), including civilian control of defense sectors, government transparency, good resource management practices, anticorruption measures, adhering to the rule of law, and internationally recognized standards of human rights.
Steps for Improvement
The related benefits are not theoretical. A recent Department of Defense study on PME concluded, “International PME is an investment in human capital that helps increase partner nations’ institutional and operational defense capabilities, including warfighting interoperability, and strengthens relationships between partner nations and the U.S. military.”4
Former Department of State and Defense senior executive Randall Schriver recently commented, “I think back to what we’ve learned from [the war in] Ukraine. It’s not just the weapon systems and the ammunition that’s been provided. It’s the fact that Ukraine has been involved in training with the U.S. and NATO partners since 2014. . . . You can find Department of Defense officials on the record saying it’s really this training that has proven to be the difference between Ukraine and Russia.”5
But there are opportunities for making international training and education contributions even more effective:
Synchronize formal training with warfighting exercises and engagements. Training partner nations already enhances combined maritime exercises, personnel exchanges, tactical wargaming, fleet synthetic training, and cooperative research—tools creating measurable advances in interoperability. Ways to enhance training and education support for these activities include:
The Navy’s Cooperative Deployment Program—in which partner-nation ships join U.S. Navy unit deployments from predeployment exercises to postdeployment debriefs—can be strengthened by identifying and aligning supportive training. Courses such as the Naval War College’s International Maritime Staff Operators Course could help the integration process in preparation for combined maritime operations.6
U.S. Coast Guard training, such as the International Maritime Officers Course, is ideally suited for preparing partner-nation personnel for global maritime partner exercises and operations.7
U.S. Marine Corps Forces Central Command holds an annual bilateral exercise with its Saudi Arabian counterparts known as Native Fury, which flexes the combat supply/logistics system and warfighting readiness. The Navy and Marine Corps offer formal training in combat supply/logistics. Equipping Saudi Arabia with formally trained supply/logistics personnel can set the stage for advanced exercise scenarios.
There are numerous annual maritime engagements in which even minimal basic analysis can yield such opportunities. Japan took such an initiative. It requested, and received, Navy tactical training for its submarine crew just prior to its scheduled annual submarine at-sea exercises with U.S. Navy antisubmarine warfare units.
Review foreign-disclosure processes. Foreign disclosure is the process by which classified information is made available through approved channels to authorized representatives of a foreign government or international organization. It is a key enabler for enhancing warfighting interoperability through activities such as FMS training.
By design, the foreign-disclosure authorization process is deliberate and complex. But maintaining national security readiness to address great power competition via international maritime cooperation requires ever-evolving processes, and continually updating foreign-disclosure limits allows Sea Service training institutions to make the most relevant warfighting curricula available to partner-nation students.
Close training and education knowledge gaps. Navy and Marine Corps regional staffs have limited insight into ongoing international training and education. At the same time, NETSAFA has virtually no awareness of regional maritime exercises or other international engagements.Closing these gaps could increase the value of international training/education. For example, Navy and Marine Corps regional staffs and exercise planners could benefit from knowing:
• International U.S. PME graduates in their region who could be incorporated into various regional staff/exercise engagements.
• International student graduates from U.S. amphibious warfare, BUD/S, EOD, dive, air-intercept controller, or maritime security training who could participate in regional exercises to sustain their skills and grow interoperability.
• International intelligence officer course graduates who may one day become part of a regional network of maritime intelligence professionals.
At the same time, NETSAFA staff could learn about regional exercises and planned cooperative deployments to help identify relevant training for partner-nation participants. This dynamic already exists with some engagements, such as annual Africa Partner Station exercises. It should be expanded.
International military students attending Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard training and education observe many of the Sea Services’ finest attributes. They also receive outstanding maritime training while getting an unfiltered view of life in the United States—a distinctive ideological plus in great power competition. In the past five years, 35,000–40,000 international maritime students have gone through U.S. learning institutions. Most develop a broader respect for U.S. maritime might and look forward to operating with their U.S. counterparts. U.S. Sea Service members and the general public should understand the significance and key benefits derived from training and educating these students.
1. In addition to FMS, Direct Commercial Sales (DCS) adds roughly 100–200 percent to total annual maritime weapons system procurement by partner nations.
2. In addition, approximately 60 international students from more than 25 countries will complete the four-year U.S. Naval Academy curriculum.
3. In 2022, 40 navy service chiefs worldwide were Naval War College graduates.
4. U.S. Department of Defense, Department of Defense Strategic Evaluation of International Professional Military Education, 5 July 2022.
6. In the March 2019 U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings article titled “Plug and Fight: A French Air Wing on a U.S. Carrier,” the author describes how U.S. Navy training of French pilots under FMS laid the foundation for a French air wing to operate from the USS George H. W. Bush (CVN-77) in 2018.
7. The Naval War College already provides pre-exercise PME sessions for international senior leaders participating in some regional Global Maritime Partnership exercises.