Army #Operating Concept: The Promise and Pitfalls of Partners


In military circles, it’s “building partner capacity”. Inside the DC Beltway, it’s “lead from behind”. But whatever buzz word du jour you use, it’s inevitable that the US Army will rely more on its global partners as Soldiers trickle home after thirteen years of war.

It’s one of the key themes in the Army Operating Concept (AOC), released by the US Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC), which listed security cooperation as one of the Army’s eleven key missions. According to the Army Operating Concept, the US Army will continue to work with a world-wide network of partners to deter adversaries and reassure allies. Indeed, the moment the document hit the streets, US forces were training alongside NATO partners in Europe in a series of multinational exercisesdesigned to respond to Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Of course, reliable NATO partners are one thing; the 28-nation alliance is undoubtedly the most successful alliance in history. It’s quite different to coax a vexing web of regional partners in the Middle East to defeat an enemy like ISIL.

It’s here the Army Operating Concept is spot-on with its measured approach towards security assistance. The AOC’s wary skepticism echoes the thoughts of ARCIC’s director, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who warned in 2013 about “outsourcing” America’s wars to proxies.

“Our interests are often not congruent with our so-called partners”, said Lt. Gen. McMaster during the event, hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Little over a year after Lt. Gen. McMaster’s remarks, the Iraqi Army, which received over $25 billion in assistance from the US government, disintegrated within days, as insurgents from the so-called Islamic State poured over the border from Syria and seized large swaths of northern and western Iraq.

Need more proof the US Army’s losing patience with partners? Check out the latest incarnation of the Army’s counter-insurgency field manual, released earlier this year:

The U.S. could equip groups within a state and empower them to take control over an area. While the initial cost may be lower, this course of action is fraught with possible unintended consequences. The group that counterinsurgents enable, which is essentially another insurgency, may act in ways that are counter to U.S. interests once it gains control of the area.

So does this mean the Army’s abandoning partnership? Not in the least. If anything, US foreign military assistance has more than doubled in the past decade, according to USAID.

So why partner? Three reasons.

First, placing US ground troops in harm’s way is fraught with political difficulties — not just on the home front, but in host nations as well. War may be politics, sure, but we often forget that includes domestic politics as well. Political constraints may well dictate that we have little choice other than to rely on partner forces.

Second, decision-makers will be, for better or worse, seduced by the low cost and risk of “outsourcing” security concerns. Strategists often speak of the “ends, ways, and means” equation — identifying security goals and assigning programs and resources to meet those goals. But when resources dwindle, and US forces are committed elsewhere throughout the globe, realists often view the equation in reverse — with resources driving strategy. With security assistance programs eating up less than $20 billion annually — a mere pittance, compared to the DOD’s base budget — decision-makers will increasingly turn to local solutions to national security problems.

Finally, for every spectacular security assistance failure, there’s a quiet success. Earlier this month, fighter jets from several Arab nations participated in air strikes against the Islamic State. This gave the US-led operation an air of legitimacy, made possible, in no small part, to decades’ worth of security assistance and attendance at US military institutions. And over the past thirty years, small teams of US advisors helped partners in Colombia, El Salvador, and the Philippines quell seemingly unstoppable insurgencies. We may be using new buzz-words, but the concept is deep-rooted in American military doctrine, dating back to the very earliest attempts at “counter-guerilla” warfare in the 1980s.

Why do some missions succeed while others fail? Politics, pure and simple. A 2013 RAND study examined nearly 30 “building partner capacity” missions over a 20-year period, and found that security assistance missions were most successful when the partner nation had high governance indicators, a good economy, and its security interests generally coincided with those of the US. As with everything in war, politics reigns supreme.

Security assistance undoubtedly has many flaws. But when decision-makers identify the right interests, the combination of US assistance and local solutions is unstoppable. Coalition warfare has been the bane of generals since the time of Thucydides. But as the great statesman Winston Churchill reportedly said, there is at least one thing worse than fighting with allies…and that is to fight without them.”


Crispin Burke is a U.S. Army officer stationed at Fort Bragg, NC. The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


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