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DOD Security Cooperation Takes 'LEAP' Forward

The Defense Department is ensuring that it engages with its partners in ways that are holistic, effective, efficient and in direct support of the objectives in the National Defense Strategy, the assistant secretary of defense for strategy, plans and capabilities said today in prepared remarks.

Mara Karlin spoke at a virtual launch event for DOD's first learning agenda for security cooperation — the Learning and Evaluation Agenda for Partnerships.

Learning and Evaluation Agenda for Partnerships
Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy
Defense Security Cooperation Agency
National Defense University

Learning agendas help organizations identify knowledge gaps and coordinate research to fill those gaps. LEAP identifies the most urgent knowledge gaps in the security cooperation community and plans and prioritizes evidence-building activities over the next five years.

A defense official said the public launch was a demonstration of the commitment by Karlin's office to evidence-based policymaking and lessons learned. The official said the department also hoped to generate interest and conversation on DOD's learning priorities and to support submissions and coordination of studies and evaluations by non-federal entities aligned with DOD priorities.

Today's global geostrategic environment is laden with threats from states and non-state actors, Karlin said. "In this environment, the enduring U.S. strategic advantage is our unmatched network of allies and partners," she said. 

Security cooperation is an important tool that helps the United States to act by, with, and through our partners to make a safer world."
Mara Karlin, assistant secretary of defense for strategy, plans and capabilities

Security Cooperation

DOD wants to build capable partners with strong defense institutions, Karlin said. Such partners would operate alongside or in lieu of the U.S. to face global, regional and national threats, she said.

"Today, our cooperation with partners includes military-to-military engagements, capacity building, education and training activities, humanitarian assistance activities, and robust exercises with key partners," Karlin noted.

She said DOD's security cooperation focuses on three priority areas: 

Prioritizing who and what the department invests in.
Focusing on sustainable impact.
Adopting a holistic, integrated approach to how DOD executes security cooperation programs.

"The department's thinking on security cooperation has evolved over time, and we continue to learn and adjust," Karlin said. "Five years ago, Congress enacted legislation empowering the department to support allies and partners through a consolidated range of Title 10 U.S. Code security cooperation authorities designed to advance U.S. interests and with full coordination of the State Department."

As part of this reform process, DOD established the first comprehensive program of assessment, monitoring and evaluation to improve the practice and impact of security cooperation activities, she said.

Learning Agenda for Security Cooperation

Karlin said DOD built on that program to develop a comprehensive learning agenda framework aimed at providing more structure and longer-term thinking to the effort.

"LEAP identifies the most urgent knowledge gaps in the security cooperation community, centered around eight learning questions, and plans and prioritizes evidence-building activities over the next five years to help fill these gaps," she said.

"This common framework will help us increase coordination, collaboration and return on investment across the security cooperation community," she said.

Partnership should not be measured by the quantity of security cooperation programs, but rather by their quality."
Mara Karlin, assistant secretary of defense for strategy, plans and capabilities

Karlin noted that DOD has learned through large-scale assistance programs that in order to have a lasting impact a comprehensive engagement plan involves more than training and equipping. 

"Resilient partnerships thrive when values and deeds align," she said. "Security cooperation aims to uphold that approach."

DOD helps partners with specific capabilities, Karlin said, but it also works to build institutional integrity and an ability to promote shared values — notably the promotion and protection of human rights and the good governance and legitimacy of the security sector.

An aerial view of the Pentagon.
Aerial View
An aerial view of the Pentagon, May 11, 2021.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. Brittany A. Chase, DOD
VIRIN: 210512-D-BM568-1287R

She said she's previously referred to institutional capacity-building activities as the "secret sauce" needed to get security cooperation right. Today's announcement moves to centralize institution-building initiatives under broader security cooperation efforts. "We're moving such efforts from the secret sauce to the main dish," Karlin said.

Partnership should not be measured by the quantity of security cooperation programs, but rather by their quality, she said.

Karlin said LEAP will help the department better understand what works and what doesn't, while informing key decisions to improve policy and practice. "It will help ensure our approach to security cooperation is effective, efficient and directly supports the key defense objectives outlined in the NDS," she said.

"These are hard issues to figure out, and we've come up with a quantitative and qualitative approach that represents a 'leap' forward for the department," Karlin said.

Alliances and partnerships can confer an unmatchable strategic advantage, she said, but this is not a given. Karlin said securing this advantage requires active involvement by the entire U.S. government, listening to partners' concerns and taking a thoughtful and deliberate approach to how DOD employs its resources to meet its priorities.

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