Want more capable military partners? Empower and promote foreign area officers.


About 170 U.S. Army foreign area officers and distinguished visitors met at the first FAO European Symposium in 2020. (DVIDS)

Driven by a Congressional requirement, the Department of Defense plans to cut a number of general officer positions in the coming year. In this new op-ed, Jonathan Lord of the Center for a New American Security argues that the department risks making these cuts in the wrong place — by disproportionately hurting those few foreign relations experts who have risen through the ranks inside the Pentagon.

The National Defense Strategy (NDS) emphasizes the need to continually strengthen and reinvigorate American partnerships and alliances. To be successful, the strategy implicitly requires that U.S. security assistance and cooperation extend beyond the mere sale and delivery of materiel to military partners. Security cooperation must result in the development of sustainable and enduring military partner capability – otherwise, the U.S. military will be perpetually obligated to support failing partner militaries, diverting funds and efforts from restoring readiness and lethality and preparation for future conflicts in priority theaters.

Those who engage in security cooperation on behalf of Washington must be able to develop diplomatic and military relations with foreign political and military leaders to have influence, to drive the often necessary reform of the security sector security, and advising and assisting military partners in the planning and acquisition of military training and equipment. that meets security needs in a sustainable way. Security Cooperation Offices (SCOs) based in embassies struggle to perform these tasks under normal conditions. We have seen time and time again what it looks like when things go wrong: when defense ministries in need of reform are left to fend for themselves, institutional weakness and corruption ultimately produce hollow armies. In just one notable example, the United States spent billions of dollars to train and equip Iraqi security forces, only to crumble to ISIS in 2014, necessitating a continuing US military intervention at this time. day.

To carry out this challenging mission, which requires partners to focus on less tangible but crucial aspects of military development (training, sustainment, logistics, planning, etc.), the Department of Defense should leverage the Best Fit to Get the Job Done: Area Officers (FAO), the only military professionals trained to deliver Department of Defense-level engagement and development with foreign allies and partners.

Unfortunately, just when CAOs are expected to see increasing leadership roles in the department, critical defense diplomacy, general officer positions are facing the chopping block in a short-sighted decision by DoD leadership. The Pentagon, and the United States as a whole, will be weaker.

Although CAOs spend up to two decades of a full 30-year career accomplishing this critical mission, very few of these officers are promoted to senior positions in the Pentagon, Combatant Command Staff, or the Senior General Officer Defense Official-Defense Attaché (SDO-DATT) in U.S. Embassies, where they can better manage and shape U.S. bilateral security partnerships. To ensure that U.S. security cooperation and assistance has a strategic and lasting impact, it is time for the Pentagon to begin an effort to empower and promote FAOs to these positions of critical engagement with the partner countries.

The FAO training and career path is designed to gain the knowledge, skills, and experience necessary to represent the United States as an SDO-DATT in U.S. diplomatic missions around the world. CAOs in the US Army are typically selected as senior captains, after successfully completing an assignment as a company commander, which identifies them as high achievers and secures their next promotion. CAOs then undergo three to five years of additional training and education: foreign language training at the Defense Language Institute, a one-year “internship” at a foreign embassy or other foreign, a master’s degree from a graduate school with a validated graduate degree program, Command and General Staff College, Joint Military Attachés School, and Security Cooperation Officer Course. CAMs are uniquely designed to develop relationships with allies and partners and help them create capable and durable militaries that are interoperable with ours. However, because the military services tend to prioritize and embrace officers from their major branches, CAOs are often overlooked for senior leadership and general officer roles in favor of officers with longer service backgrounds. traditional, such as Air Force fighter pilots and Army combat arms officers. . As a result, it is rare for a CAO to rise above the rank of O-6 – a colonel in the army, air force, and marines, or a captain in the navy.

While the DoD should be looking for ways to promote and hold CFOs accountable, currently the Pentagon is moving in the wrong direction. Not only has the Army failed to promote CAOs in key roles, but to comply with prior defense legislation reducing the number of general and general officer positions in the Army, the DoD is considering a plan to eliminate all but four SDO-DATT General Officer posts. in the world by the end of this year.

While this legislation was intended to reduce the number of generals and admirals in what Congress viewed as a bloated Pentagon bureaucracy, the military services reflexively protected their own and recommended that the cuts be made elsewhere. By accepting the recommendations of the military services, unable to see beyond their internal priorities and cultures, the Pentagon is inadvertently undermining a fundamental principle of the NDS and a fundamental pillar of this administration’s foreign policy: the strengthening of partnerships and alliances.

In addition to the SDO-DATTs, the United States Security Coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority (USSC) is also expected to be demoted. That post is currently held by a three-star army general who played a crucial role in working with Ramallah and Jerusalem following the murder of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. The shuttle diplomacy necessary to ease tensions and coordinate security operations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority can only be successfully accomplished by a US military officer with the status and credibility to influence Israel’s top security officials. and Palestinians. Failing a field officer in this role like an army colonel or navy captain is a recipe for failure, and the president’s recent trip to the region demonstrates that the stakes are simply too high.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin should rethink the plan to downgrade these critical defense diplomacy positions, and the law gives him the ability to do so. Section 501 of the fiscal year 2017 NDAA, which legislated the cuts, also includes a waiver power allowing the secretary to retain tickets beyond the authorized total if it is in the interest of national security. . Instead of cutting positions critical to defense diplomacy, the secretary should exercise the waiver, reinstate them, and direct service chiefs to assign them to the military best trained to do the job: the CAOs.

In March 2021, Austin laid out his three priorities in his advice to the force: “defending the nation, caring for our people, and succeeding through teamwork.” By preserving those general officer positions that are essential to American partnerships and alliances, and staffing them with FAOs, it would serve all three.

Jonathan Lord is Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. Previously, he served as a professional staff member for the House Armed Services Committee, Country Director for Iraq in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, and Political-Military Analyst at the Department of Defense.


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