Empowering Coalition Partners – time to think out of the box a bit!


fleetAt a time when everyone is worrying about cuts and program delays, one area remains high priority. Our Defense Strategy pulls much of its strength from a renewed and increased emphasis on coalition support. It’s clear that as a nation, the US does not want to enter into any conflicts without the strong support of coalition partners. Ad hoc coalitions have formed up for every major conflict of the past decade. As we firm up our future commitments and make hard decisions about which capabilities we will fund and which ones we will cut, purposefully strengthening the capabilities of our coalition partners will be top of the list.
How we transfer technologies to foreign powers is a very complicated process. In a nutshell, the host nation needs to request it and our State department needs to support it. In between there are many complicated approvals to get the technology deployed. The most common way we do this is through Foreign Military Sales (FMS).
I’ve seen some good uses of FMS, but mostly I have seen FMS programs dump expensive “black-box” capabilities on our allies’ laps. Usually the technology is a stripped down version of what the US forces use, and it is often a generation or two behind. Most FMS sales generally start with basic, commercial off-the-shelf equipment, connected together in some manner particular to the mission being solved. Mission-unique algorithms or architectures or databases then turn the COTS equipment into a “program” that can only be obtained through FMS.
When a Nation purchases a capability through FMS, they often do so because they want the full support that goes behind that capability. If something doesn’t work, they just call up the US FMS provider and ask that it be fixed. Sounds good, but it often results in a standalone FMS solution that does not connect or enable any of the host nations systems. It generally uses English languages and interfaces. And since only US personnel can work on the system, it never gets fully integrated into our partners capability set.
When we deploy a new solution onboard US military units, a great deal of attention is paid to the training of the users, the logistics tail to support it, and the capability growth we can project into this particular system. All of that is missing when a foreign Government purchases through a pure FMS case. Without empowering the foreign user to actually integrate the solution into their own capabilities, using interfaces that are in their language and are supported by their engineers, the system will never develop legs and grow into anything remotely resembling the way the US uses the equipment.
Direct Commercial Sales (DCS) won’t work for most of the really high-end solutions, like Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS) or Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC). There is just too much in these systems that the US doesn’t want to lose control of. But what about a hybrid approach that will allow the allies to design, build and install systems that they can maintain and use themselves, with an FMS sale of the actual datasets or algorithms needed to make it work as intended by the US Program Office?
In my experience, everyone basically agrees that that type of approach is better for the host nation, and will result in a program that will provide a deeper level of interoperability between coalition partners. It is a LOT more work for the US a LOT less profit for the program offices. Careful attention to how these hybrid solutions are designed and deployed will be needed to protect core US assets. And without the revenue stream of selling outdated US FMS solutions, it’s hard to get anyone on the US side interested.
The benefits, however, are so convincing and the need to empower our allies is so immediate, that I am convinced we can resurface these types of discussions in the current climate and make headway! We can expect to see this type of out-of-the-box solution make more and more headlines as our allies are expected to do more and more in response to US shifts in Defense Strategy.

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