WASHINGTON — A new report in the wake of big changes to the Pentagon's security assistance apparatus argues the sector's wider web of US government bureaucracies is still profoundly tangled.

Security cooperation has been a cornerstone of US defense strategy, with $250 billion spent in at least 137 countries since 9/11. By bolstering partner security forces — from local police to elite troops — it's meant to prevent future crises, a way to do more with less.

Yet, in spite of a recently-signed defense policy bill that aims to rid the Pentagon of its organizational, transparency and training woes for security assistance, the government overall is a knot of 46 entities with slim to no coordination between them or a means of gauging whether these programs actually work.

A report by Open Society Foundations senior policy adviser Rose Jackson, published Monday, offers a blueprint for Department of Defense and beyond. Its recommendations aim to improve internal transparency, make the workforce more capable and standardize processes for planning, budgeting and programming.

"We're spending billions of dollars providing lethal capabilities to hundreds of countries," Jackson, former chief of staff to the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, told Defense News. "Take our counter-terrorism effort: We think it's worth spending billions of tax dollars keeping our country safe, and we can't even answer where we're spending it or if it's working? How is that acceptable? It's potentially wasting tax dollars and threatening the lives of Americans."

Still, the incoming administration's approach to security cooperation remains an open question. President-elect Donald Trump has attacked US allies as freeloading on military and diplomatic alliances. His pick for defense secretary, retired Gen. James Mattis, has benefited from numerous military-to-military partnerships as chief of US Central Command and told Politico last summer the US must "do things by, with, and through, allies."

Mattis's confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services hearing set for this week should provide clues. It will be up to the four-star chiefs of his regional combatant commands to make a case to the Trump White House for these programs. The trend, linked to the military's greater popularity in Congress, has been that the DoD's security aid has grown significantly while the State Department's foreign military financing budget is helping fewer countries.

According to Jackson, there is much to do. Despite the many relevant offices across government, few if any government agencies have an official center of gravity on security aid, which hampers coordination and information sharing. At the FBI, for instance, "nobody in D.C. knows at any one time how many FBI agents are overseas, for whom and where [embedded with or in an advisory capacity for foreign law enforcement]. Every agency that has a [security sector assistance] connection, should have a single D.C.-based point of contact."

Beyond one-off programs, Jackson argues the US government must articulate which countries it needs to prioritize and get high-level cooperation between agencies. "We have limited resources and limited people, so it's important to say in a cogent way what do we actually care about," she said.

The 2017 NDAA's reform proposals emerged as a flashpoint in a broader debate over the role of DoD in security cooperation, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report. Nonetheless some provisions had broad appeal and made it into law, like boosting the training of the foreign military sales workforce and making security cooperation budgets more transparent to Congress.

Of its major reforms, the 2017 NDAA collapses a patchwork of more than 100 niche authorities — some time-limited, overlapping or contradictory — which Congress had enacted to respond to urgent needs in the post-9/11 era. Though these were largely related to counter-terrorism, the NDAA's consolidated authorities ultimately give DoD flexibility to work with foreign militaries and non-military forces in, say, counter-narcotics.

While that saves DoD from having to stitch together various authorities and pots of money as it aids partner forces, it has also raised concerns about the militarization of US foreign policy.

"By itself its a generally positive thing, except that it makes the State Department and others very nervous that DoD just got a big giant authority that the State Department says it can already do," Jackson said. By way of addressing these concerns, the NDAA requires joint formulation with the State Department, but precise details of the State-DoD working relationship remain hazy. 

For DoD's internal coordination, the NDAA mandates the defense secretary designate an official at the level of undersecretary or below. The idea is to force the department to do more mid- and long-term planning, implementation and monitoring for its programs—and force more strategic thinking, in line with the more flexible authorities.

Whereas security aid has been tucked all over DoD's budget, the NDAA orders a series of reports, including a consolidated security cooperation budget for Congress that details what it spends in each country. Plus, it must for the first time evaluate whether or not its programs are working.

The 2017 NDAA also dovetails with the Defense Security Cooperation Agency's efforts to improve training beyond the two-week Defense Institute of Security Assistance Management course for its foreign military sales workforce. It authorizes a new DoD school with varying levels of certification and flexibility to require deeper training for more complex country assignments.

Jackson argues for expanding such training for the State Department, where there is no mandatory training beyond a two-day political-military affairs course at the Foreign Service Institute and access to the DSCA course. Ambassadors would also have to pick a security-sector point person who would be required to get that additional training.

"You'd have a more informed and better prepared workforce," Jackson said.

Email:    jgould@defensenews.com      

Twitter:    @ReporterJoe