The gray zone versus great power competition

Can the U.S. Department of Defense do two things at once, operating in the gray zone and in great power competition?  Not according to Tommy Ross and Stephen Tankel who argue that security assistance “ is focused on the wrong countries and being used to build the wrong capabilities.”

Their idea is that competition with China and Russia- great power competition (GPC)- is the priority and all instruments of national power must be bent to that end, at the expense of all other needs.   Ross and Tankel conclude that the “United States is no longer well-positioned to use security sector assistance to “ compete with China and Russia — especially in “gray zone” activities short of war.”  Ross is a former assistant Secretary of Defense for Security Cooperation and should know better.  Changes in administrations are an opportunity to reflect on what works and what may be changed, but in this case, changes in the name of so-called reform could cause real harm.   They suggests, in part, converting what are known as building partner capacity (BPC) funds into general-purpose security assistance funds so they may explicitly be used for Great Power Competition — that is, to block China and Russia.  That is a fine goal, but there are greater and more effective tools already in use:  Security assistance writ large, about $19 billion dollars in 2019, and the deterrent effect of the U.S. armed forces themselves.  Besides, Congress created specific categories of activities in which 333 funds can be used for a purpose.

What are building partner capacity funds?  They are a basket of congressional authorizations meant to counter urgent and emergent threats.  The zeitgeist of these funds was to quickly provide rifles, trucks, radios, and ammunition, along with training, to partner states who were fighting terrorists and insurgencies that were critical to U.S. security.  These funds were meant for partner states actually engaged in the business of killing bad guys.  In various forms, they have been around for three administrations.  In the early 2000s, DOD needed an authorization to quickly buttress and fund operations with smaller countries not in formal alliances like NATO and the cumbersome existing security assistance framework of foreign military financing and sales.  Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan, which gobbled up billions of dollars, building partner capacity funds have been small. BPC funds have gone through several iterations since the first in 2006. The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act re-authorized the funds under section 333. They have neverexceeded 1 percent of the budget.  In 2020, 333 funds make up less than .14 percent of the defense budget.

Where are 333 funds been used?  Since 2017, they have been used in Burkina Faso, Chad, Cameroon, support to Uganda, Kenya, and Djibouti in order to support the UN mission in Somalia, Jordan, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Mozambique, Tunisia and even Mexico.  Earlier versions of BPC funds were used in Hungary, Indonesia, Georgia, Latvia, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Malaysia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Poland and Romania.  In Africa in particular, the need is urgent.  That is exactly where these funds should be deployed to allow the rest of the billions and billions of dollars of security assistance to be spent more directly against China and Russia in.

A Holding Action

First and foremost, building partner capacity is a supporting effort, a holding action.  They are a strategic defensive effort in order that the United States and its Allies can prepare and deter Russia and China with infantry divisions and fighter jets and aircraft carriers in other theaters.  Building partner capacity (BPC) funds are not meant to be decisive.  The violence and insecurity in these areas is not the absence of security-  it is a gray zone in which malign actors create chaos and seek to replace legitimate authority in its wake.  Insecurity for some could be insecurity for others.  On one side is the area the U.S. and the international community can access, and on the other, are the forces that seek to confront the U.S.  In Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, attacks by Islamic State and al Qaeda affiliates have increased dramatically since 2015, with more than 4000 deaths reported in 2019.  The U.S. must stay engaged in that gray zone.  This is the penultimate problem with the assertion that security assistance is out of sync with U.S. priorities and these “shortcomings hinder U.S. allies and partners, in turn leaving them vulnerable to Chinese and Russian influence” that reveals a deep misunderstanding of the strategy behind BPC funds.    BPC funds are exactly how the U.S. remains engaged in competition with Russia and China.

Figure 1. In areas of conflict, the zone of insecurity can be influenced to move left or right by engagement. It is not the insecurity that is important in great power competition, but who fills the area of legitimate authority.

A withdrawal of BPC funds or redirection in their uses would be tantamount to abandonment of the ideals of building up partners.  The Department of Defense could just find itself in a deeper hole ten years hence, anxiously requestinganother funding stream to counter the same, bigger, more dangerous threats.  That is on the horizon:  For example, Burkina Faso is the focal point of an increasingly complex regional war in which jihadist groups take advantage of nonexistent border security, exacerbating and amplifying local grievances about corruption and bad governance. An attack killed 36 in a village market in January 2020, and in October, another 20 were killed in the north of the country.   The violence moves across international borders with impunity. This is typical of vast trans-Sahel region in which the reach of the central state governments follows closely the roads and towns, with millions of square kilometers of scrub and desert left with only the lightest touch of government authority.  Imagine a satellite image at night, with the lights strung out along the roads, pearls in the darkness.  That is Mali, and Niger, and Chad.  Government writ reaches as far as the light.  In 2012, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad in Mali teamed up with heavily armed Toureg nomads back from the Libyan Civil war, captured key cities and declared northern Mali an Islamic state.  The short, sharp civil war toppled the Malian president in a coup in March 2012, and France deployed 4,000 soldiers to the country to push back the Islamist groups.  In August 2020, another coup toppled the latest leader of Mali.  Building partner capacity funds are used in each country for air reconnaissance assets, long range communications, and heavy duty desert vehicles, along with training on how to tie them all together in operations.  Imagine if the U.S. departed. The Trump administration has already engineered a sharp reduction in security funds for Africa, an effort loudly protested by Congress.

China and Russia behind the Gray Zone

If the U.S. pulls back from these areas of conflict, China and Russia will step in.  In many cases, it is because of the security situation and corruption that U.S. companies hesitate to operate.  For China and Russia, concerns over human rights abuses matter little.  Chinese investment in Africa tops $200 billion per year and since 2015, Beijing has provided $120 billion in financial aid.  In Burkina Faso, China is building a $140 million hospital and a $1.3 billion dollar road. In Guinea, another west African country, China has provided $20 billion in loans to develop bauxite mines and another $14 billion for iron developments.  In Mali, the Chinese have invested $11 billion in infrastructure deals.

It is a given that many of these failing states are run by corrupt, narcissistic family and clan confederations whose human rights records are little better the insurgent terrorists who seek to replace them.  But security assistance funds provide an important foot in the door for the U.S.  It is particularly important because these weak countries view many of the State Department’s activities as subversive and possibly corrosive to their own authority.  Building partner capacity (BPC) funds are security funds and that is simple enough to understand.  If this ‘foot-in-the-door’ is removed, Chinese dollars will work just as well.  If the U.S. were to retreat along the line presented by Ross and Tankel, the line of instability would move, allowing the space behind to be filled by Russia and particularly, China.  The places where Chinese money is invested would need security and already, China has peacekeepers in Congo, Liberia, Mali, Sudan and South Sudan.  China also partially funds the G5 Sahel Joint Force.

Perhaps more baldly, and thus more surprising that Ross and Tankel missed it, these small countries vote in the big international organizations, like the United Nations and the World Trade Organization.  They will be needed in the coalitions of international cooperation that President Joe Biden looks to lead.  Thwarting Russia and China short of actual war will require a broad coalition of countries voting on issues ranging from climate change to fair trade.  The emerging Biden foreign policy is to tie up Russia and China in a web of truth and responsibilities.  Already, China uses dollar diplomacy to keep vulnerable, weak states in its orbit.  It won over Burkina Faso in 2019, at the same time China offered to pay for security forces in the Sahel.  BPC funds, for their simplicity, can buy votes, too.

The Last One Percent?

Great power competition is real and it is the priority of the Department of Defense.  Ross and Tankel are correct in that.  However, they lose sight of the billions and billions spent on great power competition.  We could say that great-power competition consumes 99 percent of the Department of Defense budget.  That is tanks, aircraft carriers, attack helicopters and missiles.  That is personnel and their pay and benefits.  That is all the training and exercises in the plains of central Europe and the seas in Southeast Asia.   Why is the last 1 percent being eyed for the same purpose?

The bureaucracy simply cannot imagine low-level conflict as a useful end. Grinding slowly and loath to change, the Department of Defense was created for great power competition, and it requires expensive kit- missile defense, ships, tanks and fighter jets.  Security assistance, run through the State Department, and the even bigger foreign military sales efforts have provided this kind of equipment since the 1960s.  BPC funds are meant for smaller, simpler tasks, not part of U.S. main effort in its big wars.  But there is seduction in the simplicity of big wars. They are easy to understand, plan for, and win.  From pre-commissioning training to the flag officer level, planning is oriented towardmaneuvering divisions, corps and carrier air wings, the gotterdammerung of the decisive battle (a horrible misapplication of Clausewitz).  This is the American way of war, with technology, mass and speed, it is quick. Unfortunately, this creates an amaranthine loop of organizational bias and coercive information processing routinesthat produce values and norms about the way things are and the way things should be.  After 9/11 the Department of Defense needed an tool for engagement- thus the creation of these types of funds.    Planning and execution have proceeded apace since. Ross and Tankel suggestion of creating “coordinated, department-wide planning processes at the departments of State and Defense”  is also wide of the mark. There is already a joint review and approval process that begins eighteen to twenty-four months out from execution.  There is even a capstone review conference called the Joint Security Sector Assistance Review that seeks to capture issues and recommendations for improvement in future execution cycles.  Things can always be improved but creating new human infrastructure, boards, bureaus, cells, diagrams and would create more of the very “inefficient and incoherent planning and coordination processes” that Ross and Tankel seek to improve.

These miniscule funds, and what they have paid for, have been successful.  BPC funds have paid for support to the AMISOM peacekeeping mission in Somalia, strengthening Jordan against ISIS and Al Qaida, and providing real capabilities in Tunisia’s struggle against trans-national violence spilling over from Libya.  The 333 funds, and other, even smaller building partner capacity authorizations have made a difference in these places where the average cost per capacity building  program is just $5.5 million. There does exist the dubious idea is that these small funds could be deployed quickly to support and guide partners towards larger, and much more lucrative purchases of military equipment.  This destroys the zeitgeist of 333 funds. Congress has seen the need for separate authorities to do separate things, and this should be preserved.  If BPC funds are amalgamated into the framework that provides big weapons and expensive capabilities, like fighter jets, hyper secure communications, and cyber security apparatus, it will take away, in some cases, the only incentive to meet and fight terrorists.


Overall, the U.S. spends about $18 billion globally on various security assistance authorizations.  The question that appears not to be asked in these wise councils is “Would this tiny .14% make a difference in great power competition?”    Already, the vast majority of security assistance funding does go towards great power competition via foreign military financing and sales.  Other initiatives are not small.   The European Deterrence Initiative focused on Russia sits at $6 billion, the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, provides $250 million, the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative is funded at $425 million, the Congress is set to authorize the Pacific Deterrence Initiative with has much as $6 billion over two years.   at the expense of guns and ammo, there may be partners to work with in another decade.

Now, the bureaucracy wants the .14 percent of the budget meant to fight these disparate groups around the globe.  These funds are providing equipment and training support against various insurgent, transnational terrorists and smuggling threats in twenty-one countries.  Twenty-one!  Moving those funds from these conflicts to support great-power competition would be to abandon those partners who are now decisively engaged on the United States’ behalf.  There is real danger to a U.S. withdrawal of support to these fragile partners.

Finally, the U.S. pays $700 billion a year for the world’s largest defense establishment on the premise that this massive juggernaut is needed for deterrence. In this case, it doesn’t make sense that another $700 million will make a difference.  The very idea is staggering:  There is no deterrent effect in all those divisions and corps and aircraft carriers?  There is, however, a very real deterrent effect in strengthening small partners quickly and effectively.  The Department of Defense can walk and chew gum at the same time.  At least Congress thinks so, hence the categories legislated in the building partner capacity authorization. The U.S. will not send infantry divisions to west Africa; it can and should support governments in improving their own security. The DOD can confront China, Russia and provide capacity support to friends in the fight.  For less than a billion dollars a year, the decision is a no-brainer.

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Phil W Reynolds

Phil W. Reynolds has a PhD in Political Science, is a visiting scholar at the Center for Futures Studies at the University of Hawaii and is the author of Ouroboros: Understanding the War Machine of Liberalism. His new book Less Than War: Security Assistance and South Vietnam, 1956-1962, is due out in 2021.

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