When supplying partner nations through FMS, the best possible equipment may not always be the best possible solution.
by Benjamin Posil
Providing the best (i.e., most capable) equipment is not always the most successful foreign military sales (FMS) solution. In many cases the optimal solution means providing a less capable piece of equipment that better aligns with the recipient’s ability to implement, maintain and sustain it with minimal external support. An examination of the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command’s (ANASOC) radio network highlights how ineffectual capacity-building efforts can be when they do not reflect a thorough understanding of a partner’s capabilities. Ultimately, the U.S. security cooperation program is more powerful in building military capacity when FMS deliverables are synchronized with a partner’s organic capabilities.
In few places is the influence of the FMS program more profoundly felt than Afghanistan, where virtually all defense-related procurements are underwritten by the U.S. government. The impact is magnified within ANASOC, the Afghan National Army’s most capable combat force. Despite having only 14,000 troops (roughly 5 percent of total ANA forces), ANASOC is credited with conducting nearly 85 percent of ongoing combat operations throughout Afghanistan. As a result, the U.S. government has spent a disproportionate amount of funding to equip ANASOC with kit similar to that used by U.S. special operations units. Unlike with many other partners, the funding made available by the U.S. government to develop ANASOC and the larger Afghan National Army has been momentous in scale.
What is no different for Afghanistan than for other countries with militaries on the lower end of the capability spectrum, however, is that simply buying more capability does not mean the partner will use it the same way that U.S. forces do. As is the case with Harris radios for ANASOC, a partner’s capacity will not be enhanced when the selection of FMS equipment is based on what matches equivalent U.S. units instead of what aligns with the partner’s organic capabilities.
The FMS program historically has been predicated on an assumed correlation between delivery of capability and increased military capacity; the more capability the U.S. provides to a partner, the stronger its capacity will become. There are numerous instances, however, where a partner’s capability limitations were not considered during FMS case development and ultimately undermined the opportunity for capacity enhancement. Specific examples range from multibillion-dollar equipment fielding programs for Afghanistan and Iraq to the delivery of basic watercraft to the most impoverished African countries.
Any time there is a gap between the sustainment requirements for a new capability delivered through the FMS program and a partner nation’s sustainment capacity, there is increased programmatic risk. Left unaddressed, this risk leads to inefficiently utilized funding and an adverse impact on U.S. security cooperation efforts. An example of a dramatic disparity between a capability provided and actual capacity generated is the tactical radio architecture established for ANASOC.
The U.S. government has spent the last 15-plus years equipping, training and mentoring ANASOC soldiers, as it has done for numerous other Afghan institutions. The vehicle for delivering nearly all new equipment for ANASOC (as well as the larger Afghan National Army) is the Building Partnership Capacity (BPC) program. The U.S. government’s focus on Afghan security has been so important that the Afghan Security Forces Fund, a specific “pot” of BPC funding, was established for the sole purpose of enabling the Afghan government to enhance its defense capacity. In 2017 alone, Congress appropriated over $4.2 billion for the fund.
Included in the effort to improve ANASOC’s ability to “shoot, move and communicate” has been the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in tactical radios. While several brands of radios have been provided, the most prominent one by far is Harris.
TOP OF THE LINE
Harris radios are a staple of the U.S. Special Operations Command’s (SOCOM) inventory because of their advanced capabilities in propagating voice and data over a broad range of the radio frequency spectrum. Sgt. 1st Class Nicholas Pitz, a former ANASOC mentor, summed up Harris’ reputation within the special operations community: “Harris is often considered the gold standard for radios because of the heightened level of capabilities they possess.” At least in part because of its prominent role in the special operations community, Harris became the preferred radio solution for outfitting ANASOC.
A long-range high-frequency communication network was established for ANASOC that enables the transmission of encrypted voice and data traffic (including photos and video) over hundreds of miles from radios easily transported in a rucksack or on a vehicle. The U.S. government invested in hardware, training and an army of field service representatives to ensure functionality. While the capability mirrors networks used by special ops units across the globe, there is one conspicuous difference in ANASOC’s case: SOCOM units rely heavily on this network at the operational level, while ANASOC units rarely use it at all. A recent survey conducted by the ANASOC – Special Operations Advisory Group staff found that at best, the Harris network has been dramatically underused when compared with its capabilities; at worst, it is universally ignored by ANASOC soldiers.
This is in no way a negative reflection of Harris products. ANASOC’s network includes top-of-the-line equipment with tremendous capabilities that rival those used by elite forces worldwide. Instead, the underuse is a byproduct of U.S. strategy that for years provided ANASOC the most capable radio equipment without taking into account the indisputable realities on the ground. Planners failed to realize or acknowledge that because ANASOC does not have the requisite organizational sophistication, the Harris radios would have minimal positive impact on ANASOC’s operational capacity.
The reasons for this ineffectiveness are numerous. From a technical standpoint, the infrastructure to support a radio that requires regular software updates, proprietary parts and highly skilled radio operators is simply nonexistent in Afghanistan. Access to the internet is limited, even within ANASOC, so the ability to disseminate updates and to independently pursue training does not exist organically; nor do troubleshooting procedures. The resulting inability to update and distribute encryption has a particularly strong impact. Additionally, ANASOC has no practical mechanism to purchase its own spare parts, so its ability to replace broken components depends entirely on the FMS process and the Afghan military’s supply system.
Harris has filled the gap in part by establishing a network of field service representatives across Afghanistan. The Harris logo is ubiquitous; it can be found at virtually any camp where ANASOC soldiers operate. While this meets the immediate need of on-site subject matter expertise, it does little to build ANASOC’s organic capacity. If the ultimate U.S. strategic goal is enabling ANASOC’s self-reliance, the dependence on Harris field service representatives to ensure the functionality of ANASOC’s tactical radio network is a liability, not an asset.
Even if the previously outlined challenges can be overcome, there are fundamental cultural considerations that simply cannot be ignored when implementing a system like Harris radios. At the most basic level, a large percentage of ANASOC soldiers are functionally illiterate even in their native Dari; English reading comprehension is virtually nonexistent. Harris radios are operated through a series of digital menus in English, and since ANASOC Soldiers’ English comprehension is negligible, successful operation becomes an exercise of memorizing an extended sequence of words in a language they are unfamiliar with. Even if some percentage of the Soldiers can gain operational proficiency in a classroom setting through rote memorization, the likelihood of replicating this process in a field environment or in combat drops significantly.
Another consideration is that unlike U.S. special operations teams, for whom universal proficiency and empowerment are trademarks of “team” culture, Afghan military culture is defined by consolidation of power at the command level. What this means for communications is that access to more capable radios is far more restricted than in a comparable U.S. unit, with ANASOC commanders often the only ones allowed access. As a result, basic very-high-frequency “walkie-talkies” or cellphones become the primary methods of communication for much of the front-line forces.
What is especially troubling in the case of Afghanistan is that unlike with most FMS partners, the United States has been working directly with its military, at an operational level on a daily basis, for 15 years. The depth of anecdotal evidence highlighting the realities on the ground in Afghanistan far exceeds the depth of information available for most other partners. The preponderance of evidence confirms that while the Harris radios are an incredibly capable product, they are so dramatically underused by ANASOC that the radios do little to build actual operational capacity. The time and money dedicated to their inclusion in ANASOC’s “Tashkils” (Afghan documents that are similar to the U.S. Army’s modified tables of organization and equipment and reflect a unit’s assigned manning and equipment levels) could far more effectively be used elsewhere.
There are numerous reasons for ANASOC’s underuse of tactical communication systems, including the lack of a forcing function, challenges with English comprehension, maintenance issues and equipment complexity. It is highly unlikely that the U.S. will be able to change this paradigm, no matter how much money it spends to do so.
The U.S. procurement system is predicated on the concept of pursuing “best value” for the end user. While this same mandate applies to FMS cases, the “best” solution does not always correspond to the most capable product. The analog option is a far better match for many partner nations’ capabilities than the latest digital solutions that the U.S. military uses. The more basic solution is easier and more affordable to learn, operate, maintain and sustain than more complex alternatives. Moreover, the functionality is easier to integrate with the partner’s overall military capacity.
The same disconnect that results in hundreds of millions of wasted U.S. taxpayer dollars in Afghanistan can be equally impactful, albeit on a lesser scale, in even the smallest FMS cases. While the scope and scale of the examples vary greatly, the resulting waste of taxpayer money and erosion of U.S. influence with partner nations have the same effect. To most efficiently employ the FMS program—and the BPC program in particular—the U.S. needs to accurately assess what capability partner militaries can support and effectively supplement in a way that will enhance their long-term capacity development. On its face, providing U.S. partners with older, and ostensibly inferior, technology may seem counterintuitive. But the result will be more capable and self-reliant partners and a more effective security cooperation program.
For more information, contact the Maryland National Guard Public Affairs Office at 410-576-6179.
BENJAMIN POSIL is a security cooperation professional with over 10 years’ experience in the field. He is a lieutenant colonel in the Maryland Army National Guard, where he recently completed a 10-month deployment to Afghanistan. He has earned MBAs from the University of South Carolina and Wirtschaftuniversität Wien in Vienna, Austria, and an M.S. in international relations from Troy State University. He also has a B.A. in international relations and Latin American studies from the University of Delaware. He is an Acquisition Corps member and a certified program manager through both the Defense Acquisition Workforce Improvement Act (Level II) and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (Level III).
The author would like to express his appreciation to Lt. Col. Glenn Deetman, Maj. Adam Kavalsky, Sgt. 1st Class Nicholas Pitz and Sgt. 1st Class Sherwein “Joey” Asuncion. Their wisdom, assistance and technical expertise were essential in the development of this article. More rover.. .