Though the United States is engaged in military aid efforts with dozens of countries across the globe, few take place in more contested environments or hold more battlefield significance than in Ukraine. Kyiv’s grinding defense against Russia’s full-scale invasion has depended on the over $43 billion in direct U.S. military aid committed to Ukraine over the last 17 months, the contours of which are shaping daily realities for troops on the ground.
But despite its very immediate and weighty consequences for Ukraine’s war effort, Washington’s military aid effort for Kyiv has eschewed the sort of secrecy that typifies more routine U.S. security assistance partnerships. Instead, the Biden administration has adopted a remarkably transparent (albeit imperfect) approach to U.S. security assistance to Ukraine, publishing regular updates on the value, quantity, and type of military transfers to Kyiv, engaging consistently to respond to and, in some cases, pre-empt congressional inquiries, and publicizing the rationale and risk-mitigation efforts associated with the aid effort. But while the administration deserves credit for the public engagement it has committed to on this partnership, the approach casts a stark light on the opacity of broader security cooperation programming and begs the question – if transparency is possible with respect to Ukraine, why is it so difficult for other partnerships?
Transparency is a fundamental pillar of democratic governance that enables civic engagement and ensures that policies reflect the will and perspectives of the public. In the context of U.S. security cooperation, transparency and quality public reporting are indispensable safeguards, ensuring that the American people and their representatives are able to shape an enterprise that directly impacts international peace, security, and U.S. involvement in armed conflict across the globe. In practical terms, quality public reporting enables informed oversight from legislators, allows researchers and experts to assess and provide feedback on the efficacy, risks, and consequences of various security cooperation efforts, and acts as an additional guardrail against short-sighted, irresponsible, or risky arms transfers or defense partnerships, including those that compromise commitments to human rights and civilian protection.
Unfortunately, publicly available information on the tens of billions of dollars worth of arms sales and military aid the United States sends abroad each year is generally either unavailable, deeply obscured, or lacking sufficient detail to be useful for analysis or public discourse. Enormous gaps in public reporting on commercial arms sales, Department of Defense capacity-building programs, firearms transfers, defense articles or services falling below multi-million-dollar thresholds that trigger congressional notifications, and post-shipment end-use monitoring for arms transfers all serve to conceal the scale, depth, and nature of U.S. security engagements overseas.
In some cases, these gaps are due to challenges in process and data collection. Information on arms transfers and assistance programs is spread across various government agencies in Washington, combatant commands, and diplomatic outposts, making data collection and synthesis extremely difficult. Accordingly, the U.S. government has consistently struggled to capture the full picture of its security cooperation efforts, even for internal use. For example, DOD’s annual budget justification for security cooperation activities provides almost no country-specific data, severely undercutting its utility in understanding an important element of U.S. military engagements abroad. In previous years, DOD has said that its goal is “to include by country, budgetary information in the future; however, this is not currently feasible due to the data collection timeline and the available systems for analyzing and processing the security cooperation data.” That the Department is facing such acute challenges in assessing its own security cooperation programming is troubling in and of itself, but it at least does suggest this information is not being deliberately withheld.
Similarly, in some cases, a lack of transparency is a result of poor report formatting or data presentation. For example, though the U.S. produces annual reports on both government-to-government and commercial arms sales, both reports present serious methodological problems and offer data that is so aggregated, it becomes nearly impossible to assess the nature of U.S. security cooperation with its arms transfer recipients.
But while some reporting gaps may be, worryingly, owed to data synthesis challenges or poor reporting practices, more concerning is the frequent invocation of national security as justification for concealing U.S. security cooperation data. Suggestions that being overly transparent may harm operational security and enable better defense planning for the adversaries of our allies have long been a powerful argument in favor of secrecy.
But recent events in Ukraine belie that narrative and suggest that oft-cited operational security risks are exaggerated or, at the very least, should be weighed more appropriately against the benefits of transparency. Though the risks faced by Ukraine are existential, Washington’s candor and specificity with regard to its military transfers and support for Kyiv have not created any noticeable battlefield dilemmas nor undermined Ukraine’s broader war effort.
In fact, the administration’s transparency has helped ensure the durability of its military aid effort in Ukraine, which could serve as a model for other security partnerships. In addition to supporting diplomatic signaling efforts, it has also enabled valuable public debate that has illustrated the broad political support for security assistance to Ukraine, while also enabling civil society, legislative, and public engagement on issues of oversight and accountability that mitigate risks and help pre-empt easily anticipated critiques of continued support to Kyiv. Similarly, greater access to reporting on transfers to Kyiv is aiding civil society efforts to monitor potential arms diversion and civilian harm in Ukraine with the aim of providing practical policy recommendations to mitigate those risks.
If the United States is able to achieve these levels of transparency when it comes to military aid to Ukraine, a country in the midst of an active armed conflict, obscuring security cooperation information for other partners on the basis of national security seems an increasingly indefensible position.
Understandably, there may be instances when reasonable levels of secrecy may be worthy imperatives. But while there may be discrete instances where opacity may be justified, that differs dramatically from current practice, which seems to default to stringent levels of classification or confidentiality as a matter of course rather than as a result of specific national security considerations. Indeed, under current practice it would be nearly impossible for non-executive branch stakeholders to know exactly which countries are beneficiaries of U.S. military aid, the volume of assistance involved in U.S. security cooperation partnerships, or the types of arms transfers or training these engagements entail. To be sure, transparency with respect to U.S. military assistance to Ukraine could be improved, including by providing more concrete data and avoiding ambiguous reporting language. But there are many lessons from the U.S. experience with Ukraine that should inform necessary improvements in security cooperation transparency without sacrificing any national or operational security obligations.
As a starting point, there are three modest but meaningful steps the U.S. government could take quickly to improve U.S. security cooperation transparency:
- Report annually on the value of security assistance and cooperation, by individual programs and country, allocated in the previous fiscal year. Ideally, this would include details on the kind, amount, and value of defense articles and services fashioned through United States-appropriated funding or sales.
- Reform DOD’s annual Justification for Security Cooperation Program and Activity Funding report to Congress to disaggregate programmatic funding requests and provide allocations estimates and actual outlays from at least the two previous fiscal years.
- Ensure the Department of State discloses congressional notifications for Direct Commercial Sales, as is standard practice for Foreign Military Sales, and include specifics about the defense article or service being proposed for license, details on the recipient, and the anticipated dollar value of the sale.
Such reforms would represent a notable start in emulating the good practice embodied by U.S. reporting on military aid to Ukraine and ensure that other military assistance programs benefit from similar levels of oversight, critical research, and healthy public engagement.