WASHINGTON — Two years to the month from when the idea was first publicly floated, the Pentagon inaugurated its new Defense Security Cooperation University, with the aim of creating a workforce able to more quickly provide security assistance to allies and partners.
At Wednesday’s event opening the new university location, located roughly a mile from the Pentagon, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood, Defense Security Cooperation Agency head Lt. Gen. Charles Hooper and Cara Abercrombie, the new president of the university, all praised the opening of the office as a new start for the Pentagon’s security assistance mission.
“The security cooperation profession has not been truly complete until today,” said Hooper, who during his time as head of DSCA has emphasized the need to update workforce training.
The vision for the university has shifted over time, although the goal remained largely consistent. When it was first announced by Hooper in October 2017, it sounded like a new, all-encompassing educational facility. A year later, Hooper described it more as a virtual educational course that would fit “together a new curriculum that will serve as a strong foundation for our security cooperation career field, and our personnel, moving forward.”
The opening of the university is tied into the Trump administration’s broader goal of speeding up the process of selling weapons to partners and allies. Advocates of arms sales have long complained that the process moves too slowly, in part because of a lack of security-cooperation experts who are best able to manage the process.
The new educational unit will also help refine how the workforce interacts with allies and partners during these discussions, through a reimagining of core focus areas and an understanding of security cooperation as a tool for American foreign policy.
“If we really want to change the way the department approaches security cooperation, we have to make sure everyone has at least a basic understanding of [the] big-picture objective, how this is linking to the National Defense Strategy,” Abercrombie said.
The end form for the school is still taking shape, according to Abercrombie, who said the first priority is getting the roughly 20,000 active members of the security cooperation workforce trained to a new minimum standard. Abercrombie has set the “extremely ambitious” goal of having that done by the start of fiscal 2022, but acknowledged that will be difficult, in part because the curriculum is still being designed.
For example, a pilot class is under development in conjunction with the Naval Postgraduate School, where regional experts would teach about the culture of the country to which security officials would go.
“We’re not going to come in and teach languages, but we are going to expect a basic-level awareness of cultural differences, cross-cultural communication,” Abercrombie said. “Every American in this enterprise sits across the table from a foreign counterpart to discuss the terms of a foreign military sale, or grant assistance, or what we’re going to provide, or how we’re going to partner — it’s all fundamentally a negotiation."
“And human beings all too often tend to mirror image. So understanding how do Americans approach these things culturally, how do other cultures perhaps approach a negotiation” will help security assistance negotiations in the future, particularly if negotiations are with new customers who have not bought American weapons before, she noted.
For now, the classes primarily will be digital, in part to push through the 20,000 certifications that are needed. In the future, online courses will remain a prominent part of the curriculum, but physical classes will also play a role. Foreign officials will be welcome to the school in the future, although the details of how that would work are being sorted out, Abercrombie said.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.