Obtaining foreign help has always been a centerpiece of American national security strategy. In 1907, when President Theodore Roosevelt dispatched the U.S. Fleet on an audacious 14-month cruise around the world, the U.S. Navy, sailing in coal-powered ships, relied almost entirely upon foreign logistical support. Between 1907 and 1909, the U.S. government contracted one Austro-Hungarian, seven Norwegian and forty-one British coal-haulers to fuel the globe-trotting 16-battleship fleet.
That massive amount of foreign logistical assistance gave America a great geopolitical victory. But those foreign resources offered the U.S. government flexibility for a cost that, even then, was unacceptable. Within two years, the U.S. Navy had launched four massive colliers to reduce America’s perceived over-reliance upon foreign logistical support.
Today, the U.S. provides the Navy at-sea refueling with a fleet of U.S. and allied replenishment ships, but the Department of Defense enjoys far less resilience at America’s many far-flung facilities, outposts, and refueling stations ashore. American land forces and U.S. ships refueling in ports are particularly at risk. The October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole (DDG 67) in the Yemeni port of Aden highlights the risks associated with non-U.S. managed refueling operations.
Forward Logistical Support Is Out Of Balance:
Contracts for logistics in support of America’s dispersed military depend upon non-U.S. companies. America’s footprint in Africa relies almost exclusively on foreign companies, based mostly in the Middle East. Defense Logistics Agency numbers suggest that 85% of fuel contracted to the U.S. military in Africa is supplied by foreign-owned entities, representing $327.4 million of $401.9 million in total estimated expenditures.
Foreign support may be helpful, offering a win for both American policy and the local host’s economy. But a deeper view suggests that an over-reliance upon foreign logistical support weakens national security and exposes American forces to real risk. Foreign entities have their own interests, and can, in times of trouble, be compelled to put their own national interests ahead of their customers.
Security is an issue, as well. As U.S. forces prepare for classified operations, their bulk logistics can end up being arranged on commercial email, telephone calls, open source bulletins, and often, queues of trucks. Logistics contracts often do not stipulate that the foreign-owned company supporting the U.S. government practice strong operational, cyber, and communications security on par with the operational forces. A worst-case scenario is when these companies make extra money by selling actionable intelligence on U.S. activities.
On the other hand, foreign workers have often done yeoman service in supporting U.S. military interests. Retired Vice Admiral Mike Franken, a veteran of operations in Africa and the Middle East, mentioned via email a situation in the sixties when Egyptian contractors kept a Naval Medical Research facility in operation even when all other U.S. military personnel were expelled. Also, in 2012, during exceedingly sensitive operations in Djibouti, none of the nearly 1000 locally-based contractors and third-nation nationals working on the base exposed the operation’s preparations. Franken is highly supportive of ensuring overseas contracts employ local labor, but he is equally wary of foreign management of contracts due to a host of oversight issues.
When the logistical support equation gets out of balance and no U.S.-owned contractors are available, the risks of over-dependency are enormous. Seven years ago, an investigation into corrupt practices at a seemingly irreplaceable foreign-owned logistical support agent, Glenn Defense Marine Asia, led to the sprawling “Fat Leonard” Scandal. As corrupt…