Tunisia’s navy is the embodiment of a true FMS partner for the U.S.
by Mr. Benjamin Posil
“Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.”
The United States’ foreign military sales (FMS) program with the Tunisian National Navy is the embodiment of a security cooperation “win.” It has accomplished both the practical and ideological goals that the program is designed to advance and is a model that stakeholders in developing FMS programs can strive to replicate.
Defining Tunisia’s identity is an exercise in balancing competing influences. Tunisia exists both literally and figuratively between the haves and the have-nots. The culture of Tunisia, located in the center of North Africa, is influenced as much by its ties to Europe as by ties to its Arab neighbors. Much like its culture, Tunisia’s economy is also closely tied to North African and European markets. Surrounded by major oil-producing OPEC members, Tunisia possesses few of the petroleum resources that fill its neighbors’ coffers. Despite the lack of natural resources (or perhaps because of it), Tunisia has developed a relatively balanced economy that ranks among the highest in Africa.
Despite Tunisia’s emergence as the only sustained success story from the Arab Spring of 2010, Tunisia still faces existential challenges because of lingering regional instability. The volatility that defines the country’s borders—particularly with Libya to the east—has created a compelling need for enhanced border security, holistically comprising land, maritime and air components. The Tunisian government has chosen to leverage its security cooperation relationship with the United States effectively to strengthen naval capacity and counter the heightened threats the country faces—exemplifying one of the overarching purposes of U.S. security cooperation efforts, to “develop allied and friendly military capabilities for self-defense and multinational operations.”
A CONFLUENCE OF EVENTS
The catalyst for the dramatic recent growth in the Tunisian navy’s FMS program was two separate but virtually identical cases. In 2009, the Tunisian government received $7 million in foreign military financing from the U.S. for enhancement of maritime security, as well as $7.5 million to complement Tunisian foreign military financing through the Building Partnership Capacity program. These two cases led to the delivery of 10 25-foot Response boats (nearly identical to the U.S. Coast Guard’s Response Boat-Small) and five 44-foot Response boats (similar to the Coast Guard’s Response Boat-Medium), along with a robust package of spare parts, training and support.
This large, singular injection of vessels into the Tunisian fleet amounted to a wholesale recapitalization of its existing territorial water patrol capability. The new vessels replaced the Tunisian National Navy’s aging small boats (smaller than 65 feet), which up to that point had been used for patrolling, search and rescue and interdiction.
The first 15 Response boats were delivered in 2011 as the country was still adjusting to the new realities brought about by the Jasmine Revolution. In a twist of irony, the instability caused by the revolution proved to be extremely fortunate for the Tunisian navy’s FMS program. The ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali established several conditions that impacted the United States’ FMS relationship with Tunisia.
The first of these conditions was that the Tunisian military remained apolitical during the revolution. This deference to the will of the people instead of the orders of the long-standing president engendered a profound respect for the professionalism, competence and judgment of the military as an institution. This enabled the United States to continue its security assistance programs, provided added justification for investing U.S. funds, and ensured that the Tunisian military was well-positioned to justify future internal funding within Tunisia’s nascent democracy.
Second, the removal of the Ben Ali regime allowed for re-energized engagement with the United States. The final years of the regime were marked by a visible shift away from engagement with the United States, which by 2010-11 was impeding bilateral military efforts. Ali’s departure allowed for a reset in what had been for years a harmonious bilateral relationship.
The last major condition was a sequence of events set in motion by the revolution that dramatically increased the need for enhanced maritime security. One immediate result of the turmoil was a huge increase in the number of migrants taking to small vessels and attempting to cross the Mediterranean. This included Tunisian nationals looking for greater opportunity in Europe as well as other African nationals using Tunisia as a transit point.
With the nearest Italian islands roughly 45 miles away, Tunisian coastal waters became a key transit zone for refugees willing to risk their lives to reach Europe. Many of the vessels used for this journey were not seaworthy, and the Tunisian navy’s workload dramatically increased as it attempted to rescue thousands of migrants from doomed crossing attempts.
The security challenges for Tunisia were compounded as the Arab Spring spread across the region. The single most impactful event of this period for Tunisia was the fall of the Moammar Gadhafi regime in Libya in 2011. The destabilization of Libya dramatically increased the need for enhanced maritime security because of the amplified risk from smuggled goods, weapons and militants to and from Libya and the exponential increase in the number of migrants taking to small vessels and attempting to cross the Mediterranean.
After the success of the initial FMS cases in 2009, the United States increased foreign military investments in the Tunisian National Navy. Between 2010 and 2013, the Tunisian navy received 22 Response boats ranging in size from 25 to 44 feet, along with a large support package. The Tunisians also spent their own national funds to help purchase four 65-foot Archangels made by SAFE Boats International of Bremerton, Washington.
The Tunisian navy consistently shaped the expansion of its fleet to mirror its operational requirements. The focus on building significant sustainment capabilities into its FMS cases reflected an institutional awareness of the essential role of maintenance in capacity development. The Tunisian government’s willingness to make a significant financial commitment to complement the United States’ investment in a Tunisian institution reflects a level of partnership rarely seen with countries receiving foreign military financing.
BUILDING ON SUCCESS
For recipients of foreign military financing from the United States, the concept of national defense self-sufficiency is a bit like a unicorn: People can picture what it looks like, but few have actually seen it materialize. Most recipients lack the will, organizational capacity and resources to generate domestic solutions to defense-related challenges.
The Tunisian navy took a step in that direction in 2015 with the commissioning of its first domestically produced frigate. The vessel, named Al Istiqlal (Independence), was the product of a public-private effort that leveraged the local industrial base. The procurement was run by the Tunisian navy and the entire effort, from funding to design and construction, was carried out domestically.
While the practical impact of vessels from this program will be minimal, at least initially, the symbolic meaning is significant. Moreover, the level of effort and resources it took the Tunisian navy to actually build its own frigate is representative of a highly determined and capable FMS partner.
So why has the FMS program with the Tunisian navy been so successful? Despite the significant maritime security responsibilities that Tunisia’s geography entails, its navy employs fewer than 5,000, roughly 10 percent of the Tunisian army’s total. There are several key factors that, when aggregated, illustrate why the Tunisian navy has been a far more willing and capable partner than its geographical location or moderate resources would suggest.
The Tunisian navy operates with a level of professionalism that is on par with its major European partners. The vast majority of its naval officers have supplemented their domestic professional military education with courses, exchanges and extended experiences with various navies and industry partners around the world. Unlike the corruption, competing agendas and misallocated resources that define a disproportionate number of FMS programs within U.S. Africa Command, the Tunisian navy has been able to channel its human and material capital into effective use of FMS procurements.
Another major component of the success is the value the Tunisian navy puts on maintenance. A visit to the naval base in Bizerte provides a window through which one can see firsthand the investment the Tunisian National Navy has made in developing repair facilities and technical expertise. Unlike other countries’ militaries, whose extensive financial resources allow for the outsourcing of maintenance support, the Tunisian navy has grown its maintenance capability organically. Today its capabilities are on par with commercial shipyards in the region. The combination of having the required elements on hand to conduct the actual maintenance as well as having the institutional focus to maximize these assets has made this capacity development possible.
Finally, the Tunisian navy has actively embraced international partnerships in a way that has allowed the organization to gain maximum benefit. Unlike its neighbors whose paths to independence created cultural fissures that still dramatically impact their foreign policy, Tunisia’s independence became an enabler of political relationships.
The break from France in 1956 left fewer lingering repercussions than the independence process in much of North Africa, and did not result in the Tunisians gravitating to an ideological hegemon at the expense of all other relationships. Tunisia has remained close to France while also building on historical and geographical ties with numerous other partners. Tunisia was even formally recognized as a U.S. major non-NATO ally in 2015.
As a result of these relationships, the Tunisians have been able to draw on both material resources and expertise from a wide range of sources. A look at its fleet shows vessels built in the U.S., Germany and Italy, among others. The Tunisian navy is a regular participant in multinational exercises such as Phoenix Express, sponsored by the U.S. Africa Command and conducted by U.S. Naval Forces Africa.
Operationally, the Tunisian navy regularly works with its European and African neighbors to address the ongoing humanitarian and security crises in the southern Mediterranean. The Tunisian navy is able to benefit from all of these relationships in a way that dramatically increases overall institutional capacity.
The Security Assistance Management Manual, the document that codifies the policies of the U.S. security cooperation program, does not provide a checklist for defining a “successful” program. It does, however, define ideological and practical objectives that the program is designed to develop, including:
- Progression from development of a basic capacity to more capable assets.
- The establishment of an organic ability to maintain those assets.
- An eventual progression to self-sustainability.
Governing the capacity development aspect of security cooperation is the overarching goal of establishing a vested sense of “ownership” in the partner service. To reflect a true partnership at the most fundamental level requires a commitment of resources from both partners. The United States’ FMS program with the Tunisian navy has evolved over the past 10 years to reflect these ideological and practical objectives to a degree rarely seen in any FMS partner, let alone one working through the fiscal constraints and security challenges faced by the Tunisian navy program. This partnership provides the ideal model of security cooperation for other developing FMS partners to emulate.
For more information, go to http://www.dsca.mil/.
The opinions and conclusions expressed herein are those of the individual author and do not necessarily represent the official position or view of the Department of Defense or any other governmental entity. References to this article should include the foregoing statement.
BENJAMIN POSIL is a security cooperation professional with more than 10 years’ experience in the field. He is a major in the Maryland Army National Guard, where he recently completed a 10-month deployment to Afghanistan. He has earned MBA degrees from the University of South Carolina and Wirtschaftuniversität Wien in Vienna, Austria, along with 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 a Navy Acquisition Corps member and a certified program manager through both DAWIA (Level II) and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (Level III).
The author would like to give special thanks to Lt. Cmdr. Ryan “TBD” Guard for his insight and support.
This article will be published in the October – December 2018 issue of Army AL&T magazine.
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