A citizen’s guide to understanding U.S. foreign military aid

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There is no single, accepted definition of the terms “foreign aid” or even “foreign military aid” or “military assistance.” For a government as large as that of the United States, it’s virtually impossible to track all of the various federal agencies’ programs across countries and sectors to arrive at a single number that captures the true amount of U.S. taxpayer dollars going to foreign governments, or even just their militaries.

For the “Collateral Damage” investigative study, the Center for Public Integrity created a database that tracks a subset of those financial flows: taxpayer-funded programs or assistance that contribute to a nation’s offensive military capabilities. The database does not include certain large nuclear non-proliferation programs or expenditures such as Foreign Military Sales or Direct Commercial Sales, which are not supported directly with taxpayer dollars. The database is also limited to tracking funds appropriated to either the Defense Department or the State Department. For this report, these are the criteria for “foreign military assistance” or “foreign military aid.”

Funds appropriated to the State Department and Defense Department represent the vast majority of unclassified military aid and assistance. This report does not attempt to track smaller overseas programs where funding is appropriated to the Justice Department, Drug Enforcement Agency, or Department of Homeland Security. The public does not have any way of tracking classified programs administered by the U.S. intelligence community. These classified programs likely command large amounts of funding, especially after the 9/11 attacks, and oversight is limited to members of congressional intelligence committees.

Programs included in the Center’s database:

Coalition Support Funds (CSF): created after 9/11 to reimburse key allied countries for providing assistance to the U.S. in the global war on terror.

Regional Defense Counterterrorism Fellowship Program (CTFP): created after 9/11 to give the Defense Department its own funding to train and educate foreign military officers in counterterrorism techniques. In practice, CTFP has evolved into a program very similar to IMET (see definition below).

Department of Defense Counterdrug Funding: assists foreign militaries and security forces to combat drug trafficking around the world; also known as Section 1004 appropriations.

Economic Support Fund (ESF): provides grants to foreign governments to support economic stability. ESF is often used for non-military purposes, but the grants are commonly viewed as a way to help offset military expenditures. They have historically been earmarked for key security allies of the United States. Israel and Egypt are the two largest recipients of ESF.

Foreign Military Financing (FMF): finances foreign governments’ acquisition of U.S. military articles, services and training.

International Military Education and Training (IMET): educates foreign military personnel on issues ranging from democracy and human rights to technical military techniques and training on U.S. weapons systems.

International Narcotics and Law Enforcement/Andean Counterdrug Initiative (ACI): the primary State Department funding effort for countering drugs, including the large Colombian initiatives.

Military Assistance Program (MAP): provides military material and services to foreign countries; the U.S. government is not reimbursed. MAP includes “emergency drawdowns,” which are emergency transfers authorized by the president for weapons, ammunition, parts and military equipment to foreign governments.

Nonproliferation, Anti-Terrorism, De-mining and Related Activities (NADR): supports de-mining, anti-terrorism, and nonproliferation training and assistance.

Peacekeeping Operations (PKO): supports programs that improve foreign militaries’ peacekeeping capabilities.