The Cost & Aims of Foreign Students Receiving Military Training in the US?

The Number of Students

In December 2019, 5,181 foreign students from 153 countries were receiving military training in the United States of America (USA).

The Cost

“In fiscal 2017-18 foreign governments splashed out $462.4m for American security training, and the American government chipped in another $39.8m.”

The main exchange programme is the $115m International Military Education and Training scheme, funded by the State Department. It includes 4,000 courses across 150 US military schools.

The Aim(s)

Such programmes have two aims:

  • One is to improve foreign armed forces, ideally in a manner that contributes to the development of a professional, apolitical military that respects civilian authority.
  • The second is to cultivate upwardly mobile officers, who are likely to wind up as generals and admirals.
    • For example, this might mean co-operation in a future crisis or a willingness to grant the us access to bases or overflight rights.

This also helps the US gain powerful friends. Between 1957 and 1994, 19% of international graduates from the US Naval Command College ended up leading their service.

In April the US Army Command and Staff College inducted three alumni into its hall of fame: the current army or military chiefs of Argentina, India and Jamaica.

More than 280 of the college’s 8,000 foreign graduates have gone on to lead their countries’ armed forces, and 15 have become heads of state or government.

Developing Competence

However, “It is less clear whether the quality of soldiering goes up. Countries are supposed to send their best and brightest, but are often less exacting.”

In May 2019, the Pentagon cancelled a training programme for Afghan pilots after 48% of trainees deserted.

Some commentators suggest that US training simply boosts the repressive capacity of tyrannical governments.

Saudi Arabia sent 1,652 students in fiscal 2019, more than any other country. Egypt’s President, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, attended the US Army War College in 2005-06, submitting his aptly titled thesis “Democracy in the Middle East”.

A More Positive Take (ish)

There is research to suggest that the long-term political impact may be more positive.

In 2006, Carol Aktinson published a paper in International Studies Quarterly, that stated that military-to-military contacts with America between 1972 and 2000 were “positively and systematically associated with liberalising trends.”

However, there may be bumps in the road. For example, in countries with weak civilian institutions, training talented and ambitious officers can skew the balance of power by making armies stronger and more cohesive, but not necessarily apolitical.

In another study, by Jesse Dillon Savage of Trinity College Dublin and Jonathan Caverley of the us Naval War College, suggests that US training doubled the risk of a military-backed coup between 1970 and 2009.

Simply put, US military protégés have usually posed more of a threat to those who sent them than those who train them.


The Economist. (2019) Training Foreign Soldiers: Friendly Fire. The Economist. 14 December 2019, pp.22.


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