What are the Security Assistance Organisations (US)?


United States Security Assistance Organisations (SAOs) are Federal Government of the United States military and civilian personnel stationed in foreign countries to manage security assistance and other military programmes. SAOs are closest to these programmes’ operation and have the closest contact with host-country militaries.

Refer to International Military Education and Training Programme and US Army Security Assistance Command.


SAOs, part of the Department of Defence, go by different names in different countries. These names include Military Groups (MILGROUPs), Military Assistance and Advisory Groups (MAAGs), Military Liaison Offices (MLOs), Offices of the Defence Representative (ODRs), Offices of Security Cooperation (OSC) (one example is the Office of Defence Cooperation Turkey), and the Office of Military Cooperation (OMC). The Office of Security Cooperation – Iraq, part of the larger Embassy of the United States, Baghdad after the 2011 US withdrawal held the remaining DOD support personnel, totalling about 1,000 contractors and about 147 DOD uniformed personnel. It operated from ten locations around Iraq, and managed about 370 Foreign Military Sales cases, totalling more than US $9 billion of pending arms sales, citing a February 2012 Congressional Research Service report. The biggest programme underway was the much-delayed sale of 18 Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon fighters. The Office of the Defence Representative, Pakistan, was the Islamabad presence.

In general, they are not to be confused with defence attachés, who normally play a more diplomatic role. Many US Embassies have both defence attachés and SAOs.

There are also non-DOD entities carrying out similar activities. The Department of State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs runs the Global Defence Reform Programme (GDRP), amongst others.


SAOs’ duties are officially referred to as ‘overseas military programme management’. Specific responsibilities may include managing Foreign Military Sales (FMS) cases, managing training programmes, monitoring security-assistance programmes, evaluating and planning the host country’s military capabilities and requirements, promoting international defence cooperation and interoperability between forces, providing administrative support, and other liaison functions.


Typically, SAOs are responsible for a number of different tasks listed in the Department of Defence Manual, The Management of Security Assistance:

  • Provide foreign governments with information they need to help them decide whether to buy US defence articles and services. This information might concern the acquisition, use, and training needed to obtain these items.
  • Evaluate host countries’ military capabilities, in order to process security assistance requests.
  • Acquire information concerning foreign governments’ potential future defence acquisitions.
  • Help US military departments (such as the Army or Navy) arrange security assistance for recipient countries.
  • Assist host governments in identifying, administering, and disposing of excess security assistance materiel.
  • Report on the use of defence articles and services granted as aid to the host country, as well as personnel trained by the US.
  • Inform other Defence Department offices with security-assistance responsibilities of security assistance activities in host countries.
  • Perform secondary functions, such as advisory and training services and negotiation on non-security assistance military matters.
  • Perform command and administrative functions.

SAOs also coordinate or participate in activities not traditionally regarded as “security assistance,” such as exercises and deployments, humanitarian civic assistance activities, exchanges, conferences and other military-to-military contact programmes.

Section 515 (e) of the Foreign Assistance Act states that SAOs are to be under the direct supervision of the Ambassador to the country in which they are stationed. However, the Management of Security Assistance states that:

“The Chief of the SAO is essentially responsible to three authorities: the Ambassador (who heads up the country team), the Commander of the Unified Command, and the Director, Defense Security Cooperation Agency.”

Funding for the portion of SAO salaries and operating costs used to manage security assistance comes from the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) programme and from administrative surcharges on Foreign Military Sales (FMS).


Section 515 of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (P.L. 87-195, or the “FAA”), as amended, governs SAO staffing and responsibilities.


Section 515(b) mandates that SAOs keep advisory and training assistance to an absolute minimum. This provision’s intent is to specify that SAOs should manage training and advice provided by others, not carry it out themselves.

The number of military members of an SAO cannot exceed six unless specifically authorised by Congress.
Section 515(f) orders the President to instruct SAOs that they “should not encourage, promote, or influence the purchase by any foreign country of United States-made military equipment, unless they are specifically instructed to do so by an appropriate official of the executive branch.”


SAO staff sizes must be included in the Congressional Presentation documents submitted each February with the administration’s budget request.


If the President wishes to exceed the maximum of six military SAO members, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House International Relations Committee must be notified 30 days in advance.
If the President wishes to exceed the number of military SAO members listed in the yearly State Department Congressional Presentation (even if the number will not exceed six), the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House International Relations Committee must be notified 30 days in advance.

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