Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III is greeted by defense attaché Capt. Manuel Picon and others on June 28, 2022, as he arrived in Madrid, Spain,for the NATO Summit.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III is greeted by defense attaché Capt. Manuel Picon and others on June 28, 2022, as he arrived in Madrid, Spain,for the NATO Summit. DoD / U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jack Sanders

DOD’s Diplomats Don’t Need More Rank, Just Less Disdain

When U.S. visitors treat military attachés like mere functionaries, they undermine a crucial mission.

An open letter to U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III.

Dear Mr. Secretary,

You recently announced the downgrade of five military attaché positions currently held by general officers. Having been neither a general officer nor assigned to the affected embassies, I won’t weigh in on the merits of that decision. 

Rather, as a two-time attaché at the O-6, or colonel, level, I can offer a way to improve the effectiveness of your military diplomats around the world, regardless of rank—and it won’t cost a penny. That’s because the host nation ultimately doesn’t care what rank the attaché holds; they care that he or she is well-informed and influential within America’s power centers.

As you’re well aware, the vast majority of our senior defense official/defense attaché positions are not held by general officers. Yet the position carries weighty responsibilities: to act as the “principal DoD official in a U.S. embassy as designated by the Secretary of Defense,” as “the Chief of Mission's principal military advisor,” as “the senior diplomatically accredited DoD military officer,” and as “the single point of contact for all DoD matters” related to the diplomatic mission. 

Our military diplomats are generally received in this spirit when they arrive in country, armed with introductory letters from yourself as Secretary. These letters formally request that your counterparts accept the attaché as your in-country representative, and they are received with appropriate solemnity.

Unfortunately, this dignified reception often marks the apex of their credibility. Their perceived relevance is subsequently whittled away by waves of senior Defense Department visitors and their staffs, far too many of which send tacit but clear messages by disregarding, excluding, or pushing attachés to the margins of foreign engagements. 

When U.S. defense luminaries openly treat your attachés as little more than aiguilette-wearing protocol officers and note-takers, host nations take notice.

I recall an instance on which I accompanied a senior Australian officer to the U.S. for an official counterpart visit. During the trip, despite specific instructions to the contrary, one four-star officer’s staff summarily removed my place setting before their meeting, judging that my rank did not merit my inclusion. Meanwhile, the setting for my Australian counterpart—a two-star general—was left in place. 

Having experienced such indignities before, I walked in anyway. Fortunately, I was not ejected, though I was conspicuous as the only one at the table without a place setting. More importantly, a clear message was sent to the Australians: the U.S. defense attaché is relatively unimportant. 

You could view this as simply a faux pas that bruised a colonel’s ego, but I assure you this experience is hardly unique. Every military attaché not of general officer rank has a book of such stories. They thus learn to be bold—even brash—in service of their duties.

This is because there’s much more at stake than attaché self-esteem. Their mission effectiveness turns on their access to senior host-country officials, which itself depends on their credibility as well-informed, trusted interlocutors to our own senior leaders. An attaché who is seen as a protocol functionary will eventually cease to be anything more.

Nor is the damage limited to the Defense Department. Ambassadors are frequently exasperated by senior defense visitors who diminish the embassy’s role within the countries where they act as the president’s representative. In their eyes, disregarding the attachés equates to disregarding the U.S. diplomatic mission itself. 

The problem in Australia was so acute and persistent that the U.S. ambassador was compelled to act. He issued his own polite but pointed letter to “strongly insist” on the matter: “[E]xcluding U.S. Mission personnel from your meetings sends a very negative message to our hosts about the relevance of my team as trusted interlocutors. Remember, we’re here after you leave, and access and credibility are the coin of the realm for a diplomat! Therefore, when senior Australian officials see that you value and are working closely with my officers, you really help open doors for us.”

The effect of this letter—which we then conveyed to every inbound delegation—was dramatic in its positive local effect, but the larger issue is systemic and worldwide. 

But you, sir, can fix it.

A simple policy issued over your own signature would greatly improve the mission effectiveness of the entire attaché corps. Like the ambassador’s letter, such a policy would instruct senior DoD officials and their staffs on how and why to involve attachés in their foreign engagements in ways that elevate them in the eyes of their assigned nations’ leaders.

The formula is simple: tell them to bring your attachés into their meetings, seat your attachés in their vehicles and prominently at their tables, and express to their host-nation counterparts how much your attachés' counsel is valued. 

It really is that straightforward. Issuing such guidance—and then ensconcing it in appropriate DOD Instructions such as C-5105.32 Defense Attaché Service—would help your military diplomats not only to avert the slights, but to build the credibility and access they need to accomplish the mission you sent them to perform. 

Improving their in-country access and credibility will have the added benefit of improving the quality of information and advice the attaché corps is able to convey back to you and to all of our nation’s senior leaders and policy makers.

Because, Mr. Secretary, your attachés’ mission effectiveness really does depend less on the rank they wear on their uniforms than on the value that you and your own senior officials are perceived to place upon them.

And that’s something you can fix.

Raymond Powell is a fellow at Stanford University’s Distinguished Careers Institute in Palo Alto, California. He recently concluded a 35-year career in the U.S. Air Force, during which he served as his country's Air Attaché in Vietnam and Senior Defense Official/Defense Attaché in Australia.