Heidi Grant is the deputy undersecretary of the US Air Force for international affairs. (US Air Force)
Q. What are your goals and priorities for the upcoming show?
A. The main goal for this show is my opportunity to engage with as many defense and industry leaders in aerospace as possible to discuss our mutual security interest. As the US Air Force lead for security cooperation, my goal is to find these areas of mutual security interest and talk about how we can better cooperate [and] build an enhanced capability and capacity of our partners.
Q. What are some of those specific areas you’re looking at?
A. It’s difficult really to zero in on specific areas, because it really depends on the country and what they’re looking for. Dubai not only attracts the gulf region, but it attracts senior leaders in the defense industry worldwide. I can tell you some of the main areas that I’m focusing on include airlift, air medical evacuation [and] command-and-control type of equipment.
Q. Are you guys working on any new partner-building initiatives, specifically with Gulf Cooperation Council countries?
A. One of the generic [areas] that we’re looking at are centers of excellence, like the Gulf Air Warfare Center [in the United Arab Emirates]. Anywhere we can look at centers of excellence for training. In the gulf area, you don’t see them having the same budget challenges that others are having. But it’s about sharing, what do they see as common security challenges and trying to get them to work together. There’s actually an air symposium at the front end of [the air show], which is another opportunity for me to engage at the beginning of the air show.
Q. Are there additional centers of excellence, like the Gulf Air Warfare Center, that are being explored right now?
A. There’s conversation when you look at where do we have some of the biggest shortfalls. It’s in ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance], command and control. There are discussions ongoing right now [about] areas with ISR that we could team together and have some sort of center of excellence in that arena. It’s just at the very initial stages.
Q. In terms of ISR, are these countries expressing a greater need for interoperability?
A. It’s an interoperability issue that we’re looking at. I am often able to talk about lessons learned from the Libya operations, when we look at it. My concern is that, as our US defense budget gets smaller and smaller, the gap of operational risk is increasing. So I’m looking at how do the partners step up. In Libya operations, when we look at where the US participated the most, we did 80 percent of the ISR [and] a large percentage of the air refueling. What partners are willing to step up and take on more of the ISR role and the air-refueling role for future operations?
Q. Have allies been expressing concerns about the budget uncertainty that we’re experiencing here in the US?
A. They have expressed concern. Though I don’t feel that it’s damaged any partnership, I think there’s understanding. As a matter of fact, some of the countries have gone through what we’re going through right now, and I think there’s things that we can learn from them on how they’ve survived some budget challenges. But really what it’s done is, you hear about the pivot or the rebalance towards the Pacific. I’m seeing what I call a rebalance toward international partnering. The US is realizing more and more the need for us to partner, that we need to be interoperable and we need to do anything that we can to prepare them for conflict prevention because that translates into cost avoidance for the US if we can enter conflict prevention.
Q. Did the shutdown or any of that impact or slow or delay any type of engagements or processing of weapon sales?
A. What it did [affect] is more of our partner engagement things for which we would use operation and maintenance funds. We did have to cancel several engagements. So that was very disruptive to the partners, because some air chiefs ... can only leave their country one time a year, spend limited funds on these engagements, and they put everything on the table to partner with the US and then we cancel it. That was very disruptive. Also, I’m hearing from industry, because [the] Defense Contract Management Agency, some of the final checkout things that we do, it caused a delay for some of our industry partners when our civilians weren’t able to work.
Q. In terms of foreign weapons sales, is there any type of initiative going on in the Middle East or any other regions to remove bureaucratic red tape to speed up acquisition of systems for these countries?
A. There’s been a lot of work. I don’t directly control those policies for export. That’s in the Department of State lane, but I think they’ve done a great job to speed it up by looking at the critical items — on the list of critical items, things that we want to protect — and move some things over to the list to make it easier to export through [the] Commerce [Department] approvals. I think a lot has been done to streamline the process, but I also would say, there’s a lot more to do. [Air shows provide] a time when we can sit down with industry and our partners and say, where are you still seeing roadblocks? Let’s look at ideas, where we can streamline it even more. But a lot has already been done in the Air Force. We’ve done a lot of what I call anticipatory policies to get a preapproved list to say, OK, a partner hasn’t come in and asked for this weapon system yet, but if they do, is it a yes, or is it [a technology] we’re going to need to protect. We’re calling them Weapon Systems Baselines. It’s improved the process, sped it from six to nine months.
Q. Fighter jet sales always grab the big headlines in the Middle East. The F-35 has been hitting a lot of its milestones of late. It just recently fired a live air-to-air missile. Has this momentum translated to international interest or dialogue?
A. Oh, it absolutely has changed the tone for our partners. Even through budget challenges, we’re committed to the program. We’ve seen huge improvements as far as price points, cost, progress on the program. Our partners are all watching. It helps when we’re out there saying that we’re committed to this program for the partners to be able to talk to their political leadership and to encourage them. This is the only choice as far as a fifth-generation fighter out there for international partners, and they’re very interested in the success of the program.
Q. You brought up Libya earlier. You have these new regimes that come in. Can you walk me through how you guys go and start building relationships when you have these new regimes?
A. It just starts with dialogue on what’s needed for them to go forward to provide security and stability in their country from a defense perspective. I can tell you, in some countries, it’s not only about the equipment. It’s about airspace. It’s about access and where we can partner with them. I can speak from an Air Force standpoint, things that we’re doing in numerous countries. [After dialogue,] then we come back to the office and package some of this and go to [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] Policy and to partner with [the] State [Department] and socialize it with them. The biggest thing we need to do is, make sure we’re not overpromising a country as far as how far we’re willing to go to team with them for their security interest. We work all that and make sure that we’re one US team when we have those conversations.
Q. Are the allies expressing concerns over possible Air Force fleet cuts? Is there concern that if the US Air Force scales back on platforms, it’ll have less of an opportunity to engage?
A. I think it’s just opposite. The partners are looking at us going, OK, what are you shaving out of your budget, or is this equipment going to become excess inventory, and can we look at a third-party transfer of some of this equipment? I can tell you that our workload has increased. I don’t think this is common knowledge out there, believe it or not, that probably 90 percent of what we do is paid by other partners’ funds. [Partner nations are] watching us to see what are we going to divest of and who can be first in line to be able to get that excess equipment. It also has opened us up to relooking at who are our willing partners that want to increase their capabilities.
There’s a paradigm shift in what has historically been our closest partners and allies and we’re opening the aperture of who those people are, who’s stepping up. I use UAE participation in Libya operations as a perfect example. That relationship started years ago by selling F-16s, training together [and] exercising together to make them successful in their operation.
ByMarcus Weisgerber in Washington.