The US Air Force has a vast array of alliances and partnerships to support its global operations and improve interoperability with allies and partners, spanning from basing rights to training and exercises and supplying cutting-edge American hardware.
The Air Force manages some 2,800 foreign military sales cases worth $160 billion with $14 billion in new sales last year alone. As the deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for international affairs, Heidi Grant is the career civil servant who oversees the team of 1,500 who manage the Air Force’s strategic relationships worldwide.
The Obama administration has made arms-export reform a priority and progress has been made, but critics say the system remains too bulky and too slow. They say Kuwait has grown so frustrated waiting for US F-18s, it’s interested in buying Eurofighter Typhoons. Qatar has tired of waiting for approval of F-15s, so it’s considering French Rafales. Is there truth to these claims?
With the increasing global threats around the world, the mission of building partner capability and capacity is more important than it's ever been. I can tell you, in the five years that I've been in this position, I've seen huge improvements to the process. We're looking at how can we speed up the process, how can we make it more affordable for our partners; so, significant improvements. Yes, there are still some areas where we continue to work to improve.
Is there anything you can tell us about the F-15’s prospects in Qatar?
Right now, there's nothing as far as what I can report. We have provided the information to the Qataris. Whenever we export equipment, there are many people across our government and industry that are involved in the decision. So I think there are many things going on right now and we're in kind of the waiting period.
China, Russia, North Korea, ISIS are all threats. You regularly meet with leaders around the world to advance the US and Air Force interests. What do US allies and partners want from you?
The biggest thing is command and control. This isn't only for the high-end fight, but also for humanitarian response. If we look at the Pacific and the humanitarian disasters in Japan and Philippines, we found that although we have interoperable equipment, common equipment, command and control is one area that we're working on also both for humanitarian assistance and the high-end fight. And there's never going to be enough ISR. There's an appetite that the more intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance we have, the better off we're going to be.
The ISIS fight is a priority. What are our ISIS partners looking for, and what are you expediting for them?
This is one of the biggest success stories. When I look at the coalition, especially the air coalition, 12 partners that are in there with us flying sorties, dropping munitions every day, it's a huge success story. If I can highlight one country particular it would be the UAE.
That relationship started through a sale of F-16 aircraft over 15 years ago. Since then we've trained with them, we've exercised with them and they've been very successful right now in conflicts going on in the Middle East. That's one story.
To answer your question, we're seeing requests for replenishment of munitions. That's, again, been a success story.
Close allies Britain, Italy, Turkey and France have bought US Reaper unmanned aircraft. But they’ve been frustrated over how long it’s taken to get the strike version. What’s being done to accelerate that process for nations fighting alongside US forces on a daily basis?
Years ago, it used to be that the US Air Force would operate a system for years until it was proven, then we'd export it. Now our partners are asking for capability at the same time and sometimes even before the US Air Force starts operating it. We’re trying to work to get these policies in place to allow the export and allow our partners to be capable in the coalition. People say, “Oh, it takes so long.” Well, it takes so long because it's new putting these policies in place.
You see that accelerating as everybody gets more familiar with the process?
We want to make sure that this most-advanced technology that we have, that we protect that technology. It's a balancing act that we want our partners to be capable, but we want to make sure that the US Air Force continues to have the edge.
America’s close Middle East allies have the resources to buy the highest-end US systems. But the drop in oil prices has hit the pocketbooks of many countries, including Saudi Arabia. You meet with those nations. Any evidence they’re reducing or delaying weapon programs?
I haven't seen that they're reducing or cutting back mainly because of the challenges in the region. I'm seeing a higher demand for the US to be the partner of choice in the region. However, having said that, I think they're going through similar things that we are. Some of the discussions I’ve had with them, as here in the US, as your budget gets smaller, making those choices between putting resources towards your defense or putting it to your domestic needs.
The Saudis have made clear their unhappiness to Washington over the Iran nuclear deal, Mubarak's departure in Egypt and other things. Do you notice the change in the Saudi relationship that involves the US Air Force?
I'm aware that there are some policy issues right now between our countries, but as far as I see it, the Air Force-to-Air Force relationships, I really believe it's stronger than ever. Just about a week ago I was able to meet with [acting Saudi Air Force chief Mohammed bin Saleh] al-Otaibi to review their F-15SA project, the largest foreign military sale in the history of the United States.
The UAE bought Block 60 F-16s that are among the world's most advanced fighters. Two years ago it looked like they would buy 30 newer Block 61 aircraft. Now we're told the UAE is looking to sell its Mirage 2000-9s to buy Rafales. Will they buy Rafales or upgrade their F-16s?
We do a lot to work on the partnership with UAE, and as I told you before we have a strong partnership through the F-16 aircraft. My advice to any country is to keep commonality between their equipment just because of the cost to sustain them and operate them. Also, selfishly, the US wants to be the partner of choice, so that would be our recommendation. Having said that, many air forces like to have more diversity in their fleet, and I respect that. So if they're looking for more diversity in their fleet that brings them the capability, in my role it's all about having a capable coalition. The more capable our coalition is the less the US Air Force will need to do to respond.
Is this either they buy Rafales or upgrade Block 60s, or can both coexist?
I think that they can coexist, and my hope is that they will.
There’s concern the United States is moving to the highest bracket of combat capability. For example, the joint strike fighter will be a great airplane but very expensive. Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group says there’s a big global market for far cheaper fighter aircraft. Are you concerned the United States is pricing itself out of some markets?
My concern on that is I know that there is still quite a demand out there for our fourth-generation aircraft, to keep the US industrial base going on F-16, F-18 and the F-15. That's important because there's still a high demand for those aircraft. Now, the other issue that we're looking at is there's a demand out there for aircraft that are not in the US inventory. We call it nonstandard aircraft, but these partners still want to train with the US Air Force, so we're looking at how do we make that happen. The best example I have right now is the A-29 aircraft. It's not something that's in the US Air Force inventory, but we're using it to train Afghan pilots because it's the right aircraft for them.
Would Textron’s Scorpion jet fall into that category as well?
That would be one of the many and part of the role of my staff is to be aware of all of the US industry, what they have to offer from the lower-end capability and price point to the very-highest-end to the F-35, and that's our job to collaborate with industry and be an advocate for the US to be the partner.
You just got back from the Philippines, which will allow US forces to return to its bases. What’s the future of the relationship between Washington and Manila and what's next for Clark Air Base, the former Air Force hub in the Western Pacific?
The new agreement that was just signed, I think, will bring us even closer together. It's opening some opportunities for basing. I believe it's about eight bases, but I look at it as an opportunity to open the relationship. Gen. Delgado, who is the air chief there, hosted Gen. Welsh, our air chief and me there recently. They took us to Basa Air Base where they're going to be flying the FA-50 aircraft that they just purchased from Korea, but I see it as an opportunity to open these bases and see what we can do to assist them and to allow more exercises, and not only with the US; it'll open opportunities for other countries to exercise there too.
Japan, a key ally worried about China, has changed its laws to allow greater arms cooperation as well as exports. What what’s next for the US-Japan alliance?
As far as recent agreements and new laws that were there, I think it's just strengthening our relationship with the US-Japan alliance.
Could you see working with Japan to export a system to another ally?
I think it's open. To me, the more we can leverage expertise of countries around the world, and the industrial-based knowledge they have, I think the stronger we'll be together.
For years, the Air Force has trained Iraqi and Afghan air forces, but there are concerns that the Afghans are still not up to speed. What more needs to be done so the country can stand on own?
A. Well, I can tell you both in Iraq and Afghanistan their air forces are good-news stories. Our focus when we initially started building the security forces capability was on growing the Army and the police force, so we were a little behind to build the air forces of these two countries.
I can tell you that it's amazing how we're doing right now with the F-16, C-130 for an example. In Iraq the pilots are out there utilizing the F-16 that was just delivered. I was able to be there in July for that ceremony.
And I just attended in December the graduation of the Afghan pilots, so the first nine Afghan pilots graduated, and we have about four in Afghanistan learning tactics and procedures before they go into combat.