The last year of conflicts has shown that more and more, the United States is forced to rely on its allies to help police the world. In Europe and the Middle East, the US Air Force has worked extensively with international partners on operations, while in Africa France has taken the lead in operations that previously might otherwise have been US-led.

To Heidi Grant, deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for international affairs, that's a good thing. Grant works to expand partnerships with international air forces, in part through helping allies figure out what areas to invest their resources in, and whether US industry can help them.

Q. How is your office structured?

A. There isn't a position like this in any of the other services. The Air Force has put International Affairs at such a high importance that my position is equivalent to head of intel, head of operations, so I report through the undersecretary of the Air Force directly to the Secretary [Deborah Lee James]. My day-to-day business is mostly with Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh. The chief really depends on me to get out there and build cooperation and relationships with air chiefs around the world, so I am dealing with sustaining relationships with over 100 countries.

One of the biggest criticisms is the process is so slow. We have done quite a bit working with the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Department of State trying to look at how to be more responsive to the partners' needs and try to push our policies where we can.

One of the best forums that I use to build that relationship and cooperation is air shows. That is where we sit down and talk about, "How can we cooperate better together? Do you need more training? Do you need some of our US equipment?" I can hear them talk operationally where the frustrations are, and then kind of zoom in and represent our US industry [and say], "Here are the five companies [or however many] that have this type of capability."

Q. Do you think industry needs to be interacting more with foreign partners?

A. [I read] an article recently about industry and how they are not getting out there. I can tell you from where I sit in this job, I'm happy about that. The reason I say that is when I ask my coalition partners, "How can we be better?" one of the things they say to me is that the United States has to learn to be a quiet partner. They come and talk to our industry partners about potentially buying our equipment. The next thing you know, it is all over the front page that somebody wants to buy this, and sometimes that can cause problems in that country for them actually being able to go through with the sale, because they are still thinking about it, studying it and haven't elevated to their senior decision makers yet.

As our US defense budget becomes smaller and smaller, you can see, if you talk to the companies, they've done a shift in their business area where we are really busy in the international affairs, so they have shifted their marketing and business development more towards the international partners. There are many countries out there, especially in the gulf and Middle East, that their budgets are just fine now.

Q. Interoperability with allies is obviously key. How do you try and drive that?

A. We are trying to look at more consortium-type ideas. You are probably familiar with the [Strategic Airlift Capability Heavy Airlift Wing program], where we have three C-17s and 12 partner nations contribute — partner nations that otherwise wouldn't have been able to afford a C-17. We are going to be the smallest Air Force we've been in our history as far as the hardware and number of people, so how do we leverage our partners? What we are finding is probably the top areas we want to look at where we can use some help mitigating our operational risk would be ISR and command and control as two of the big areas, and the third one is in the mobility category, but specifically air refueling.

We're looking at creative ideas, potentially with the KC-46A looking at a consortium, because it would be cost-burden sharing for some of the countries if we get some countries together, and then operational avoidance for us if we could get more capable partners. Right now we are working with Boeing to see what kind of scenarios could be out there and what countries could be involved.

I know the European countries right now are looking at collectively what platform they would want. May the best competitor win. I think the US has some of the best technology out there, and we just need to be able to show them what we have and respond to all of their information.

Q. You mentioned ISR. What about unmanned systems?

A. In that area, with the countries that do have policy approval and have gone ahead with the remotely powered aircraft — UK, France and Italy — it has been so instrumental.

When you look at the capability France has, and the operations they are doing in Mali, that is an example of operational avoidance. The US doesn't need to be there. France has got it and it is a huge success there, so we are fortunate that our policy has allowed us to export to France.

We've just now put together an operational users group; within the last month, we had our first kickoff meeting where these countries that have the [unmanned systems] will all get together and talk about how each other is operating, lessons learned to help each other bring the capability to the next level.

Q. What impact do you expect from potential changes to the Missile Technology Control Regime on unmanned systems?

A. I don't see significant changes. The Department of State has the lead on that. A lot of pushback that we were getting on the sales is that [there] wasn't a US government policy over the past two years. I think it is a success that now there is a policy, so that is a great thing that nobody can say that we don't have a policy now, because now there are some parameters around it. I think that is helpful. Before I couldn't really advocate for some of the countries; we have this policy now so I do see we will be able to push some things.

Q. How do you work to guide a country towards meeting a requirement the US thinks it should invest in?

A. This is a generic statement, but air forces tend to just want fighter aircraft, which is why we need a strategy to present. I can't have a conversation with a country to say "maybe you should get ISR instead of an F-16" when it is their money they are bringing to the table, unless I have some sort of strategy to look at and say, "if you really care about security in your region and you want to be a valued partner, everything shows that this would be the best contribution to the region." Of course, they want to have as many sexy fighter aircraft on their ramp as possible.

We need to respect the sovereignty of each of the countries. It has to be their idea. They've got to want to do it, which is why my number one rule is they need to have the will and want to be able to sustain whatever it is that they're going to purchase from us.

Q. How does this coalition framework apply to space?

A. I think it is similar to this consortium concept. I really think, with budget constraints around the world, we need new think on how we do this sharing.

I'll give you another example of why this is beneficial to our national security: With the Wideband Global Satellite system, two of the nine satellites were bought by partners. One was bought by Australia, another one was bought by five of our partners. They have access to the larger constellation, we get more bandwidth, and they have picked up the cost for that.

We're just looking for more ways that we can cooperate. The more we can partner-integrate with our coalition, the more accountable we become together, the more trusting we are together — so there is a lot of good from the security standpoint. We're opening up more in space and even cyber, to some extent, to do training. It is in our best interest that the countries have the capability to protect what we've given them and what we're teaming with them on.

Q. With Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the ongoing Islamic State conflict and a growing threat from China, are you seeing increased interest in US equipment?

A. There is a huge shift to partner with the US. I don't want to zero in on a specific country, but what I hear from countries around the world is they are frustrated with equipment they've bought from other countries — they buy the equipment and then they don't get the sustainment and the training. While sometimes our equipment is more expensive, they know we're going to be there, they know they are going to get the best training in the world, and current operations show that we're able to replenish munitions. We're able to give the spare parts quickly. When I ask people, "Why do you partner with us when you could go to Russia, you could go to China, you could go many places?" That is what I hear. They are buying a partnership.

By Aaron Mehta in Orlando, Florida.

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