WASHINGTON — In response to complaints from partner nations about the challenges of buying US military equipment, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James has directed an effort within the service to speed up the clunky foreign military sales process.

During a trip last month to the Middle East, James noticed a trend: partner nations desperately want Pentagon products, but are repeatedly deterred by the arduous approval process for sales of US military equipment.

"The bottom line, having talked to all these individuals, is I believe the United States is the partner of choice for all of them," James said Dec. 2 today at an event at the National Press Club. "But I also heard repeatedly about the challenges they feel they face in working with us to get that total package" of US equipment as well as training and maintenance services.

Allies and industry have complained for years that the FMS process impedes sales. The system has always been incredibly complex, requiring approval from the Department of Defense and State departments, Department of State and Congress, before a weapon sale can be cleared.

But the issue has taken on new urgency in the Middle East as Gulf nations become embroiled in new conflicts, particularly the fight against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, and operations in Yemen. Industry and government officials alike told Defense News last month that Gulf partners are now threatening to look elsewhere for key military technologies.

In response, James said she has directed her staff to examine ways within the Air Force to speed up the FMS process – in particular in the area of munitions sales.

As part of that effort, Heidi Grant, the Air Force's deputy undersecretary for international affairs, is working on developing a strategy that will identify capabilities the US would like to see allies acquire to enable the service to better forecast and prepare for future sales, James said.

The Air Force is also working to set pre-approved technology transfer baselines for major systems, which could cut the process down by weeks or even months, James noted.

"I came back recognizing that I honestly don't have the power to fix or speed it up in all those different arenas, but I was going to try to do my best to fix it where I could," James said. "To that end, I've directed my staff to examine how the Air Force can speed up our part of the process and work with other stakeholders to make sure that US security cooperation efforts are responsive to evolving needs."

Twitter: @laraseligman