WASHINGTON – When the Pentagon’s top acquisition official hits the show floor at next week’s Dubai Air Show, she will be keeping a keen eye out for technologies made outside the U.S.
Ellen Lord, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, will be the ranking American official at the show, and in addition to a quartet of bilateral meetings planned during the event, she plans to scope out what she called “unique foreign technology” from the show floor.
“Part of what I will be doing is walking around and seeing what’s there in the exhibition hall, and I have a team that is previewing things for me, and I will hear what they have found of interest and then I will choose a certain number of booths to visit, to understand that a little bit better,” Lord told reporters during a small Nov. 7 media roundtable.
Lord emphasized that this isn’t a “shopping trip” so much as an opportunity for her to see what other nations are presenting.
Such public interest from the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer will likely grab the attention of foreign companies, particularly among NATO members, who have long complained that the U.S. is not paying enough attention to the potential of foreign-produced kit.
Munitions manufactures from Europe, for example, have long complained that the U.S. refuses to buy their systems despite them being proven and widely accepted among NATO allies.
Broadly speaking, Lord is looking for “what is particularly interesting, whether it be communications technology, whether it be autonomy, whether it be space capability ― different types of things.” And if any of those address capability gaps in the Pentagon’s arsenal, she plans to return to the U.S. and see if there is a domestic solution that perhaps hasn’t been tapped fully.
Asked if she would be looking to potentially bring a foreign weapon manufacturer into the U.S. industrial base, perhaps through encouraging a partnership with a U.S. company, Lord said she wouldn’t “rule anything out.”
“I think that we have a lot of strong partnerships with partners and allies, and I wouldn’t rule out any type of path forward. Obviously we have strong incentives to try and support Buy America and so forth, and I’m very respectful of the administration’s” position on that, Lord said. But at the same time, “We’re expected to make smart decisions which are in the best interests of the U.S.”
“We obviously are looking domestically at everything we have and what we can use,” she noted. “However, we would never rule out a good opportunity and we would take it on a case-by-case basis.”
Return to Dubai
A longtime executive with Textron, Lord is no stranger to the Dubai Air Show, or trade shows in general. And given past experiences, she believes it’s important for the AT&L head to be on the ground for these events.
“I believe I can accomplish a lot of objectives by going to these trade shows. They are very time efficient,” Lord said. In addition, they give an opportunity to “support U.S. industry and all of their associations, and that is something I personally enjoy doing.”
During the event, Lord will meet with officials from four nations in an official capacity – the host United Arab Emirates, Australia, Ukraine and India. But, she predicts “we run into individuals and have some spontaneous meetings, which is all good.”
Her meeting with the UAE comes amid the backdrop of regional tensions between members of the Gulf Cooperation Council and Qatar. As a result, Sen. Bob Corker, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, pledged to put a hold on armed weapon sales to, among others, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. That hold only applies to sales announced after June of this year, which has allowed several packages of weapons to go through, but could still prove thorny in discussions at a UAE-hosted arms bazar.
Lord acknowledged the political situation in the region was tricky, and said she would “always adhere” to the law and policy put forth from the U.S. But she waved away concerns that Corker’s hold would impact her own talks with UAE officials during this trip.
“That does not constrains us from having conversations about what different countries desire and what we can do now, and I think a big part of these bilaterals is listening. I don’t want to have the finger on the transmit button the whole time,” she said.
The meeting with Indian officials will be part of the ongoing talks about the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), a vehicle for defense cooperation between the two nations and something Lord said she was “very bullish” on. She plans to travel to India in March or April for further discussions.
Before arriving at the show, Lord will make a stopover in Italy to meet with her counterpart there and tour that nation’s F-35 production facility.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.