WASHINGTON— The U.S. Air Force is the only American military service to have a designated headquarters office, led by a senior official, specifically to guide foreign policy and help broker arms sales. And that international affairs office, known as SAF/IA, has been through some big changes lately. Chief of those is its new leader, Kelli Seybolt, a career civil servant who became deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for international affairs in April after the departure of longtime SAF/IA boss Heidi Grant.
Seybolt is no stranger to the SAF/IA office. Prior to taking the lead position there, she spent five years as the Coast Guard’s foreign policy adviser and director of international affairs. Before that, Seybolt held positions inside SAF/IA directing the office’s strategy and operations as well as guiding space and cyberspace cooperation.
Defense News posed a number of questions to Seybolt ahead of the Dubai Airshow to get her perspective on the evolution of the SAF/IA office, whether the pace of international sales is improving and how the removal of Turkey from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is impacting the U.S. Air Force’s willingness to export its most sensitive technologies.
What have you been up to these past few months, and what would you like to accomplish in this role?
Since April, I have focused on aligning SAF/IA’s mission to all three National Defense Strategy lines of effort.
We are building a more lethal force by increasing our partners’ readiness so they can operate effectively in a U.S.-led coalition. We are strengthening alliances and attracting new partners every day through relationship management, partner capability development and strengthened interoperability. We are reforming our service for greater performance and affordability by becoming more strategically driven, anticipatory and responsive to partner needs, and focused on process improvement.
Of course, everything we do in SAF/IA is rooted in integrity. We do our best to help partners and allies get what they need to pursue our mutual security interests. Our team is committed to reenergizing our U.S. Air Force brand as the security cooperation partner of choice by driving results for partners.
So far, we have made a lot of progress toward these goals. I hope to keep this momentum going.
As you came on board, there was some shift in the duties of SAF/IA and other Air Staff offices like the A5, which oversees strategy. What happened?
When the secretary of the Air Force and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein created a separate staff to focus on strategy, integration and requirements (AF/A5), they did so to ensure the headquarters was optimized to effectively and efficiently develop and implement Air Force security cooperation strategy.
To achieve this objective, SAF/IA and AF/A5 conducted a review of our organizations to identify who should do what to best support National Defense Strategy objectives. Our respective teams worked tirelessly to clarify roles and responsibilities for each organization. In the end, we determined that the AF/A5 will shape the U.S. Air Force strategy at large, and SAF/IA will ensure that our security cooperation efforts implement that strategy.
How have those changes impacted SAF/IA?
From my perspective, the greatest impact has been an improved integration of security cooperation and an increased understanding of allies’ and partners’ capabilities in our overall Air Force strategy.
Building partner capacity is a big tenet of the National Defense Strategy. Does that make what SAF/IA does more urgent or important in terms of the Air Force’s overall strategy?
Building partner capacity has always been a central line of effort for SAF/IA, so from my perspective it does not make it necessarily more urgent. The fact that strengthening alliances and attracting new partners is a major objective in the National Defense Strategy has certainly put more focus across the Air Force on the importance of this mission area.
One of the Trump administration’s major priorities is export reform, particularly for unmanned aerial systems. How have the changes impacted the Air Force’s ability to export drones?
Aside from the U.S. export control processes, remotely piloted aircraft exports are guided by the Missile Technology Control Regime, or MTCR. While recognizing RPA exports are subject to additional review, the U.S. Air Force has taken the lead in developing a “commoditized” version of the MQ-9. This solution will allow us to quickly provide interested customers with projections for cost and schedule of a predefined standard configuration of MQ-9.
If a customer requests a unique capability, such as a nonstandard sensor, the U.S. Air Force will go through the formal process of delivering cost estimates for the development, integration and testing of that sensor. These tailor-made upgrades will inherently extend the developmental process of a sale and likely impact cost and delivery times.
For partners that prefer off-the-shelf solutions, the commoditized option will allow the U.S. Air Force to deliver the most relevant capabilities more rapidly. Commoditization of high-demand systems ensures systematic policy hurdles are overcome in advance of the customer requests, making us more responsive to our partners.
There’s been talk of making changes to the Missile Technology Control Regime to ease exports. Are those still in the works?
The U.S. Air Force’s broader MQ-9 commoditization effort focuses on aligning defense policymakers to streamline defense export positions. This is a proactive approach to arms transfers, designed to more quickly deliver capabilities to a customer. This U.S. Air Force effort is independent of the State Department’s MTCR responsibilities.
What acquisition challenges are allies and partners experiencing when trying to buy American products?
Some partners today find themselves requiring, purchasing and fielding systems that are not in the current U.S. inventory. There are challenges associated with being the first. Partners must be able to weather the uncertainty of total cost and schedule needed for developmental programs to deliver new, advanced systems.
In all cases, the U.S. Air Force operates with transparency toward partners. This demands a commitment on our part to provide customers with our best assessment of risk throughout the developmental cycle, as well as continuous engagement with U.S. industry to deliver contracted capabilities to partners.
More specifically, what are you hearing — both good and bad — from Middle Eastern partners and their ability to purchase U.S. technologies? Is the pace of sales improving?
Middle Eastern partners love the operational effectiveness, maintainability and supportability of U.S. technology, though sometimes our partners are frustrated by the perception that the early phases of a procurement program move slowly.
The reality is that it takes time to deliver state-of-the-art capability, especially when those capabilities are still in development. Middle Eastern partners are procuring the most advanced F-15s and F-16s ever produced, which comes with both the pluses and minuses of being on the ground floor of cutting-edge programs.
One example of how these partner investments have pushed technological boundaries forward, for instance, is that the U.S. Air Force is now exploring whether new F-15 procurements would complement our proposed fighter force. We have our Middle Eastern partners to thank for this opportunity.
Two years ago, U.S. Air Force officials visiting the Dubai Airshow confirmed that the U.S. planned to open talks with the United Arab Emirates about the F-35, but we haven’t heard much since then. Where are those talks now? Did the UAE receive a classified briefing on it? Has the U.S. opened sales discussions with any other Arabian Gulf nation regarding the F-35?
As you state, that was before my time at SAF/IA, so I am not precisely aware of who said what, but I am aware of partner interest. These are U.S. policy issues that are more in [the lane of the policy office of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, or OSD-Policy], so I would defer to them for those questions.
Several Arabian Gulf nations, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have expressed interest in the Russian S-400 air defense system. Would buying the S-400 preclude them from being able to buy the F-35, as it has for Turkey?
Any policy positions regarding the acquisition of the F-35 and interest in the S-400 would be determined by OSD-Policy.
It is critical for our Air Force to maintain interoperability with our Gulf partners. To this end, we would work with partners to understand their air defense requirements and work to equip them with interoperable and mission-compatible systems.
What are the lessons learned from Turkey’s removal from the F-35 program?
I defer to OSD-Policy.
The KC-46 has been hit with a string of problems with its camera suite to the cargo floors, and it’s currently flying with cargo and passenger restrictions. What impact has that had on foreign nations that are interested in buying it? Are they concerned?
The U.S. Air Force has been transparent about current KC-46 concerns, and partner demand has not lagged as a result. Our partners are aware of U.S. Air Force concerns, but they are confident they will be resolved as we bring the KC-46 online in U.S. Air Force squadrons.
What have you heard from allies and partners regarding light-attack aircraft? What requirements do they have? How has their feedback affected what the Air Force is doing with its light-attack program?
The U.S. Air Force retains a host of options to respond to customer light-attack requirements, and we’re guiding potential customers through the options available. We’re also talking with partners about the U.S. Air Force-designed AERONet (Airborne Extensible Relay Over-Horizon Network) system as an affordable, widely exportable, commercially encrypted data link solution for battlefield awareness.
Gen. Goldfein has emphasized the importance of partners and allies having common command, control and communications systems. AERONet could help achieve that. It can be integrated on the light-attack platforms already dispersed around the world, making multidomain operations possible.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.