WASHINGTON — When the $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill was passed Dec. 18, it quietly included new funding authorities for the Pentagon and State Department, which could lead to speeding up the delivery of needed equipment to foreign partners.
The language, which plussed-up the funding authorities for the Special Defense Acquisition Fund (SDAF) from $100 million to $900 million, comes at a time when foreign partners, the Pentagon and members of Congress are all raising concerns that the US foreign military sales (FMS) process is moving too slowly to keep up with modern threats.
A little known program, the SDAF essentially allows the State Department to look ahead at what partner nations may need to buy in the coming year and pre-order it. For example, officials could look at the rate a partner such as Jordan is going through rifles, or how often a partner like Estonia is using night vision equipment, realize they are likely to need a refresher of that gear, and spend funds to have them under production.
Doing so can dramatically reduce the amount of time needed to deliver that gear to the partner nation. If it takes six months to build an engine part, for instance, State can pre-order the piece so it is under production, or even completed production, before the partner nation requests the item. And while the partner must still undergo the FMS process, once those hurdles are cleared, delivery of the equipment will be much faster than if the nation had to wait to begin production until Congress ok's the sale.
Speaking on background, a State Department official told Defense News that the increase in obligation authority "boosts our ability to be a responsive and reliable provider of security assistance."
"Recently we've used it for things from uniforms, boots and rifles and body armor to radars, night vision, helicopter engines, aircraft parts and spares, even conversion kits for Hellfire missiles," the official said.
"All the things we know will be needed in the fight, we can go ahead and order in advance. We can either buy them straight up or we can buy a place in the production line, so when a request comes in they don't have to wait for their time to come up."
"It allows us to operate at a higher tempo," the official said. "It adds real flexibility to the FMS system and it will particularly allow us to be faster on the ball with some of our Middle Eastern partners who have urgent and emergent requirements related to their defense needs."
That latter point is key, as Middle Eastern partners have publicly been raising concerns over the speed of the FMS process with top US officials. At the Dubai Airshow in November, the issue generated enough noise that Deborah Lee James, Air Force Secretary, pledged to launch new initiatives to speed the process up.
At the same time, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have downplayed some of those concerns, instead describing them as part of the negotiating process that goes on between countries and industry.
One focus of the concern from the Gulf partners is the ability to provide munitions rapidly, as operations in Yemen and Syria have depleted the regional supply of smart weapons. The official declined to speculate on whether the increase in spending authority would allow more procurement of munitions through SDAF — after all, the $100 million cap would make it difficult to buy much high-end gear — but said "I think you can certainly expect to see more of the same sorts of things you see going out to coalition partners."
Originally a Reagan-era program, the SDAF maxed out at over $1 billion in 1987. However, the fund became a victim of the post-Cold War drawdown, with the use of the SDAF ending in 1995. According to an analysis by Susan McClure, writing two years ago in the Defense Institute of Security Assistance Management Journal, the initial version of the SDAF procured "over $2.7 billion in defense articles and services which were sold to 76 countries and international organizations worldwide."
The fund relaunched in 2011 with a $100 million authorization cap, a number which it had stayed at until last week, when Section 7072 of the Omnibus stated the SDAF can obligate up to $900 million through September 30, 2018. Because the Congress only gave authorization, not appropriations, funding for the program has to be found from other sources, primarily from DoD coffers.
"The long pole in the tent a lot of the item is on the procurement side of FMS," the State official said. "It's not in countries identifying and asking, it's in it being made. That is the part of the cycle this addresses."
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.