WASHINGTON — Despite calls from Pentagon officials, foreign leaders and industry executives that the foreign military sales (FMS) process must be changed, the Congress appears highly unlikely to take up any such efforts before the end of the Obama administration.
Congressional sources and analysts agree that there simply isn't enough interest to push through meaningful reforms in the next nine months on the FMS issue, given both its complexity and global sensitivities to weapon sales.
Pentagon officials, including Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, have become more vocal in the last six months about their desire to see changes in how the FMS process is structured, citing a desire to make sure allies can receive weapons in a timely fashion, particularly for those nations involved in the fight against the Islamic State, commonly known as ISIS or ISIL.
James in particular has pledged to direct the Air Force to find ways to speed up the weapon sales process, although it remains unclear what she can do directly as a service secretary.
The issue has also been raised on the Hill, most notably by Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, who decried delays in the process in a March 4 letter to Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Secretary of State John Kerry. Granger chairs the Appropriations Committee's state and foreign operations appropriations subcommittee and is vice chair of the Defense appropriations subcommittee.
It also follows a separate call from Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., last month to streamline the process amid delayed fighter jet sales to Qatar and Kuwait.
"These countries deserve a decision," McCain said then. "If it's no, it's no. If it's yes, it's yes."
However, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which has oversight over foreign weapon sales, appear to be more relaxed about the issue, with the committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, describing the complaints as part of the natural back and forth that occurs when a foreign nation wants a US weapon.
And unless someone on the Foreign Relations Committee is willing to pick up the issue and make it a signature one, the process will likely continue as is, said Robert Rangel, Lockheed's senior vice president for Washington operations.
Rangel told Defense News on March 15 that he did not see a major FMS overhaul in the cards for 2016, in part because the complicated nature of foreign weapons sales requires "making it a priority and expending expanding the necessary energy and capital to push it through."
"There have been incremental improvements, mostly on the export control side. There have been some process improvements which have taken place," Rangel said. "But not really the wholesale reform that a lot of people believe is in order here. I don't believe that's going to change."
Meanwhile, when asked if there was any sense the House Foreign Relations Committee would try to tackle FMS reform this year, a senior House staffer flatly stated "no."
Rose Gottemoeller, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, demurred when asked about FMS changes coming from Congress, but did not sound particularly concerned about them.
"I can't make any predication in that regard," she said March 22. "We'll clearly continue to work very directly with our partners on Capitol Hill as well to talk about how we work this system."
The topic of all-inclusive "enterprise" reform is only in nascent discussions on Capitol Hill, according to the Aerospace Industrial Association's vice president of international affairs, Remy Nathan. AIA has pressed for reforms aimed at better prioritization and synchronization among the various agencies with roles in international defense cooperation, largely in talks with administration officials.
The message, Nathan said, is that the system is not broken, but needs improvement. It performs well when US partners have urgent needs that affect the United States' own operations, but things tend to drag on less urgent requests, particularly when differences arise among the Defense Department, State Department and Commerce Department.
"In order to do that properly, you can't have a system that manages the things that are in crisis and easy well and leaves the hard decisions to be debated interminably, without any sense of the importance of coming to a resolution, either a yes or no, in a timely fashion," Nathan said.
But while industry has been a frequent complainer, officials at the State Department have reiterated their beliefs that the system is set up in a way to safeguard how American weapons are used globally.
Gottemoeller emphasized that the process in place is there to make sure that nations using US gear do so appropriately, both when they first receive the weapons and through the lifetime of their use.
"It's in our national interest, our national security interest, to ensure we have eyes on, and some knowledge of, how foreign partners are using weapons after we make those sales," she said.
"And I think it's very important to recognize that as a nation, the United States takes a very responsible attitude toward weapon sales and ensures that not only do we have end use promises made by countries but we have an opportunity afterward to go back and make sure they are actually living up to those commitments that they made when the sales are promulgated."
Gottemoeller was direct when asked if she felt a need to change the way the FMS system works, flatly stating "nope."
"I understand that there is a kind of mythology out there about the slow movement of foreign military sales, foreign military financing," Gottemoeller said at an event hosted by the Defense Writers Group.
"But I think we can clearly set the record straight with many examples, and also look to cooperate more intensively to ensure our partners across the interagency and also in foreign capitals understand how the system works, and also how beneficial it is for US national security," she added.
That note about interagency is key, Nathan noted, because the way power is shared relies on the different agencies to work with each other better than they normally do. The Commerce Department's role is synchronizing US government advocates, but it is least connected to what constitutes a security cooperation priority. That would be DoD, but it is not in charge. The State Department is in charge, but it's the least connected to industry and the need to support the US industrial base.
Another problem is the system remains understaffed and under-resourced as the US is increasing its reliance on partners around the globe.
"There's a silver lining to being burdened, and that is that the demand signal is out there, our allies are looking for help, and we have solutions," Nathan said. "What changes can we make to meet those needs in a manner consistent with our national security interests, and also our economic interests?"
With pressure on the industrial base from lower domestic spending, competition from European, Russian, Israeli and Chinese manufacturers, AIA in recent years has encouraged better interagency coordination and is mulling a bigger push when the next administration enters office.
In November, the State Department announced a Defense Advocacy Working Group to improve communication and coordination within the government — a move defense firms have found "encouraging," Nathan said.
"I'm anticipating we're going to see more evidence of that activity as we go forward, but we'll never see it optimized until we see a greater emphasis on defense cooperation, maybe under the next administration," Nathan said.
While doubtful anything gets done in the near-term, Rangel emphasized that is a major issue the defense industry will continue to lobby on.
"At least from where I sit, there is broad recognition that this system, this way of doing business, is very inefficient," he said. "Because it continues to be an instrument of US foreign policy. It's a very rusty, lengthy, frustrating process. So all that combined leads to broad recognition of a lot of room for improvement.
"It's not a Lockheed-specific issue but one broadly held in industry," Rangel added. "It's a competitiveness issue. There's a foreign policy/national security dimension to it, but there's also a simple competitiveness issue as we operate in the global marketplace."