WASHINGTON — Warnings from top representatives of the US defense industry that the foreign military sales process needs an efficiency upgrade faced scrutiny and skepticism on Capitol Hill on Wednesday from a top Democrat of the House Armed Services Committee.
The Defense Security Cooperation Agency's director, Vice Adm. Joseph Rixey, is expected to testify before the HASC's oversight and investigations subcommittee next week, the last in a series of three hearings meant as an in-depth look at FMS. The HASC overall took a modest approach to foreign military sales reform in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act it approved late last month, chiefly asking the Government Accountability Office study the process and report back.
Testifying before the sub-panel on Wednesday, National Defense Industrial Association senior fellow Tom Davis and the Aerospace Industrial Association's vice president for international affairs Remy Nathan both called for a streamlined approvals process in the face of foreign competition.
Pointing to "unacceptable delays" of undefinitized contract actions, some of more than 1,000 days, the AIA sought and got legislative language in the 2017 defense policy bill requiring contracting officers to definitize FMS contracts within 180 days. AIA is also seeking more flexibility in the type of contracts available to partner nations.
"Industry is not simply looking for reforms that will change 'no' to 'yes' during reviews of potential defense exports," Nathan said. "If the answer is 'no,' we're OK with that, but let it be a quick and early 'no' with industry consultation to develop proposals that meet our partners' needs and advance national security objectives. Let's also have a sense of urgency for the 'yes' calls, so a potential partner turns to the US first, and not countries like Russia and China, which are turning to defense exports to advance their own geopolitical agendas."
But when Rep. Jackie Speier, the sub-panel's ranking member, pressed the two for specific cases of countries fleeing US red tape for offerings elsewhere, Speier expressed dissatisfaction with their answers. Speier, while acknowledging the importance of the FMS process and making it more efficient, defended its deliberative nature.
"We've heard many complaints about the slowness of the FMS program. Yet, we must not forget that it is an instrument of US foreign policy," the California Democrat said. "That means we must ensure the weapons systems and services we sell to foreign countries are used appropriately, responsibly and are in our best interests. Although that may delay the process, it's a policy we can't lose sight of."
Seeking to unpack the received wisdom that allies are fleeing to foreign competitors, Speier asked for an example. "I don't agree with you on that, because I think they like the equipment, the US manufactures," she said
Davis agreed, but cited potential competition from Russia's upgraded ground equipment and — amid stalled US fighter jet sales to Qatar and Kuwait — the Eurofighter Typhoon, designed and manufactured by the consortium of Alenia Aermacchi, Airbus Group and BAE Systems, "an obvious alternative that is being pushed rather hard," Davis said.
Nathan cited Turkey's flirtation with a Chinese-built missile defense system and Middle East buyers eyeing China at the last Dubai Airshow.
"One of our Middle Eastern partners said they face a choice: They can buy a US system or a comparable Chinese system," Nathan said. "They conceded that eight of those wouldn't work, but they would still have two, and they would get it faster from the Chinese."
When Speier wanted to know whether China won the business in the end, Nathan said the sale was ongoing. Nathan cited a further anecdote, but when Speier asked the name of the company involved, Nathan said he would have to follow up later.
"I've got to tell you, I'm not interested in anecdotes where we can't even then go to the company and find out specifically what the issue is," Speier said.
Nathan and Davis received more support from other members of the panel, including the sub-panel's chairwoman, Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo. She said she favors FMS streamlining efforts, as "bureaucratic red tape" could drive allies to competitors, weakening the US — specifically its security cooperation efforts and defense industrial base.
"It is vital to provide the opportunity for our allies to acquire military equipment and services to bolster their security needs," Hartzler said. "It's also important to note the benefits the United States realizes from our allies' collective safety, especially as threats to democracy and freedom expand."
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.