WASHINGTON -- The Air Force plans to increase training and hire more personnel in an attempt to speed up delivery of weapon systems to foreign customers, the service's top official announced Wednesday. 

Speaking in New York, service secretary Deborah Lee James said her hope is that tweaks to the way the Air Force handles Foreign Military Sales (FMS) programs can help get weapons in the hands of allies more quickly. 

"Bottom line: we're going to go faster to ink the deal," James said in prepared remarks from her speech.

James first expressed concerns about the speed of the FMS process – one often echoed by industry – upon returning from last November's Dubai Air Show. As a result of complaints from Gulf partners, she pledged to change how the service worked with foreign customers to alleviate choke points in the process.

However, the question was what, exactly, James could control in the process. After all, FMS agreements are governed by specific offices within State and DoD, and not by the Air Force.

The answer for James, it seems, is to focus on internal processes with a goal of cutting down the bureaucratic lag between when a country makes a requirement and when the Air Force has to deliver on it, with a focus on three offices – the Air Force’s International Affairs team (SAF/IA) and its acquisition office (SAF/AQ), as well as the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center (AFLCMC).

It starts with training. SAF/IA will establish a Service-specific oversight program to select and educate a group of Security Cooperation Officers, making them experts on how FMS needs to be planned out. AFLCMC, meanwhile will work with two government training organizations -- the Institute of Security Cooperation Studies and Defense Acquisition University -- to establish an FMS Process Training Program for not just the Air Force, but industry partners as well.

"The biggest hurdle on the Air Force side has been working with foreign buyers to define their requirements and getting the acquisition deal signed," James said in her speech. "To start to work on this, we will establish a new and more extensive training program to prepare our Security Cooperation Officers more fully before going overseas. In so doing, we hope to help them do a better job of working with our partners up front on defining requirements. This should reduce the amount of back-and-forth between the foreign government and the US before the LOR is signed."

The service will also "over hire" in fiscal years 2017 and 2018 on staffers for SAF/IA, with the goal of making those permanent positions under the FY19 budget, the service said.

The three offices will be required to achieve a 10% reduction from the current time between when a country submits a Letter of Request for a piece of equipment and when the Air Force can respond with a Letter of Offer and Acceptance for "Category C" FMS cases. It’s not clear from language put forth from the Air Force how, exactly, that reduction would be completed.

"The most complex cases -- think F-15s and C-17s -- were taking the longest, facing logjams from one source or another," James explained. "To improve here, we will put more attention on these cases from senior leaders to hopefully help move the ball forward. Specifically, I challenged our acquisitions team to achieve a 10% timeline reduction on these cases by the end of 2017.  This adds up to about a month of savings from the time we initially receive a partner's request for a complex system to the time we can provide them a valid Letter of Offer and Acceptance to purchase it."

In addition, all three offices will meet semi-annually in order to review the process. Underlining that James wants to move fast on this issue, SAF/IA and SAF/AQ are required to deliver an implementation progress report by Oct 1.

The speed of FMS agreements has become an issue both inside the Pentagon and on the Hill, but aside from smaller, internal changes such as those put forth from James, there does not appear to be the bandwidth for the current Congress to make changes before the end of the Obama administration.

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.

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