WASHINGTON — Pentagon leaders working to revamp the U.S. process of selling arms around the globe are balancing the need to quickly close deals with that of protecting secrets about weapons’ inner workings, a senior official said.
The push to flush more American weaponry into the world market follows an increased appetite by governments to up-arm, Jed Royal, deputy director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, said at the Defense News Conference on Wednesday.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s establishment of a “Tiger Team,” or task force, for streamlining the Foreign Military Sales mechanic — a rulebook for selling U.S. weapons abroad that includes congressional approval for each case — was meant to harness the speed and urgency of U.S. efforts to equip Ukraine, according to Pentagon policy chief Colin Kahl. Kahl called it one of Austin’s top priorities.
“Our process is too slow,” Kahl said separately at the conference. “One of the things that I think we’ve demonstrated with Ukraine is that when we really lean in, we can defy the laws of bureaucratic physics. I mean, if you had told me eight months ago that we would have delivered nearly $13 billion of security assistance to Ukraine, I would have told you that’s crazy.”
Kahl stressed the comparison between Ukraine aid and foreign military sales is not perfect because the U.S. is drawing much of the materiel for Kyiv from existing Pentagon stockpiles.
Chief Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder confirmed the move on Sept. 6, saying the analysis was “exploring a wide range of immediate and systemic areas for reform of Department of Defense processes, platforms and regional perspectives to improve our ability to work with allies and partners.” The effort was first reported last week by the Wall Street Journal.
Ryder said the initiative is not aimed at a particular region, but Pentagon acquisitions chief Bill LaPlante, one of the Tiger Team’s key figures, told conference attendees the effort is focused on Taiwan.
The Pentagon has long supported the island nation, which China claims as its own, with weapons to defend itself should Beijing decide to invade.
The Tiger Team was formed in August, in response to requests from U.S. combatant commanders and ambassadors, to evaluate the process of executing Foreign Military Sales cases from end to end. It’s co-led by Kahl’s policy office and LaPlante’s acquisition and sustainment office.
According to Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Herndon, the team “may look at how to conduct better predictive analysis and strategic forecasting of partner demands to provide a more robust signal to industry; or examine ways to evaluate and expand the use of existing data and metrics to measure performance of the FMS case life cycles; or review case development, contracting and acquisition timelines to determine areas for process and policy improvements.”
While much of the FMS revamp is still playing out behind closed doors, Royal said one of the sticking points has been finding ways to inject tech protection considerations into the process without holding things up.
“Our allies and partners are demanding increasingly sophisticated equipment — and they should. We need to make sure that U.S. technology that needs to be protected is protected through that process,” he said.
Whereas such evaluations now typically happen midway through a sales case, beginning them sooner could move the whole process along faster, Royal said.
U.S. weapons designed for export from the beginning, like the F-35 fighter jet, have a leg up, according to LaPlante. That fact, along with a hot production line at manufacturer Lockheed Martin, has made it easy to fit the aircraft’s recent sale to Finland of 64 planes into U.S. production plans, he explained.
The Pentagon signed a handshake deal earlier this summer with Lockheed for production lots 15 through 17, encompassing roughly 375 planes, which includes the Finnish order. That schedule would see the aircraft rolling off the production line within a mere two years, LaPlante added, quipping: “I don’t think the Finns are going to be ready for the airplanes.”
The sales process can take longer when foreign governments order heavily customized weapons, which requires extra analysis on protecting technological secrets.
“We should probably not allow people to customize their FMS order explicitly,” LaPlante said.
Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News. He is based in Cologne, Germany.
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.