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How to reform America’s military sales process

FILE – In this image provided by the U.S. Air Force, Airmen and civilians from the 436th Aerial Port Squadron palletize ammunition, weapons and other equipment bound for Ukraine during a foreign military sales mission at Dover Air Force Base, Del., on Jan. 21, 2022. The longer Ukraine’s army fends off the invading Russians, the more it absorbs the advantages of Western weaponry and training. Military experts say that’s exactly the transformation President Vladimir Putin wanted to prevent by invading Ukraine in the first place. (Mauricio Campino/U.S. Air Force via AP)

Last month, the Pentagon announced the creation of a new task force to streamline inefficiencies long complicating U.S. sales of billions of dollars of weaponry to foreign countries. Alas, many of us who have worked in foreign military sales (“FMS”) for decades are skeptical as to what change is possible. The first red flag is that this is a Defense Department-led task force focused on transforming a State Department program. Tangible transformation will only be accomplished via interagency effort, in partnership with Congress. 

Efforts to improve America’s FMS program extend back decades. In 1998, the Clinton administration pledged to cut much of the red tape entangling the FMS process. This marked the first launch of an FMS transformation task force—which resulted largely only in an agency name change and a controversial “Administrative fee reduction.” In 2013, once again the DoD announced an effort to streamline FMS—only to admit in 2016, that the program saw little improvement. 

So, why have we failed over two decades to address the fundamental complaint that the FMS process simply takes too long? Early in the first presidential term of Barack Obama, the National Security Council signed a letter to then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates directing the Department to improve the FMS process. The secretary’s assessment was that as the DoD only executes what is a State Department program, to actually achieve true FMS reform, a task force must be led by the NSC, as issues of concern cut across the entire interagency. Although the NSC agreed, such a task force never materialized, the State Department never embraced a reform effort, and DoD once again was forced to formulate solutions.  

So why does the FMS process take so long? Look at the data, and one learns that the two long poles in the FMS process timeline are congressional notifications and contract award. State Department legislation governing the FMS process mandates that for major sales, State must formally secure congressional approval of the sale prior to proceeding. Congress itself long ago established an informal notification process whereby State must informally discuss a potential major foreign sale with congressional committees prior to a formal notification. The informal notification process can take months and, in some cases, years. In her first year as secretary of State, Hillary Clinton formally challenged congressional committees on the appropriateness of the informal congressional notification, demanding relief from the process.  Congress made it clear that there would be no relief from the informal process and that if the administration did not comply, they would pass legislation formalizing the informal review. 

Once the administration has an actionable FMS request from a foreign government which has secured congressional approval, a foreign government can sign the agreement which legally allows the DoD to contract with U.S. industry. Here lies the second long pole in the FMS timeline. On average, a DoD contract to implement an FMS program takes 18 months to be completed. Why so long? For almost two decades, the DoD contracting community has been understaffed annually by about 20 percent. And quite simply, most FMS contracts are not a priority within DoD.   

Once on contract, U.S. industry is authorized to begin production.  Earlier this year, the Pentagon met with Defense Industrial Base (DIB) executives to discuss the urgent need to increase production to restock U.S. and allied assets transferred to Ukraine, and to provide NATO allies with new U.S. capability. These three objectives alone are stressing the DIB, and do not include FMS requirements beyond NATO. So even if the administration could shorten the congressional notification process and greatly reduce the time it takes to award a contract, the Pentagon is still facing supply chain and industrial base challenges, as well as declining government investment, all compounded by continuing resolutions and an increasingly inefficient annual defense appropriation cycle. 

The DoD can start by developing a standalone, rapid contracting process for FMS programs implemented with foreign national funds. It can deepen the partnership with DIB executives to better understand their challenges with ramping up production, how best to smooth the peaks and valleys in DoD requirements, and assess Buy America mandates. Finally, DoD must ask the NSC to make good on leading a task force to improve the FMS process, as recommended by Secretary Gates years ago. True FMS transformation is a task for the interagency, in partnership with Congress. Absent a unified approach, true FMS transformation will remain elusive.   

Keith Webster is President of Defense and Aerospace Council at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. 

Tags Defense Industrial Base FMS process foreign military sales

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