- Barrie Barber Staff Writer
Foreign military sales through the Air Force Security Assistance and Cooperation Directorate more than tripled in the past year, soaring to $27.5 billion.
The biggest deal was a $13.4 billion sale to Qatar, which purchased 36 F-15QAs and weapons to arm the jets for future delivery, according to the Wright-Patterson headquartered directorate.
That sale of the front-line combat jets to the Persian Gulf nation, along with increased demand for munitions to foreign countries, more than tripled the $8.1 billion in sales the directorate reported in 2016, figures show.
“It’s a pretty big deal,” said Brig. Gen. Gregory M. Gutterman, director of AFSAC, who predicted strong international sales in the future of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the Boeing KC-46 aerial refueling tanker.
Overall, the U.S. recorded foreign military sales of $41.9 billion in fiscal year 2017, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency reported, a sharp rise from the $33.6 billion the prior year.
For AFSAC handled sales, only fiscal year 2012 had a higher total – at $43.5 billion – driven by Saudi Arabia’s purchase of 84 F-15SAs.
The Wright-Patterson agency has an “undelivered value” of more than $170 billion in aircraft, weapons and support services to be delivered in future years, he said. The directorate has agreements with more than 100 nations.
‘Take a look around the globe’
A resurgent Russia, saber rattling over North Korea nuclear threats, and ongoing conflict in the Middle East were among drivers pushing sales upward, officials said.
“You just take a look around the globe … and I think everybody is kind of looking around saying, ‘I think I better be ready,’” Gutterman said.
Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace expert at the Virginia-based Teal Group, said in an email the Mideast weapons market “is as hot as ever, despite relatively low oil prices.”
“Regional tensions, ongoing military operations, and local political power aspirations have been driving strong growth for about five years now,” he said.
However, the Qatar purchase has been “controversial” because of its “relatively good relations with Iran, and the resulting annoyance in the (United Arab Emirates) and Saudi Arabia,” Aboulafia added. Qatar also placed orders for European-produced fighter jets, he noted.
Foreign demand for fighter jets
The Qatar F-15 sale — scaled back from $21.1 billion announced a year ago for 72 F-15s, weapons to arm the jets, and ongoing support and training — added 47 jobs at the directorate, of which 32 were at Wright-Patterson and the rest at locations in Florida and Massachusetts, said Marc Mazza, AFSAC chief of the operations division. AFSAC has more than 600 employees at the Miami Valley base.
“The U.S. Air Force plays a big role in the operations in the Middle East, but there are a number of coalition partners, all countries that we have relationships with here at AFSAC, that contribute to those operations,” Mazza said.
Adding to the total sales in fiscal year 2017 were F-35 fighter jet deals announced previously but paid over a number of years. AFSAC recorded $2 billion as part of multi-year $7.8 billion deal for 50 F-35s reached with Israel; and $1 billion that was part of the $5.3 billion sale of 28 the stealth fighter planes to Japan, Mazza said.
Munitions sales rose about 300 percent in 2015-16 and have stabilized at a “new normal,” Gutterman said.
“In fact, it’s put a lot of stress on our manufacturers out there, not only to be able to meet the demand international(ly), but internal to the United States Air Force,” he said.
Along with aircraft, the agency handles the sale of missiles and spare parts, the construction of airfields, and support such as training.
Reacting to complaints of foreign buyers, AFSAC has been under a directive from Air Force leaders to shorten the time it takes to handle requests for sales.
From start to finish, it typically takes more than four years from an order to purchase a jet to delivery, Gutterman said.
The timeline for all cases from the time a request is received to its acceptance has dropped from nearly 151 days in fiscal year 2013 to 88.5 days in fiscal year 2017, which ended Sept. 30, according to Gutterman.
In more complex cases with the sale of big ticket items — such as the purchase of an F-16 fighter jet — the timeline is longer, but has dropped, officials said.
When all complex cases handled were counted, the received-to-acceptance timeline dropped from about 228 days in fiscal year 2016 to less than 203 days in the most recent numbers for 2017, Mazza said.
Often, he said, a customer may change the requirements in an order, which can lengthen response times.
Gutterman, who expects to remain director through July, said his tenure has lasted longer than other AFSAC directors and bought time to put in place plans to reduce wait times.
“Three years is important because it helps us kind of inculcate or make the way we’re doing business stay part of our new DNA, part of the gist of the way we do business,” he said.
Several bodies, agencies and departments including Congress, the U.S. State Department, and the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, all have a say in the sale of foreign arms to other countries, which influences how long the process takes, he said.
“That waiting was really something that was frustrating so we really looked at how do we increase and improve on our span of influence,” he said.
One way it attempted to increase accountability was to urge each agency with a say in the approval to commit to a time to respond, he said.
“That unity of purpose … has really amped up on one simple tool,” Gutterman said.
AFSAC also has recognized employee efforts to reduce wait times, he said.