WASHINGTON ― Congress is ratcheting up legislative efforts to accelerate the lengthy U.S. Foreign Military Sales process mere weeks after the Pentagon released a series of its own proposals to help untangle the byzantine system.
Both chambers last week advanced their respective defense policy bills with provisions lawmakers hope will speed up arms sales, and the House this week established a bipartisan task force to zero in on the issue.
“It is vital that when we make a deal with our partners and allies to send military systems that we provide them as quickly as possible,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Mike McCaul, R-Texas, said in a statement on Tuesday upon announcing the task force. “I look forward to moving forward any legislation that comes from the task force within my committee’s jurisdiction.”
Numerous U.S. allies and security partners have complained about delays in foreign military sales in recent years, including a multibillion-dollar backlog of arms sales to Taiwan. After the State Department reviews and approves a sale, the Pentagon leads what can be a monthslong or even yearslong process of signing a final contract with the manufacturer to produce the weapon for delivery.
“Once the sale is approved, there’s nobody in [the Defense Department] that then rides herd on the contract to actually get it done,” Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., told Defense News in an April interview.
Gallagher, who chairs the Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, said the Foreign Military Sales, or FMS, process “exists in this weird no-man’s land” between the Pentagon and State Department. An overlapping jurisdiction has sometimes complicated congressional oversight between the committees overseeing each department.
But McCaul’s tiger task force — a term that stands for technical, industrial and governmental engagement for readiness — includes lawmakers who sit on both the Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committees.
McCaul tapped Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla., who sits on both committees, to lead the task force alongside Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., a member of the Armed Services Committee. Foreign Affairs Committee members Reps. French Hill, R-Ark., and Jason Crow, D-Colo., also sit on the task force alongside defense appropriator Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif.
Waltz in a statement vowed that the task force would “examine why many of these shipments have been delayed or have seen increased costs, putting the security of some of our most critical allies at risk, and implement legislative solutions to streamline these sales.”
A separate Pentagon tiger team examining foreign military sales released six of its own proposals earlier this month to speed up the process. They included the establishment of a Defense Security Cooperation Service to better liaise with foreign customers, streamline technology release reviews, develop processes to facilitate sales for weapons the U.S. no longer purchases itself, and accelerate the Pentagon’s acquisition of items sought by its security partners.
To help cut down on acquisition time, the Pentagon said it would increase use of the Special Defense Acquisition Fund, a revolving account the department uses for FMS procurement.
The Senate’s fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act, which the chamber’s Armed Services Committee advanced 24-1 last week, would create a special account within the Special Defense Acquisition Fund.
The proposed account, called the Foreign Advance Acquisition Account, would allow the Pentagon to receive contributions from NATO members and Australia to procure the weapons they buy faster.
The Senate bill would also strengthen the role of combatant commanders in the arms sale process, authorizing each of them to hire up to two acquisition specialists to advise on foreign military sales. It would also require each combatant command to provide a list of weapons systems that could be exported to friendly countries within their region.
McCaul noted last year that Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the former head of U.S. Central Command overseeing forces in the Greater Middle East, informed him of several Gulf countries complaining about a backlogged delivery of weapons systems they had purchased.
Sasha Baker, the deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, said while unveiling the Pentagon’s proposals that combatant commanders receive the most feedback about the arms sale process from U.S. security partners. However, she acknowledged their input can take a while to travel back to Washington. Accordingly, the Pentagon has started a monthly meeting on foreign military sales with combatant commanders to receive feedback on specific cases.
The Senate bill would also require the Pentagon to collaborate more closely with weapons manufacturers on arms sales by requiring it to designate points of contact for the Foreign Military Sales process, create a senior-level advisory group with industry and hold an annual industry day.
It also seeks to improve training and education for Defense Department officials involved in the arms sale process.
The House’s FY24 NDAA draft would require a review of staffing needs to implement FMS and technology disclosure reviews for Australia and the U.K. as part of the trilateral AUKUS agreement. Gallagher successfully added the amendment when the House Armed Services Committee advanced its bill 58-1 last week.
The bill also includes an amendment from Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., that would require the Pentagon to report to Congress on FMS contracts that have yet to be delivered to Indo-Pacific customers, including “Australia, Japan and other key allies and partners.”
The Pentagon has also established a second tiger team to address the Taiwan arms sale backlog, though that panel has yet to formally release recommendations.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.