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The current conflict in Ukraine has demonstrated how strengthening alliances and attracting new partners, a central part of the current Department of Defense (DoD) National Defense Strategy, is one of the most important ways the United States can keep our citizens safe.
As part of this broader effort, the DoD has prioritized foreign military sales to ensure our allies and partners have the tools that they need to defend our common interests. Improved policies and practices have lowered costs and introduced competitive financing opportunities which have been yielding results. In fiscal year 2019, the DoD maintained sales of more than $55 billion for the second consecutive year, increasing the three-year rolling average for sales by 16 percent. Additionally, the DoD improved the time it takes to respond to partner nation requests by 17%.
Close coordination with allies and partners on large procurement programs will be key to expand upon this success. By leveraging the expertise and buying power of several member countries, allies and partner nations will realize economies of scale to keep down costs and may use offset agreements to ensure a secure supply chain for our warfighting equipment bolstered by our allies and partners for years to come.
Unfortunately, the United States could undermine significant progress it has made on this front if it makes the radical changes currently under consideration for one it its largest defense procurement programs, the F-35.
Operated from 21 bases worldwide with more than 655 in service, the F-35 was founded by nine ally and partner nations and has expanded to six additional foreign sales customers who are also procuring and operating the fighter jet. Production on the plane first began in 2006 and various updates and upgrades have been undertaken in coordination with our allies and partners, since then. Given these changes, planned aircraft growth will now exceed the thrust as well as the power and thermal management (PTMS) capabilities of the aircraft’s F135 engine by the end of the decade, warranting what may be the biggest update to the aircraft to date.
While the most cost effective and seamless solution would be to update and upgrade the F135 with a propulsion upgrade, some in Washington have instead proposed restarting the Adaptive Engine Transition Program (AETP) and creating an entirely new engine for the F-35 from scratch. This would not only require the expenditure of billions of extra dollars on this AETP program that is already behind schedule and over budget, but it would also require an entirely new supply chain and could break the commonality that is a hallmark of the F-35 program. This AETP modification would also make the aircraft less interoperable.
As the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs, I was involved in defense cooperation programs with our allies and partners in the U.S. Northern and Southern Command areas of operations (AOR), one of whom is considering the purchase of F-35s. Engaging in close coordination with our allies and partners taught me that America must consider their viewpoints, especially when it comes to a program like the F-35 where they have made contributions and commitments along the way.
The Air Force would likely be the only American military branch to use the AETP, as the engine is not compatible with the F-35 STOVL variant used by Marine Corps and the Navy does not have the budget to retrofit their carriers to support a different engine on their F-35C variant. Allies and partner nations may have similar reservations because as F-35 Program Executive Officer Lt. Gen Eric T. Fick has pointed out, it would be unfair to have the “Navy, Marine Corps, and [international] partners all footing part of the bill” to integrate an engine in the F-35 that only the Air Force can use. This is a reality that Air Force Secretary, Frank Kendall should be reminded of as overall costs continue to rise and supply chains remain heavily impacted by COVID still.
Continued and expanded participation by international partners in procurement programs has increased U.S. competitiveness and improved interoperability, ultimately enhancing our national security. Policymakers should keep this in mind and be sure to consider the viewpoints of our allies and partners as they look to expand programs such as the F-35 Joint Program Office as a hedge against increasing threats abroad. In a rapidly changing world, the United States must be prepared to defend our interests against foreign adversaries such China and Russia. But we can't do it alone.
Sergio de la Peña is a retired U.S. Army Officer and the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs
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