Middle Eastern allies and partners are “desperate” to buy U.S.-made weapons and military equipment, but U.S. restrictions on foreign military sales (FMS) could leave countries like the United Arab Emirates dependent on buying Chinese imitations, the Air Force’s head of acquisition said Friday.

William LaPlante
William LaPlante, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition

The services need congressional help to ease FMS regulations and speed up the pace of international sales, William A. LaPlante, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, said during a Lexington Institute event about acquisition reform.

LaPlante, who recently returned from the Dubai Airshow, said he spoke with foreign military officials who were eager to purchase equipment from the United States, but lamented that the weapons-buying process is so slow. For instance, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen, and want to buy munitions and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance equipment such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), he said.

“We need to do something about it. And it’s urgent,” he said. “Guess who is over there, selling stuff? Oh, I don’t know, a place called China. Guess how many UAVs China is selling them? Do you think China as an interagency process like us to buy UAVs?”

In recent years, the United States has eased restrictions on UAV exports, but sales of armed drones are still forbidden. China has no such restrictions, LaPlante noted.

The United States benefits from a long history of military cooperation with countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait, which includes not only arms sales, but sustainment and training. However, it doesn’t matter whether U.S.-made equipment is better than the Chinese product if it doesn’t have a chance to compete, he said.

“Our partners are saying, ‘Well, you know what? At least if I buy that stuff, and it works a third of the time compared to your stuff, at least I have something,’” he said.

Making matters worse is the fact that many American platforms look the same as the Chinese copycat version.

“I should show you the pictures I took of some of the displays at Dubai of what I thought was an MQ-9,” LaPlante said, referring most likely to China’s Wing Loong developed by the Chengdu Aircraft Design Institute, which looks very similar to General Atomics’ Reaper. “It’s not an MQ-9, it just looks like one.”

International sales help drive down the cost of products and preserve the American industrial base, but there are also strategic reasons the military wants to tap overseas markets. The United States is increasingly fighting wars with allied and partner nations, and having interoperable equipment is seen as increasingly critical.

“We’ve got to ask ourselves what we want the Middle East to look like 10 years from now in terms of military capability. What capability do we want all our allies and partners to have?” “Do we want them to use Link 16? Yes…Do we want them to be flying Predators or MQ-9s or variants of that, as opposed to China’s? Yes.”

When asked how to solve the problem, LaPlante indicated that the process might benefit from White House leadership that could help coordinate foreign sales among the government agencies that are stakeholders: the Defense, Commerce and State Departments.

“We’re talking about a whole of government issue,” he said.