The U.S. government must develop a more deliberative and responsive foreign military sales (FMS) process to ensure allies continue to buy U.S. equipment instead of opting for Russian- or Chinese-made gear, the U.S. Central Command commander said Feb. 5.

As the U.S. military continues to rely on the support of its coalition partners for its missions spanning the CENTCOM area of responsibility, the current FMS process may push allies from investing in joint equipment, limiting interoperability and encouraging peer adversaries to compete for weapons customers, Army Gen. Joseph Votel said at a Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) hearing Tuesday morning on Capitol Hill.

Senior Airman Michael Van Deusen, 455th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron quick reaction force, gets out of a mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicle, Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, Sept. 27, 2016. Freedom’s Sentinel, the follow-on to Enduring Freedom, is the continuing U.S. effort to train, advise and assist Afghan security forces as well as conduct counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Justyn M. Freeman)

“Our foreign military funding process must be a deliberative one,” Votel said. “I am concerned that the process is lengthy and it’s not as responsive as our partners require it on the ground.”

Votel, who is scheduled to retire next month, said efforts can be made at the level of the Defense Department, the State Department and Congress to make the FMS process more responsive to the needs of U.S. coalition members.

Otherwise, they risk turning to Russia or China for future advanced weapons sales, which affects interoperability and other areas of partnership between the U.S. military and its allies, he noted.

Foreign military sales are a critical component of U.S. CENTCOM’s strategic operations in the region, Votel said in written testimony provided to SASC members. He noted that Qatar is the second largest FMS customer in the world, with $26 billion in new cases. The Gulf state is on track to surpass $40 billion in the next five years with future FMS purchases. Other Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have long invested in U.S. equipment to boost their militaries.

Other regional partners such as Oman are increasing their foreign military equipment investments, Votel added in his testimony – the country has committed over $2.7 billion to procuring U.S. military equipment already.

He added during the hearing that the U.S. government should work to be honest with its potential customers about whether it will agree to sell equipment or not.

“It’s always better to give them a yes or a no answer than it is to string them along. … That leads to more frustration from our partners and does cause them to go to others” for weapons and equipment, he added.

The U.S. government must also ensure that partners will be able to maintain the equipment they buy over time, Votel noted. “We should try to steer them away from just buying things that they … can’t sustain and can’t man long-term,” he said.

SASC Members Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Doug Jones (D-Ala.) asked for an explanation regarding a recent CNN report that stated equipment including mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles and artillery sold by the U.S. government to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has ended up in the hands of al-Qaida-backed rebels in Yemen, many of whom are fighting with the two Gulf states in the proxy war against Iran.

The U.S. military has not authorized its Saudi or UAE partners to transfer equipment to other parties on the ground in Yemen, Votel confirmed. “When we do provide equipment … the recipients do have to agree to certain stipulations on the use of those” weapons, he added. The Departments of State and Defense have monitoring and enforcement mechanisms that help ensure that the Pentagon knows where its sold equipment resides.

“In this particular situation, I know what happened,” Votel added. He likened the event to previous instances where U.S. and coalition forces were overrun by adversaries in Iraq, and had their equipment “lost in the course of a fight [and] end up in the hands of our adversaries out there.”

The U.S. military should better examine how to prevent those sorts of instances from occurring, he added.

“In terms of ensuring proper end use … we absolutely get that and emphasize that with our partners all the time,” he said.