FMS…The Best Kept Secret in U.S. National Security

  • Published
  • By Brig. Gen. Brian R. Bruckbauer
  • Director, Air Force Security Assistance and Cooperation Directorate
WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- Reflecting on my 29-year military career, I’ve been privileged to gain exposure to the world of Foreign Military Sales (FMS). A lot of people get little to no exposure to FMS and consequently don’t fully understand why FMS matters. The U.S. FMS program can be a complicated and often misunderstood topic. The program is very unique compared to other U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) programs.

As a captain, I served as a desk officer for multiple countries in a 6-month internship with the Joint Staff J-5. At that time many Eastern European countries were seeking North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) membership, and I had the honor of assisting Slovakia and Slovenia with their NATO Membership Action Plans (MAP). A key component of the MAP was a commitment to improvements in military capabilities and interoperability with other NATO countries. FMS makes interoperability possible.
The multinational Baltic Trident 2021 exercise is a good example of interoperability between the U.S. and its NATO partners made possible through FMS. NATO members Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, the United Kingdom and Finland are U.S. FMS partners and participated in the interoperability exercise with each other and the U.S.

When I was a Major, I was assigned to U.S. European Combatant Command (EUCOM) J-5 as a Country Desk Officer for multiple countries and ended the assignment as the Command’s head of Theater Security Cooperation. A significant portion of this job focused on assisting European countries achieve their security goals through the use of FMS.

As a Colonel, I was privileged to be selected as the Senior Military Assistant to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. I was an advisor on national security and policy matters. I also assisted with the Department of State and Congress coordination where FMS was used as an important diplomatic instrument to strengthen U.S alliances and attract new partners.

And now, as a General Officer in charge of AFSAC and leading the development of over 3,600 FMS cases with 116 countries, I can tell you that the U.S. is the partner of choice in the world. The rest of this commentary describes four important reasons why FMS matters.

A Direct Link to U.S. National Defense Strategy

FMS is one of the best tools for strengthening relationships and building trust between the U.S. and its allies. When a U.S. international ally requests a purchase of a U.S. weapon system, a long-term relationship forms around common national security interests for the U.S. and the partner nation. These relationships are fundamental to strengthening partnerships between countries and building global coalitions.

Similar to my role as a desk officer, there are civilians and officers within the Air Force Security Assistance and Cooperation Directorate (AFSAC) assigned to a specific country. These individuals learn the country’s culture, build relationships with foreign nationals, and identify goals of the country that align with goals of the U.S. national defense strategy.  I cannot understate the importance of understanding culture and building relationships—cornerstones of our AFMC FMS program and in my mind a key differentiator performed by the AFSAC workforce.

In June 2021, service members from the Koku-Jietai (Japan Air Self-Defense Force) and Republic of Korea Air Force joined forces with the U.S. for Red Flag-Alaska 21, a multinational interoperability exercise between the U.S. and its FMS partner nations. Many of the interoperable capabilities demonstrated in this exercise are made possible through U.S. arms sales cases with partner nations developed through FMS.

An Important Tool for Foreign Policy

When the U.S. and another country operate seamlessly with their military forces, the two governments can also engage in dialogue about accomplishing common objectives in a particular region of the world. These objectives can range from regional security interests to human rights concerns and disaster/humanitarian relief.
Plus, U.S. FMS is a “connector” between the U.S. Department of State (DoS) and Department of Defense (DoD):
  • DoS determines exportability of U.S. weapon systems and what each partner nation can receive.
  • DoD executes FMS programs following a cradle-to-grave “total package approach” to ensure all aspects of a system sale are covered so the partner can successfully train, operate, and sustain its aircraft and other weapon systems.
Determining exportability and which capabilities the U.S. can provide on a country-to-country basis is a fundamental aspect of FMS and foreign policy.
When a partner nation purchases a U.S. weapon system, U.S. military forces and the partner nation can establish military interoperability with each other. Military interoperability is very important for foreign policy. I saw this interoperability firsthand as a major.

We would work together on training and exercises, National Guard state partnership programs, as well as reviewing the countries’ goals for identifying how the U.S. can help each country while also supporting the U.S. national defense strategy.

The fact that a country has a partnership with the U.S. also has a deterrent value. If deterrence fails, FMS provides countries with the capabilities to defend themselves, ultimately reducing the burden of deploying troops overseas. If the conflict escalates, FMS sets the stage for the partner nation and the U.S. to be interoperable with each other in coalition operations.

A Driver of Economic Growth

U.S. FMS creates jobs for the U.S. defense industrial base, U.S. economy, and global economy. Up to one million people work in jobs related to FMS.
The U.S. government uses defense contractors – American companies – to develop, produce, and deliver U.S. defense products. FMS work grows the demand for U.S. defense contractors beyond just the U.S. military to include 100+ U.S. international partners and NATO agencies.

Plus, even when the U.S. military stops purchasing a weapon system, FMS partners typically continue using the system creating demand for the defense contractor to keep the service line open.

A good example is the F-16 aircraft. The United States Air Force (USAF) purchased its last F-16 in 2005. However, U.S. international partners continue to purchase the F-16, keeping the U.S. defense industrial base service lines for the F-16 open. In fact, the USAF and F-16 defense contractor Lockheed Martin recently teamed up to open a new production line to build the most advanced version of the aircraft—the F-16 Block 70/72 fighter aircraft for our FMS partners.

From a readiness perspective, FMS work keeps the U.S. defense industrial base viable to ramp up production during future conflicts. If the U.S. would suddenly and unexpectedly go to war, then production of military equipment will need to increase output significantly. If production lines remain open for FMS, then it’s easier to transition an active line versus starting an inactive line.

The global economy also benefits from U.S. FMS. During the development and execution of an FMS case for a partner nation, there is often a lot of in-country work to do. The U.S. government uses local contractors to do the work which spurs the local economy in the country. Multiply that by 116 partners, and you see economic growth worldwide.

Providing options for U.S. Warfighters not just FMS partners

The continued innovation prompted by FMS requests can often benefit the USAF in unexpected ways. A case in point is the F-15 which the USAF stopped purchasing in 2001. However, interest from FMS partners prompted Boeing to continue updating the aircraft to include fly-by-wire systems, new radars, digital cockpit, and many other improvements. The development of the platform wouldn’t have happened without FMS cases which drove the improvements and advancements. Most importantly, those and other cases kept the production lines open and busy.

That’s why when the USAF was looking for options to replace aging F-15C fighters, the modernized F-15EX was an available and viable option. Additionally, one of the byproducts of an FMS case to upgrade existing F-15 aircraft was a large quantity of surplus F-15 wings that were cost-effectively acquired to be used on older USAF F-15E Strike Eagles. It’s just one more benefit to active FMS cases.

It is important to remember U.S. FMS is more than just exporting weapon capabilities to foreign governments. It’s the best kept secret in U.S. national security and plays a significant role in foreign policy, deterrence, national defense, economic progress, and innovation.

In essence, it is the AFSAC mission: Deliver airpower capabilities to strengthen international partnerships and advance national security.