WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The government’s increased advocacy of weapons makers has helped boost foreign military sales to a record level this year, a top U.S. State Department official said, citing his hope for billions of dollars of additional arms sales to India and other countries in coming years.
“We’ve really upped our game in terms of advocating on behalf of U.S. companies,” Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro told a defense writers group on Friday, adding with a laugh, “I’ve got the frequent-flyer miles to prove it.”
Shapiro said the increased focus on foreign arms sales, and the Obama administration’s effort to simplify complex export controls, were particularly important given the increasingly competitive global defense market.
“When countries think it’s important to you, they pay more attention and I think it’s starting to pay off,” said Shapiro, who has traveled to 11 countries so far this year. He noted that arms sales for fiscal 2012 were already at a record level in the third quarter of the year.
The government has become increasingly concerned about pumping up arms sales to India, countries in the Middle East and Asia, as its own defense spending levels decline. The government argues that such sales will help strengthen ties with allies and make it easier to fight future wars together.
U.S. arms makers cited growing demand from the Middle East, Asia and other regions for weapons at the Farnborough International Airshow earlier this month.
Shapiro told the State Department’s Defense Trade Advisory Group on Thursday that arms sales had already surpassed $50 billion in fiscal 2012, and the year’s total would top last year’s total of $30 billion by at least 70 percent.
Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter also underscored the importance of defense trade during a 10-day tour of India, South Korea and other parts of Asia that ended this week.
Shapiro said efforts to advocate more actively for U.S. arms manufacturers and other companies were a key priority for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and senior officials were now expected to undertake such efforts on all trips abroad.
Their efforts were tracked on a monthly basis and specifics -- such as his meetings at the Singapore Air Show in February -- were then publicized throughout the department, he said.
Richard Genaille, deputy director of the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency, said in June that U.S. foreign military sales “likely will go to $60 billion” in fiscal 2012 ending September 30, but would return to the recent norm of about $30 billion in coming years.
The Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which brokers government-to-government arms sales, has taken a variety of steps to improve the foreign military sales process and drive down the cost of executing foreign military sales.
DSCA now invites industry executives to participate in quarterly meetings about the foreign military sales process, and has tried to increase transparency for potential foreign buyers.
Final decisions about whether to approve arms sales are made by the State Department, which has also taken steps to improve its consultative process with Congress, Shapiro said. For instance, its Directorate for Defense Trade Controls processed more than 83,000 licenses in 2011, the most ever.
This year’s arms sales total was buoyed by a record $29.4 billion sale to Saudi Arabia of up to 84 advanced Boeing Co F-15 fighter jets and a $10 billion sale to Japan of 42 Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft.
Shapiro said he had traveled to India twice, and saw “tremendous potential” for U.S. arms sales there, despite the Indian government’s abrupt decision last year to remove both Lockheed and Boeing from a multibillion-dollar fighter contest.
Shapiro -- who said he “hyperventilated for my country” during a flight in a Boeing F/A-18 at an Indian air show -- said New Delhi’s decision was disappointing, but other promising sales to India remained under consideration.
“We have billions of dollars of pending sales which we hope will be successful ... We are really trying to develop and encourage the further development of our defense trade relationship,” he said, noting that arms sales to India had increased from virtually zero to $8 billion since 2008.
He said he was encouraged that a $1.4 billion sale of Boeing Apache AH-64D helicopters to India, and an order for M77 howitzers, built by a U.S. unit of Britain’s BAE Systems Plc and valued at $650 million, would be successful.
Future sales to India of the F-35 fighter were also possible, he said, although he was quick to add that such a deal was “not on the table” at this point.
The United States had been “relatively forward-leaning in our willingness to share sensitive technologies with India,” he said, when asked if certain technologies remained off-limits.
The Pentagon and State Department were also strongly engaged with Brazil, where Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet is competing with the Rafale fighter built by France’s Dassault for a multibillion-dollar defense contract, Shapiro said.
“We’re eager to make the best possible case for the Boeing aricraft, and we’re hopeful that it will be selected,” he said.
A local Brazilian newspaper reported this month that Boeing had offered to allow more Brazilian companies to build components for the new warplanes and future projects if it won the deal.
Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; additional reporting by Jim Wolf; editing by Matthew Lewis