(Adds quote from Boeing executive)
By Andrea Shalal
PARIS, June 17 (Reuters) - American weapons makers this week welcomed a push by U.S. government agencies to better coordinate on arms sales policies, but say most deals still take far too long to process, frustrating potential customers.
Many U.S. arms makers have sought to offset declines in American and European defense spending by boosting international sales, but they regularly complain that slow government approvals of deals frustrates some customers and drives them to look at offers from non-U.S companies.
Puneet Talwar, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, was among U.S. officials from various agencies who met at the start of the Paris Airshow to coordinate their meetings with U.S. contractors and foreign buyers at the event.
The United States sent about 400 people to the biennial arms and aerospace bazaar, including Air Force Secretary Deborah James and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.
“We are looking holistically at defense advocacy,” Talwar told Reuters in an interview. He said the State, Defense and Commerce departments already worked closely on export control reforms, but were now trying to do a better job coordinating their contact with arms firms and potential customers.
Talwar is initiating quarterly dialogues with industry players to get a better handle on such concerns and issues.
“These initiatives ... are about better communications and breaking down stovepipes,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to change our standards, but we can remove hurdles that are unnecessary and slow things down.”
Boosting U.S. arms sales helps Washington cements its ties with allies, supports the U.S. industrial base, helps lower the overall cost of weapons, and makes it easier for the American military to work together with other countries during a crisis, U.S. officials say.
Robert Leduc, president of Sikorsky Aircraft, a unit of United Technologies Corp, told Reuters the new approach was already making a difference.
Sikorsky’s recent agreement to build nine UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters for Slovakia zipped through the system in just seven months, a process that could have taken years in the past.
Talwar said Washington had also stepped up its advocacy during Poland’s recent missile defense competition, with more senior leaders getting engaged in promoting a U.S. solution.
This approach also helped U.S. efforts to build a more strategic defense relationship with India, he said.
Ellen Lord, chief executive officer of Textron Systems, a unit of Textron Inc, said Talwar and other U.S. officials were moving in the right direction.
But she said her company’s experience showed that many arms sales deals continued to flounder in the vast U.S. bureaucracy, sometimes for years, while other countries took the lead, aided by greater support from their senior leaders.
“We all need to go faster because it’s a very competitive world out there,” Lord told Reuters at the Paris Airshow.
“We see competition from Europe, we see competition from Israel, we see competition from China, from the Russians.”
Chris Raymond, vice president of business development and strategy for Boeing Co’s defense division, credited U.S. officials for being increasingly visible at air shows and trade fairs in recent years.
“It doesn’t always happen as fast as you’d like, but they’re absolutely focused on it, and it’s been a huge and welcome change for the industry,” Raymond told Reuters.
Heidi Grant, deputy undersecretary of the Air Force, international affairs, said the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency now hosted meeting spaces at air shows, allowing a broader showcase of U.S. arms than in years past, with Marine Corps and Navy equipment also included rather than just Air Force weapons.
Adoption of a coordinated U.S. policy on drone exports earlier this year had helped speed up discussions in that area, she said, adding that she hoped to announce a new buyer for the General Atomics MQ-9 armed, unmanned, medium-altitude, long-endurance aircraft within the next three months.
“Now that we have a policy, we’ve been able to push things through and streamline that process much better,” she said, noting that strict guidelines remained in place about which countries were eligible to buy armed drones. (Editing by Pravin Char and Lisa Shumaker)