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Politico Pro Aug. 14, 2016
WASHINGTON — Vice Adm. Joseph Rixey was set to retire in September after three years as director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the Pentagon's gatekeeper for international arms sales.
But the P-3 Orion pilot, who previously oversaw the Navy's international programs, was asked to stay on well into next year to continue reforming a process more utilized than ever but widely considered cumbersome.
"I know there is a narrative out there that says we’re struggling or we’re broken" he says. "I would argue that we’re not broken, we’re actually burdened. We’re doing quite well. We’re still number one in the world in transfers. But we’ve got to keep up with this demand. Demand is going up."
Indeed, U.S. foreign military sales averaged $13 billion a year from 2001 to 2005, before steadily climbing to an all- time high of $47 billion in 2015. Rixey said the agency, along with the State Department, is working through nearly 14,000 potential deals with 179 countries, worth $450 billion. And an average of 140 new requests come in each month.
Under pressure from Congress and the defense industry to make the system more efficient, Rixey maintains the agency is making progress and that proposed legislation to establish a "security cooperation workforce development program" will go a long way. But he likens the effort to "eating an elephant."
He also said some of the frustration is due to foreign countries themselves: "Many times we'll rush a case to our international partners, and they don’t sign them." Other times delay is a good thing, in his view, as the U.S. government debates "whether or not we want to release that technology to a particular country."
"We’re not a front for industry, we’re a tool of foreign policy," he insists.
The admiral recently sat down for an interview with POLITICO. Here are some edited excerpts:
POLITICO: Last year DSCA announced plans to reorganize by region to keep pace with other arms-producing countries. Where does that stand?
Vice Adm. Joseph Rixey: It is in play. What we found out when we reorganized is that we were optimally staffed to run around with our hair on fire and what we needed to do was spend a little bit more time doing process improvement.
We started it around October of 2014, we’re refining it now. I would say that we came out of the storming phase and are now in the norming phase.
POLITICO: Have you seen a difference in how fast you can get deals approved?
Vice Adm. Rixey: You’re concentrating on speed as the ultimate metric. What we’re focusing on is, with this type of organization, is that the [combatant commands] ... are aligned so that we’re executing foreign policy quicker. That doesn’t mean we’re necessarily making sales in a timely manner.
It has had an effect of giving us a priority system. When you have $47 billion in sales, if we continue this pace and we don’t staff accordingly, we’re not going to get faster. What we’ve got to do, though, is come up with an effective priorities system. So the important things are being done very fast.
This whole interagency team sits down and says what’s important to go through the system – in particular through contracting. A lot of things that we do for our partners have cleared this deliberate conversation. We normally know, yea, it’s of mutual benefit and the technology was protected and we’ve already agreed upon it’s got to go to our international partners, it’s how quickly can we shotgun it through the acquisition community? We do have that conversation at the highest, very senior levels.
The question you have to ask is, in the absence of fully adequately staffing this, do we have a good priority system now? I would say we do. I guess if you’re an industry person and you’re on the low end of the priorities system, that’s not very satisfying. I get that. But from execution of what we think is important for the United States government, this has been very effective.
POLITICO: How do you balance the desire to sell U.S. weapons to help industry and the economy with the concern that we’re unnecessarily flooding the world with high-tech weapons systems?
Vice Adm. Rixey: Our No. 1 priority is that we’re a tool of foreign policy. What’s important to us is are we going to be able to provide capability to our international partner? That’s our primary focus, and it’s of mutual benefit, and we’re not going to lose our tech superiority in a fighting area.
Once we’ve cleared those three things, then we think it's important to keep those production lines open. And we understand how important it is for that to happen. We want to have a strong industrial base. It has huge benefits; it reduces our unit costs. So I don’t lose any sleep at night about us doing things that are not in support of the Arms Export Control Act.
POLITICO: How frustrated is industry with this whole process?
Vice Adm. Rixey: The reason I reached out to [industry associations] is to say, "I understand your frustration but you need to pinpoint to me what your problems are." Don’t blame the 10,000 artisans and the folks that are executing it. Tell me specifically what your problems are.
That’s resonating well with them. They are frustrated, I’m frustrated, everybody’s frustrated. The frustration though is not lack of effort, the frustration is mostly, fundamentally lack of ability to keep up with the demand at this time.
POLITICO: Do you think there’s some kind of disconnect between lawmakers and those in the Pentagon about the difficulties of the FMS process?
Vice Adm. Rixey: No. I think the Hill, industry, my leadership and everybody, through this mechanism and having a conversation, recognize that this is a great system. It’s under a lot of duress right now, and we've either got to come up with a great priority scheme, or we’ve got to staff it. And that’s what we’re working on, we’re going to do both.
I am really confident now that all entities understand the issue and what it’s going to take to fix it. The question is: Do we have the resources and the resolve to go do that?
POLITICO: Do you have the resources?
Vice Adm. Rixey: I think that we have our challenges and I think that’s why I’m really looking forward to whether or not that NDAA language gets signed. I think that’s going to be a significant forcing function. .
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