Pitchman Trump to Back Pentagon Push to Boost Foreign Military Sales

President Donald Trump to speaks to Boeing employees at the company's facility in North Charleston, S.C., on Feb. 17. (AP Photo/Mic Smith)
President Donald Trump to speaks to Boeing employees at the company's facility in North Charleston, S.C., on Feb. 17. (AP Photo/Mic Smith)

The Pentagon has set sights on making 2018 another record year for foreign military weapons sales, with President Donald Trump in the role as main pitchman.

Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, a former Boeing executive, said that one of his main tasks was to get rid of the red tape that might hold back State Department approval of weapons sales by U.S. arms makers to nations eager to "Buy American."

The idea was to "make sure we're not standing on the air hose waiting for some paperwork or a signature," Shanahan told defense reporters last month.

In his first year in office, Trump has repeatedly touted the superiority of U.S. weapons systems to foreign leaders.

The same pitch would fit neatly with the "America First" economic theme he was expected to emphasize to lower the trade deficit and boost job growth in his first official State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night.

"The economy will be front and center" in the speech, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday.

In his first overseas trip as president, Trump went to Saudi Arabia where he claimed to have sealed arms deals that would eventually be worth up to $350 billion over the years for U.S. manufacturers, although critics said his math was way overblown.

In November, Trump urged Japanese leaders to buy more U.S.-made equipment to shoot North Korean missiles "out of the sky."

Last month, it was Norway. At a joint White House news conference with Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, Trump said "We do a lot of business with Norway, and I know you just bought some additional military equipment in the form of F-35s and other things, and so I congratulate you."

"We make the best in the world," Trump said, "and Norway is a great customer and a great ally, and a great friend."

Foreign weapons sales to allies soared during the tenure of former President Barack Obama and Trump in his first year has sought to accelerate sales by loosening restrictions. The results have shown up in the bottom lines of the major defense contractors.

Shares of the five biggest U.S. defense contractors -- Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman -- have more than tripled over the last five years and currently trade at or near all-time highs.

In late November, the Pentagon said that the U.S. government had hit another record in foreign military sales of $41.9 billion for 2017 to again lead all nations in weapons sales.

To boost the effort, Shanahan held a meeting last month on accelerating sales with Ellen Lord, the top acquisitions chief at DoD, and Lt. Gen. Charles Hooper, director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency.

However, Shanahan stressed that the U.S. would still have restrictions on who it sells to coming from the State Department, which must approve all sales.

In addition, Shanahan said "it's not that there's just this giant hopper of foreign military sales. There's line of sight to what's important. There's prioritization from the combatant commands. There's real integration with industrial base."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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