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Why Trump Is Sending a Key Deal-Maker to Farnborough Airshow

An F-35A Lightning II from the 388th Fighter Wing flies over the Warriors Over the Wasatch Air and Space Show June 24, 2018, at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. The F-35 was part of a four-ship participating in an attack demonstration. (U.S. Air Force photo/Todd Cromar)
An F-35A Lightning II from the 388th Fighter Wing flies over the Warriors Over the Wasatch Air and Space Show June 24, 2018, at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. The F-35 was part of a four-ship participating in an attack demonstration. (U.S. Air Force photo/Todd Cromar)

Even after President Donald Trump made critical comments against some allies at the NATO summit in Brussels this week, the U.S. delegation set to attend the Farnborough Airshow -- kicking off next week outside London --- will likely stick to the administration's formula of pushing countries to buy new American aircraft and weapons, experts said. But perhaps, they added, relationship building may not be as high a priority as in previous years.

The U.S. will send Peter Navarro, Trump's director of trade, industrial and export policy at the White House, to the show, the biennial gathering of the world's largest aerospace and defense firms, officials confirmed.

Kevin Fahey, assistant secretary of defense for acquisition, will represent the Defense Department in place of Ellen Lord, under secretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment. Other leaders such as Air Force Under Secretary Matt Donovan and Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, are expected to attend.

Their selling point is likely to be that the U.S. has the best technologies ranging from missile defense to drones and other aircraft. But the objective of making a sale could outweigh decades-long partnership commitments.

"My basic take is that the Trump administration's approach to the show will be aggressive promotion of U.S. equipment," said William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. "Choosing his chief trade adviser to represent the U.S. at Farnborough, rather than a defense official, underscores the point that the Trump arms sales policy is first and foremost about making deals."

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"I expect that approach to be reflected at Farnborough," he said.

Business deals become bridges to fostering long-term relationships, which is what some countries may want regardless of the Trump administration's unpredictable behavior, said Rachel Stohl, managing director at the Stimson Center who oversees the center's conventional defense program.

"This administration has really looked at arms sales on a transactional level," Stohl, who specializes in international arms trade, said in an interview.

"You have to have a long-term strategic view of building relationships over time, identifying partners that you would want to work with and developing those relationships, and I think if you're looking at arms sales as sort of a one off … that changes the approach that you would take," she said.

The medium-to-long term deal is "sort of ignored," Stohl said.

And there will likely be additional bumps on the horizon.

Hartung argued Trump has an internal defense agenda, although it's somewhat contradictory to promote buying U.S.-made equipment while in the meantime imposing tariffs "as tough rhetoric."

"He thinks he's going to win every battle, that the tariffs will make people get in line with U.S. goods, and the arms trade promotion will be covered on that front," Hartung said.

But "his promotion [of arms sales] is going to go up against his own policies," he said. "He doesn't seem to realize other people have a say here."

Trump in recent weeks announced that the U.S. will impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Canada, Mexico and parts of Europe, which could penalize national security and trade.

Richard Aboulafia, vice president and analyst at the Teal Group, agreed.

"Since U.S. aerospace would be in the front line of any trade war, and given the enormous U.S. aerospace trade surplus (particularly with China), this is a very risky approach," Aboulafia said in an email.

"Hopefully, if Peter Navarro attends, he will reflect on the extremely globalized nature of the aerospace business, and notice how much the U.S. has to lose from a protracted trade war," he continued.

Tariffs aside, Hartung said, "I think in the back of allies' minds is, 'Can we trust this guy?'"

"On one hand, he says he's going to sell $110 billion of arms to Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, he's putting heavy pressure on NATO allies, which may make them think twice on how much they may want to purchase" in the future, he said.

"From the point of view from a potential customer, that's got to be a factor," Hartung added.

He gave the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which NATO allies such as the U.K., Italy and Norway, who invest in the program and plan to in future sales even asTrump is battering NATO members for lack of defense spending, as an example.

Trump on Thursday in Brussels said he wants NATO members to double their gross domestic product spending on defense to 4 percent (the U.S. spends roughly 3.3 percent of its GDP on defense, according to defense budgets, as reported by NPR).

Hartung said there is also opportunity for other suppliers to break into the defense market. Egypt has become closer with Russia, for example, in prospective weapons purchases in the last two years, signaling a renewed interest in helicopters, fighter jets and other military equipment, he said.

Frank Gorenc, a retired general and former commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe-U.S. Air Forces Africa, on Wednesday said he doesn't predict disconnect because of relationships already fostered from years of working, training and cultivating new technologies the allies need in order to operate together on the battlespace.

"In the end, the reality is the National Defense Strategy has refocused us on great power conflict -- and those two great powers are self-explanatory, Gorenc said, referencing how the U.S. has to weigh dealing with Russia.

"And while they're self-explanatory, the bottom line, we're going to have to figure out what the change in strategy means to procurement. And also bringing power to bear at long distances, and [asking ourselves] what are the warfighting issues?" he said.

"Now the details of it, the funding, administrative details, that's something to be discussed for a long time," said Gorenc, who also was commander of NATO Allied Air Command from 2013 to 2016.

Gorenc said his time in that job made him concerned with bringing together NATO forces.

"Especially readiness levels. Do we have the resources to support western way of conflict?" he said.

At a tradeshow like Farnborough, "the entire defense universe is there, and anything that is available is out there," he said. "It's a very practical place military and civilian partners see what's available and help make informed decisions to make sure it's interoperable with NATO [counterparts]. In the end, the message from the military side has been pretty consistent [there]."

Hartung added, "But with Trump -- how do you know that's going to happen?"

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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