By Andrea Shalal-Esa
DUBAI, Nov 20 (Reuters) - Tighter military budgets in the United States and around the world have put a huge focus on coalitions and burden-sharing in forming responses to future conflicts and disasters, senior U.S. officials said at the Dubai Airshow.
Heidi Grant, Air Force deputy undersecretary for international affairs, said the need to work together more closely on everything from aerial refueling to intelligence gathering was a recurrent theme during her meetings with over half of the 30 air chiefs who attended the show.
"As the Department of Defense budgets become smaller, I'm seeing partners stepping up even more and more, looking at how they can help mitigate potential capability risk areas," Grant told Reuters in an interview.
"There's a huge demand out there. People realize that none of us are going to be able to go it alone," she said.
Grant said foreign military sales played an increasingly important role in U.S. foreign policy since budget cuts would make it more difficult for the U.S. military to take the lead in as many simultaneous situations as it had in the past.
"Foreign military sales and security cooperation ... used to be something that the U.S. looked at as a nice thing to do. Now it is a major tool," she said.
At the time of the NATO strikes on Libya in March 2011, U.S. forces were involved in five separate operations across the globe, but that would be impossible as budgets dropped, she said, noting other countries would have to step up more.
"We realize that we've got to be with a coalition, and we want a capable coalition," she said.
Grant is part of a large delegation of U.S. government and military officials who came to the biggest-ever Dubai air show this week to underscore Washington's commitment to security cooperation in the Gulf, at a time when U.S. talks with Iran have unsettled some long-time U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia.
A dozen U.S. fighters, helicopters and other warplanes were on display at the show, with two Marine Corps V-22 tiltrotor aircraft taking potential buyers for demonstration flights.
A few miles away at Dubai's busy port the USS Harry S. Truman - its flight deck jammed with F/A-18 Super Hornets and older "Baby Hornets" - hosted a reception for over 700 guests as they discussed foreign sales of U.S. equipment.
"Whatever concerns our partners may have had about the negotiations with the Iranians, the fact that we're all showing up here says we are not turning on a dime," said a U.S. official. "The Gulf is and remains a really important region."
AS STRONG AS EVER
U.S. executives and government delegates said they had not seen any signs of waning demand from Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf, despite political tensions over the United States' handing of the crisis in Syria, its response to a military takeover in Egypt and fresh talks with Iran.
"Our relationship ... is as strong as it's ever been," said Patrick Dewar, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin International.
The many weapons sales discussed at the show included fighter jets sales to Gulf countries, missile defense deals and a modernization of the Saudi Arabian navy.
Grant said she also encouraged any allies looking at Boeing Co's C-17 transport plane to act soon since the company plans to stop making it in 2015.
Boeing has already finished the last C-17 to be built for the U.S. military and is still looking to finalize orders for the final 13 aircraft to be built at the plant.
"If they want one of those aircraft, they better speak up now," Grant said, noting the expense of restarting production.
Dennis Muilenburg, who heads Boeing's defense business, this week said the decision to shut the C-17 line was final.
A buzz word at the show was "interoperability" - the ability of different weapons systems and different countries to work together during combined operations or exercises.
The U.S. military has struggled over the past decade to beef up its own ability to communicate and share data in real-time across the four military services, and similar efforts have been underway in NATO for years.
At an air chiefs conference in Dubai on Saturday, officials from around the world expressed interest in expanding those efforts to additional regions and partners.
Grant said Air Force Lieutenant General John Hesterman, who heads U.S. Air Forces Central Command, planned to bring Gulf air chiefs together to see what equipment and other changes were needed to ensure better military cooperation.
Boeing's Muilenburg said his company had designed its warplanes with a so-called "open architecture" that would make it easier to communicate across different militaries.
"It's a very big area for us. That's part of what we try to design into our airplanes," he said.