U.S. Arms Export Controls "Reforms" 

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For many years, arms export control policy was based on preservation of national security and the need for allies to keep weapons technology out of the hands of Eastern Bloc countries.  With the end of the Cold War, arms export control has become more complicated and difficult. The post-Cold War global arms market is extremely competitive; defense firms compete for an ever-greater share of a smaller pie. Partly in response to this competition, the defense industry has put tremendous pressure on the U.S. government to speed up the arms export licensing process, which industry claims is too slow and therefore threatens its market share.

At the same time, the need for rigorous export controls has never been greater. Arms traffickers roam the planet looking for weapons and defense technologies that they can sell, at a huge profit, to rogue states, terrorists and other dangerous individuals and groups. Preventing these individuals and countries from acquiring U.S. defense technology is the primary objective of the licensing process that industry seeks to streamline. Thus, government agencies responsible for controlling arms exports are confronted with the unenviable task of balancing industry's demands for decontrol with the need to keep dangerous technologies out of the hands of unauthorized end-users.

The defense industry's efforts began to bear fruit in May 2000, when the Clinton administration unvieled the the Defense Trade Security Initiative - a set of changes to the arms export licensing system designed to expedite weapons exports to NATO members, Japan, and Australia, and to increase cooperation between European and American weapons manufacturers.  These changes ranged from creating new export licenses for entire weapons systems to expediting license reviews for NATO members. The most far reaching reform would be to exempt favored allies from some arms export license requirements in exchange for modifications to their export licensing systems (the U.S. government is trying to encourage other states to tighten their export controls by offering them license-free U.S. weapons exports as a reward).  U.S. officials recently wrapped up negotiations on licensing exemption agreements with Australia and the UK, and are now seeking "legislative relief" (through the Senate's FY 2005 foreign affairs authorization bill) from some of the conditions placed on these agreements.

Following the catastrophic terrorist attacks that took place on September 11th, 2001, these "reforms" were relegated to the issue backburner until the fall of 2002, when Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage announced the administration's plans to conduct a thorough review of defense trade policies. Armitage also revealed several significant changes at that time, including the restructuring of the State Department's Office of Defense Trade Controls, an increase in the dollar value of aircraft components sales that do not require licenses (from $500 to $5000, up to 12 times/year), and underscored the importance of the first-ever use of the Global Project Authority, which will expedite the licensing associated with the $200 billion Joint Strike Fighter program.

What little information on the 6-month policy review that has been released to the public suggests that it is likely to serve as a vehicle for advancing specific DTSI "reforms" and related changes. A 2-page fact sheet issued by the White House in November 2002 lists "[i]dentifying the top U.S. weapons acquisition programs for which increased industrial participation and greater access to U.S. technology... would improve military effectiveness of U.S. coalitions" and "[i]dentify[ing] technology transfer policy changes that will facilitate the ability of the U.S. military to benefit from commercial developments and international cooperation..." among several other goals of the policy review. While such language is a red flag for proponents of strong export controls, little can be said definitively about the review unless and until the veil of secrecy currently shrouding the opaque process is lifted.

The Arms Sales Monitoring Project is concerned that the defense industry's push to reduce restrictions on arms exports, even to allied countries, will increase the likelihood that US weapons will be diverted to agents of rogue regimes, terrorists and criminals. Below is a collection of our analysis, along with relevant media reports and government documents.

U.S. Government Information
Details about the Defense Trade Security Initiative and other government "reform" measures


  • The Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency maintains a page on its efforts to reform the Foreign Military Sales program, in order to speed up the arms export process and make it more accessible to foreign recipients. 
  • The Wassenaar Arrangement is the current multilateral body charged with coordinating conventional arms export policy.  

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