Nuclear Weapons

Defense Industry Gears Up for “Phase Two” of Arms Export Control Reform Campaign

10.26.06 | 4 min read | Text by Matt Schroeder

The Defense Industry is laying the groundwork for yet another attempt to “reform” the US arms export control system. At a briefing held at the Heritage Foundation last week, Mark Esper of the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) announced that the AIA is “fine tuning” Phase two of its campaign, which will, according to AIA’s newsletter, feature a “new export control law that we will draft and take to the 110th Congress next year.” Previous proposals by reform advocates have met strong resistance from Congress, but changes in congressional leadership and industry’s strategy could result in a very different outcome this time around.

Industry officials complain that the US export control system was “designed in another era to deal with another threat” and lacks the speed, efficiency and predictability required for US companies to stay competitive and to adequately equip nontraditional coalition partners. While occasionally slow and cumbersome, the system is also among the best in the world at balancing competing national interests and keeping weapons and other defense technology out of the hands of terrorists, criminals, and hostile states.

Previous proposals have been a mixed bag in terms of balancing industry’s demands for speed and efficiency with other policy objectives. Some were clearly beneficial on many levels and were readily embraced by all sides. A good example is AIA’s call for “increas[ed] use of technology ” by the State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (DDTC), the office that handles the 60,000+ applications for commercial arms export licenses submitted annually. The State Department is transitioning to a paperless licensing system (called D-Trade) that will not only eliminate delays associated with shuffling paper applications from office to office but also strengthen national security by automatically screening parties to the proposed sale against watch lists of criminals and other bad actors and by freeing up licensing personnel to focus on complex or suspicious cases.

The trade-offs associated with other proposals are more stark. For example, proposed increases in the dollar value thresholds for congressional notifications would reduce congressional and public scrutiny of potentially problematic arms transfers, such as anti-tank and anti-aircraft missile sales, the values of which often fall below the higher thresholds. Similarly, proposals to waive licensing requirements for the export of certain defense articles to the UK and Australia were heavily criticized by opponents. In a sobering committee report, several prominent lawmakers warned that the exemptions would “eliminate nearly all critical elements of prior U.S. Government scrutiny and control” of exempt defense articles, which would “almost certainly enlarge the risks of diversion …”

Little is known about AIA’s current set of proposals other than what can be gleaned from the brief, cryptic summaries in its newsletters. The most recent issue of AIA’s Executive Report describes the proposals as “measurable, attainable, and meaningful” and “capable of reasonably quick implementation by the administration.” At the briefing, Esper added that (at least some of) the proposals “do not involve Congressional action.”

Assuming AIA’s initiative gets off the ground, it would be the second big push to revise export controls during the Bush Administration. The first, which was outlined in a secret National Security Presidential Directive (NSPD-19) and included the UK/Australia licensing waivers, met an ignominious end at the hands of House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, who outmaneuvered the administration in an impressive display of political brinkmanship.

Phase II may have a very different outcome, however. If AIA’s reform proposals require only administrative or regulatory changes – changes over which lawmakers often have little control – the opportunities for Congress to modify or block the proposals may be limited. Further complicating matters is Chairman Hyde’s recent announcement that he plans to retire at the end of the current congressional session. As the most vocal, wily, and well-placed opponent of recent ‘reform’ initiatives, his retirement raises questions about HIRC’s role in future battles over the export control system. Little is known about the views of possible Republican successors, although, given recent poll numbers, that may be moot. It is looking increasingly likely that the Democrats will gain more than enough of seats in the November election to take control of the House and, consequently, the International Relations Committee. The ranking Democrat on the committee, Tom Lantos, shares many of Rep. Hyde’s views on export control issues. But if the Democrats do not take the House, or Rep. Lantos does not reclaim the chair of the International Relations Committee, the prospects for “phase two” and related initiatives may improve dramatically.

For more information, see

ASMP’s Export Control “Reform” webpage

US Weapons Technology at Risk: The State Department’s Proposal to Relax Arms Export Controls to Other Countries, House International Relations Committee, 1 May 2004.

Arms Export Control System in the Post-9/11 Environment, Government Accountability Office, 7 April 2005.

Interview with Defense News, John Hillen, Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs, 9 October 2006.

Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group, Center for Strategic and International Studies