U.S. defense executives are calling on the Trump administration to create a comprehensive arms-export strategy and put a single official or government office in charge of shepherding weapons deals through the approval process.
The two proposals were among the recommendations sent to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week by the Aerospace Industries Association in hopes that the export-friendly administration will implement lasting changes to speed up arms exports regardless of who occupies the White House. Specifically, AIA wants the U.S. government to decide more quickly whether an ally can buy a specific weapon.
“A number of times, it was my experience that people who didn’t support a sale thought that they were deciding whether or not this partner, ally or other military got that capability,” said AIA president and CEO Eric Fanning. During the Obama administration, Fanning served as Army secretary, Air Force undersecretary, and a senior position in the Navy.
“When really what [they] were deciding [was] whether it’s an American capability,” he said. “They can turn somewhere else to get that capability if it’s not ours.”
The State, Defense, and Commerce Departments all have a voice in whether an allies gets to buy a specific weapon. And Congress has the final say over exports of U.S.-made weapons.
As part of the proposed changes, AIA wants a “Security Cooperation Strategy” akin to the National Security Strategy and National Military Strategy. This would add “transparency of the discussion and allows us a filter of sorts to decide whether or we should move forward with a sale,” Fanning said.
AIA also wants the Trump administration to create a task force, office, or person to serve as an “accountability mechanism” for foreign arms sales, Fanning said. The czar would make sure “we’re driving forward against what the priorities are in the national security cooperation strategy.”
Among Fanning’s biggest pet peeves is that allies are left in the dark while this multi-agency debate goes on.
“It doesn’t do much good to advocate for more arms sales if it doesn’t go into a system that can provide an answer and close on it one way or another,” Fanning said.
There are many opportunities for offices within the different departments to offer “pocket vetos” of a particular deal, Fanning said.
While they have declined to give specifics, defense executives have long claimed that Middle Eastern allies have purchased Russian and Chinese drones because their requests for American unmanned aircraft were debated within the U.S. government for years.
Allies shopping elsewhere “tends to happen after we’ve frustrated the partner and ally over a long period of time,” Fanning said. “They go someplace not wanting to, but not having gotten an answer either way. Then we are at risk because oftentimes the people they’re turning to are adversaries.”
It took years for the Obama administration to approve fighter jet sales to Qatar and Kuwait amid the concerns of Israel, another U.S. ally in the region.
“A national strategy for security cooperation would be a welcome development — as arms sales and military assistance often seem to be supplied in an ad hoc manner and not as part of wider national security and foreign policy objectives,” said Rachel Stohl, an arms trade expert who leads the Conventional Defense Program at the Stimson Center.
However, while “creating efficiencies in bureaucratic systems is always welcome,” Stohl said, “reform should not replace careful scrutiny of arms sales to ensure that they are consistent with foreign policy objectives and human rights obligations. The rush to satisfy short-term economic interests should not trump international or national security interests.”
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