The White House is looking to open up the defense industrial base to more global deals with a new set of arms transfer policies focused on allowing direct sales between U.S. companies and foreign governments and less regulations on the export of unmanned aerial systems (UAS).
The Trump administration announced new reforms Thursday to the Conventional Arms Transfer (CAT) policy looking to accelerate the pace of completing arms deals to better compete with foreign competitors, including China and Russia.
“The fact is our allies and partners want to buy American. They know American industries produce the most technologically sophisticated, accurate, and effective defense systems in the world. When we enable our allies and partners to more easily obtain appropriate American defense articles and services, we improve our national security,” Peter Navarro, head of the White House National Trade Council, said during a call with reporters.
Navarro said the new rules lay out a broad strategy for placing greater consideration of economic benefits when pursuing weapons deals with partner nations.
The new policy comes a day after President Trump, during a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, signaled a need to create a simpler path for the defense industry to complete foreign weapons deals.
“For too long we have hamstrung ourselves and limited our ability to provide our allies and partners with the defensive capabilities they require, even when in the U.S. interest,” Navarro said.
The new policy gives the executive branch more oversight in streamlining procedures, clarifying regulations, increasing contracting flexibility, and playing a larger role in establishing bases for future contracts.
Tina Kaidanow, principal deputy assistant secretary for the State Department’s bureau of political-military affairs, said the new policy is aimed at facilitating foreign military sales “more strategically.”
“We need to do, as the U.S. Government, a better job of strategic advocacy for some of our companies,” Kaidanow said during the Thursday call with reporters.
Perhaps the most significant change the CAT policy is the ability to make direct commercial sales of drones and eliminating a laser designation for UAS technologies that reduced a number of sales.
Previous policies classified strike-enabled UAS with laser target designators as an “armed” UAS, meaning they faced higher scrutiny during the foreign military sale process. The new policy treats laser designated drones as “unarmed.”
“What it does is it allows them effectively to sell you UAS with laser target designators via direct commercial sale, which can potentially allow for faster procurement by those countries,” Kaidanow said.
Fewer limits to UAS sales will allow companies to better compete with China and Russia, which have started to sell their own replications of U.S. technology, according to Navarro.
“In June, at the Paris Air Show, China’s Chengdu Aircraft Group featured its Wing Loong II medium-altitude, long-endurance UAS, a clear knockoff of General Atomics Reaper,” Navarro said. “Bottom line, the policies of the previous administration enabled that, and this administration, consistent with its national security strategy and national defense strategy, is changing that policy.”
The Obama administration implemented similar policy reforms aimed at loosening restrictions on UAS sales, but Kaidanow and Navarro believe this new effort brings in more industry consideration.
James Lewis, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the new approach to arms sales is a continuation of the previous administration’s effort while taking a more industry-oriented approach.
“It’s actually pretty similar to the Obama policy. If anything, the Trump policy goes into more detail. The biggest change is the addition of explicit economic security considerations and the need to consider the economic benefits and benefits to the defense industrial base,” Lewis told Defense Daily. “All in all, it’s a little more explicit, a little more business friendly, but not much more, and pretty consistent with the policies held in Administrations since the end of the Cold War.”
Defense industry trade groups voiced their support for the policy rollout as an important first step in easing the defense transfer system to better facilitate deals in the face of increasing international demand.
“While these reform efforts will allow us to continue to outpace emerging foreign competition, they will continue to support control mechanisms that protect our most sensitive technologies and hardware while upholding U.S. human rights and nonproliferation objectives,” officials from the National Defense Industrial Association told Defense Daily.
The president of the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) sees the new policy as a means for reducing restrictions that delay international sales.
“Defense trade with allies and partners is a critical tool for achieving America’s foreign policy and national security goals. We need a defense export review and approval system that is more efficient and transparent in reaching the right decisions,” Eric Fanning, president of AIA, said in a statement.
Kaidanow reiterated that current legal and regulatory requirements would remain in place. He said the administration would continue to review potential purchases to ensure sales are completed with factors such as human rights in mind.
“We absolutely look at human rights as one of a set of considerations that we look at. It’s all done – every sale we do is done on a case-by-case basis. In other words, we look at a whole range of U.S. national security objectives.”
Dan Mahanty, an official with the Forum on the Arms trade and a director with the Center for Civilians in Conflict, believes specific oversight initiatives need to be included with the policy roll out.
“The proof needed to substantiate that rhetoric will be in specific details of implementation. Without meaningful risk assessments, strong leaders with the moral courage to prevent problematic sales, better operational oversight, and stronger terms of sale, I doubt we'll see anything other than more weapons being used in ways Americans may not support,” Mahanty told Defense Daily.
The new CAT policy is the first time minimizing civilian casualties has been included as an affirmative UAS policy, according to Kaidanow.