February 23, 2011

U.S. Pursues Export Control Reform Despite Unrest

The Obama administration is continuing its drive to speed export reviews of weapons and high-tech gear despite unrest across the Middle East and should have proposals ready this summer, U.S. defense officials say.

Pentagon acquisition chief Ashton Carter underscored the need for reform at a Washington speech this week, saying the current system was so cumbersome it actually drove some nations to buy equipment from other countries.

He said the Obama administration was not only willing, but determined to change the system to better protect fewer items, while loosening restrictions on other items that are already widely available on the global market.

Escalating protests in the Middle East and North Africa have sparked questions about the wisdom of loosening U.S. export restrictions at a time when Egypt and Tunisia have already seen leaders overthrown.

Critics worry that U.S. weapons could fall into the hands of Islamist-controlled governments that are hostile to the United States or Israel, the closest U.S. ally in the region.

Defense officials say they are keeping a close eye on any pending arms sales but the administration is proceeding on a "case by case" basis rather than imposing a blanket moratorium on weapons sales to the Middle East. 

"There's no one size fits all approach," said one senior defense official who is not authorized to speak on the record.

Carter said exports were an important driver of the U.S. economy but also helped build the military capabilities of U.S. allies, allowing them to assume more responsibility for their own security.

"It's in our interest to make this possible," he said at an event hosted by the Center for a New American Security on Tuesday. "When we make it difficult for people, they just give up and go somewhere else to get the equipment they need."


Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said export reforms were driven in part by concerns raised by some of the United States' closest allies, like Britain and Australia, who complain that current laws hamper their ability to work as closely with the U.S. military as both sides would like.

Thus far, Whitman said, there was no move to halt sales to countries like the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia.
A Lockheed Martin Corp official this week said the company expected to finalize a $7 billion deal with the United Arab Emirates this spring for the first-ever export of its advanced Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system.
The U.S. government last year also approved the sale of up to $60 billion worth of military planes and other equipment to Saudi Arabia, including large orders for Boeing Co F-15 fighter jets. Those deals are now being negotiated.

Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn said last week that administration officials were still working through existing export control regulations to determine the right balance and expected to release detailed proposals this summer.
President Barack Obama last year announced plans to revamp export controls on defense and high-tech goods with an eye to doubling U.S. exports of all kinds in five years.

Lynn said the evolving situation in the Middle East would factor into the administration's export control reforms but there was no need to abandon the effort altogether.

"We have time. We're hoping to have something, probably by early summer, so we'll have time to take into account circumstances as they change," he said.

Marine Corps General James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cautioned last week against hasty action to block all arms sales to the region, noting the history of military aid to Egypt had helped avert a more violent army response to protesters at Cairo's Tahrir Square.

He said many hundreds of Egyptian military officials had gone through U.S. military schools as a result of the aid, allowing them to "pick up" some U.S. values.

"If you're going to have a relationship with someone that you're selling weapons to, the education side has to be part of it," Cartwright told Reuters. "If you put the two together then you get responsible use of those systems."

He said the challenge was less with weapons sales currently under negotiation but with the equipment already sold. 

"It's what we did sell and it's hard to unsell," he said.