The United States rarely conducts military operations alone, so it is in America's interests to ensure that its allies and partners are well-equipped, well-trained and able to operate effectively with U.S. forces. Key to achieving this objective—and to helping other nations keep their neighborhoods peaceful in the first place—is this country's ability to export weapons technologies.
Defense exports also are vital for the economy. They can help America maintain its industrial base and technological edge, not only in weaponry but also in vital civilian sectors such as software, aerospace, steel and electronics. Thousands of jobs depend on these industries, and so does America's capacity to ensure that its warfighters remain the best-equipped in the world.
As straightforward as the national-security and economic arguments are, there is a fundamental dilemma: How does America make military technologies available to its global partners without also allowing them to reach adversaries who would turn them against us?
Over the past six decades, Washington has developed a system that applies one-size-fits-all bureaucratic requirements to defense exports. The system is plagued by maddeningly lethargic timetables for approving technology transfers. It handles airplane windshield wipers essentially the same way it handles air-to-air missiles. It forces American companies and foreign partner militaries to await separate approvals for every latch, wire and lug nut on an F-16 fighter jet—even though the U.S. government has already approved the export of the whole aircraft.
When I served as undersecretary of defense for policy from 2009-11, no issue consistently generated greater frustration and anger among my foreign counterparts than U.S. export controls.
The good news is that the U.S. government is moving to reform the system. The goal is to ensure that high walls of security and scrutiny will keep the most sensitive items from falling into the wrong hands, while making it easier for allies and partners to get what they need to help maintain peace and security in the world.
President Obama took the first step in his 2010 State of the Union address. He launched an initiative that would, among other things, "reform export controls consistent with national security." Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates followed up, explaining that the "time for change is long overdue if the application of controls on key items and technologies is to have any meaning." Mr. Gates directed the Pentagon to focus on the 5% of cases involving truly sensitive technologies, not the 95% that didn't.
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