Big Win for Defense Industry

Cora Currier, “In Big Win for Defense Industry, Obama Rolls Back Limits on Arms Exports,” ProPublica, 14 October 2013

The United States is loosening controls over military exports, in a shift that former U.S. officials and human rights advocates say could increase the flow of American-made military parts to the world’s conflicts and make it harder to enforce arms sanctions.

Come tomorrow, thousands of parts of military aircraft, such as propeller blades, brake pads and tires will be able to be sent to almost any country in the world, with minimal oversight – even to some countries subject to U.N. arms embargos. U.S. companies will also face fewer checks than in the past when selling some military aircraft to dozens of countries. …

In the current system, every manufacturer and exporter of military equipment has to register with the State Department and get a license for each planned export. U.S. officials scrutinize each proposed deal to make sure the receiving country isn’t violating human rights and to determine the risk of the shipment winding up with terrorists or another questionable group.

Under the new system, whole categories of equipment encompassing tens of thousands of items will move to the Commerce Department, where they will be under more “flexible” controls. Final rules have been issued for six of 19 categories of equipment and more will roll out in the coming months. Some military equipment, such as fighter jets, drones, and other systems and parts, will stay under the State Department’s tighter oversight.

Commerce will do interagency human rights reviews before allowing exports, but only as a matter of policy, whereas in the State Department it is required by law.

The switch from State to Commerce represents a big win for defense manufacturers, who have long lobbied in favor of relaxing U.S. export rules, which they say put a damper on international trade. Among the companies that recently lobbied on the issue: Lockheed, which manufactures C-130 transport planes, Textron, which makes Kiowa Warrior helicopters, and Honeywell, which outfits military choppers.

Overall, industry trade groups and big defense companies have spent roughly $170 million over the last three years lobbying on a variety of issues, including export control reform, a ProPublica analysis of disclosure forms shows. …

The defense industry has long pushed for a loosening of the U.S. export controls. Initial wish-lists were aimed at restructuring and speeding up the State Department system, where the wait for a license had sometimes stretched to months. The current focus on moving items to Commerce began under the Obama administration.

The aerospace industry has been particularly active, as new rules for aircraft are the first to take effect. Commercial satellites had been moved briefly to Commerce in the 1990s, but when U.S. space companies were caught giving technical data to China in 1998, Congress returned them to State control. Last year, satellite makers successfully lobbied Congress to lift satellite-specific rules that had kept them from being eligible for the reforms.

Newer industries want to cash in, too. Virgin Galactic wrote in a comment on a proposed rule that the “nascent but growing” space tourism industry was hindered by current rules. At a conference in 2011, the chief executive of Northrup Grumman warned of “the U.S. drone aircraft industry losing its dominance” if exports weren’t boosted. (Drones are regulated under missile technology controls, and are mostly unaffected by the current changes.)

Lauren Airey, of the National Association of Manufacturers, named two main objections to the current system. First off, fees: Any company that makes a product on the State Department list has to be registered whether or not they actually export, with yearly costs starting at $2,500. There’s no fee for the Commerce list.

Secondly, any equipment that contains a listed part gets “lifetime controls,” Airey said. If a buyer wants to resell something, even for scrap, they need U.S. approval. (For example, the U.S. is currently debating whether to let Turkey re-sell American attack helicopters to Pakistan.) Under Commerce, “there are still limitations, but they are more flexible,” Airey said. …

William Lowell, who spent a decade of his 30 years at the State Department directing defense trade controls, told ProPublica that the move represents a major shift in the U.S. attitude towards international arms trade. U.S. policy has long been aimed at “denying the entry of U.S. military articles of any type into the international gray arms market – for which small arms and military parts are the lifeblood,” Lowell wrote in comments opposing the new rules. “Commercial arms exports have never been considered normal commercial trade.”

Read the full article here.