Higher or Weaker Walls Over Sensitive U.S. Arms Exports?

19th March 2020

By Colby Goodman

This post first appeared in the March 2020 edition of The Export Practitioner

 

Sometimes good intentions are just good intentions. In the push for major changes to the U.S. arms export control system from 2010-13, the Obama administration often said the U.S. government was not effectively preventing harmful arms exports. One major culprit was “an overly broad definition of what should be subject to export classification and control,” according to then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Placing “higher walls around fewer, more critical items” would solve the problem. Seven years later, however, there are serious questions about whether there are higher walls around military technologies important in modern warfare.

Push for Higher Walls

Gates’s concern about the overly broad definition of arms was based on his time as deputy director for intelligence at the Central Intelligence Agency. In his April 20, 2010, speech, Gates said, “it soon became apparent that the length of the list of controlled technologies outstripped our finite intelligence monitoring capabilities and resources. It had the effect of undercutting our efforts to control the critical items.”

A few State officials also told me at the time that they had been requested to do investigations (post-export end-use checks) on U.S.-approved exports of items such as washers for certain weapons systems, which they thought was a waste of time.

The Obama administration in fact frequently stated that the U.S. arms export control system was harmful because “we devote[d] the same resources to protecting M1A1 tank brake pads as we do to protecting the M1A1 tank itself.”

According to Gates, “many parts and components of a major piece of defense equipment – such as a combat vehicle or aircraft – require their own export licenses. It makes little sense to use the same lengthy process to control the export of every latch, wire, and lug nut for a piece of equipment like the F-16, when we have already approved the export of the whole aircraft.” Instead, the U.S. government should focus on the five percent of cases that are riskier.

While the administration often exaggerated these points – M1A1 tanks had always received much more vetting than their brake pads – many parts and components did require a separate license. In 2011, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) also published a report that highlighted clear gaps in State post-export end-use checks for sensitive night vision goggles to countries in the Middle East.

In response, the Obama administration led an effort to move an estimated 30,000 munitions-related items from State’s more strictly controlled U.S. Munitions List (USML) to Commerce’s more loosely controlled Commerce Control List (CCL). This effort included up to 90 percent of the items controlled under the USML’s military vehicle category.

For the military aircraft category, “missile launchers, radar warning receivers, and laser/missile warning systems” would continue to be controlled under the USML. However, items such as F-16 wings, rudders, fuel tanks, and landing gear would move to the CCL. The administration would also move some items formerly classified as significant military equipment.

But, did the Obama administration simultaneously elevate reviews or checks on key U.S. military technologies that stayed on the USML? It certainly was not enough for the Obama administration to just move tens of thousands of munitions off the USML. There was also a risk that the move would likely result in a dip in State revenue and personnel for examining arms exports.

Gaps in Implementation

In a recently published report entitled Holes in the Net: U.S. Arms Export Control Gaps in Combatting Corruption, I argue that there are a number of gaps in State’s efforts to place higher walls around arms on the USML. These gaps are in State’s Directorate for Defense Trade Control’s (DDTC) basic review of arms export licenses and in their more detailed pre- and post-export end-use checks. The problems appear to have been widened under the Trump administration.

In July 2018, for instance, State’s Inspector General (IG) found several weaknesses in the way DDTC reviews arms export applications in an audit. Specifically, the IG found that DDTC had “approved 20 of the 21 applications (95 percent) [IG] reviewed despite lacking required information…” (see The Export Practitioner, March 2019, page 15).

In eight cases, the IG found inconsistencies within the application on the quantities, types of arms, or values, which are indicators of a possible diversion of U.S. weapons or bribery. The IG audit also found 17 cases in which DDTC should have notified Congress for additional scrutiny, but DDTC did not.

State is no longer increasing the number of its end-use checks in a year. In the department’s annual report on end-use checks for fiscal year (FY) 2016, DDTC said there was an increase in the percentage of end-use checks they initiated compared to the total export applications for the year from 1.3 percent in FY 2015 to 1.75 percent in FY 2016.

DDTC seemed to indicate that this increase showed it was beginning to elevate its reviews of more sensitive military items. However, the most recent end-use report for FY 2018 under the Trump administration shows a drop in the percentage of end-use checks to 1.3 percent, which is similar to percentage levels before the reform started.

There are also some key gaps in the way DDTC conducts its end-use checks. In 2016, State developed a new framework for reviewing arms sales, which recommend asking several key questions about corruption. These questions include whether or not the intended recipient of U.S. arms is “permitting illicit trafficking across borders, buying and selling positions or professional opportunities, stealing government assets and resources, engaging in bribery, or maintaining rolls of ghost personnel.” However, DDTC does not regularly look at the above defense sector corruption indicators when conducting its pre-export end-use checks.

It also appears there have been some challenges with DDTC’s post-export end-use checks. In the department IG’s audit of DDTC in 2018, they noted serious delays, from 77 to 300 days, in conducting post-export end-use checks. In FY 2018, DDTC had also only conducted around nine pre- or post-export end-use checks for all arms exports to the Middle East and North Africa despite the ongoing risks of diversion in the region.

What could be done to elevate State checks on key military technologies and weapons systems? DDTC has said one of the key reasons for some of the above gaps has been staff turnover and an overall staff reduction. DDTC told the department’s IG that its licensing office had a 28 percent reduction in staffing as of July 2018, and some licensing officers were finding it difficult to keep up with their workload. Staff turnover also made it difficult for DDTC to conduct end-use checks in the Middle East in FY 2018.

Fixing the Gaps

While DDTC has hired some staff to help address the gaps in end-use checks for the Middle East, they still have not been able to add enough staff to address all of the above concerns. The Trump administration’s hiring freeze and reductions in State funding have also impacted DDTC’s efforts to hire new staff. Congress, however, could address this gap by elevating funding for DDTC personnel, which would also help speed up DDTC’s review of arms export applications generally.

It also appears that the Trump administration’s focus on increasing the number of U.S. arms sales to key U.S. partners and allies around the world has impacted some State focus on enhancing risk assessments. There, however, are continuing efforts to enhance these risk assessments at State, including related to defense sector corruption indicators.

In some ways, Gates was right when he said there was a need to place higher walls around key U.S. military technologies and weapons systems to prevent them from reaching the wrong hands. If the United States does want to make good on one of its initial reasons for the reform, there are still opportunities to do so. Without these improvements, however, the United States will be back where it started at the beginning of the reform, not effectively preventing harmful arms exports.

 

(c) 2020 Gilston-Kalin Communications LLC. Reprinted with permission.