Iraqi soldiers hold rifles distributed by U.S. forces. A proposed rule change would transfer oversight of some U.S. weapons sales from the State Department to the Commerce Department. Ceerwan Aziz/AFP/Getty Images
The White House reportedly plans to change a little-known government procedure that will accelerate some weapons sales abroad.
By Paul D. Shinkman / 02.05.2018
The White House is pushing to implement as early as March a plan that would make it easier to sell some weapons to foreign partners by eliminating key regulatory and congressional oversight, government officials and staffers tell U.S. News.
The proposal, first reported by Reuters in September, would affect the sale of small weapons and ammunition, delighting proponents who say the current process is too cumbersome while raising concerns among some experts about the risk of deadly arms falling into the wrong hands.
The new rules would transfer the oversight for the U.S. to sell some weapons like rifles and shotguns, as well as the ammunition for them, from the State Department to the Commerce Department, which is far less prepared than its internationally oriented counterpart to vet potential foreign buyers.
The initiative – first considered under the Obama administration but reportedly nixed in the wake of the 2012 mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado – is part of broader efforts by the White House revealed in recent months to accelerate U.S. arms sales, even encouraging Defense Department officials to act as pitchmen abroad. It hopes to speed up a process that top officials, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, say is a key element for strengthening America’s partnerships abroad while also generating revenue for U.S. businesses.
But what proponents tout as the beginning of long-awaited changes to a cumbersome process that can at times take years is seen by other experts as a dangerous precedent that would improve the chances of U.S. weaponry being misused or falling into the hands of groups like al-Qaida or the Islamic State group.
“It increases the risk,” says Rachel Stohl, director of the Stimson Center’s Conventional Defense Program. “A policy focused on short-term benefit increases the risk of long-term civilian harm, as well as the negative consequences of those transfers down the road.”
The White House and Office of Management and Budget, which would oversee the proposed rule changes, did not return multiple requests for comment. Multiple current and former officials, as well as experts familiar with the White House’s intentions, say staffing shortages at the executive branch and inexperience among those trying to enact the changes may delay them.
At the center of the change is a document known as the U.S. Munitions List, which puts into categories all armaments the U.S. sells abroad, from pistol bullets (Category 3) to sophisticated fighter jets like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (Category 8). Sales for weapons on that list are governed by the International Traffic in Arms Regulations and ultimately overseen by the State Department, which has an established process of weighing the effect of a particular sale to a particular country.
The Trump administration is set to transition some weapons from categories one, two and three of the munitions list to a comparable list overseen by the Commerce Department known as the Commerce Control List, traditionally comprised of benign materiel and not subject to the same safeguards as the State Department’s version.
The diplomatic and security concerns facing the State Department for items on its list are varied and myriad. It would have to ensure, for example, that selling F-16s to Bahrain wouldn’t undercut Israel’s qualitative military edge that the U.S. by policy ensures. In another example, overseers might question selling sidearms to Turkey’s presidential bodyguard forces merely for the optics of arming an organization accused of having assaulted protesters outside the Turkish embassy in Washington, D.C. Or, concerns might arise over providing advanced weapons to Iraq for its army’s soldiers, who in 2014 amid the initial onslaught of the Islamic State group largely abandoned their posts and allowed for the terrorist group to capture U.S. supplied weapons and use them against U.S. forces that later deployed in response.
The complexity of weighing these concerns creates a process that can last years and is further exacerbated by set policies that all sales that meet a certain price threshold must be submitted to the speaker of the House and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for approval.
Congressional procedures also allow for any sitting senator to stall a potential deal for weapons on the U.S. Munitions List, as Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican, and Chris Murphy, the Connecticut Democrat, did in July after learning of a potential sale to Saudi Arabia.
These same safeguards do not exist for equipment on the list administered by the Commerce Department, where the stated role is to create jobs and promote economic growth through trade.
Specialists in Congress’ traditional oversight process say the White House could, technically, clear everything off the State Department list and move it to Commerce, though such a bold move, particularly for more advanced weaponry, would enrage the legislature and likely prompt new oversight laws.
“The Congress will never allow its oversight to be impacted by moving these pieces of major defense equipment onto some other list that’s not as closely inspected as the munitions list,” says Jim Townsend, a former Defense Department specialist for foreign military sales. Townsend, now with the Center for a New American Security, says defense contractors and private manufacturers want to see an amended munitions list that makes it easier for them to sell large items overseas, like aircraft and missile systems. But, he says, “that’s just not going to happen with moving small arms off the munitions list.”
A small move to streamline the process, however, already has support on the Hill.
“It has been something I have talked about for at least a couple years,” House Armed Services Committee chairman Mac Thornberry said in January, when asked about the White House’s intention to improve the arms sales process. “There will be a proposed sale that just hangs out there, for months if not years.”
The Texas Republican says congressional dysfunction contributes to the cumbersome nature of approving sales and adds he has been working with other representatives toward streamlining it.
It’s a sentiment echoed by others with deep experience in America’s military and foreign affairs – two realms that have increasingly overlapped during the Trump administration.
Mattis touted the benefits of selling arms to allies during a January trip to Indonesia and Vietnam – countries with which the U.S. does not have formal alliances but seeks greater partnerships. Both of those countries also buy military equipment from Russia and China, spurring American leaders to try to beat the competition to secure greater relations.
“It’s how we work together,” Mattis said, also citing joint military exercises and shared training opportunities when asked about the potential for increased sales. He added that the purpose of this trip was to begin working out the procedures for greater cooperation.
It’s a common refrain from proponents of arms sales and a key element to countries’ joining U.S.-led alliances like NATO: The more that partner countries share common equipment, the more they can cooperate together on exercises or, if it comes to it, in war.
Yet others believe the importance of arms sales in a bilateral relationship is overstated.
“I don’t think that it’s a necessarily a good thing, especially with good partners,” says Dan Mahanty, director of the Center for Civilians in Conflict’s U.S. Program. “If the basis is or partially is in transfers, then disruptions to it, whether by misuse or other reasons, suddenly affects the relationship.”
“I wonder whether we want our diplomacy so susceptible to that kind of risk.”
Mahanty and Stimson’s Stohl co-authored a study that came out earlier this month documenting U.S. arms sales and questioning the current trends. Neither of them question that arms sales can be a useful tool or a boon to U.S. businesses, but they express concern that the process of deciding whether to disperse U.S. weapons abroad has become inadequate.
“That’s the issue: How do we ensure that not only you apply the policy and the regulations and the law to the letter, but how do you ensure it’s really in the strategic interest of the U.S.?” Stohl says.
Optimism that the process will change has already begun to take hold in the government, particularly among those who carry out American arms sales abroad.
“We want this,” said one U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity when asked about the proposed increase in tempo for the full spectrum of U.S. arms sales to countries in Southeast Asia. While the White House through the Defense Department has not yet offered new guidance for military sales offices worldwide, the official expects they will become much busier in the near future. “If certain things are relaxed, it could be huge in that now we’re permitted to offer more items.”
And the companies that produce and sell military arms and equipment are also feeling bullish about the new potential business.
“At this point, the industry expects there will be fairly robust sales,” says Loren Thompson, a defense private industry analyst and commentator and chief operating officer at the Lexington Institute. “I think this is a real shift.”
Yet others believe the new rules are indicative of a government that increasingly relies on the military to conduct diplomacy.