Administration may loosen weapons sale controls

By Shane Harris

February 13, 2003

The Bush administration is contemplating perhaps the most fundamental changes in decades to regulations regarding the sale by U.S. companies of missiles, tanks, warships and other military hardware to foreign governments.

Administration officials, led by the State Department, are reviewing the defense export trade policy, the guidelines for the sale of military items and technologies. They are examining the policy's "regulatory structure" with the aim of relaxing purchase restrictions for U.S. allies, a State Department spokesman said. Currently, the rules are so tight that friendly countries often wait weeks to acquire basic technologies, such as communications equipment. A faster process would better enable allies to fight alongside U.S. forces, the official said.

However, the export policy also helps keep arms and technology away from U.S. adversaries. Concerns about exports to potentially hostile countries crescendoed in 1998, when American satellite manufacturers sold their technology to companies with ties to the Chinese military. A political firestorm ensued and civilian communications satellites were moved from a Commerce Department export list, which encouraged their sale, to the State Department's restricted munitions list. The administration's review applies to that list.

Arms control advocates acknowledge the policy overhaul could benefit U.S. interests. But they're also concerned it could loosen control of weapons and military aid.

"Given the administration's demonstrated willingness to set aside certain restrictions in the interest of achieving other foreign policy objectives, some of the controls on defense [related] technologies could be weakened," said Matt Schroeder, a research associate with the Arms Sales Monitoring Project of the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration lifted restrictions on military aid and arms sales to Pakistan, Schroeder noted. They'd been put in place for several reasons, including Pakistan's testing of nuclear bombs in 1998. Administration funding requests for Pakistan, which include grants to buy American-made defense items, soared from a few million dollars in fiscal 2001 to more than $1 billion the following year, Schroeder said.

The State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, defended the changed stance because Pakistan supported the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

Asked whether the war on terrorism helped prompt the current export review, the official said, "Of course it [did]." Coalition forces in Afghanistan require compatible equipment, the official said, and the need will grow as multiple nations continue to fight wars together.

The first phase of the export review, which could be finished by mid-April, identified weapons acquisition programs that could improve military effectiveness if allies had better access to them. The Defense Department has identified some programs, the official said, declining to name them.

The State Department official added that control of U.S. munitions to other countries would continue to be a "top priority" of the administration, and that officials are considering how changing one part of the export policy would impact others for better or for worse.

Joel Johnson, vice president of international affairs for the Aerospace Industries Association in Washington, said the administration probably wants to loosen export restrictions in most cases. Also, officials might want to improve the export control capabilities of U.S. allies, he said.

But Schroeder expressed concern about easing regulations when some allies have had trouble keeping control of their own defense items.

In October 2002, a shipment of components for tractor transmissions that are also used in Soviet-made armored personnel carriers was intercepted at the Turkish-Bulgarian border. The Bulgarian government said they'd been illegally labeled as "farm machinery." There were concerns the items could be moved over the Syrian border to Iraq.

Schroeder emphasized his organization doesn't object to the export review entirely, but he urged the administration to exercise caution and to seek more input from outside sources.

"The question is, are we going to be handed a fait accompli at the end of this process, and how are we going to ensure balance?" Schroeder said.

By Shane Harris

February 13, 2003