The Obama administration recently informed Congress that it is planning to loosen controls on foreign sales of UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and other weapons, possibly C-130 transports and even F-16 fighters, according to congressional aides.
The changes under consideration are raising concerns on Capitol Hill that U.S. arms will make their way to rogue states and adversaries after initially being exported to allies and friendly states.
As part of its export-control effort, the administration told congressional staff recently that it is conducting a review of the thousands of weapons now on the U.S. Munitions List that fall under the State Department’s import/export authority.
As part of the review, the administration has identified numerous items that can be moved to the less-tightly controlled Commerce Department control list, including the helicopters and military transports.
Easing restrictions on sales of F-16s also is under consideration, the congressional aides said.
The decontrol plan will make monitoring how the systems are used and whether the arms are re-exported to states such as Iran much more difficult, the aides said.
The Obama administration launched the reform initiative in August. It calls for changing how goods and technologies are licensed and controlled for sale abroad.
Under the reform, two lists of items that require export licenses would be merged. The munitions list of strictly military items would be joined with a list of items that have military and civilian capabilities. The single list would be regulated by a single agency using a three-tier control mechanism.
According to congressional aides, the administration has prevented U.S. intelligence agencies from conducting comprehensive assessments of the security impact of the export decontrol plan.
Eugene Cottilli, a spokesman for the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security, confirmed that the administration has spoken to Congress about changing rules for sales of tanks and military vehicles and soon will publish a list of proposed changes for military aircraft.
Most of the items moved from the U.S. Munitions List to Commerce’s control list “do not have an inherent military function,” Mr. Cottilli said.
The new licensing policies “will enhance national security by allowing for greater interoperability with our NATO and other allies,” he said, noting that “active weapons systems, such as fighter aircraft and attack helicopters,” will remain on the controlled U.S. Munitions List.
There are concerns among some defense experts that China’s military will benefit indirectly from the loosened export controls.
China has lobbied the U.S. government for years for access to Black Hawks and spare parts for its Sikorsky S-70s, a commercial version of the Black Hawk that was sold to China before its crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989 led to a ban on all sales of military goods.
China’s army “often complains that they need Black Hawk parts so they can use the helicopters for humanitarian relief efforts,” said Larry Wortzel, a former U.S. military attache who once was posted in Beijing.
“The Chinese military has used the helicopters for that purpose,” he said. “But the [army] also has used Black Hawks to move soldiers to suppress Tibetan protests and against Uighurs in Xinjiang, raising serious human-rights concerns.”
Mr. Wortzel said that during exercises on Dongshan Island in the late 1990s, China’s army used a Black Hawk to lift a 130 mm gun out to the island to simulate an artillery raid against Taiwan.
“Congress should not lift this embargo,” he said.
Rick Fisher, a China military affairs specialist, said the administration is wrong about the decontrol of Black Hawks.
“Instead of arming [China’s People’s Liberation Army] by selling new S-70 parts and C-130s, it should be putting greater pressure on Eurocopter to stop selling advanced helicopter technology to the PLA,” said Mr. Fisher of the International Assessment and Strategy Center, a security-issues think tank.
Mr. Fisher said the Chinese S-70s, like their copies of the U.S. Army’s Humvee, would boost Chinese special forces’ ability to blend in with Taiwan’s S-70s and Humvees should there be an armed conflict.