- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 19, 2018

It’s one part of his job that President Trump takes to with an enthusiasm never matched before in the Oval Office: touting American-made armaments to potential foreign buyers.

The Trump administration on Thursday rolled out an even bigger “Open for Business” sign, streamlining the federal policies to approve arms sales to foreign governments and announcing a “manager’s special” of military drones that U.S. arms companies can for the first time hawk directly to overseas buyers without the Pentagon’s approval.

White House officials say the move will clear away unnecessary red tape that made past weapons deals more expensive and time-consuming, while lifting a ban that President Obama put into place three years ago on the booming drone market.

The rules were eased after U.S. defense companies reported nearly $42 billion in weapons sales to foreign partners and allies in fiscal 2017, up almost 20 percent from the year before, the State Department reported. That total included $32 billion in foreign military sales, $6 billion in financing and $3.8 billion from other sales.

Officials said Thursday that the arms sales mandates under the “Buy America” initiative will exponentially expand the nation’s already dominant market share.

The policy, which has been in the works for several months, will carve out a role for the White House and federal government to actively advocate for sales of U.S.-made weapons to foreign countries.

Mr. Trump has not been shy about prodding foreign leaders to step up their purchases of American hardware. He brandished an illustrated chart of U.S. tanks, planes and munitions in the Oval Office recently while hosting the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, a major purchaser of U.S. weaponry.

“Providing our allies and partners with greater access to American arms will also reduce their reliance not just on Chinese knockoffs, but also on Russian systems,” Peter Navarro, Mr. Trump’s top trade adviser and a longtime critic of Beijing, told reporters during a State Department briefing Thursday.

“For too long, we have hamstrung ourselves and limited our ability to provide our allies and partners with the defensive capabilities they require, even when in the U.S. interest,” he said.

Nearly 100 countries fly, float and fight with American-made weapons systems, and U.S. defense firms are the leading producers of advanced strike aircraft, precision-guided munitions and missile defense systems. That effort has been spurred by U.S. defense programs specifically geared toward international consumption, such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

In February, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Tina Kaidanow made an unusually high-profile appearance at Singapore’s international air show, lending the weight of the administration to U.S. defense firms looking to gin up business among Asian customers. Such appearances will likely become the norm under the new arms sales policy.

American diplomats and military leaders have been touting American arms as a way to promote better battlefield coordination between U.S. and allied forces rather than for the economic impact. The new arms policy will essentially flip that approach and put the fiscal benefits of arms sales to the U.S. economy at the forefront.

It remains unclear whether the U.S. arms export policy will water down or eliminate the role of human rights for foreign weapons sales. But U.S. defense firms are lauding the administration’s efforts to aggressively market their products and expedite their deals.

“While these reform efforts will allow us to continue to outpace emerging foreign competition, they will continue to support control mechanisms that protect our most sensitive technologies and hardware while upholding U.S. human rights and nonproliferation objectives,” officials from the National Defense Industrial Association said in a statement Thursday.

Administration officials want to further expand the nation’s already significant share of the global arms trade while persuading longtime allies to stick with American hardware and not shift to Chinese, Russian or Israeli-made rivals.

Drone sales

The new policy calls on the Pentagon and the Energy and Commerce departments to rewrite rules on drone exports. Federal guidelines on the sales of certain technologies — such as unmanned aircraft and long-range missile systems — include restrictions to ensure purchasers do not use those weapons against their own people.

However, modified or dumbed-down versions of those restricted weapons could sidestep the restrictions while keeping humanitarian concerns intact.

“We look at democracy, at governance, at human rights, at economic development, at security, at the creation of U.S. jobs and American prosperity. We look at all those things,” Ms. Kaidanow said. The Trump White House is “very, very focused” on ensuring foreign buyers who have access to drones or other sensitive technologies all adhere to international norms regarding human rights, she said.

The revised drone sales rules will ensure American defense firms maintain their dominance over China and other competitors in unmanned technology, said Mr. Navarro.

“Although the U.S. leads the way in [drone] technology, overly restrictive policies enacted by the previous administration have accelerated an undesirable outcome,” he said. “Already, we are seeing Chinese replicas … deployed on the runways in the Middle East.”

Obama administration officials suspended a handful of key U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia over concerns about civilian deaths tied to the Saudi-led operations against Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Riyadh’s heavy-handed strategy to defeat the Houthi separatists, punctuated by a devastating artillery and aerial campaign that reportedly has included the use of banned cluster bombs, has generated strong criticism among human rights groups and lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Critics of the new policy say Mr. Trump is badly overselling the job-generating benefits of military sales abroad. They also say the loosened rules call into question other U.S. foreign policy priorities in the search for more markets and bigger deals.

“Rather than buy into Trump’s claims about arms sales generating U.S. jobs, Congress should do its job by making sure that the commercial interests don’t override the national interest when it comes to arms exports,” William D. Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, wrote in The Hill newspaper Thursday.

But Trump administration officials signed off on a $1 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia in April. The deal included 100 155 mm M109 Howitzers, 180 .50-caliber M2 heavy machine guns, eight Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data Systems and three Fire Support Combined Arms Tactical Trainers for a grand total of $1.3 billion.

It was the second billion-dollar arms deal signed by the White House with Riyadh since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Washington in March.

“America is safer when our partners have access to the American-built systems they need to defend themselves and our shared interests, and when American industry competes on a level playing field,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement.

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