The Trump administration is putting the final touches on a plan to dramatically increase American military hardware sales around the world, paving the way for faster and bigger deals with a range of countries from Eastern Europe to Southeast Asia that have faced limits and barriers to buying from U.S. defense firms.
While administration officials have remained mum on the soon-to-be-released policy guidance, the impetus driving the new weapons export rules is twofold, said one U.S. official with direct knowledge of the administration’s plan.
Administration officials want to further expand America’s already significant share of the global arms trade while persuading longtime allies not to shift to Chinese, Russian or Israeli-made suppliers that don’t face the same barriers.
“The logic behind this is that we need to do better and faster at approving deals with countries that we know are going to go elsewhere and buy from China, Russia, France, Australia, Israel if the U.S. is too slow in the approval process,” the official said.
The new policy features a streamlined process for approving arms deals while working with American defense firms to develop cheaper, more exportable versions of American arms. That move could open the door for sales to countries that Washington has traditionally shied away from, industry sources said.
American defense industry giants such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing already manufacture scaled-down versions of their premier weapons platforms for international consumption. But federal guidelines on the sales of certain technologies — such as unmanned aircraft or long-range missile systems — include restrictions to ensure that the foreign purchasers do not use those weapons on their own people.
The Reuters news agency reported last month that one policy change would affect the sales of small-arms weaponry and ammunition, transferring oversight from the State Department to the Commerce Department, an agency far more committed in its basic mission to maximizing U.S. export opportunities. Another change would be to enlist American diplomats and the Pentagon’s defense attaches to act much more as “unfettered salesmen” for American weaponry and defense systems abroad.
The proposed U.S. arms export policy would not water down or eliminate the administration’s focus on human rights for foreign weapons sales, the administration source made clear. However, modified or dumbed-down versions of those restricted weapons built by American defense firms could end-run the federal constraints while continuing to monitor the human rights records of purchasers, the source said.
While the final policy still must be issued, officials at the Pentagon and State Department are already moving out aggressively on expanding U.S. arms markets.
Officials from the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the Pentagon directorate responsible for facilitating U.S. arms sales, announced Feb. 14 a series of weapon sales to Kuwait, Finland and the Netherlands totaling just over $1.3 billion. The largest portion of those sales went to a $1.19 billion sale to Amsterdam to upgrade the European nation’s fleet of AH-64D Apache attack helicopters.
Kuwait is pegged to receive 15 armed fast patrol boats from the U.S. to assist in maritime security of the coastal waters bordering the shipping lanes that crisscross the Persian Gulf, agency officials wrote in their congressional notifications of the sales on Tuesday.
In the Netherlands, the upgrade package to the country’s Apache attack helicopter fleet will include the latest generation navigation, targeting and night-vision technologies, according to the agency notice. The Finnish Navy is slated to receive four Mk 41 Baseline VII Strike-Length Vertical Launching Systems at a total cost of $70 million. The launchers will be used to outfit Finland’s construction corvette ships slated to enter the fleet in 2020.
Both sales “will support the foreign policy and national security objectives of the United States by improving the security of a NATO ally which has been, and continues to be, an important force for political stability and economic progress in Europe,” agency officials said.
The push to deregulate U.S. foreign arms sales by the Trump administration — known inside the White House as the “Buy America” initiative — is meant to deliver on Mr. Trump’s campaign promises to re-energize all sectors of the American economy and shrink the U.S. trade deficit, a key economic policy goal in Mr. Trump’s “America first” foreign policy.
Aside from pressing for a more expedited federal approval process for U.S. weapons sales, the White House is also calling upon American diplomats overseas to press potential buyers to buy American. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Tina Kaidanow made a rare appearance at Singapore’s international air show last month, part of an unusually large American delegation looking to gin up sales in Asia.
“We’re trying to make sure that as we think about expanding markets for American companies … that we are doing everything we can as a government to ensure that those obstacles are cleared away, that we are working collaboratively with our companies in the U.S.,” Ms. Kaidanow told reporters at the show, the online news service Defense One reported. “This Singapore Airshow is a primo example of exactly that.”
Such appearances will likely become the norm once the “Buy America” policy goes into effect, the administration source said. But the White House push to generate more American arms sales is not just about dollars and cents.
Overseas weapons sales by U.S. firms surged by $8.3 billion from 2016 to 2017, with American arms makers moving a total of $41.9 billion in advanced weaponry to foreign militaries last year, according to figures by the Pentagon. One reason for the sales push is the need for interoperability between U.S. and allied military systems, particularly as the Trump administration’s strategic blueprint calls for a return to putting a priority on the threat from traditional nation-state rivals such as China and Russia.
Thus, boosting foreign military purchases of American-made goods is vital to U.S. defense and national security policies.
Nearly 100 countries fly, float and fight with American-made weapons systems. U.S. defense firms are the leading producers of advanced strike aircraft, precision-guided munitions and missile defense systems. That effort has been spurred on by U.S. defense programs specifically geared toward international consumption, such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.
Critics of the policy say the changes will allow countries with histories of human rights violations access to some of America’s deadliest military weaponry.
To that end, White House officials and defense industry representatives are expected to hold a series of talks once the policy is issued to ensure potential foreign arms purchasers get the U.S. arms they need while adhering to Washington’s efforts to preserve human rights.
That said, the administration source ruled out any possibility of allowing U.S. defense firms to sell American weapons technologies overseas that are banned outright from export — such as stealth technology or chemical and nuclear technology. Washington will continue to secure critical technologies while maintaining America’s military edge across the globe, the source said.