Trump administration officials pledge 'streamlined' arms sales to boost defense industry

By Tony Bertuca / August 8, 2018

Trump administration officials said today the government has embarked on a new era in foreign military sales to boost the U.S. defense industry and maintain global influence amid the rise of China and resurgence of Russia.

Tina Kaidanow, acting assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, said new implementation plans for conventional arms transfers would prioritize strategic and economic competition.

"Under this administration, there will be no more active advocate for arms sales than the U.S. government itself," she said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Kaidanow said the White House approved the new conventional arms transfer implementation plan in July. The plan, however, is not a public document and few details have yet to surface beyond a State Department fact sheet.

"These steps are among the first in what we hope will be a series of efforts to streamline the arms transfer process," Kaidanow said, adding the administration would continue searching for "ways to cut red tape and give U.S. industry every advantage."

Kaidanow noted that the State Department in fiscal year 2017 authorized nearly $42 billion in government-to-government sales and $112 billion in direct commercial sales.

"These sales help support over 2.4 million people across our nation who work in America's defense industry," she said.

Meanwhile, the United States is poised to significantly exceed its FY-17 FMS numbers, logging nearly $47 billion in weapons sales to allies in the first two quarters of FY-18.

Laura Cressey, State Department deputy director for regional security and arms transfers, said the new policy would include revisions to International Traffic and Arms Regulations and the possible creation of timelines and milestones for the FMS process, per the request of U.S. defense industry associations.

"We're trying to take a more proactive approach to arms transfers," she said, adding that the government is looking into potential financing options that could make it easier for U.S. allies to purchase American-made weapon systems.

Alex Gray, special assistant to the president for the defense industrial base at the White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, said the export market for unmanned aerial systems is likely to emerge as a key area of competition between the United States and competitors.

"The international UAS export market alone is estimated to be worth more $50 billion a year within the next decade," he said. "Those are the stakes we're competing for. . . . In recent times we have not been as aggressive with high-level advocacy as we could have been. That's a way for us to be strategically competitive."

Keith Webster, the Pentagon's former director of international cooperation who is now president of the Defense and Aerospace Export Council at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the United States is in a global competition for influence with Russia and China, which are "filling voids the U.S. left with a denial to a U.S. friend or ally."

Webster cited India as an example, saying the United States for years denied requests to sell a ballistic missile defense system. India, he said, is now considering purchasing a Russian-made system that has already been bought by Turkey.

"When I started in this business 33 years ago, we had a very strong corner on the market," he said. "There has been a paradigm shift."

However, Jeff Abramson of the Arms Control Association said he disagreed with the push for new conventional arms transfers, especially noting his concerns over arguments that the United States must sell weapons to beat China and Russia to the punch.

Highlighting the criticism of the Saudi military's actions in Yemen, Abramson also said he remains concerned that the United States will provide weapons to allies and partners who might use them to violate human rights.

"We have this sort of belief that if we're partners with a country we can control what they do," he said. "I would argue the Saudis have not been good actors."

Kaidanow stressed the administration will continue to review all arms transfers under the new implementation plan to prevent U.S. weapons from being used to violate human rights.

"We will not provide arms where we believe they will be used to conduct a gross violation of human rights," she said.