"I salute the Arms Control Association … for its keen vision of the goals ahead and for its many efforts to identify and to promote practical measures that are so vitally needed to achieve them."

– Amb. Nobuyasu Abe
Former UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs
January 28, 2004
Jeff Abramson

Trump Favors Arms Industry in Effort to Loosen Export Controls



Volume 10, Issue 6, June 7, 2018

The Trump administration is pushing to make sweeping changes in U.S. conventional arms export policies in order to sell more weapons, more quickly, and typically with less transparency and oversight. One reason given for these changes—advancing economic security—is simply faulty.

Worse still, the policies are dangerous, creating new risks that these weapons end up in the hands of terrorists and international criminals and further undermining the promotion of human rights norms that should be central to U.S. actions.

In mid-April, the president issued a new conventional arms transfer policy, giving the State Department 60 days to submit an implementation plan. In May, the administration also started a 45-day public comment period on regulatory changes that would transfer the control of assault rifles and other weapons of choice in armed violence to the Commerce Department.

If the administration is serious about claims that these changes make for responsible policy, it should add much greater transparency into the arms transfer and monitoring process. Congress, if it does not act to stop these new approaches, should make sure, at a minimum, that it maintains meaningful oversight to prevent abuses that undermine longstanding U.S. foreign policy objectives designed to avoid fueling conflicts around the world and propping up regimes that do not respect the basic human rights of their people.


On April 19, Donald Trump issued a national security presidential memorandum replacing a January 2014 presidential policy directive that, like the 1995 iteration from the Clinton administration, included an unweighted list of criteria to guide decisions on U.S. conventional arms transfers.

Common to these policies are goals to improve the security of the United States and its allies, prevent proliferation, and support relevant multilateral agreements. With the backing of major arms producers, the Trump approach explicitly adds “economic security” as a factor in considering whether to approve arms exports. It promises that “the executive branch will advocate strongly” on behalf of U.S. companies and “maximize the ability” of U.S. industry “to grow and support allies and partners.”

Michael F. Miller, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, U.S. Department of State discusses new US conventional arms transfer policy and proposed changes to firearms exports at Forum on the Arms Trade conference in Washington DC on May 22. (Photo: Stimson Center)The memorandum retains many of the same provisions regarding human rights as the Obama-era conventional arms transfer policy, although consolidating their reference to a single section rather than reiterating them throughout. The new policy, however, does not explicitly say that past records on human rights will be a factor in decisions. It does contain a new commitment to “facilitate” ally and partner efforts “to reduce the risk of national or coalition operations causing civilian harm.”

Whether the implementation plan due soon from the Secretary of State explains how this will be done remains to be seen, but it is expected that training of forces will be touted as a critical component. Such training was written into arms sales last year to Saudi Arabia and Nigeria.

Proposed changes to the regulation of exports were announced May 14 and published in the Federal Register May 24, beginning a public comment period that ends in July.

Specifically, the rules relate to the first three categories of the United States Munitions List (USML) maintained under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), whose lead administrator is the Department of State. Under the proposal, many items would move from the USML to the Commerce Control List (CCL) to become part of the Export Administration Regulations (EAR), whose lead administrator is the Commerce Department. Most notably, non-automatic and semi-automatic firearms and their ammunition currently controlled under USML category I would move to new EAR 500-series classifications in the CCL.

The primary rationale given for the change is that these weapons no longer merit tight control. According to the State Department: 

The Department of State is engaged in an effort to revise the U.S. Munitions List so that its scope is limited to those defense articles that provide the United States with a critical military or intelligence advantage or, in the case of weapons, are inherently for military end use. The articles now controlled by USML Categories I, II, and III that would be removed from the USML under this proposed rule do not meet this standard, including many items which are widely available in retail outlets in the United States and abroad.

The revisions were drafted during the previous administration’s export reform control initiative, which sought to build higher fences on fewer items. During Obama’s presidency, action was taken on 18 of the USML’s 21 categories, but frequent mass shootings and an administration more supportive of gun control efforts contributed to the firearms categories going unpublished.

Critics of President Trump, such as Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), have pointed to the domestic U.S. gun lobby as the real driver behind these changes and called the decision to move forward “politically tone deaf as our nation reckons with a gun violence epidemic.”

Adding in Transparency and Enabling Assessment

As the Trump administration works to implement these changes, it should build in transparency and process changes that make it possible to assess whether U.S. arms exports are meeting the stated goals of the new policies.

This would not only be good public policy, but such an approach has the potential to address rising congressional and international distress about an administration that has shown less restraint, including by moving ahead with arms sales to Bahrain, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia that the previous administration had held back on due to serious human rights concerns.

As a start, a public accounting and evaluation of training that might go along with arms sales is desperately needed, especially if it will be a cornerstone of an effort to protect civilians. With another round of controversial precision-guided munition sales expected soon to Saudi Arabia (as well as the UAE), it is imperative that much more is shared about how training is done, who receives it, and whether it works.

As the Saudi-led coalition continues to hit civilian areas and an invasion of the port of Hodeida looms that threatens to further exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, it is not enough to simply say training is important. It must make a difference.

Similarly, much greater transparency into the arms sales process at a public level is critical. Under current procedure Congress is notified of potential major arms sales whether through the foreign military sales (FMS) process or via direct commercial sales (DCS), starting a review period by which it could block agreement to the sale.

Unlike FMS notifications, DCS notifications are not posted on a publicly accessible website, giving the American people less time to inform their representatives of any concerns. If the administration wants to make it easier for companies to negotiate their arms sales, it should also improve transparency into them.

While Congress can block or amend an arms sale up until a weapon is delivered, those deliveries often occur years after notification. There is typically much less public attention on arms sales during this period. If the administration wants to speed the time between agreement and delivery, it should agree to also make clear when a delivery is imminent, so as to create predictable moments for oversight. In 2014, Congress created a mechanism for receiving notification at least 30 days before delivery when requested on select sales, but has only used the authority once. The administration should instead make this standard on all sales and make it public.

Public reporting afterward, via the State Department’s so-called 655 report, also now has less detail than in the past. These reports, as well as others on end-use monitoring, should provide information on the number of specific weapons involved and other data, rather than broad categorical details. Importantly, reports from the Commerce Department should also improve in detail, especially if the changes on firearm exports are put into place that transfer oversight away from the State Department.

Without these specifics, it becomes more difficult not only to assess these policy changes, but to further goals such as combating illicit trafficking and weapons flows to terrorists and other unintended users.

A recent report from the Center for Civilians in Conflict and Stimson Center offers an array of good suggestions that run the life of a weapon—from pre-transfer to end-use monitoring—with “trigger” mechanisms along the way that allow for reassessment as situations change. Those recommendations, primarily focused on protecting civilians but also relevant to promoting human rights and international law, deserve strong consideration.

The Value of Congressional Oversight

In 2002 Congress amended its notification threshold so that it would be informed of potential commercial sales of firearms under USML category I when they were valued at just $1 million, as opposed to $14 million for other major weapons sales.

During a Sept. 26 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, then-ranking member Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) pointed to forestalling small arms sales to Turkey and the Philippines as recent examples of Congress’ needed role. In 2017, the administration notified Congress of more than $660 million of proposed firearms sales regulated under the USML, according to the Security Assistance Monitor.

Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.)No similar statutory requirement of congressional notification exists for most arms sales under the CCL, meaning Congress would lose its oversight role on these weapons. It could take steps to require that notification continues. In response to the new measures, Cardin said May 15

For years, I advised both the Obama and Trump Administrations against this type of transfer. Weakened Congressional oversight of international small arms and munitions sales is extremely hazardous to global security.  Small arms and light weapons are among the most lethal weapons that we and other countries export because these are the weapons that are most likely to be used to commit atrocities and suppress human rights, either by individuals, non-state groups, or governmental security and para-military forces.

While Congress does not have control over the president’s conventional arms transfer policy, it can mandate the types of transparency recommended above, including an expansion on pre-delivery notifications. It could also pass legislation that retains the classification of firearms as military weapons and placement on the USML.

The Administration’s Faulty “Economic Security” Excuse

According to the latest report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the United States remains the leading and expanding provider of major conventional weapons into a growing international arms market. Russia, long the number two arms exporter, is in decline as Washington accounts for more than one-third of all major weapons deliveries.

It begs credulity to argue that the United States needs a special push in order to compete in the international arms market. Linkages of U.S. jobs to international arms sales are also overblown as arms deals frequently come with co-production agreements or other incentives that support jobs abroad rather than at home.

At a more fundamental level, U.S. arms are not like any other commodity and should not be treated as such. These are first and foremost killing machines. The over-emphasis on economic security threatens to jeopardize higher priorities, including peace and security concerns. If more weapons flow to countries with poor human rights records, norms around responsible weapons use and transfer will be harder to build and uphold.

Regarding firearms, these weapons are controlled because a significant amount of violence that occurs, including against U.S. military and law enforcement personnel, is inflicted by small arms. Research indicates that the types of weapons being transferred to Commerce control—AR-15s and AK-47 style assault rifles and their ammunition—are “weapons of choice” of drug trafficking organizations in Mexico and other Latin American countries. Many can also be easily converted to fully automatic weapons, which will remain under USML control. U.S. military members often operate their fully-automatic-capable weapons in a semi-automatic or less-than-automatic mode.

The transfer of firearms export control to the Department of Commerce will also likely remove a number of brokering registration requirements, may open up license exemptions that facilitate weapons ending up in the wrong hands, and limit legal or investigative actions to stop such results.

Claiming that these weapons do not have military utility because they may be commercially available, are somehow less dangerous,or do not merit stronger international control, is wrong.

In the end, these policies continue the wrong-minded approach of the Trump administration to treat weapons as any other trade commodity, threatening to undermine long-term global security and true U.S. national security interests.—JEFF ABRAMSON, nonresident senior fellow


If the Trump administration is serious about changing U.S. arms sales policies, it should add much greater transparency into the arms transfer and monitoring process. 

Country Resources:

Firearm Export Rule Change Draws Criticism

June 2018
By Jeff Abramson

With proposed rule changes affecting U.S. firearms exports, the Trump administration is drawing criticism from domestic gun control advocates and taking a further step to promote weapons sales, a hallmark of this presidency.

The proposed changes, announced May 14 and published in the Federal Register on May 24, are open for public comment for 45 days. If implemented, licensing for the export of nonautomatic and semiautomatic firearms and their ammunition will move to the Commerce Department from the State Department, which administers the U.S. Munitions List.

Semiautomatic rifles are displayed for sale in a Las Vegas gun shop on October 4, 2017. The Trump administration has proposed new rules that critics say will ease licensing for exports of nonautomatic and semiautomatic firearms. (Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)Critics say the change will loosen U.S. control over such exports to the benefit of U.S. gun manufacturers. “Small arms and light weapons are among the most lethal weapons that we and other countries export because these are the weapons that are most likely to be used to commit atrocities and suppress human rights, either by individuals, nonstate groups, or governmental security and paramilitary forces,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said on May 15.

Mike Miller, acting deputy assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, said on May 22 that the change is justified because the weapons involved are “widely available, generally in retail outlets.” He noted that the categories of firearms moved to Commerce “will remain subject to export licensing requirements” and asserted that “these changes do not decontrol export of firearms and ammunition.”

In 2017 the administration notified Congress of more than $660 million of proposed firearms sales regulated under the munitions list, according to the Security Assistance Monitor. Some of those sales involved fully automatic weapons that will remain on the Munitions List, making it difficult to estimate the retail value of items moving to licensing at Commerce. Nonetheless, many industry groups welcomed the changes.

President Donald Trump has frequently touted the economic benefits of arms sales. In April, the administration issued a conventional arms transfer policy that emphasized the economic value of the defense industry broadly and promised the executive branch would “advocate strongly” on behalf of U.S. companies. (See ACT, May 2018.)

Miller said that “he wouldn’t necessarily pin [the proposed regulation changes] directly” to the new conventional arms transfer policy, but others including Democratic lawmakers have pointed to gun manufacturers and their supporters as the driving force behind the proposed rules. “I encourage the American people and relevant stakeholders to weigh in with the administration and speak out against the forces really driving this policy change—the gun lobby,” said Cardin.

Local news media in Connecticut and Florida reported that Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Reps. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.) and Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) also criticized the president for aligning with gun manufacturers. A number of gun control advocates also oppose the proposed change, including Robin Lloyd, director of government affairs at Giffords, the gun safety group founded by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and her husband, retired U.S. Navy Captain Mark Kelly.

“It’s clear the administration will do anything to appease the gun lobby, even if it means putting profits over the safety of people around the world,” Lloyd said.

Efforts to revise the U.S. Munitions List have been ongoing for decades, but early in the Obama administration, the Export Control Reform Initiative was launched, based on a review that found the United States was “trying to control too much.” Seeking to “strengthen the United States’ ability to counter threats such as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,” the administration made changes to 18 of the 21 categories of major weapons and technology controlled under the munitions list, moving many items to the Commerce Control List, with an idea of building higher fences around fewer items.

Changes to the first three categories, which cover close-assault weapons and combat shotguns, guns and armaments, and their ammunition and ordnance, were considered by the Obama administration, but never published. The Obama-era delay can be attributed in part to the frequent national attention drawn to firearms by mass shootings in the United States and a presidency more inclined to support gun control efforts. On May 15, Cardin called the decision to move forward with changes “politically tone deaf as our nation reckons with a gun violence epidemic.”

In September 2017, Cardin, joined by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), sent a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson expressing concerns about the possible transfer to Commerce control, pointing to congressional action in 2002 that required firearms sales valued at $1 million or more be notified to Congress, a much lower dollar threshold than for other weapons. Items moved over to Commerce control would no longer be subject to such notification.

With the rule release, Cardin and others reiterated their concern regarding loss of congressional oversight and broader worries about how firearms fuel conflict.

Critics say proposed shift to Commerce Department licensing will ease regulation on exports of nonautomatic and semiautomatic firearms.

New Policies Promote Arms, Drone Exports

May 2018
By Jeff Abramson

The Trump administration has revised policies guiding conventional arm transfers and drone exports, controversially placing greater emphasis on U.S. economic interests. A plan for implementing the policies is due in two months.

The April 19 national security presidential memorandum replaces a January 2014 presidential policy directive that, like the 1995 iteration from the Clinton administration, included an unweighted list of criteria to guide decisions on U.S. conventional arms transfers. Common to these policies are goals to improve the security of the United States and its allies, prevent proliferation, and support relevant multilateral agreements. New to the Trump approach is an explicit inclusion of “economic security” as a factor in considering whether to approve arms exports.

President Donald Trump makes a point about the U.S. economic benefits from arms sales during an Oval Office meeting March 20 with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.  (Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

The new policy on conventional arms transfers begins with an assertion that the defense industrial base employs more than 1.7 million people and that “the executive branch will advocate strongly” on behalf of U.S. companies and “maximize the ability” of U.S. industry “to grow and support allies and partners.”

The new policy on the export of unmanned aerial systems, full details of which remain classified, lists increasing trade opportunities for U.S. companies as one of five primary objectives. It replaces an “overly restrictive policy established in 2015 that hindered American companies,” according to a short White House statement. That statement places the new policies within the president’s “commitment to peace through strength” in part by “expanding opportunities for American industry [and] creating American jobs.”

The added focus on jobs and the economy was expected from the president, who has touted arms sales and called for speeding the process for arms deliveries. Exactly how that will be done remains to be determined. The policy says that the secretary of state is to deliver a proposed action plan within 60 days, a process that is expected to include consultation with industry and civil society groups.

In a news conference shortly before the new policies were released, Tina S. Kaidanow, principal deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, provided insights into how the policy changes for unmanned aerial systems, commonly referred to as drones, may speed delivery of certain items by allowing their sale to be directly negotiated by companies.

Under the new policy, so-called strike enabling technology, such as laser target designators that are not themselves armed, will no longer be required to go through the government-to-government process for negotiating foreign military sales, she said. Instead, the new policy allows companies to negotiate directly with foreign government buyers through the direct commercial sales process. Such an approach involves “fewer barriers and less confusion,” which can “potentially allow for faster procurement,” she said. The policy also allows for armed unmanned aerial systems to be transferred via either procurement process.

Citing increased competition from China, Peter Navarro, assistant to the president for trade and manufacturing policy, said the administration’s policy
on unmanned aerial systems “will level the playing field by enabling firms to increase their direct sales to authorized allies and partners.”

The policy also calls for the United States to seek changes to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) as it applies to unmanned aerial systems, most likely to ease some presumptive restrictions given that drones fly more slowly than missiles. The MTCR, which has 35 member-states, works to restrict exports of missiles and related technologies capable of carrying a 500-kilogram payload at least 300 kilometers, which applies to some
drone systems.

Both foreign military and direct commercial sales require that Congress be notified of certain potential arms sales. Congress can block the conclusion of an arms agreement within 30 days or act anytime until delivery. Kaidanow said that nothing in the new presidential memorandum “changes either the existing legal or regulatory requirements, and we are very respectful of Congress’ role in all of this.”

Although many worried that the new policies would jettison any mention of human rights, they do retain many of the same provisions as the Obama-era conventional arms transfer policy, although consolidating their reference to a single section rather than reiterating them throughout. The new policy also contains a commitment to “facilitate” ally and partner efforts “to reduce the risk of national or coalition operations causing civilian harm.”

Nonetheless, the administration’s approach did draw criticism. The policies “present a clear political objective by the Trump administration—to demonstrate its ‘America First’ approach and promote U.S. industry,” said Rachel Stohl, deputy director of the Stimson Center in Washington and a board member of the Arms Control Association. “The policies focus on the benefits, rather than the risks, of arms exports and take a short-term view without fully incorporating potential long-term consequences,” she added.

Trump administration emphasizes economic benefits of U.S. weapons sales abroad.

Trump Touts Saudi Arms Sales

April 2018
By Jeff Abramson

As U.S. senators questioned military support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, President Donald Trump extolled U.S. arms sales in a high-profile meeting with the Saudi crown prince.

In public remarks at the White House by the president and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on March 20, Trump held up posters with pictures of U.S. military equipment sold to Saudi Arabia and boasted, “We make the best military product in the world, whether it’s missiles or planes or anything else.”

President Donald Trump holds up a chart highlighting U.S. military hardware sales to Saudi Arabia as he meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office on March 20.  (Photo: Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images)These sales “really [mean] many, many jobs. We’re talking about over 40,000 jobs in the United States,” Trump said. No basis for that number was provided, nor was a time frame because many of the arms sales cited cover a number of years.

Two days after the Oval Office meeting, the administration notified Congress of potential arms sales valued at more than $1 billion, including more than 6,500 anti-tank missiles, as well as services and parts for Abrams tanks, armored vehicles, helicopters, and other military equipment.

Just before the visit, a report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) again found the United States to be the world’s largest arms exporter in a growing international market, with Riyadh remaining by far the largest importer of U.S. weapons. (See ACT, March 2017.)

Arms sales to Saudi Arabia have been controversial, most recently as the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen has attacked civilian targets and contributed to humanitarian suffering in the country. Last year, 47 senators voted unsuccessfully to stop a sale of precision-guided munitions to Riyadh. (See ACT, July/August 2017.)

On the same day as the White House meeting, the Senate narrowly failed to pass a measure that sought to end U.S. military support to the Saudi war in Yemen, specifically referencing aerial refueling, intelligence sharing, and targeting assistance to Saudi-led forces. Saying that Congress had not approved U.S. military engagement and invoking the war powers resolution, 44 senators voted to bring the measure to the full Senate, where presumably it would have passed should a majority have agreed to its full consideration.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who was among a bipartisan group of co-sponsors, said afterward, “Every day that America keeps helping Saudi Arabia bomb Yemen, we are less safe as a nation.” The vote “is a signal that the U.S. Senate is not going to stand idly by and let this fatal foreign policy mistake continue unabated,” he said.

SIPRI’s annual report on trends in international transfers of major weapons systems confirmed a central place for Saudi Arabia among the 98 countries to which the United States exported weapons from 2013 to 2017. Riyadh, whose total imports more than quintupled in that period, accounted for 18 percent of Washington’s exports, more than twice that of the next largest U.S. weapons importer, the United Arab Emirates.

As conflicts affected nearly all the countries in the Middle East, arms imports into the region more than doubled, with Saudi Arabia importing hundreds of combat aircraft and helicopters, tanks, and armored vehicles. The report drew extra attention to the transfer of missiles for use against ground targets by Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE from China, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The United States alone accounted for 34 percent of global exports during 2013-2017, up from 30 percent during the previous five-year period, and a significantly larger share than Russia, the second-largest exporter at 22 percent. Although the total volume of international arms trade rose by 10 percent during the period, Russia’s share declined in part due to reduced deliveries to Algeria, China, and Venezuela. Russia remains the largest supplier to the world’s top arms importer, India; but the United States is now New Delhi’s second-largest arms supplier, with U.S. exports to the country up 557 percent.

The Trump administration’s approach to arms sales appears to differ from that of the Obama administration in its emphasis on economic considerations over human rights, according to a report released last month by the Security Assistance Monitor. The Security Assistance Monitor report also challenges the Trump administration’s promotion of arms sales for their economic and jobs benefits, noting that many proposed sales include provisions for foreign manufacturing.

Further, some U.S. lawmakers are calling into question the economic logic of waivers to Saudi Arabia that would reduce the price it pays for the $15 billion Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system notified in October 2017, the single-largest notification of the year. Bloomberg reported on March 21 that the Saudis received what amounts to a $3.5 billion price cut through waivers from a U.S. law requiring foreign purchasers of U.S. weapons to pay part of the Defense Department’s costs in developing them.

Such waivers are now relatively commonplace, according to a Government Accountability Office report in January 2018; but Bloomberg quoted House Armed Services Committee member Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) saying, “American taxpayers are footing the bill for billions of dollars for researching and developing the weapons we sell to foreign governments.”

Senate measure on Yemen war falls short.

US government set to boost arms exports

News Source / Outlet: 
The Straits Times
News Date: 
January 9, 2018 -05:00

What Pushes a Country to Stop Selling Weapons?

News Source / Outlet: 
News Date: 
March 14, 2018 -04:00


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