Export Control Reform: Better Late than Never

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Last Thursday, the Trump administration released a Presidential Memorandum that sensibly reforms U.S. conventional arms transfer policy. The memo brings U.S. policy into closer alignment with the economic and security interests of the U.S. and its allies, through changes that reflect the rapid pace of technological innovation and the competitive global environment.

An updated policy was sorely needed. Many regulations and agreements governing U.S. arms transfers date back to when the U.S. maintained a comfortable lead in military innovation. Since that time, globalization has rapidly expanded other nations’ access to advanced technologies and complicated efforts to contain their spread and use.

U.S. export controls are intended to limit proliferation of advanced technologies. The idea is to exercise restraint in the transfer and sale of conventional arms, thereby keeping U.S. capabilities out of the hands of our foes and other repressive governments that might use them against their own citizens. Unfortunately, these controls inundate allies and adversaries alike with the same cumbersome licensing requirements and bureaucratic hurdles. These processes inhibit opportunities for trade and cooperation—to the detriment of U.S. industry. 

Meanwhile, foreign militaries have chipped away at the U.S. technological edge, increasing the number of countries willing and able to sell advanced technologies in a burgeoning world market. Governments dismayed by U.S. policy (or prices) can turn to other exporting countries for comparable systems.

The new policy addresses these failings, placing particular emphasis on the domestic and international regulation of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), commonly referred to as drones.

The U.S. is one of 35 signatories to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR)—a multinational agreement promoting voluntary restrictions on the transfer of missiles and missile technology.  Under the MTCR, unmanned systems (whether armed or unarmed) “capable of delivering a payload of at least 500 kg to a range of at least 300 km” are categorized among the most heavily regulated items, for which export requests “are subject to an unconditional strong presumption of denial.”

As could be expected, the MTCR has been principally effective in limiting the sales of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) by its signatories. The result has been to keep valuable capabilities away from countries with overlapping security interests.  Meanwhile, China has jumped to meet the global market demand, exercising far less restraint and discernment about to whom it will sell both armed and unarmed UAVs. As China expands its share of the global UAV market, it also expands its influence in the regulation and use of autonomous systems.

Arms transfers will always carry a level of risk. But the U.S. is no longer the only player in the game. The administration’s new policy recognizes the limitations of previous regulations.

Now, the U.S. must work to eliminate obsolete and bureaucratic barriers to U.S. exports, including inefficient licensing requirements and outdated technology controls. A system that is streamlined and responsive to global economic and security environments will better support U.S. industries, and advances the best interests of the U.S., its partners, and allies.

Rachel Zissimos is a policy analyst in The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense.

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