While the US is already a dominant force in global weapons trade, President Donald Trump wants to make it easier to put American-made weapons into the hands of US allies and partners – unveiling a new plan on Thursday that he hopes will expedite the current arms transfer process.
Since taking office, Trump has demonstrated an insatiable appetite for selling American weaponry abroad – at times using face-to-face meetings with foreign leaders to make a personal sales pitch.
And on Thursday, the administration introduced its latest plan to lift – what it views – as self-imposed policy restrictions that limit potential opportunities for business.
Under the Trump administration’s new Conventional Arms Transfer (CAT) policy and Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) export policy, private US defense companies will now be allowed to directly sell some types of conventional weapons and a broader range of unmanned drones to allies without having to go through the US government.
“The organizational culture of the Trump administration is ‘Buy American. Hire American.’ These are the two simple rules that President Trump has repeatedly stressed,” according to Dr. Peter Navarro, Assistant to the President for Trade & Manufacturing Policy and Director of the White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy.
“And be assured that this administration will be encouraging private defense industry to embrace those principles as it goes forward with its expanded opportunities,” he said. “As President Trump works to balance our trade with the rest of the world, further strengthening a critical part of our export economy and defense industrial base is a logical and critical step.”
While the Trump administration’s emphasis on the policy’s potential economic benefits is consistent with its broader message of “America First,” the lack of detail provided in Thursday’s announcement is also raising questions.
“It’s keeping with what they’ve been doing,” according to William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. “There is a lot of emphasis on jobs … and much less on human rights and other concerns.”
Making the sales pitch
The administration will also consult with industry partners over the next 60 days to streamline the government’s strategic advocacy role – to encourage US officials to do more to help promote foreign arms sales that align with US interests abroad.
“Under this Administration, there will be no more active advocate for US sales than the United States Government itself,” a State Department official told CNN. “We look forward to further discussions with industry on how best to advance exports while protecting American jobs.
“The Administration’s defense-trade focused initiatives build upon our long tradition of economic diplomacy and direct the United States Government to support America’s defense industry by strengthening our advocacy for defense sales that are in our national interest,” the official said.
But the policy could send a troubling message to US diplomats, Hartung warned.
“I am a little concerned that it’s a memo to our diplomats that floating arms sales should be at the top of the priority list,” he told CNN.
According to Navarro, the new policy will also help improve US national security.
“Partners who procure American weaponry are more capable of fighting alongside us, and ultimately more capable of protecting themselves with fewer American boots on the ground,” he said. “Providing our allies and partners with greater access to American arms will also reduce their reliance, not just on Chinese knock-offs, but also on Russian systems.”
Navarro accused the previous administration for enabling other nations to develop replicas of US drones and there is evidence that shows these systems have already been deployed to regions like the Middle East.
But while the new plan may offer additional flexibility for defense companies and US officials to promote American weapons abroad, Congress will still have the final say in approving any sale, according to Ambassador Tina Kaidanow, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs.
Stripping away red tape
The Trump administration has agreed to several arms deals in recent months – some worth billions of dollars – with nations across the world – but the President has expressed frustration with what he views as the limitations of US policy.
Trump teased the roll out of a new arms transfer policy on Wednesday during a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, saying the US would be “short circuiting” the arms transfers process to help its strategic partners’ defense capabilities.
“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 US interests,” Navarro said. “President Trump’s new CAT policy, which reforms the myopic 2014 policy of his predecessor, will ensure that American interests are put first in our decision making.”
The language in Thursday’s announcement is also raising questions about how human rights fit within the Trump administration’s arms sales strategy.
“Rather than focusing on risks of arms transfers, the policy really focuses on all the potential benefits,” according to Rachel Stohl, managing director at the Stimson Center.
“We didn’t need this policy to know how the administration feels about human rights,” she said, noting the US has recently approved arms sales to several countries with questionable human rights records.
“It is really a symbolic statement of policy,” Stohl said.
Administration officials sought to downplay concerns that fewer arms trade restrictions could have a negative impact on human rights.
“This is a balanced policy. We absolutely look at human rights as one of a set of considerations that we look at.” “Every sale we do is done on a case-by-case basis,” Kaidanow said.
“We have been very, very focused, especially in this administration and in tandem with Congress, on trying to give our partners – our strategic partners overseas – the ability to avoid civilian casualties especially, where we can,” she said.
The US government sold nearly $42 billion worth of weapons to foreign partners in 2017, according to the Defense Security Cooperation Agency.