After months of anticipation, the Trump administration recently released a new conventional arms transfer (CAT) policy and a new unmanned aerial systems (UAS) export policy. Both policies demonstrate a notable shift in the U.S. approach to arms transfers by using a framework that puts greater emphasis on the U.S. economy and support for the defense industrial base versus viewing arms sales predominantly as tools to help achieve foreign policy goals and further U.S. national security interests.
In 2014, the Obama administration rewrote the CAT policy, which had not been updated since1995 during the Clinton administration. The Obama administration’s policy update was seen as necessary to better reflect 21st century realities and move beyond an antiquated focus on the challenges that faced the world after the fall of the Soviet Union. Although the overarching security challenges have not changed in the Trump administration’s policy update – with a continued focus on counter-terrorism and non-proliferation sprinkled throughout – the Trump administration’s CAT policy represents a clear departure from the past, reflecting and reinforcing President Donald Trump’s “Buy American” and “America First” approach to both domestic and foreign policies.
Whereas both the 1995 and 2014 CAT policies referenced economic security considerations in their texts, the new policy places these considerations front and center, announcing that the executive branch will “advocate strongly on behalf of United States companies.” The new policy does cover new ground, however, and includes prevention of civilian harm for the first time.
In reading the 2018 policy, it becomes clear that the Trump administration wants the United States to sell more weapons more quickly. But, the reality is that the United States is already the unrivaled number one arms exporter in the world, making more than $41 billion in government negotiated arms deals in 2017 alone. The United States sells to more governments than ever before and those that are not customers likely fall outside the U.S. market for good reason. Thus, the policy desires to push more arms to existing U.S. recipients with less conditionality.
The new CAT policy outlines the purpose of arms sales, and places a keen emphasis on the anticipated economic benefits of weapons transfers. As the policy asserts, the purpose of arms transfers (under the Trump administration) is to help the United States:
“maintain a technological edge over potential adversaries; strengthen partnerships that preserve and extend our global influence; bolster our economy; spur research and development; enhance the ability of the defense industrial base to create jobs; increase our competitiveness in key markets; protect our ability to constrain global trade in arms that is destabilizing or that threatens our military, allies, or partners; and better equip our allies and partners to contribute to shared security objectives and to enhance global deterrence.”
These priorities sound reasonable in theory, but the arms trade does not work like the trade in cars or bananas. A focus on short-term economic benefits overlooks the realities of the global arms trade, in which the wares being sold and transferred endure long after the transfer is completed and can be used to promote or undermine U.S. interests. Recent transfers of weapons and vehicles supplied to the Iraqi military, which were then seized by ISIS and used against U.S. troops and interests is but one in a long book of cautionary tales.
Although the policy reflects themes contained in the 2014 CAT policy, albeit with a significant bent towards economic security as the frame, there is one significant addition. Notably, the policy includes an explicit reference to reducing the risk of civilian harm that might stem from the transfer and use of conventional weapons, stating that it is the policy of the executive branch to “facilitate ally and partner efforts, through United States sales and security cooperation efforts, to reduce the risk of national or coalition operations causing civilian harm.” This represents the first such mention of civilian harm in a policy related to arms transfers. The implementation of this will be highly scrutinized, however, as we have already seen significant civilian harm from U.S. weapons transferred to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen, for example, among other transfers of concern.
The policy contains criteria to guide U.S. arms transfer decisions, which remain largely consistent with the criteria captured in the 2014 CAT policy. They include U.S. national security, U.S. economic security and innovation, relationship with allies and partners, human rights and international humanitarian law, and non-proliferation. Where these criteria differ from previous policy pronouncements is again in the framing, with the Trump administration focusing on the benefits, rather than the risks, of arms exports. Perhaps the most consequential effect of this approach is that the Trump administration will no longer require the past behavior of a recipient State to be factored into arms transfer decisions,which seemingly disregards statutory requirements to factor the past behavior of a recipient State into an arms transfer decision. Indeed, the 2018 CAT policy eliminates a decision-making criterion from the 2014 policy that examined a recipient State’s record of behavior on human rights, counterterrorism, and the potential for misuse. Rather, the policy focuses on the potential future risk of a transfer. Past behavior is therefore overlooked if governments promise to try harder not to intentionally cause harm. In effect, the message is that as long as future transgressions are not intentional, if a transfer is in the economic interest of the United States, potential risks can easily be overlooked.
Much of the CAT policy document is simply rhetoric, and it remains unclear how the Trump administration’s approach will work in practice. Thus, the 2018 CAT policy calls on an interagency group to develop an action plan within the next 60 days to implement the policy across the executive branch.
The administration also released a new UAS – or drone – export policy on April 18 as a companion to its CAT policy. The drone export policy itself is classified, as was the Obama 2015 drone export policy, but a fact sheet was made available describing the Trump administration’s approach to drone exports.
The changes under the drone export policy are more tangible than the CAT policy. There are three notable changes as described in the fact sheet. The first allows drones to be sold via the State Department’s Direct Commercial Sales (DCS) program, meaning industry can negotiate contracts with recipients without the involvement of the U.S. government. Second is the removal of special scrutiny for laser designators, meaning strike-enabled drones can be made available more widely and more easily. Third, the policy indicates that drone exports will be subject to possible enhanced end-use monitoring, instead of obligatory enhanced end-use monitoring (EUM). EUM is done to ensure that transferred weapons are where they are supposed to be, in the hands of those that are supposed to have them, and used in accordance with the terms of transfer. This means that drone exports will be treated the same as most other defense articles and will no longer require special export conditions or end-use checks. The policy does not eliminate the “presumption of denial” (a standard which has made it more difficult to export drones because the sale has to justify its need instead of more favorable disposition towards making the sale) for Category I drone exports (those with a range of 300 km and payload of 500 kg) as required by the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), but the State Department indicated that they would be looking to update the MTCR to focus on elements of drones that raise the greatest concern, which is not necessarily range and payload.
The new Trump administration policies on conventional arms transfers largely echo the criteria and considerations for U.S. arms sales that were captured in both the 1995 and 2014 policies, while at the same time reorienting the U.S. approach to such sales to a frame of economic security. To be sure, the Trump administration’s approach is not necessarily novel as the elevation of economic considerations in arms export decisions emerged after the Cold War. But, in prioritizing perceived economic gains, the Trump administration may be overlooking potential risks in its arms transfer decisions that could lead to considerable consequences in the long run. Although the policy may allow the United States to export more arms, including drones, in the short-term, the policy may also risk undermining long-standing U.S. principles, values, foreign policy objectives and security interests in the long-term.
This article originally appeared in Just Security on April 30, 2018.