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FAS Public Interest Report
The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists
Summer 2003
Volume 56, Number 2
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Front Page
Nuclear Terror: Ambling Toward Apocalypse
21st-Century Physics: Grand Challenges
The Afghan Housing Crisis: Can New Technology Make a Difference?
Congress Permits Research on Smaller Nuclear Weapons
Molecular Manufacturing: Start Planning
Progress Report for FAS Learning Technology Initiatives
Challenging Conventional Wisdom on Arms Exports
How Well did TOPOFF2 Prepare Us?

Challenging Conventional Wisdom on Arms Exports

by Tamar Gabelnick and Rachel Stohl

The following are excerpts from the conclusion of a new joint publication of the Federation of American Scientists' Arms Sales Monitoring Project and the Center for Defense Information on widespread misconceptions about conventional arms exports. The goal of the publication is to educate policymakers and the broader public about a set of myths that have been perpetuated by the defense industry and their allies in the government to justify a relaxation of export controls. The book, a set of papers written by outside experts and edited by Mses. Gabelnick and Stohl, also presents the potential risks of recent or potential changes to export controls, as well as suggestions for strengthening the export control system.

"The paradigm shift in US foreign policy created by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, means that most matters of foreign affairs are now defined in terms of the war on terrorism and continued threats to US security. As a result, arms export control "reformers," or proponents of sometimes far-reaching changes to the arms export system, are gaining greater resonance for their views by asserting that current restrictions on arms and weapon technology transfers are endangering US national security. The essence of the export reformers' argument is that the US ability to defend itself unilaterally or in coalition with allies depends on a healthy American defense industry, which in turn relies on large quantities of hassle-free exports.

But there is a paradox in the reformers' message that is rarely acknowledged: Even if arms exports do achieve some national security objectives in the near term, they can simultaneously decrease US security by contributing to the proliferation of US weapons and technology. This contradiction holds true for a wide variety of clients and the entire spectrum of weapons, from close European allies (because of the risk of diversion) to new allies in the war on terrorism; and from high-tech goods (both military and dual-use) to low-tech arms or spare parts.

The tenuous benefits export control reforms to national security is just one example of the way the public debate on arms exports has been manipulated by the weapon industry, conservative think tanks, and some senior officials in the Defense and State departments. With the exception of a few specialists in Congress and the General Accounting Office (GAO), most policy-makers seem to have accepted the assessment of the reformers that the export control system is broken and in urgent need of repair. No one is questioning whether the defense industry is presenting an accurate picture of export controls and their impact on international trade; whether the US government should be linking its interests so closely with those of the defense industry; or whether the policy proscriptions being put forward would be harmful to US national interests.

This book was designed to redress the one-sidedness of the debate by questioning the conventional wisdom about defense export reforms. We have examined in close detail the oft-repeated, but seldom analyzed, "myths" surrounding arms export controls. Whether or not one agrees with the conclusions of the chapters, it is essential that the content be discussed to form solid and safe policy. This book also adds to the debate by laying out some of the risks associated with recent or proposed policy changes. Moreover, rather than just criticizing the current proposals, the book proposes ways to strengthen the current system to make it more reflective of today's global security environment.

We believe that in order to develop sound export control policies, government officials need to seriously evaluate what the problems are with the current system and whether these deficiencies truly impact US national interests, or simply inconvenience the arms industry. If serious weaknesses in the system are identified, then policy-makers should find remedies compatible with the magnitude of the problems. In other words, those seeking to remedy any shortcomings of the arms export system should not throw the baby out with the bath water.

Export Control Myths

This book lays out three main arguments that have been put forward by proponents of arms export reforms, repeated by the media, and taken at face value by policy-makers. First, reform advocates contend that the health of the defense industry relies on unimpeded access to foreign markets. A corollary to this belief is that the modernization of US military equipment depends on reduced restrictions on arms and technology transfers because this will stimulate technological innovations and lower costs through economies of scale. Second, reformers, especially in the Pentagon, state that arms exports are the best way to achieve interoperability with allied forces, and therefore placing unnecessary hurdles on exports will impede the US military's ability to work effectively with coalition partners. Third, State Department and other government officials allege that transferring arms to other governments is an effective way to win influence over their policies. In addition to these myths, conventional wisdom also suggests that even in our free market economy, government support of the defense trade is justified because of the arms industry's special relationship with the Pentagon.

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Risks Associated with Decontrol

Not only has the export control debate lacked sufficient analysis of the alleged problems being addressed, but it has also failed to include much assessment of the risks posed by current and proposed policy changes. Reformers pay lip service to the relationship between export controls and national security, but do not adequately lay out a picture of how a relaxation of export controls could affect US security. And they have virtually ignored how loosening controls could affect foreign policy goals, such as the promotion of human rights, democracy and regional stability. In addition, it is not surprising that the potential damage to congressional and public oversight is being left out of the debate largely dominated by the executive branch and industry.

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Recommendations

Advocates for changes to the defense export control system label their proposals "reforms," as if they were minor, but necessary, improvements to a flawed system. There are certainly some changes that could be made to the bureaucratic process - some of which, such as electronic license applications, are already being undertaken - that might make the system more efficient, and thus, effective. The problem with many of the proposals being put forward by the "reform" community, however, is that they tend to go far beyond the problem at hand. For example, since the process within the State Department is seen as being overly bureaucratic and slow, some reformers want to eliminate the State Department from the licensing process or allow industry to regulate its own exports. Indeed, the myths reviewed in this book may have been constructed in order to justify policy solutions that largely surpass the actual problems being experienced by industry. Our first and most important recommendation, therefore, is for policy-makers to carefully analyze the defense industry's criticisms of the export control system to see if they truly impinge on US national interests, and then to evaluate whether the policy proposals are appropriate for those problems.

But policy-makers should go further than just maintaining current controls. "Reforming" the export control process should also mean strengthening the current US system and pursuing better multilateral controls. Especially in this time of heightened security risks, the question the US government should be asking is whether current controls will keep arms, technology and weapon components out of the hands of terrorists and away from unstable regimes. This means not only improving controls over US equipment, but ensuring that recipients of US defense goods and services share US values and protect sensitive US equipment. It means creating a truly transparent system so the public can provide essential commentary on arms transfers. And it means working with other nations to establish international arms control regimes of the highest quality.

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Conclusion

The intention of this book is not to argue that expediting arms transfers will never lead to more interoperability, a healthier defense industry or closer ties with foreign militaries, or that these are not worthy goals. We simply maintain that there are different means to achieve these same ends, and that using relaxed export controls to advance these goals may create other, potentially more costly, problems. Therefore, the US government should think more carefully about the real need for structural changes to the export licensing process, the potential ramifications of such projects and possibilities for alternative approaches.

When conducting such analysis, US policy-makers need to recognize that it is simply not feasible to rely on increased arms exports to achieve certain foreign policy or national security goals. For example, one of the Pentagon's top priorities in reforming the export control system is to enable European allies to work more closely with American forces. But if the Pentagon truly wants to work with those countries on interoperability, it must acknowledge that many of them have weapon industries that they need to support. No amount of reduction in export control "barriers" will convince European states to buy only American, or even much more than they already are acquiring. The same may also be said about other importers, which for political or economic reasons may choose to go with other suppliers at times. The gap in defense capabilities with Europe is also linked to much lower European defense spending and investment rather than the limited constraints faced in buying US machinery.

Instead of focusing intensively on getting countries to purchase US weaponry, the US government needs to examine other ways to meet policy goals, such as interoperability, a healthy defense industry, protecting national security and enhancing its diplomatic strength. For example, interoperability can be improved through joint exercises and training, as well as through cooperation with allies on setting and respecting standards for interoperable equipment. The current high levels of defense spending in the United States would likely provide enough procurement and research and development funds to keep open lines of production and maintain skilled labor in the field. (The arms industry does not appear to be having any trouble meeting the recent rise in US procurement demand, which is one pretext for keeping open lines of production.) The way to make friends with both the governments and the peoples of foreign states is not through military aid, but with economic aid and a commitment to fair trade that would benefit the general population.

When it comes to promoting national security, the US government should be looking at ways to strengthen, not weaken, export controls, especially in these dangerous times. There have been several recent cases of individuals trying to smuggle spare parts to countries like Iran and companies providing critical technologies to China. Any time a regulation is relaxed, or a weapon system decontrolled, the US government is forfeiting its ability to control who receives US arms and weapon technology or how it is ultimately used. As Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., noted, "The lesson should be clear - to the extent that the US arms the world, it undertakes a risk that those weapons could be used against our own citizens."

Cynics argue that globalization makes the spread of weapons and technology inevitable, and that US firms will miss out on valuable sales opportunities if the US government tries to unilaterally promote restraint. Rather than trying to reinforce multilateral arrangements, reformers seem to be asking the US government to give up the nonproliferation battle altogether. In other words, "If you can't fight 'em, join 'em." But arms control is too critical to take such a blas attitude. There is also a vicious circle at play here: the easier it is to export arms and technology, the harder it will be to control their diffusion, and the more advocates for reform will say there is no point in having unilateral controls.

In addition, reformers fail to understand or admit that the symbolism of a US sales denial can be extremely important, regardless of whether the country in question is ultimately able to procure a similar weapon. The US government cannot be a self-proclaimed leader of democracy and human rights while at the same time arming governments that repress their own citizens. Nor can it effectively ask other exporting states to refrain from sales that threaten US interests (such as the alleged Russian sales of GPS jamming equipment to Iraq or Israeli AWACs to China), if it is simultaneously reducing its export controls or increasing sales that pose a risk to regional security. After the first Persian Gulf War, there was an international call for conventional arms control because of the damage to international security done by the 1980s arms build-up in the region. Perhaps the 2003 war in Iraq will also convince major arms exporters that careless exports can be exploited by certain states, leading to a severe threat to international security.

The value of arms export controls - be they unilateral or multilateral - is clear and compelling. The US government must stand behind the rules and laws it has carefully crafted over the past few decades. Though they could use some strengthening - especially on the normative side - they have served US interests well. It is hard to know whether controls will be missed until after they have gone. But when it comes to the international arms trade, the consequences of finding out may be too great to bear."

Author's note: Tamar Gabelnick was the director of the Arms Sales Monitoring Project at the Federation of American Scientists and now works as a consultant. Rachel Stohl is a senior analyst with the Center for Defense Information.