In case anyone missed it, the Cold War ended two decades ago. I mention this because there are parts of the Washington bureaucracy and regulatory schema that are still mired in Cold War thinking and restrictions. As a result, it is more difficult than necessary to pursue sensible policies and costs go up. In an era of declining defense budgets and changing threats, it is time to revamp or even eliminate the outmoded practices of a bygone era.
One of these areas is export control. During the Cold War, it was important to prevent the leakage of technology across the Iron Curtain and to control where military hardware went. An elaborate system of controls was established in the United States. There is the State Department-managed Munitions List for highly sensitive items and the Commerce Department’s Commercial Control List for less sensitive, often dual-use goods.
Anyone who has had to deal with the U.S. export control bureaucracy and its antiquated set of rules will agree with former Secretary of Defense Robert Gate’s characterization of the system as Byzantine. The current system requires an export license for commonly available items associated with military systems such as spare tires, batteries and electric generators. There was an incident last year in which an RAF C-17 disabled in Australia could not be repaired for many hours because the government in London first had to obtain a license from the U.S. in order to make the needed repair. So draconian are the rules that they have crippled the ability of U.S. satellite makers to compete in the commercial marketplace. The result has been the loss of foreign sales, a shrinking of the U.S. satellite industrial base, the expansion of foreign makers of these systems and less control over sensitive satellite technologies, not more. Moreover, the licensing process is slow, cumbersome and imposes costs on both government and private contractors which make no sense in the current era of austerity.
In a move that belies its reputation for liking big government, the Obama Administration is proposing a series of initiatives that would simplify the export control process and remove many items from the restrictive Munitions List. The administration announced that it was scrubbing the Munitions List category that covers tanks, trucks and other military vehicles. Those items that the President determines no longer warrant control under the Arms Export Control Act, which governs the State Department-administered Munitions List would be placed under the less restrictive aegis of the Commerce Department. The idea is to continue modifying the Munitions List categories in other areas such as naval ships, aircraft and electronics.
These actions are necessary but only partial steps in the right direction. What the administration should do is develop bilateral security treaties with key allies that would essentially remove such countries from the burdens of the Munitions and Commerce lists. Key U.S. allies have very involved export control regimes of their own that are equal and even exceed the U.S. licensing system. More important, as the Pentagon struggles to cope with declining defense budgets and calls to withdraw U.S. forces from overseas positions, it will be ever-more important to buttress allies’ defense capabilities. This is the strategy behind the international program for the Joint Strike Fighter. But to be truly effective, a strategy for empowering allies must do away with ridiculous, burdensome and costly Cold War-era export control procedures.
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