Illustration by Jordan Awan
Illustration by Jordan Awan

The administration of President Barack Obama has implemented the first of a critically important set of long overdue changes to the government’s control over the export of arms and other strategic commodities.

The U.S.’s export-control system, created during the Cold War, hasn’t kept pace with the advent of new technologies and the globalization of the supply chain. Nor does it adequately help build our allies’ capacity to better meet current and emerging U.S. national security challenges and foreign policy concerns such as nonproliferation and human rights.

The Export Control Reform Initiative, which the president announced in 2009, advances U.S. national security by focusing scarce resources on the threats that matter most, increasing interoperability with our allies, and strengthening the U.S.’s defense industrial base.

The first major revisions to our export-control system took effect Oct. 15. Most notably, export jurisdiction over minor aircraft parts and components was shifted from the State Department to the Commerce Department. These aircraft parts previously accounted for a large number of export licenses issued by the State Department. We also introduced more focused controls on sensitive military gas-turbine engines, which power fighter jets and other aircraft, as well as some trains, ships and tanks. On Jan. 6, revisions to controls on military vehicles, surface vessels, submersibles and other articles will go into effect.

Common-Sense Focus

The changes, the first of many, don’t loosen or remove controls on the most sensitive defense items. Rather, they more stringently protect those items against diversion to end-users or end uses of concern. The reforms recalibrate the controls and licensing requirements on items that pose a low risk to national security so the government can improve its ability to safeguard the items that most require protection.

Without this common-sense focus on items and destinations of greatest concern, the U.S. government would be forced to continually expand its licensing and enforcement resources to cover every part and component in perpetuity, even extending to every switch, adapter and fuel pump traded with our close allies. The current system risks slowly strangling the U.S. defense industrial base, imposing costs on manufacturers and encouraging other countries to “design out” U.S. components to avoid our onerous licensing system.

It is important to understand that no defense articles have been decontrolled under this initiative and no arms are being exported without government review. The initiative maintains our high standard of preventing controlled items from being transferred to conflict zones and our prohibition on transfers to destinations where embargoes are in place.

For less significant military items, such as aircraft spare parts, it is in the U.S.’s national security interest that trade with our North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies and other close international partners becomes more efficient.

Moving less sensitive items to the Commerce Control List allows us to be more flexible when authorizing licenses to U.S. allies, even as we maintain strict prohibitions on exporting without a license to countries subject to U.S. and United Nations arms embargoes and to destinations other than our allies and partners.

Some things won’t change under the new rules: The State Department will continue to designate and review export license applications involving potential foreign policy concerns, including human rights. The Department of Defense will continue to designate and review applications involving national security concerns.

Congress’ Role

Congress will continue reviewing export licenses that meet the thresholds of the Arms Export Control Act. Items moved to the Commerce Department’s jurisdiction remain subject to robust oversight, not least because Commerce has a dedicated export-enforcement branch to investigate possible violations -– the only U.S. government export-control agency with its own law-enforcement capacity.

In this era of proliferation and rapid technological innovation, regulations devised during the Cold War no longer work effectively. They encourage proliferation of unregulated foreign systems, impede relationships with allies, and prevent us from adequately focusing our enforcement efforts on protecting technologies that most require protection.

(Rose Gottemoeller is acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. James N. Miller is undersecretary of defense for policy.)

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.