While previous presidents have taken the U.S. defense industry into consideration when conducting foreign policy, President Trump has made arms sales a centerpiece of his approach, regularly emphasizing how many weapons a country buys as a measure of its commitment to Washington.
That emphasis was on display this week during Trump’s news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in which the president promised to “short-circuit” State Department bureaucracy to speed up sales of U.S. military equipment to allies such as Japan.
“If they’re our allies, we are going to help them get this very important, great military equipment,” Trump said. “And nobody — nobody — makes it like the United States. It’s the best in the world by far.”
Trump has often highlighted arms sales while appearing alongside foreign leaders. In the Oval Office this month, he described Qatar’s emir as a gentleman “who buys a lot of equipment from us,” including military airplanes and missiles. Trump recently thanked Saudi Arabia’s crown prince for sharing the kingdom’s wealth with the United States by purchasing “the finest military equipment anywhere in the world.”
For years, U.S. administrations have sought to balance the interests of the U.S. defense industry with national security and foreign policy priorities when deciding whether to approve arms sales.
The balancing act can prove tricky because weapons often outlast the government that purchased them, and the U.S. military doesn’t want U.S. arms used against its troops in any future conflict. The U.S. military also wants to retain some of the most sophisticated American-made technologies for itself to keep an edge.
While it is not yet apparent how the new policy will be implemented, the U.S. government plans to stress how proposed deals benefit the defense industry.
The executive branch enjoys a large amount of discretion on whether to permit an arms sale, but Congress retains an ultimate right of refusal. More substantive changes to the rules would require modifications to the law through legislation.
Tina Kaidanow, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, said the policy update inserts economic security “into our broader national security considerations” when looking at arms transfers. She said the Trump administration would be actively engaged with the U.S. defense industry to “enable them to make sales overseas.”
“Overall, the approach here, and it’s a notable one, is the prioritization of the economy,” said Rachel Stohl, an arms trade specialist at the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan policy research organization in Washington. “It’s all about our economic interests being as important or maybe even more important than our national security and foreign policy objectives.”
Stohl said previous policies emphasized the need to prevent U.S. arms from ending up in the hands of bad actors or being used to commit human rights violations. The new policy retains rules to mitigate such concerns, but they are no longer the focus, she said.
“If you read between the lines, it could be a green light for the U.S. to sell more with less restraint,” Stohl said, though apart from the drone export changes, she described the update as more of a shift in emphasis than a change to the rules.
U.S. sales already dominate the international market, accounting for 33 percent of all major arms exports and supplying weapons to 103 recipients between 2012 and 2016, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, or SIPRI, which tallies such transactions. Russia is second, with about 23 percent of the market.
The U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency late last year announced a 25 percent increase in cleared transactions for fiscal 2017, although many of those agreements had been initiated under the Obama administration
In addition to publishing a new policy on conventional arms transfers — which the administration will have 60 days to decide how to implement — the White House and State Department detailed a separate policy on drone exports.
Part of that drone policy remained classified. The known changes include a decision to allow U.S. drone exporters to negotiate certain contracts directly with foreign nations instead of through the government-run foreign military sales program, which should make it easier for U.S. defense contractors to negotiate drone sales abroad.
Another change eliminates rules that require special scrutiny of sales of drones with laser designators. Unarmed drones with laser designators can fly over a battlefield and mark a target, then transmit the information back to a fighter jet or other system that can launch a weapon to strike the target.
“We are widening the space for the companies to do their sales and marketing via direct commercial sales,” Kaidanow said. “We’re eliminating some of the specific factors that in the past we looked at when we approved these sales or didn’t.”
U.S. dronemakers have long expressed frustration that they face greater restrictions than foreign competitors such as China when selling their products to other nations.
The companies argue that the U.S. restrictions haven’t prevented the proliferation of drones, as the Obama administration intended. They say the rules have simply caused foreign countries that would have bought U.S. equipment, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to pursue Chinese products instead.
Peter Navarro, director of the White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, echoed that argument Thursday.
Navarro said the Obama administration’s policy on drone exports accelerated an undesirable outcome for U.S. manufacturers, with Chinese replicas of their technology ending up “deployed on the runways in the Middle East.” The Trump administration “is changing that policy,” he said.
The change marks a win for allies that have long sought to buy top-of-the-line U.S. drones but have been stymied by export rules. While the new policy doesn’t ensure they will be able to buy the technology, it represents a step in that direction.
“With key countries in the Middle East, this will be a welcome development by the Trump administration,” said Danny Sebright, a former Pentagon official and current president of the U.S.-U.A.E. Business Council.
Still, the revisions fell short of a fuller-scale lifting of restrictions that some in the U.S. defense industry hope to see.
U.S. drone exports are regulated under the Missile Technology Control Regime, or MTCR, a voluntary agreement among more than 30 countries, including the United States. The agreement subjects exports of large drones such as the popular American-made Predators and Reapers to a “presumption of denial.” China is not a signatory to the agreement.
Kaidanow said that exports of such large U.S. drones would remain subject to the “presumption of denial” but that the United States would work to update the agreement and ensure that it keeps pace with U.S. priorities for arms exports.
Defense contractors have complained that the quirks of the agreement make it easier to export a powerful manned fighter jet from the United States than to sell a far less powerful drone to another nation.
Remy Nathan, vice president of the Aerospace Industries Association, a defense industry lobby group, cheered the Trump administration for elevating economic priorities “to their appropriate position” when deciding whether to approve arms deals.
“The real significance of this announcement is that you have a presidential-level declaration that defense trade is important,” Nathan said. That laid the groundwork for a conversation between the industry and the administration over the next 60 days about “some real fundamental change that needs to happen,” he added.
Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.