Gates Blasts Defense Export-Control Infrastructure, Vows to Streamline

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Tuesday, April 20, 2010 at 1:30 pm

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Most defense secretaries find themselves frustrated by the labyrinthine system in place to approve military sales to partner countries. Export controls are complex, bureaucratic things designed to place multiple tiers of checks to err on the side of keeping technologies that the U.S. military relies on for dominance out of foreign hands. As with classification, it routinely goes too far, leading to vexed allies who can’t understand why the U.S. won’t sell them the weapons or spare parts it promised and a glut of restrictions that make it difficult to determine which truly dangerous technology needs to stay in U.S. hands.

So this afternoon, Defense Secretary Robert Gates is giving a speech — the press embargo just lifted — to a business/defense partnership forum about changing the export control system. His recommendations, which he says reflect interagency consensus, focus on centralization and streamlining. Instead of multiple lists controlled by multiple agencies requiring rules for which technologies can be sold without obtaining special licenses, the Obama administration will create a new standard list, placing tiers of importance around technologies that are and aren’t crucial to U.S. military supremacy:

This single list, combined with a single licensing agency, would allow us to concentrate on controlling those critical technologies and items – the “Crown Jewels” – that are the basis for maintaining our military technology advantage, especially technologies and items that no foreign government or company can duplicate.  Items that have no significant military impact, or that use widely available technology, could be approved for export quickly.  We envision a more dynamic, tiered control system where an item or technology would be “cascaded” from a higher to a lower level of control as its sensitivity decreases.

That’s inevitably going to prompt criticism that the Obama administration is selling too much stuff to too many people. Gates’ reply:

By consolidating most export licensing functions in one agency and creating an enforcement coordination agency, we can focus our energies and scrutiny on technologies that truly threaten American security, making it is far less likely that these critical items will fall into the wrong hands. It is also important to bear in mind that the U.S. government will retain the ability to impose economic sanctions on any foreign country or group, to include prohibiting the export of any equipment, material, or technologies that could have military use.

Still, the administration will require congressional approval for creating a single licensing agency for defense exports — a “fundamental change,” in Gates’ view — as well as a new agency to coordinate enforcement. Will Congress endorse Gates’ proposal?

If legislators balk, they’ll be faced with a problem.

“Not too long ago, a British C-17 spent hours disabled on the ground in Australia – not because the needed part wasn’t available, but because U.S. law required the Australians to seek U.S. permission before doing the repair,” Gates related to Business Executives for National Security. ”These are two of our very strongest allies for God’s sake!”

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