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US Administration Updates Arms Sales Doctrine for First Time in Nearly 20 years

Jan. 15, 2014 - 04:48PM   |  
Congress was notified of a potential sale of Black Hawk helicopters to Austria in December. The administration has just updated its Conventional Arms Transfer policy.
Congress was notified of a potential sale of Black Hawk helicopters to Austria in December. The administration has just updated its Conventional Arms Transfer policy. (US Air Force)
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WASHINGTON — The president approved an update to the Conventional Arms Transfer policy, the first such update since 1995 to a document that determines what factors agencies weigh when considering potential arms deals, the White House announced Wednesday.

The 1995 policy directive itself is classified, but those familiar with the update process said much of the criteria for evaluation remained the same, with some additional emphasis on preventing weapons from falling into the wrong hands or being used for human rights abuses. The new directive, Presidential Policy Directive 27, was released along with the press statement Wednesday.

Most of the changes were focused on updating antiquated language in the 1995 directive that was heavily focused on the impact of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

“It was filled with Cold War-era terminology and it was designed to address issues that were relevant after the Cold War,” said Andrew Shapiro, the former assistant secretary of state who pushed for a review of the policy after the Arab Spring.

Regional instability created a different environment for arms sales, and Shapiro wanted to make sure that the guiding doctrine was still relevant, he said.

“I was struck by how dated the policy was,” Shapiro, now a managing director at Beacon Global Strategies, said. “The top line that came out of the review was that the factors that we consider in our arms sales are the right ones. Non-proliferation, human rights, technology release, impact on regional dynamics. These are the right kinds of issues to be considered when regarding arms transfer and these were reflected in the old policy.”

The new directive emphasizes efforts to make sure the review considers human rights issues as well as the need for “restraint.”

“United States conventional arms transfer policy supports transfers that meet legitimate security requirements of our allies and partners in support of our national security and foreign policy interests,” the directive said. “At the same time, the policy promotes restraint, both by the United States and other suppliers, in transfers of weapons systems that may be destabilizing or dangerous to international peace and security.”

If that restraint becomes delays to the sales approval process for Foreign Military Sales, the defense industry may voice concern. Executives already view the process as deliberative, which can hurt potential overseas sales, an area of intense focus as companies try to make up for domestic defense budget declines.

“I believe that there’s a huge fear of failure, a fear of risk in the process right now, so when in doubt everyone does 110 percent,” said Ellen Lord, CEO of Textron Systems, at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council Wednesday.

Lord said that delays in the process, especially repeated audits, are hurting the industry’s ability to effectively get arms to allies.

“When you step back and look at the forest vs. the trees, what are we trying to do in the US?“ she said. “We’re trying to enable our partners around the world to have the security that they can get by buying our products and yet we’re inhibiting them getting those products.”

Shapiro said that the effort to review the arms transfer policy is part of a broader administration push to update policy.

“The president has asked the White House staff to take a look at policies to make sure that they’re up to date, and this matches with that perfectly,” he said. ■


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