Arms transfers are a central pillar of America’s international security cooperation, and they are also an important part of the American economy. This dual role as a tool of both foreign policy and economic security — combined with the unique nature of the goods and services involved — makes arms transfer policy uniquely complex.
Recognizing these factors, the U.S. government oversees and manages our defense trade unlike any other sector of the export economy. At the heart of this process is the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, supported by the Department of Defense. The bureau vets each potential sale against legal, regulatory and policy standards through the rubric of the president’s Conventional Arms Transfer Policy.
The new Conventional Arms Transfer Policy, which President Donald Trump approved in April 2018, lays out a comprehensive set of considerations that must be taken into account in reviewing every potential arms transfer. While the policy is designed as a practical framework for such decisions, it can also be read as an explanation of the potential benefits of these transfers for our national security and global security.
Well-considered arms transfers can bolster the security of the United States and our allies and partners. Examples include defending against external coercion and providing capabilities in support of shared security objectives, such as countering terrorism, trafficking and transnational organized crime. They can forge and strengthen long-term relationships and enhance military interoperability. Arms transfers can help maintain the U.S. military’s technological advantages and lower its own procurement costs, strengthen America’s manufacturing and defense-industrial base, and even facilitate ally and partner efforts to reduce the risk of military operations causing civilian harm.
While readers of Defense News may be familiar with these benefits, it is indisputable that arms transfers also come with risks. In the past year in particular, many in Congress, the media and the public have expressed serious concerns about particular sales.
I acknowledge the gravity of these risks and will be as clear with the reader in these open pages as I am with our partners privately: The misuse of U.S. defense equipment — whether illegal retransfers, illicit exploitation or immoral utilization — is anathema to this and to any administration, and is addressed with the utmost seriousness in every instance by the executive — and often legislative — branches of the U.S. government.
In making transfer decisions, and in following up with our partners after a transfer, the departments of State and Defense work to ensure that U.S. arms transfers are used appropriately and that they deliver significant foreign policy benefits, contributing to both regional stability and U.S. national security. Such positive outcomes were very much in evidence to me when I traveled to Europe and the Middle East this fall.
In Poland, I found a close ally whose location at the eastern edge of NATO has given it a front row seat to Russia’s occupation of Crimea, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as its military buildup in Kaliningrad. In this context, the U.S.-Poland defense trade relationship mirrors the closeness of our alliance and demonstrates how we work together to address shared security objectives.
For instance, Polish procurement of the Patriot air and missile defense system will increase the defensive capabilities of the Polish military to guard against hostile aggression while also shielding NATO allies who often train and operate within Poland’s borders. Poland’s investment in its F-16 fighter program enhances Poland’s ability to provide for its own territorial defense and support coalition operations. In a gesture that is emblematic of our defense trade relationship, the Polish government has invited the United States to be the lead nation in the 2019 International Defence Industry Exhibition in Kielce, a role we have enthusiastically accepted.
On that same trip, but in a very different context, I saw how U.S. arms transfers bolster our relationship with a key partner in the Middle East, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Our arms transfers to Jordan assist the kingdom in performing its instrumental role as a leading partner in the coalition to degrade and defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and contribute to regional stability in ways that often go unrecognized.
For instance, U.S.-manufactured vehicles and munitions have assisted Jordan in securing its border with Syria; U.S. coastal patrol boats have helped enable Jordan to conduct maritime patrols in the Gulf of Aqaba; Jordan’s F-16 fleet has contributed to U.S.-led coalitions in Libya, Iraq and Syria; and, when tragedy struck during flash flooding in October, Jordan deployed U.S.-manufactured helicopters to lead its search, rescue and recovery operations.
As President Trump has often said, “economic security is national security.” As undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, that is a tenet I continue to observe in action — from the American worker on the production line, to the Polish pilot on the flight line, to the Jordanian rescuer on the harness line.
Through the framework laid out by the president’s Conventional Arms Transfer Policy, this administration is working every day to ensure that arms transfers are a flexible and effective tool of U.S. foreign policy, supporting the capacity of our partners, the growth of our economy and the security of the American people.
Andrea Thompson is Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security at the U.S. State Department.