Essential Imperatives for U.S. Arms Transfer Policy

U.S. arms sales abroad are booming but not without controversy, as seen in recent sales to Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The Trump administration’s new arms transfer policy aims to make it easier for U.S. industry to sell weapons to other countries, but there has been debate in national security, industry, and humanitarian circles about what has changed. It is clear that the administration wants to sell more arms abroad, in theory to create American jobs and empower allied and partner countries so that they can tackle their own security challenges. Arms transfers, however, are a foreign policy tool. The Trump administration’s successful implementation of its new arms transfer policy requires two steps: first, a balance of the economic, security, and humanitarian imperatives that undergird these types of foreign policy decisions; and second, transparency of the rationale, process, and timeline of the arms transfer decisions.

This is the first update to U.S. conventional arms transfer policy since the Obama-era Presidential Directive-27. The elevated focus on economic gains as an incentive for defense trade seems to be the major change. While the prospect of new economic opportunities for industry is positive, stakeholders involved from government, industry, partner nations, and civil society should distinguish between rhetoric and reality. Upfront and regular communication with stakeholders about the balance of economic, security, and humanitarian imperatives in any arms transfer decision, coupled with rigorous policy planning and evaluation, will facilitate smooth execution.

Economic Imperative

The National Security Presidential Memorandum (NSPM) views arms transfers as a means for domestic manufacturing growth through increased jobs and production. This aims to help fulfill President Trump’s “America First” campaign promise of creating jobs at home. The reality of the benefits reaped from increased jobs is uncertain as it has been reported that military spending creates significantly fewer jobs than public spending in other sectors. These jobs, however, may be high in value in both terms of wages and increased technology. Thus, the economic emphasis of the policy should focus on improved job opportunities as opposed to employment growth. Arms exports are specifically less likely to impact job growth because they often require offsets (otherwise known as supplemental agreements made in an arms sale) in addition to monetary transactions. Partner nations are often pressured to offset their public dollars being spent on foreign goods by requiring domestic production or trade agreements, and thus, arms transfers might not increase employment as much as the sales figures would imply.

The NSPM encourages U.S. government advocacy for U.S. industry, which could be an opportunity for industry to work more closely with foreign partners. It is also crucial for the government to be transparent with its policy rationale, so that the mechanisms in place set industry up for success instead of creating headaches for all stakeholders involved.

Security Imperative

Arms transfers are an extension of U.S. foreign policy, and thus, the U.S. government should link them to U.S. interests and objectives, driven by U.S. national security and defense strategies. Arms transfers should be designed as part of an overall U.S. security cooperation approach to build allied and partner defense capability and interoperability in ways that mitigate risk in U.S. plans for managing crises and contingencies (e.g., bolstering partner capabilities to deter China in the South China Sea). These transfers can deepen a relationship between the U.S. military and partner forces buying the equipment, which is one reason foreign partners and allies engage in arms transfers with the United States. They should also rigorously be monitored and evaluated in terms of whether they are achieving the intended effects and outcomes to meet U.S. interests and values. To this end, the Departments of State and Defense should reinforce their initial steps to strengthen strategic planning and evaluation for security cooperation, including arms transfers.

The U.S. government should broker such deals with a clear-eyed assessment of the risks and tradeoffs of arms transfers—for the sake of “improving a relationship”—weighed against operational, economic, and humanitarian value. Transparent communication with all stakeholders on the strategic intent of arms transfers is essential to ensure a rigorous risk assessment is conducted.

Humanitarian Imperative

Arms transfers may prompt humanitarian risks, because once arms are transferred, the United States may have limited leverage or control over how they are used. While enhanced end-use monitoring and evaluation accountability may mitigate risks, uncertainty remains in terms of how a partner might use its equipment (e.g., Saudi Arabia and UAE’s intervention in Yemen, which has prompted significant humanitarian concerns).

Some U.S. trade partners are at risk of conflict, and in the case that military forces are deployed, the United States must work with partners to uphold the laws of armed conflict and professional military use. The new policy stipulates the implementation of effective training to train partners to mitigate these humanitarian risks. Government and industry stakeholders should be transparent with this message to partners, emphasizing the potential cessation of deals if humanitarian violations occur.

Looking Forward

While the economic imperative associated with arms transfers is important for industry stakeholders, the security and humanitarian imperatives inherent in this issue should not be forgotten. To ensure smooth execution for all stakeholders involved, and to abide by the standards for accountable U.S. foreign policy, the administration should be transparent about its economic and security goals and the mechanisms it is using to uphold humanitarian imperatives.

Samantha Cohen is a research associate with the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C. Melissa G. Dalton is a senior fellow and deputy director of the CSIS International Security Program and director of the CSIS Cooperative Defense Project. Andrew Hunter is director of the CSIS Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group and a senior fellow in the CSIS International Security Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Andrew Philip Hunter

Melissa Dalton