Is ITAR Working in an Era of Great Power Competition?

The war in Ukraine has drawn attention to the gap between democracies’ desire to avoid war, and the need to create large stockpiles of equipment and ammunition for purposes of both deterrence and readiness should a war break out. Across the U.S. alliance system, countries in NATO, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia are seeking ways to better partner—and produce—the types of missiles, artillery shells, and other items they need in case of a war. Yet, officials from many of these countries identify, privately, the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) as a major hurdle slowing the alliances’ ability to restock equipment donated to Ukraine, or to prepare for a possible future conflict in the Indo-Pacific. This Critical Questions attempts to describe the reason ITAR exists and how its current execution is hampering the U.S. national security strategy.

Q1: What is ITAR?

A1: ITAR is a key tool used by the United States to ensure advanced U.S. military technology is not proliferated to actors who may pose a threat to the United States. ITAR is the implementing regulatory framework for the Arms Export Control Act (AECA, 22 USC 2778). Executive Order 13637 provides further guidance on the implementation of AECA. The State Department Bureau of Political Military Affairs administers and oversees the program.

Q2: Is ITAR the only form of technology control on U.S. exports?

A2: No. ITAR is one of several tools the United States uses to control sensitive technologies, including weapons. Others include the Export Administration Regulations (EAR), voluntary multilateral agreements including the Wassenaar Arrangement, the Missile Technology Control Regime, and the Australia Group, in addition to a patchwork of other country-specific sanctions. In addition to weapons, these lists cover a wide range of potentially sensitive or dual-use technologies, some of which include nuclear materials, navigation and avionics, materials processing, and computers.

Q3: What are the issues surrounding ITAR?

A3: Limiting access to advanced technologies and military capabilities is a good idea. The State Department’s website for the office that oversees ITAR, the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls, opens with this sentence: “Ensuring commercial exports of defense articles and defense services advance U.S. national security and foreign policy objectives.” That is the right mission. The challenge before the United States and its allies right now is that the review process is impeding U.S. efforts to prepare for—and therefore deter—potential future conflicts. In particular, ITAR and other export licensure reviews take a long time, and according to allies and partners, have too many undifferentiated steps.

Q4: What is an example of the problems this process is creating for allies and partners?

A4: A well-informed researcher from a U.S. ally in the Indo-Pacific described his country’s current predicament. The country is in the process of modernizing its defense capabilities. It made the strategic decision to use U.S. hardware, including big platforms (tanks and airplanes) and the munitions that go on them (missiles, tank rounds, etc.). The line to acquire the munitions from the United States is years-long—far longer than the country is willing to wait to replenish its stocks. And that country has set aside significant resources to build munitions production lines (missile factories). However, the two U.S. firms selected have been unable to begin construction because of the lengthy review timeline within ITAR.

Q5: Didn’t Congress and the executive branch fix ITAR 10 years ago?

A5: There was a significant reform of the export control system 10 years ago, and it was largely effective. In 2013, the Obama administration and the Congress worked together to reform ITAR to focus on tighter restrictions around fewer items. The world, however, has continued to change in the last decade, and it is again time to reexamine what objectives arms export controls should seek to achieve.

In addition to executive branch efforts, Congress passed the Export Control Reform Act of 2018 (ECRA). While the ECRA regulates the export and sale of many items that are deemed to be sensitive to national security, it does not govern the sale or transfer of munitions. However, there are potential lessons learned from the implementation of ECRA that could be applied to efforts to reform arms export controls.

Q6: Why isn’t there more research examining munitions controls?

A6: Munitions controls are an essential, and enormously complicated, component of U.S. national security. Those pushing for change—often foreign governments or U.S. defense companies—are seen as biased or self-interested in the executive and legislative branches they are trying to influence. With companies and foreign governments most impacted, and foundations typically avoiding such arcane topics, credible funders are scarce to develop or sustain the expertise outside of government to identify ways to refine and improve this important system.

Q7: Why the urgency?

A7: Under Xi Jinping, China’s military actions in the Indo-Pacific and beyond have grown increasingly assertive. A prime example of this was the recent deployment of a surveillance balloon over the continental United States. China is preparing for confrontation. The prospect of a military confrontation between China and a U.S. ally or partner in the region continues to rise. Under these circumstances—much like what is happening in Ukraine—the United States will want to ensure that it can provide a steady flow of equipment and ammunition. Supplying partners and allies with the equipment and ammunition preemptively enhances their readiness and has the added benefit of contributing to deterring aggression in the region.

Q8: What should the United States do now?

A8: The current export control regime needs to be rethought. Although efforts to reform the system—such as the ITAR amendment in 2013—have made improvements, the current arms trade control regime is ripe for an overhaul if it is to enhance, rather than limit, “U.S. national security and foreign policy objectives.” However, given the complex nature of the issue, there is a dearth of big ideas on how this should be done while preserving necessary control mechanisms. To fill that gap, Congress should commission an unclassified independent study that would map the range of arms export control systems and identify ways to sustain its important mission while making prudent changes to accelerate the review process to meet today’s real-world urgency.

John Schaus is a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Elizabeth Hoffman is the director of congressional and government affairs and fellow at CSIS.

John Schaus

John Schaus

Former Senior Fellow, International Security Program