US govt set to boost exports of weapons

New policies aimed at cutting red tape and turning envoys abroad into arms salesmen

The Trump administration is set to boost arms exports with policies in the coming weeks which, among other things, will reduce red tape and turn diplomats and military attaches abroad into salesmen for American weapons.

"It's a White House-led initiative to roll out a new conventional arms transfer policy… with the primary departments concerned coming up with a package of proposals that can ensure US industry has every advantage in the global arms marketplace," a senior administration official told The Straits Times.

"The focus is on cutting red tape and extraneous regulations where we can find them," the official said. "We hope to see fruition this winter or spring."

National security, foreign policy, human rights and regional stability would, however, remain considerations in the arms transfer review and approval process, the senior official said. Congress would continue to be consulted for major weapons sales.

"What is changing is that this administration is putting a greater focus on ensuring decisions are not delayed unnecessarily, and that when the US government decides a sale is in our national security interest, we advocate for and follow through with that sale as effectively as possible," he said.

"This gives our partners a greater capacity to help share the burden of international security, benefits the defence industrial base, and will provide more good jobs for American workers."

Separately, a Reuters news report on Monday cited American officials as saying the Trump administration was set for a "whole of government" effort that would "ease export rules on purchases by foreign countries of US-made military equipment, from fighter jets and drones to warships and artillery".

The "Buy American" plan calls for US military attaches and diplomats to help drum up billions of dollars more in business overseas for the American weapons industry.

Reuters quoted an unnamed senior administration official as saying: "We want to see those guys, the commercial and military attaches, unfettered to be salesmen for this stuff, to be promoters."

The plan is in line with President Donald Trump's campaign promise to create jobs in the United States by selling more goods and services abroad, thus also trimming trade deficits.

This comes amid a global surge in arms. Last February, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute noted that more weapons were delivered between 2012 and 2016 than any other five-year period since the end of the Cold War. The US and Russia together accounted for more than half of all exports.

The biggest importers were Saudi Arabia, which is reliant on American weaponry, and India, which has been mainly importing Russian arms.

Last September, the US State Department set a new one-year record in clearing US$75.9 billion (S$101.4 billion) worth of arms sales. The previous record according to reports, was US$68.6 billion in 2012.

The surge in weapons sales thus predates the Trump administration, but is set to pick up further under the new policy.

In his speeches and meetings with foreign leaders, President Trump has often emphasised the quality of American weaponry, raising eyebrows in the arms control community.

In an e-mail to The Straits Times, Mr Jeff Abramson, senior fellow for arms control and conventional arms transfers at the Arms Control Association, wrote: "What restraint (then President Barack) Obama showed, Trump has jettisoned, evidenced in arms sales notifications of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia in May, F-16s to Bahrain in September, and Super Tucanos to Nigeria in August - all deals that Obama had put on hold.

"Trump is couching arms sales in terms of jobs and the economy. But arms are not an ordinary commodity and should not be treated as such."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 10, 2018, with the headline 'US govt set to boost exports of weapons'. Print Edition | Subscribe