“Buy America” will reportedly soon apply to arms sales in a bigger way, as the Trump administration orders U.S. diplomats to do more to drum up business for American arms manufacturers. But efforts to boost the outgoing flow of weapons should be accompanied by smarter ways to ensure that rising sales do not undermine American security.
The sale and transfer of American–made weapons has been an enduring feature of U.S. diplomacy for decades, as well as a lucrative boost to the U.S. economy. In the past five years, U.S. firms have captured about 33 percent of the global arms export market, according to data from SIPRI. In 2016, the United States government authorized the export of arms worth about $60 billion.
Arms sales may be good for the domestic economy, but the sale of American weapons abroad is also an act of foreign policy. Last year, the United States delivered major weapons to at least 63 countries involved in a conflict, according to data combined from the Uppsala Conflict Data program and the Security Assistance Monitor. Such exports must support the security interests of the United States and promote U.S. values and principles.
Fortunately, there is room for improvement in the current arms-export process. A smarter, risk-based approach – focused on certain items, sold to certain partners, at certain times – will save lives. Indeed, various process-focused measures could make it easier to sell more arms overall, while reducing adverse consequences and strengthening international norms. Arms manufacturers want to sell their wares, but do not want their weapons to indiscriminately harm civilians. An arms transfer process that is focused on risk mitigation and looks at the long-term potential of U.S. arms sales better serves U.S. interests – for national security, for broader foreign policy, and for economic vitality.
In a recent report released by Center for Civilians in Conflict and the Stimson Center, we argue that the U.S. government has the ability and, importantly, the responsibility to adapt the sales of a few weapons categories, such as fighter aircraft, bombs, and explosives, to reflect the realities of conflicts where civilians bear the brunt of these weapons. We recommend revitalizing U.S. processes to place risk assessments at the center of arms transfer decision-making. Among several recommendations, we argue that the State and Defense Departments refine their analyses of partner country capabilities, to include the capacity to use weapons and weapons systems in accordance with international law, and to customize partner capacity building as needed. We propose the development of a political violence and conflict tripwire system that could signal to policymakers the potential need for additional risk mitigation measures. We recommend that the U.S. government ensure that it has the access it needs to conduct operational oversight of major weapons systems it sells, so that it can ascertain for itself if the weapons are being misused once delivered. And we recommend that the terms of sale be strengthened for this small sub-set of major systems so that policymakers have more and better options if a weapon is misused or diverted.
We developed our recommendations in consideration of American industrial and security interests. In our view, a better understanding of partner nation capabilities could open new possibilities for materiel and training that American vendors could provide. Conflict tripwires that compel a review of arms sales policy earlier could give policymakers more time to determine their options and to communicate their intentions early, not only with the buying countries, but with the defense industry as well. This may mean restricting the sale of items if necessary and if in US policy interests to do so, but it could also mean getting an earlier start on customized training and capacity building that can mitigate the risk of a weapon being misused before conflict starts. Meanwhile, greater access that leads to improved operational oversight would actually draw the US closer to its partners, especially under circumstances where security interests are aligned. Finally, creative adjustments to pre-sale terms and conditions may strengthen the US government’s hand in the event that circumstances on the ground, where the weapon system is being used, changes. The enemies of our friends are not always our enemies.
Critics may say that any additional requirements would slow down the process and cede more market space to competitors. But countries that buy American systems want the quality, service, and reputation that American manufacturers are known for. Our recommendations could also actually go hand in hand with other process improvements to foreign military sales designed to streamline, and expedite, the process. And hopefully, they would help the US government achieve its own stated policy goal of minimizing the effect of war on civilians. While the steps we recommend will take time, resources, and creativity, we have no doubt that good people in the State and Defense Departments are up to the challenge, if properly supported by Congress.
The United States can be the world leader not only in arms sales, but in pioneering a more responsible and accountable transfer process. That would truly make America great.