An MQ‐9 Reaper operates from the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, Calif., July 30, 2014. The defense industry says it takes too long to get permission to sell such drones abroad.

An MQ‐9 Reaper operates from the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, Calif., July 30, 2014. The defense industry says it takes too long to get permission to sell such drones abroad. Air National Guard / Senior Airman Michael Quiboloy

It’s Time for a National Security Cooperation Strategy

The current way the U.S. government approves what weapons get exported and where is fragmented and slow. That undermines American leadership and interests.

Defense exports advance U.S. foreign policy and national security interests; when used effectively, they enable our allies and partners to help frustrate and isolate our adversaries and competitors. These exports also save money for the U.S. military while creating enduring foreign policy leverage fueled by training, maintenance, and spare parts. Unfortunately, the U.S. government’s system for determining what weapons get exported and to where is fragmented and slow. The White House should develop a National Security Cooperation Strategy to guide the current system with a more efficient and transparent whole-of-government approach.

U.S. allied and partner countries request U.S. defense products and services after consultation with the U.S. government, military, and industry. Every possible defense export undergoes an extensive review and approval process by the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce, along with the White House and Congress. Reconciling the disparate and sometimes competing views of the various government stakeholders takes time, energy, and resources to get to an answer.

Although the system isn’t broken—we calculate that in the last year alone, $20 billion in U.S. defense exports created a $51.9 billion positive economic impact for our nation, translating into about 200,000 high-quality American jobs—the most critical measure of its success is whether the system helps our partners be ready, resilient, and relevant to deter or defend against common adversaries, consistent with U.S. foreign policy objectives. And by that measure, we can and should do better.

Increasing demand for American defense products has strained the government’s export review system, and the result is an overburdened and fragmented process, often beset by avoidable delays at each step of a multi-step review process with no inherent deadlines for action. Unfortunately, no single department or agency is solely responsible or accountable for the review, making attempts to streamline the process more difficult. Whenever countries wait for our decision, it impedes their ability to stand beside us or to act on their own in our common interest. This is true whether the product is a fighter jet or the spare parts needed to keep it flying.

When the partner cannot wait any longer, they can and increasingly will, choose another country’s bid, as has been the case recently with Chinese sales of unmanned aerial systems in the Middle East. When this happens, we lose economic benefits, the ability to foster interoperability and connectivity with U.S. forces, and the ongoing supply-and-maintenance relationship that provides enduring foreign policy influence.   

The current system is designed solely to manage risk. We’re looking for a new one that also maximizes benefits as we “outpartner” our adversaries. That means creating an expedited approval process to get U.S.-made equipment, promoting time-sensitive national security objectives while improving interoperability with U.S. forces.

Industry unequivocally supports getting the right answers on approvals and conditions for export from the government’s review process. We’re not looking to change answers from no to yes, but rather are focused on reforms that provide a better process to decide yes or no.

The first step in a comprehensive solution is for the White House to develop a National Security Cooperation Strategy that maps out the priorities, policies, and processes needed for the demands and opportunities of today’s security cooperation environment. An effective strategy would align the disparate departments and agencies overseeing parts of the security cooperation enterprise into a concerted, whole-of-government approach that emphasizes putting the right capability into the right hands at the right time.

This would be a win for our allies, who want to align with American values and security interests, and a win for industry and American workers. That’s increasingly important in what’s become a time-sensitive, zero-sum game for influence in the global security arena where every sale won or lost has an enduring impact.

The quality of U.S. defense equipment is unparalleled, and the world recognizes the value of interoperability with the U.S. military. However, the customer always gets the final vote, and competitors are lining up to fill any void. Our allies and partners will not wait indefinitely for reforms to our burdened and fragmented security cooperation enterprise. We need a comprehensive solution, and a National Security Cooperation Strategy would do just that. Without it, we’re ceding our advantages, the influence of our values, our military-to-military relationships, and our economic prosperity.