WASHINGTON - The United States is currently the world biggest weapons supplier - holding 30 per cent of the market - but the Obama administration has begun modifying export control regulations in hopes of enlarging the U.S. market share, according to U.S. officials.
President Barack Obama already has taken the first steps by tucking new language into the Iran sanctions bill signed in early July. His aides are now compiling the "munitions list," which regulates the sale of military items.
The administration's stated reason for the changes is to simplify the sale of weapons to U.S. allies, but potential spinoffs include generating business for the U.S. defense industry, creating jobs and contributing to Obama's drive to double U.S. exports by 2015.
Critics say the reforms are being rushed and warn that the expedited procedures could allow weapons technology to fall into the wrong hands.
India, which currently is seeking 126 fighter-jets worth over $10 billion, 10 large transport aircraft worth $6 billion, and other multi-billion dollar defense sales, could be among the possible beneficiaries. Allies seeking advanced U.S. weaponry and equipment, who now often buy elsewhere due to the cumbersome U.S. approval process, would draw immediate benefit from the reforms, U.S. officials said.
Obama first called for the reforms in August 2009, then referred to them in his Jan. 27 State of the Union address as an element toward doubling exports by 2015.
In the House of Representatives, Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman, (D-Calif.), is drafting a bill that parallels the president's plan.
However, it isn't clear that the Senate will go along, as it is still reviewing the president's proposals.
"It is probably going to be some time yet before there is movement in the relevant committees on formal hearings or writing or legislation," said Andy Fisher, spokesperson for the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
Obama's plan, according to top officials, is to ask Congress to streamline the bureaucratic process for approving arms sales by setting up a single new agency to oversee one list of exportable weapons, "tiered" according to the sensitivity of the technology. Currently the State and Commerce Departments maintain separate lists, and the State Department list contains many restrictions.
"Our aim is to make the system more transparent, efficient, and effective," said Ben Chang, a White House spokesman. "This means we are improving our ability to administer our controls, which improves our ability to enforce them, and equally important, improves the ability of companies to comply."
Critics say decontrolling weapons systems could fuel regional arms races, allow technology to fall into the wrong hands and, because arms purchasers often want to set up their own industries, end up exporting jobs abroad.
"The concern that we have is that the net result of this process would be to open the floodgates for military sales to states that do not meet the standards established in years previous," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.
"We're No. 1 in weapons in the world, so I don't understand what the problem is we need to fix," said a Republican staffer for the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the topic.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the most outspoken administration advocate for the new system, said it will "build high walls around a smaller yard" by narrowing in on the nation's "crown jewels."
However, critics point out that what those crown jewels are depends on decisions yet to be made.
"There's nothing in their top tier currently," the Senate GOP staffer said. "They can't figure out what should be in their top tier."
Senior officials have said possible "top tier" items include certain night vision technology and advanced stealth technology, which makes aircraft invisible to radar, infrared, and sonar.
The new system would allow older technology such as Lockheed Martin's F-16 fighter to fall to a lower tier as newer, more advanced technology emerges. The staffer said that some versions of the plan currently circulating don't include the F-16 in the top tier of the secured list.
The F-16 may no longer be top technology for the U.S., but as is the case with much of the aging technology that will be decontrolled, the Senate GOP staffer said, "It's often a question of what China, a terrorist, or even a rogue state would do with these things."
Members of the Obama administration say that changes will enhance national security.
"In fact, our system itself poses a potential national security risk based on the fact that its structure is overly complicated, contains too many redundancies, and tries to protect too much," United States National Security Advisor General James Jones said in a speech introducing the plans.
The administration hopes that by streamlining the process, allies will be able to receive more weapons and technology faster, making their equipment more compatible with that of the United States, and making it easier to complete joint operations.
"It spells the difference between U.S. forces going it alone or having allies who are able to operate in the lethal battle space with U.S. military forces," said former Bush administration arms regulator Amb. Lincoln Bloomfield Jr.
Rep. Donald Manzullo, R-Ill., represents a district with aerospace and other manufacturers, and said reform is needed for the survival of U.S. manufacturing.
"We can begin to manufacture our way out of this recession by reforming our export controls," Manzullo said in a speech at the American Enterprises Institute, a conservative think tank.
Manzullo has worked for export control reform throughout his career and says that the job creation benefits make the initiative worthwhile, but he retains doubts about the current review.
"I have a problem with giving all that power to one agency," Manzullo said.
Manzullo explained that having one agency to govern export controls could be dangerous if the wrong person were put in charge.
Similarly, Christopher Wall, former assistant secretary of commerce, said he supports reform but thought initially that the changes were being rushed. In recent weeks, he said, the administration appears to have a better understanding of the immensity of the task.
"Whether it has to do with the possible departure of Secretary Gates or the election timetable coming up, neither of these should drive the reform process," Wall said.
The Senate GOP staffer said that if the United States decontrols as the number one seller in the market, then others with less scrupulous records will follow suit.
The Obama administration isn't the first executive to see the benefits of export control reform; both former President Bill Clinton and George W. Bush undertook similar reviews, which according to Gregory Suchan, a former deputy assistant secretary of state, "crashed and burned essentially because of opposition from Congress."
"Anybody who thinks that they can come to a conclusion as to whether this is a good thing or a bad thing," Suchan said, "such a judgment is premature"