Holding Up the Line of Defense: Why We Should All Care About Transparency and Efficiency in the Defense Export Process

By Annie Tolbert

When it comes to defense exports, a lot of people envision something like Tony Stark’s iconic desert demonstration of the Stark Industries Jericho Missile in the Iron Man movie. It’s simple, right? The industry makes weapons and sells them to any country interested in buying and that’s all there is to it. Perhaps that’s true in movies, which often glamorize (or villainize) weapons sales, but the actual export process is deliberate, complicated, and multifaceted.

What many know as an “arms deal” is actually a foreign policy tool, “security cooperation,” which encompasses much more than simply selling a weapon. Security cooperation programs are diplomatic mechanisms the United States uses to provide military equipment, training, education and mission support to its partners and allies. These programs help advance our national security interests and empower U.S. partners and allies to meet mutual defense objectives.

The security cooperation process generally starts when a partner or ally requests U.S. defense products and services after consulting with the U.S. government and industry about their reasons for wanting to acquire the items or services. They must detail how the item will be used and what purpose it serves. Once a request is made, multiple agencies and departments conduct a lengthy review process to ensure the intended use is consistent with the foreign policy interests and values of the United States and doesn’t compromise the U.S. military’s technological superiority. This review also examines factors such as a country’s eligibility to receive items, ability to sustain a program long-term, and its actual need; all before getting a stamp of approval or denial.

Consistency and reliability are traits we all value in a friendship. Similarly, U.S. partners and allies value those traits and want to know they can rely on timely and efficient U.S. security. Unfortunately, the United States is like that one good friend we all have that shows up late to every single event. We know they will eventually show up, but waiting can be frustrating, especially when time is of the essence.

When a military plane is inoperable because it needs approval for a replacement part or a request for training and equipment for counterterrorism operations is stalled,  our partners and allies are forced to consider other options to meet their needs and the U.S. loses the chance to “outpartner” its adversaries. When we can’t meet the needs of partners and allies in a timely manner, we forfeit opportunities to promote mutual foreign policy and national security objectives. Security cooperation matters because it is a vital part of diplomacy and international security and we should all care about making the system more efficient and transparent.

One of the major criticisms of the defense export review and approval process is that it’s complex and unclear where and when in the process any given transaction might break down. The review process lacks a common interpretation for policies and processes among agencies and departments or a common sense of priorities. A partner or ally may spend months and even years waiting on an approval or denial of its request, even for replacement parts for items from a previous sale. Putting U.S. partners and allies in this holding pattern impedes their readiness to deter or defend themselves against our common adversaries.

But shouldn’t we be concerned about weapons ending up in the wrong hands? Absolutely. We should all care about making every effort to ensure U.S. defense products don’t end up in the hands of bad actors. Asking for efficiency, congruency and transparency in the review process helps prevent those concerns from becoming a reality. The current practice of review often gives a country the impression that its request might be approved, only to find out later that the request is denied because of certain foreign policy concerns over that country’s activities. What would be more effective is for the U.S. government to identify and express those concerns well in advance after identifying priority capabilities we want our partners and allies to have in the short, medium and long-term. Fostering more transparency doesn’t necessarily give more “green lights” for security cooperation requests. That’s not the goal. Rather, the aim is to give the acquiring partners and allies a clear understanding of what must be addressed before they can expect to receive U.S. military technology.

So, how do we improve the system? Like in every Avengers movie, teamwork and coordination are crucial. Likewise, when industry and government work together to tackle common issues that stand in the way of mutual security cooperation objectives, we find better, more creative solutions. That is why AIA welcomed the reform action plan called for in the National Security Presidential Memorandum-10 and submitted specific recommendations to make security cooperation processes more efficient and transparent. We propose enunciation of a National Security Cooperation Strategy – i.e., a plan with common priorities – to unify the security cooperation review process, and the designation of a single entity to shepherd priority transactions through the process from start to finish.

Security cooperation reform empowers our partners and allies, fosters potential for new partnerships, and allows the United States to meet present geo-political challenges with transparency, accuracy and speed. It’s time for us to stop holding up the line of defense for our partners and allies and enable them to hold the line against our common adversaries.

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