Trump’s Push for More Arms Exports Includes Easing Drone Limits

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump has ordered government agencies to expedite and expand arms sales abroad, including easing limits on exports of drones with military capabilities.

“Within 60 days we are called upon to create a work plan” for speedier approvals of foreign military sales in cooperation with defense contractors and industry groups, Tina Kaidanow, a principal deputy assistant secretary in the State Department, told reporters on a conference call Thursday.

While much of the new initiative will involve salesmanship -- Kaidanow said the government needs to do “a better job of strategic advocacy” -- a significant immediate move eases Obama administration restrictions on exports of unmanned aerial systems, or drones.

“Although the U.S. leads the way in UAS technology, overly restricted policies enacted by the previous administration” made exports difficult and allowed competitors including China to move quickly into a market forecast to reach $50 billion a year in the next decade, Peter Navarro, the White House director of trade and industrial policy, said on the call.

The changes include allowing direct commercial sales that don’t have to go through the government by companies that obtain an export permit and eliminating special scrutiny of laser devices on drones that can be used for military targeting.

‘Short-Circuiting’ Bureaucracy

Trump previewed plans for a new approach toward weapons sales during an appearance in Florida with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Wednesday.

In the past, Trump said, “it would be in some cases years before orders would take place because of bureaucracy with Department of Defense, State Department. We are short-circuiting that. It’s now going to be a matter of days. If they’re our allies we are going to help them get this important, great military equipment.”

Trump has frequently used appearances with foreign leaders to pitch the benefits of U.S. weapons sales and his push to bolster defense spending by NATO allies is expected to aid American companies. Recent State Department approvals for weapons sales included $300 million of rockets and support equipment to Qatar and $2.9 billion in weapons, including F-16 jets, to Slovakia.

The president’s promise of approval for weapons exports in “days” is unlikely.

Sales, even to close allies, will continue to be reviewed under criteria including whether they support national security interests, how they affect the military balance in the country’s region and whether they might have an adverse impact on U.S. defense readiness.

The policy announced Thursday wouldn’t truncate the elaborate back-and-forth between a prospective foreign customer and the State Department and military services to determine a country’s requirements, supply pricing and availability information and sign a formal “letter of offer and acceptance” before the package goes to Congress.

Congressional Approval

Under long-standing practice, Congress has the key role in determining whether a proposed arms sale gets final approval.

The State Department typically submits proposed sales for an informal notification period of about three weeks that’s followed by a formal, publicly released document that Congress has as long as 30 days to approve. This formal congressional notification and review period for NATO allies is 15 days.

Kaidanow said the salesmanship challenge includes recognizing “that because the quality of our product is so high, sometimes, for example, it is more expensive than others.” She said the review would include “financial advocacy” that would help other countries buy U.S. products.

Administration officials insisted human rights -- including the risk of civilian casualties -- will remain a consideration in arms sales. But they repeated a mantra that “economic security is national security.”

“When we enable our allies and partners to more easily obtain appropriate American defense articles and services, we improve our national security,” Navarro said. “Partners who procure American weaponry are more capable of fighting alongside us and ultimately more capable of protecting themselves with fewer American boots on the ground.”

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