The Arsenal of Democracy: The Export Reform Control Imitative
With the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drawing down and massive budget cuts either being instituted or being predicted United States defense companies have begun to look internationally for their profits. They are being aided by the last source th
at many would have suspected in 2008, the Obama administration.
After President Obama ordered a review of the export control system (the mechanism that administers how defense systems and associated technology are sold) in August 2009, it was determined that the current system “is overly complicated and fragmented, contains too many redundancies, and, in trying to control too much, diminishes our ability to focus on the most critical national security priorities, impairs the interoperability of our Armed Forces with our Allies in the field, and undermines the competitiveness of sectors key to U.S. national security.” In response to these findings Obama announced a total reform of the export control system titled the Export Reform Control Imitative (ERCI).
These reforms are apart of an overall plan to try and keep the American defense industry competitive and also secure national security interests in an increasingly dynamic world. The Obama administration plans on accomplishing this by four methods; changing the control lists, changing the licensing policies, changing export enforcement, and changing the information technology systems. All of this boils down to essentially centralizing the defense export process, and making it easier to get licenses to sell arms. In addition, the United States wants to add more countries to the preferred shoppers list (being the traditional US allies of NATO, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and Israel) such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates making it easier for these countries to acquire higher end defense systems. The Obama administration states this is a modernization tool reflecting the post-Cold War regional relationships that have been established in the Middle East, and that the old export system does not deal with effectively.
This process though does not seem to be simply an elimination of government inefficiency, but rather a conscious effort by the Obama administration to address the twin issues of; the demand for weapons is up and defense companies are ready to make a profit, and the United States presence in troubleshooting the problems of the world is expensive especially when struggling with a faltering economy. For the last decade defense companies have been able to make a comfortable living selling their wares to the US government, but as military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan begin to calm the private sector is searching for new markets for their goods and they have found it abroad. Saudi Arabia agreeing to a $60bn deal for new aircraft, helicopters, and missiles; the UAE buying $13bn in 2010; $10bn for Iraq in 2010; a $4bn deal with India; etc
In addition the United States military is confronted with the prospect that it is going to have a much smaller budget in years to come, which makes it much more difficult for the country to intervene around the globe. Therefore, some view that this increased demand for weapons could be a way in which the United States encourages not only bolstered relations between supplied countries and the government. Also it could be allowing regional allies to protect their own interests in regional issues without having to invoke the aegis of the United States.
These two factors strongly encourage the idea that it should be easier to get these weapons out into the world and into the hands of the governments who want them, hence the ERCI. By making it easier for friendly developing countries to get defense systems through increased centralization and streamlining of the export and licensing process, Obama hopes to preserve American national security interests and global arms trade competiveness.
Of course, there are dissenting opinions. Some believe that this centralization and easing of sales requirements reduces oversight on the whole defense trade process leaving the potential for sensitive or advanced systems to fall into the hands of unfriendly powers. Or that by throwing so many more numerous and advanced weapons into the Middle East may exacerbate regional tensions such as between countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE with Israel or Iran. Or that the regimes in which these weapons or going while friendly now may not be so in a few months or years, such as with the overthrow of the pro-US Tunisian and Egyptian regimes who were being supplied with arms up until their fall. Or that while these sales may be pragmatic in bolstering friendly regimes, these same regimes and weapons are being used to quell popular revolts and human rights abuses such as the violent reactions to the protests in Bahrain and Egypt.
The moral of the story is that the ECRI appears to be a pragmatic means dealing with several American national security issues by allowing the US to step back, doll out the weapons, make some profit, let its allies in the developing world handle their own problems for a while (with plenty of US oversight of course), and let it get its house in order before it puts itself into another Iraq or Afghanistan. Unfortunately, these choices may have serious ramifications either in regional affairs or US interests and security in the future. It is difficult to tell how things will end up since the ECRI has not been fully completed, but it has potential to be a very important program for the foreseeable future.