Championing Responsible National Security Policy

More than F-16 Bolts: A Problematic Ruse on Export Reform

Since the launch of its Export Control Reform Initiative in 2010, the Obama Administration has often highlighted the need to reduce export controls on military parts such as M1A1 tank brake pads, F-16 fighter bolts, or urine bags in military aircraft. According to a White House press release, the U.S. arms export control system was trying to control too many war materials, which was hurting U.S. efforts to properly protect arms critical to the U.S. military and limiting the U.S. defense industry’s competitiveness abroad. While the Administration has provided scant or anecdotal evidence to support these findings, many lawmakers have been open to reducing more U.S. government scrutiny on exports of the above types of military items.

Six months into the implementation of the Initiative, however, it is clear that the Administration is loosening export controls on a much broader range of arms and war materials, including many military items that provide clear military capabilities to America’s adversaries and our allies’ adversaries. Yet, the Administration continues to focus on examples such as brake pads, bolts, and urine bags. This ruse is preventing Congress and the media from fully assessing the related national and global security risks of what is a major arms export control overhaul.

Based on the first seven final regulatory changes, many types of war materials formerly classified as “significant military equipment” have moved from the State Department’s more strictly controlled U.S. Munitions List (USML) to the Commerce Department’s more loosely controlled Commerce Control List (CCL). Under the new military aircraft category, for instance, several types of unarmed military cargo, utility fixed wing, observation aircraft, and military helicopters are now under Commerce Department control. These military assets include unarmed versions of the Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters, which are popular among many foreign militaries and regularly used by the Pentagon in military operations, including in Afghanistan and Iraq. Several types of unarmed amphibious warships and military vehicles, also formerly categorized as “significant military equipment,” are now on the Commerce Department’s list as well.

According to the Obama Administration’s new paradigm, only those military items that provide the U.S. military and intelligence with a distinct advantage will continue to be strictly controlled under the State Department. Since the U.S. military is the most technologically advanced in the world, this means the bulk of U.S. annual arms exports have essentially been relegated to a list designed more to control civilian items.

A 2011 statement by one of the main architects of the overhaul, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Export Administration, Kevin Wolf, said that “as many as 30,000 or more generic parts and components subject to a license requirement in 2010 may no longer require control on the [State Department’s] USML.” In a presentation for the South Koreans, the Commerce Department provided a helpful graphic on the numerous F-16 fighter jets parts it would now control. The White House has also said that approximately ninety percent of the military vehicle-related items the State Department approved for export in 2009 would be moved to Commerce Department control.

Attempting to support this mass move of war materials and military technology to Commerce Department controls, Administration representatives have also frequently said that many of these military items are essentially dual-use items or are widely or predominantly used in civilian systems. Although it is true that some military items formerly controlled by the State Department have been used in civilian applications or systems, absolutely none of them have been used widely or predominately in civilian applications. If they had been, they would have already been moved to Commerce Department controls as required by the Export Administration Act.

Numerous Justice Department public releases also show that Chinese, Iranian, Russian, and other foreign military procurement networks often focus on acquiring the same parts and components the Administration has regrouped onto the Commerce Department control list. In recent years, for instance, it is clear that the Chinese government is aggressively seeking U.S. made radiation-hardened microchips, which are critical components in the operation of missiles and satellite systems and now on the CCL. The Iranians also continue to attempt to acquire many military aircraft parts recently moved to the CCL that are key to maintaining their aging fighter jets and military helicopters. For such reasons, the State Department has previously said exports of helicopter spare parts can be just as dangerous as attack aircraft or missiles.

Many of the military items moving to Commerce Department control such as military body armor, military detonators and explosives, smoke grenades, certain control electronics for UAVs and drones, and diesel engines for tanks and armored vehicles also clearly contribute to military capabilities. In 2006, for instance, Amnesty International published a report showing that less advanced dual-use U.S. designed diesel engines controlled by Commerce ended up in Chinese military trucks delivered to the Sudanese government for likely use by the Sudanese military and Janjawid in Darfur. Although the Administration has yet to finalize its regulations on many other types of military categories, it has also indicated it would transfer most types of firearms and some night vision devices to the Commerce Control list, which can significantly improve a terrorist or insurgent group’s military capabilities.

Given the many types of significant military equipment and key war materials moving to the Commerce Department’s control, the Obama Administration needs to urgently provide a much fuller and more accurate picture to Congress and the media of the type and utility of these military items. Whether by design or not, the predominant use of examples such as brake pads or bolts seriously prevents the American public from evaluating and discussing the loss of important arms export controls, and risks to U.S. national and global security.