Magazine article National Defense

Arms Sales: U.S.-U.K. Defense Technology Pact Likely to Draw Fire

Magazine article National Defense

Arms Sales: U.S.-U.K. Defense Technology Pact Likely to Draw Fire

Article excerpt

A defense export treaty signed in late June by the United States and the United Kingdom has sparked debate about the merits and the risks of sharing military technology with close allies.


President George W. Bush and then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair signed the U.S.-U.K. Defense Trade Cooperation Treaty days before Blair left office in an attempt to simplify U.S. export control policies that have frustrated the defense industry and close U.S. allies in recent years.

Supporters of reforming the current policies believe that the new agreement--if ratified by the Senate and the British Parliament--could break down some of the barriers that have kept the United Kingdom from acquiring U.S. military technology.

"The president wanted to make a bold statement about the close relationship" between the two nations, said Pierre Chao, director of defense industrial initiatives at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Bush was so bold as to bypass the authority of the House Armed Services Committee, which has historically balked at defense export control reform. According to the Constitution, the president only needs Senate approval for treaty ratification. Plans call for the agreement to be submitted to the Senate in September, Chao said at an Atlantic Council conference.

The document strikes at the heart of a long political debate over the transfer of military technology to foreign allies. Although countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia are considered to be "safe" partners because of their support of U.S. military operations and their long-standing relationships with the United States, any move to ease export controls will nevertheless be highly controversial, experts note.

Maintaining technological superiority over all potential adversaries always will be a central national priority, Chao said. Several lawmakers and other critics of export reforms have argued that even if technology is only shared with allies, it still could end up in enemy hands through third-party transfers. The recent U.S.-U.K. treaty, officials said, addresses this concern by allowing the United States to vet any re-exports of U.S. technology by the United Kingdom.

Tension between the allies over information sharing bubbled to the surface in 2005 when the United Kingdom threatened to drop out of the international Joint Strike Fighter program because the Defense Department would not share computer codes and other critical information used in the design of the fighter airplane.

Although the two countries eventually came to an agreement over the technology transfer, "it was a painful process," said Al Volkman, director of international cooperation at the office of the undersecretary of defense on acquisition, technology and logistics.

The treaty is a "recognition that we've got problems in the current export licensing process in the United States," Volkman said at the Atlantic Council.

Under current rules, the United Kingdom must apply for export licenses each time it wants to make a purchase of U.S. military technology or services. These licenses often can take weeks or months to be approved.

Processing times have increased to 26 days in 2006 from 13 days in 2002, said Ann Calvaresi-Barr, director of acquisition and sourcing management at the Government Accountability Office.

The Defense Authorization Act of 2005 mandated that the State Department expedite authorizations with the United Kingdom and Australia. But the agency has failed to implement the faster approval process, she said in testimony before the House subcommittee on terrorism, nonproliferation, and trade.

Adding to the long delays is a growing number of backlogged applications. At the end of fiscal year 2006, the State Department had accumulated 10,000 cases, Calvaresi-Barr said.

The treaty would allow the United Kingdom to bypass most export license requests, which would put approvals on the "fast-track," Volkman said. …

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