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U.S. Arms Policy & Sales

U.S., Saudi Arms Transfers Top Global Trade

U.S. is top-seller again as questions simmer over where its weapons end up.


April 2019
By Izabella Czejdo and Jeff Abramson

Persistent regional conflicts, particularly in the Middle East, have fueled continuing growth in the global trade of major conventional weapons systems, according to a March study released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). The United States, long the world's top arms supplier, has increased its share of the global arms trade, and Saudi Arabia has become the world's largest customer of major conventional weapons systems over the past five years.

A Yemeni boy waters plants and cleans tombstones in a Sanaa cemetery in March.  More than 17,000 civilians have died in the fighting that began in 2015, according to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. (Photo: Mohammed Hawais/AFP/Getty Images)The March 11 SIPRI report, which uses five-year periods to study global arms transfers, found that these transfers have steadily risen since 2003. SIPRI measures the volume of trade with a trend-indicator value, a metric based on actual deliveries of military equipment rather just financial value, making the measure more conducive to comparing trade over decades.

Since the 1990s, the United States has remained the world’s leading arms exporter, and the gap between it and the second-largest exporter, Russia, has grown steadily. Together, they supply nearly 60 percent of all major conventional weapons systems exports, with 98 nations importing U.S. weapons, about double the number of Russian customers. Adding French, German, and Chinese transfers brings the exports of the five countries to 75 percent of the global market.

Accounting for just more than one-third of global arms imports as a region, Middle Eastern countries increased weapons purchases by 87 percent from the 2009–2013 period to the 2014–2018 period. The United States supplied 54 percent of weapons to the region, which is wracked by ongoing conflicts and is increasing its weapons imports faster than any other region.

Saudi Arabia, which has nearly tripled its weapons imports over the past decade, now accounts for 12 percent of global imports and has replaced India as the largest global importer. Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Iraq were also top 10 global importers from the region.

Arms transfers to the region have grown increasingly controversial, especially to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which are leading the air and ground forces fighting Houthi forces in Yemen. The conflict there has become a major humanitarian crisis. More than 17,000 civilians have died in the fighting as of August 2018, according to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which estimated that 60 percent of those deaths resulted from airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition. Regional arms imports have enabled the coalition to blockade Yemeni ports, halting the inflow of commercial goods. About 24 million people, 80 percent of the Yemeni population, require humanitarian assistance, reports the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The European Parliament has approved numerous nonbinding resolutions prohibiting arms sales to Saudi Arabia, with countries such as Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden taking steps to restrict exports to Riyadh. France, the United Kingdom, and the United States have continued to provide Saudi arms, although a UK court is expected to resume consideration of a case in April, challenging the legality of London's sales to Riyadh.

U.S. Sales

Already the top arms exporter, the United States has recently sought to boost its sales. SIPRI reports that Washington now accounts for 36 percent of global exports, up from 30 percent in the prior five-year period.

The misuse of U.S. arms transferred by recipient countries has drawn recent scrutiny after reports that Saudi Arabia and the UAE had provided U.S. weapons to al Qaeda militias in Yemen. Separately, Indian leaders raised allegations that Pakistan had misused U.S.-supplied fighter aircraft during recent border tensions.

In implementing U.S. conventional arms transfer policy moving forward, “we are examining our procedures for evaluating allegations of misuse,” Laura Cressey, State Department deputy director of the Office of Regional Security and Arms Transfers, told Arms Control Today March 18.

That policy, overdue for a quarterly implementation update, currently states the intent to “facilitate ally and partner efforts…to reduce the risk of national or coalition operations causing civilian harm.”

The policy has received criticism for justifying arms transfers to “maximize the ability of the United States industry to grow and support allies and partners” in the face of competition from other exporters.

SIPRI “does not support this narrative” of stiff competition as a rationale for U.S. policy, said report co-author Aude Fleurant in a press statement. “The United States is “by far the largest exporter…[and] has increased its gap with Russia,” she added. Noting that changes in broader patterns take time, she also cautioned that “the policy was adopted in 2018, it is a bit early to see its potential impacts.”

Global arms transfers are expected to experience continuing growth, Fleurant said, despite somewhat lower transfers in 2018 than the previous year. “Outside of a major economic downturn like the 2008–09 crisis, I don’t think we will see a reversal of the upward trend,” she said.

“Proposed Small Arms Transfers: Big Implications for U.S. Foreign Policy”

Testimony by Jeff Abramson, Senior Fellow Arms Control Association The House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations “Proposed Small Arms Transfers: Big Implications for U.S. Foreign Policy” March 26, 2019 Good morning, Chair Bera and Ranking Member Zeldin. It is a privilege to testify before this Committee and discuss concerns about how the United States exports some of the weapons most used in violence around the world and proposed changes that I fear could lead to greater human suffering. 1 To sum up my forthcoming remarks in just a few lines: The weapons and...

U.S. Firearms Export Changes Meet Challenges

The Trump administration is trying to change bureaucratic oversight rules for U.S. exports of selected conventional weapons.


March 2019
By Jeff Abramson

The Trump administration proposed changes in February to how the United States approves exports of certain firearms, a move that triggered quick responses from some congressional leaders who argued that the approach would be dangerous and reduce oversight. They warned that semiautomatic and military-style weapons, as well as 3D-printed "ghost" guns, would more easily end up in the hands of criminals, terrorists, and human rights abusers if the rules were to take effect.

Japanese police confiscated this batch of 3D printed guns in 2014. The Trump administration is seeking to modify how the United States oversees exports of some firearms, including plans for 3D printed weapons. (Photo: Jiji Press/AFP/Getty Images)Under the proposed rules, semiautomatic and nonautomatic firearms and their ammunition are deemed to "no longer warrant control under the United States Munitions List (USML)," a State Department-administered list of weapons. Instead, they would be transferred to a list administered by the Commerce Department, the Commerce Control List, an indication of the administration's view that these are "essentially commercial items widely available in retail outlets and less sensitive military items."

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) sponsored legislation Feb. 12 that rejected the rationale for the change and would prohibit the transfer to Commerce Department oversight. The proposed new rules would “defy common sense,” Menendez said in a statement. He added, “Small arms and associated ammunition are uniquely lethal. They are easily spread and easily modified and are the primary means of injury, death, and destruction in civil and military conflicts throughout the world.”

The Senate measure also focused on the danger of 3D gun printing, with Menendez saying, “Every terrorist and criminal that wants to hijack an airplane with Americans onboard will more easily be able to smuggle 3D-printed, virtually undetectable guns aboard.” Because online plans for 3D-printed guns currently controlled by the USML are deemed an export, a move to the Commerce Department would likely deregulate their control. The Commerce Department is not expected to impose licensing restrictions on what 3D print advocates are trying to make open-source information. An administration decision last year to allow the organization Defense Distributed to publish 3D plans online met an outcry and has been delayed in ongoing court cases.

On Feb. 26, Menendez sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo placing a hold on the proposed rules change, but whether the administration will honor the hold remains to be seen. It could choose to publish the final rules this month, when the 30-day clock for congressional review that began Feb. 4 expires. Such changes typically then have a six-month implementation phase-in period.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) co-sponsored a measure with Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.) on Feb. 9 that would also block the change. In his statement about the rules, Engel warned that Congress would lose its oversight role, which is needed "so we can step in and make sure these weapons aren’t sent to bad actors, including terrorists, drug cartels, human rights abusers or violent criminals."

In 2002, Congress amended notification requirements so it would be informed of potential commercial sales of firearms under USML Category I when they were valued at just $1 million, but no such notifications exist for items on the Commerce Control List.

Data compiled by the Security Assistance Monitor indicates that the Trump administration requested Congress to approve at least $746 million in firearms sales to a total of 14 countries in 2018, more than two-thirds of which was for Saudi Arabia. The value of transfers that would be subject to the new rule is not clear as that data cannot be disaggregated from the automatic and other firearms that would remain on the USML.

The rules were considered during the Obama administration as part of a broader export control effort that transferred portions of the larger USML to Commerce Department control. Changes to firearms and ammunition in the first three USML categories were never formerly introduced, in part due to a different sensibility related to gun violence.

The Trump administration first introduced the rules for public comment in May 2018, garnering thousands of public responses. (See ACT, June 2018.)

These military-style weapons, although more tightly controlled in many other countries, have been sold domestically and used in many mass shootings, including at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.; the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., and Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Human rights and gun control groups have backed the legislative efforts to stop the change. Kris Brown, president of the Brady Campaign, stated on Feb. 8, "While the corporate gun lobby is no doubt thrilled to be able to take their products to a wider audience, we need to be taking steps to reduce gun violence at home, rather than exporting it.”

 

Congress Has Opportunity to Halt Dangerous Firearms Export Changes

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Statement from Jeff Abramson, non-resident senior fellow for arms control and conventional arms transfers

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Statement from Jeff Abramson, non-resident senior fellow for arms control and conventional arms transfers

For Immediate Release: Feb. 8, 2019

Media Contacts: Jeff Abramson, (646) 527-5793

The Trump administration will soon publish final rules that would likely expedite how certain firearms and military-style weapons are sold internationally. Congress can and should seek to block these changes, which exacerbate the export of U.S. gun violence problems abroad.

On Monday, mildly revised versions of rules first released for comment in May were presented to Congress, starting a 30-day review period.

Specifically, the proposed rules relate to the first three categories of the United States Munitions List (USML) maintained under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), whose lead administrator is the Department of State. Under the new rules, nonautomatic and semi-automatic firearms and their ammunition currently controlled under the USML would move to the Commerce Control List (CCL) to become part of the Export Administration Regulations (EAR), whose lead administrator is the Commerce Department.

Under the new rules, Congress would lose its ability to provide oversight on many firearms sales. In 2002, Congress amended notifications requirements so it would be informed of potential commercial sales of firearms under USML category I when they were valued at just $1 million, but no such notifications exist for items on the CCL. In recent years, Congressional involvement has helped forestall firearms transfers to repressive forces in Turkey and the Philippines.

At the core of these proposed changes is the mistaken belief that firearms do not merit tighter control because they are neither high-tech nor provide unique military advantages. In reality, they are some of the weapons most often used to commit abuses and extend conflict around the world. These weapons, used in the mass shootings at Sandy Hook, the Pulse nightclub, Las Vegas, and Parkland, are not the commodities that the United States should make easier to export. Exported and trafficked into Mexico and Central America, for example, U.S.-origin small arms are already falling into the hands of human rights abusers and criminal organizations.

In 2017, the administration notified Congress of more than $660 million of proposed firearms sales regulated under the USML, according to the Security Assistance Monitor. The value of transfers that would be subject to the new rule is not yet clear as that data cannot be fully disaggregated.

A bill introduced Friday by Representative Norma Torres (D-Calif.) and co-sponsored by House Foreign Affairs Chair Elliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and others would simply prohibit the changes.

If not halted or significantly changed, the new rules would continue the cynical approach of the Trump administration to treat weapons as any other trade commodity, threatening to undermine long-term global security and upsetting decades of more responsible U.S. arms transfer policy.

How Congress Can Exert Responsible Oversight on Trump’s Dangerous Approach to Arms Sales

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Congress has the tools and authority to ensure U.S. arms sales strengthen, rather than undermine, enduring America’s values and norms, writes Jeff Abramson.
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Volume 11, Issue 1, January 15, 2019

In December, the Senate issued a stunning rebuke of President Donald Trump’s support for Saudi Arabia and its actions in the bloody war in Yemen, which are exacerbating a massive humanitarian crisis. A bipartisan group of 56 Senators took the extraordinary step of invoking the 1973 War Powers Resolution to direct the president to cease direct U.S. military engagement in the war, including through any aerial refueling of Saudi coalition aircraft fighting there–a step that had garnered steam since nearly winning approval in March 2018.

In a separate measure, the Senate said by voice vote that it “believes Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is responsible for the murder” of journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi—a finding the president has not fully supported. Trump’s refusal to hold the prince accountable and to consider suspending arms sales to Saudi Arabia in response to the grisly murder further underscores his retreat from common-sense U.S. and international norms regarding international arms sales.

Trump’s lack of concern about human rights and harm to civilians caused by U.S. arms trade partners is not, however, surprising. The conventional arms transfer policy his administration issued in April 2018 dangerously elevated economic arguments as a driving motive for arms transfer approvals. A November 2018 update on implementing that plan and a related factsheet on sales agreements again stress his administration’s desire to expedite the sale of increasingly more weapons, citing as success agreements to supply American arms to repressive regimes in not just Saudi Arabia, but also Bahrain and Nigeria.

Options to Encourage a More Responsible Approach

As the new Congress develops its agenda, both chambers can be expected to pass another resolution that seeks to restrict the role of U.S. military support for the war in Yemen. Members of Congress should also more fully utilize their oversight powers to ensure U.S. arms trade is more responsible. The first opportunity to do so typically comes when the administration delivers customary pre-notifications of potential arms sales to the Senate Foreign Relations (SFRC) and the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC), where the chair and ranking members tend to lead any review.

In June 2018, Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking SFRC member, properly placed a hold on tens of thousands of precision-guided munitions kits to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Other members of these key committees should, as necessary, consider supporting and initiating such efforts during this pre-notification period in order to hold or amend dangerous potential sales.

Once officially notified, Congress typically has 30 days to pass a joint resolution of disapproval that bars the president from going forward with unwise sales. Over the past few years, the full Senate has publicly debated controversial arms sales to places such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia during this notification period—positive examples of what a functioning Congress should do—but House procedures make it very difficult to get such measures to the full floor.

Legislation introduced late in the 115th Congress under the Arms Sales Oversight Act should be revisited as one possible avenue for better empowering Representatives to assert oversight, while properly keeping HFAC as the first committee of review. Other measures, such as an amendment offered on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in 2018 to strengthen oversight as relates to human rights deserve reconsideration. So too does a resolution proposing a comprehensive approach to the conflict in Yemen, especially if it were expanded to incorporate arms suspensions to all Saudi partners, including the critical UAE.

While the public can raise its voice against irresponsible Foreign Military Sales (FMS) because such government-to-government negotiated sales are quickly added to a public website, the increasingly important business-led Direct Commercial Sales (DCS) are not as transparent, in part because any public notification is obscure or functionally comes after the initial review period has passed. Earlier this month, news broke with this exact scenario on a missile defense sale to Saudi Arabia. Members of Congress could insist that, or possibly take it upon themselves to make, these potential DCS transactions more transparent. Proposed sales of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia via the more opaque DCS process came to light because concerned members of Congress took the initiative to reveal them.

While the notification period garners the most attention, Congress also can block a sale up until weapons are delivered. Given how security, geopolitical, and humanitarian realities can change between the time of notifications and often years-later deliveries, members should follow the entire process. In 2014, Congress gave itself the authority (see Section 201) to receive from the State Department notification of an arms shipment at least 30 days before its delivery. It is currently limited to joint requests by the chair and ranking members of the SFRC or HFAC and may have only been used once. Those leaders should exercise it much more diligently and Congress should consider making it much easier to use by allowing all committee members to request pre-delivery notifications.

In general, transparency around arms deliveries remains too obscure as a New Hampshire NPR reporter recently discovered. When U.S. census export data showed weapons worth more than $61 million had been sold from his state to Saudi Arabia in August 2018, he could not uncover what was in the sales nor which companies provided the weapons. Annual reports on U.S. arms transfers have grown increasingly opaque. Congress should mandate a change demanding much greater transparency on the specifics of what is in U.S. weapons deliveries.

Finally, sometime in the first quarter of 2019, the administration is expected to publish final rules transferring export authority on select firearms from the State Department to the Commerce Department, despite a large number of negative public comments and a great deal of concern. Members of Congress have raised an alarm that they will lose notifications about these sales, which in the past two years has enabled them to forestall small arms sales to Turkey and the Philippines. Last year, legislation was introduced to stop these changes and should again be considered. As with Trump’s broad approach to arms sales, these changes risk making it easier for weapons to end up in the hands of terrorists, international criminals, and abusive regimes.

Just before the December 2018 vote on direct U.S. military engagement in the war, Sen. Menendez expressed concern that the Trump administration believed “selling weapons to the Saudis was more important than America’s enduring commitment to human rights, democratic values, and international norms.” Congress has the tools and must now use its authority to ensure U.S. arms sales strengthen, rather than undermine, those enduring values and norms. —JEFF ABRAMSON, nonresident senior fellow

Senate Bucks Trump’s Saudi Approach

Saudi Arabia faces repercussions due to its murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the civilian casualties from its war in Yemen.


January/February 2019
By Jeff Abramson

The U.S. Senate passed resolutions last month sharply critical of ally Saudi Arabia and of the U.S. military role supporting the Saudi war in Yemen, signaling that arms sales to Riyadh will be controversial even as President Donald Trump insisted that they should not be affected by Saudi behavior.

U.S. Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander, U.S. Central Command, welcomes Prince Khalid bin Salman, Saudi ambassador to the United States, at USCENTCOM headquarters, MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., on July 31, 2018. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)The Senate action on Dec. 13 took the rare path of invoking the 1973 War Powers Act and directed the president to remove U.S. forces not directly engaged in Yemen with al Qaeda and associated groups. The resolution cited aerial refueling, intelligence sharing, and targeting assistance provided to Saudi-led forces.

Actions by coalition partners, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have contributed to civilian deaths and worsened a humanitarian crisis in Yemen, where a fragile, limited ceasefire was negotiated in mid-December.

The resolution is not binding without a concurring House resolution. But co-sponsor Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said the vote was significant because it shows that “Congress has woken up
to the reality that the Saudi-led coalition is using U.S. military support to kill thousands of civilians, bomb hospitals, block humanitarian aid, and arm radical militias.”

The Senate resolution was originally introduced in February by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and co-sponsored by Murphy and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). An attempt to force a vote on the resolution failed in March when 44 senators sought to move it out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (See ACT, April 2018.) In November, 63 senators voted to move it to full Senate consideration. Ultimately, 56 voted to approve it, including all 47 Democrats, seven Republicans, and independents Sanders and Angus King (Maine).

The resolution is expected to have enough support to pass in the new Senate even with Republicans picking
up a small number of seats in the November elections.

New House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was one of 101 co-sponsors on the version introduced by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) in September, but she has not indicated when the House may take up the issue. A provision included in the House version of the farm bill, around the time the Senate was taking up the measure, prevented consideration of it in the last days of the previous Congress.

The controversial killing of dissident journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi embassy in Turkey in early October was a spur to congressional action. Shortly after the war powers resolution passed, the Senate approved by voice vote a resolution stating that the Senate “believes Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is responsible for the murder,” a claim reportedly backed by U.S. intelligence assessments even as Trump said on Nov. 20 that “maybe he did, maybe he didn’t.”

Trump also argued that U.S. arms sales should not be curtailed, frequently citing the economic importance of the $110 billion in Saudi arms sales he announced in 2017. (See ACT, November 2018; June 2017.) But only about a quarter of those notional agreements have been concluded.

According to news reports, the Saudis signed a letter of offer and acceptance in late November for the largest portion so far, a $15 billion deal for seven Terminal High Altitude Area Defense radar systems and 44 launchers, which is the same number of systems that the United States currently deploys. That potential sale had been notified to Congress in October 2017.

No new arms sales to the country via the government-to-government foreign military sales process have been officially notified to Congress since April. In June, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, effectively placed a hold on the sale of precision-guided munition kits to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates before they were publicly notified.

In explaining his December war powers vote, Menendez argued that the Trump administration view of the U.S.-Saudi relationship was “unhinged” in thinking that “selling weapons to the Saudis was more important than America’s enduring commitment to human rights, democratic values, and international norms.”

Murder Puts Heat on Saudi Arms Deals

Murder Puts Heat on Saudi Arms Deals


A protester dressed as Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman demonstrates with members of the group Code Pink on October 19 outside the White House in the wake of the killing of Saudi Arabian Jamal Khashoggi. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)U.S. President Donald Trump said any U.S. penalties in response to the Saudi killing of dissident journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi should not include curtailing planned and potential U.S. arms sales, even as some U.S. lawmakers and human rights advocates have advocated that they should. The United States is Saudi Arabia’s largest arms supplier, and Trump cited varying inflated figures for the dollar value and U.S. jobs at stake, as well as noting the importance of maintaining the historic alliance with a country that is an oil power and bulwark against Iran. Even so, Saudi arms deals may face tougher scrutiny in Congress, where opponents critical of Saudi conduct of its war in Yemen unsuccessfully sought last year to block the sale of $500 million in precision-guided munitions to the kingdom. The European Parliament on Oct. 25 overwhelmingly approved a nonbinding measure for its member states urging them to halt sales of weapons and surveillance technology to the Saudis, which may have little practical impact. German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Oct. 22 vowed to halt German arms exports to Saudi Arabia until the Khashoggi case is “cleared up,” but officials were uncertain whether that applies to existing or only future sales. Like Trump, UK Prime Minister Theresa May was wary of actions that could cost domestic jobs, hurt the economy, and complicate relations with a key Middle Eastern ally.—TERRY ATLAS

Arms Control and Proliferation Profile: The United States

October 2018

Updated: October 2018

According to the Federation of the American Scientists, as of March 2018, the United States possesses 4,000 stockpiled strategic and non-strategic nuclear warheads and an additional 2,550 retired warheads awaiting dismantlement, for a total of 6,550 nuclear warheads. On Feb. 2, 2018, the Trump administration released its Nuclear Posture Review, detailing the size and role of U.S. nuclear forces for this administration. The United States has destroyed about 90.6% of its chemical weapons arsenal as of 2017 and is due to complete destruction by September 2023. It is party to the Biological Weapons Convention and has destroyed its biological weapons arsenal, although Russia alleges that U.S. biodefense research violates the BWC.

Contents

Major Multilateral Arms Control Agreements and Treaties

Export Control Regimes, Nonproliferation Initiatives, and Safeguards

Nuclear Weapons Programs, Policies, and Practices

  • The Nuclear Arsenal, an Overview
  • Delivery Systems
  • Ballistic Missile Defense Systems
  • Nuclear Doctrine
  • Fissile Material
  • Proliferation Record

Biological Weapons

Chemical Weapons

Other Arms Control and Nonproliferation Activities

  • New START
  • Nuclear Reduction Beyond New START
  • Civilian Nuclear Trade with India & the 123 Agreement
  • Nuclear Weapons Free Zones
  • Nuclear Security Summits
  • Syrian Chemical Weapons
  • Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)

Major Multilateral Arms Control Agreements and Treaties

 

Signed

Ratified

Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty

1968

1970

Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty

1996

- - -

Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM)

1980

1982

CPPNM 2005 Amendment

- - -

2015

Chemical Weapons Convention

1993

1997

Biological Weapons Convention

1972

1975

International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism

2005

2015

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Export Control Regimes, Nonproliferation Initiatives, and Safeguards

Group

Status

Australia Group

Member

Missile Technology Control Regime

Member

Nuclear Suppliers Group

Member

Wassenaar Arrangement

Member

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Additional Protocol

Signed in 1998, entered into force January, 2009.

Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism

Co-founder with Russia

Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation

Participant

Proliferation Security Initiative

Founder

UN Security Council Resolutions 1540 and 1673

The United States has filed reports on its activities to fulfill the resolutions and volunteered to provide assistance to other states.

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Nuclear Weapons Programs, Policies, and Practices

The Nuclear Arsenal, an Overview

According to the Federation of the American Scientists, as of February 2018, the United States possesses 4,000 stockpiled strategic and non-strategic nuclear warheads and an additional 2,550 retired warheads awaiting dismantlement, for a total arsenal of 6,550 warheads. Under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the United States can deploy no more than 1,550 treaty accountable strategic warheads until February 2021 when the treaty expires. According to the September 2018 New START data exchange, the United States deploys 1,398 strategic nuclear warheads on 659 ICBMs, SLBMs, and strategic bombers. However, these numbers may be artificially low due to a temporary fluctuation in deployed and non-deployed weapons at the time of the exchange. The United States also deploys an additional 150 tactical (non-strategic) nuclear warheads based in Europe. While the United States and Russia maintain similarly sized total arsenals, the United States possesses a much larger number of strategic warheads and delivery systems while Russia possesses a much larger number of non-strategic (or tactical) nuclear warheads.

The United States has conducted 1,030 total nuclear tests, far more than any other nuclear-armed state. The United States is the only nation to have used nuclear weapons against another country, dropping two bombs (one apiece) on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

Delivery Systems

(For a detailed overview of current and planned U.S. nuclear modernization programs, see our fact sheet here.)

Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM)

  •  As of February 2018, the United States Air Force deploys 400 LGM-30G Minuteman III ICBMs.
    • The Minuteman III has a range of over 6,000 miles (9,650-13,000 km).
    • Each missile is equipped with either one 300 kt W87 warhead or one 335 kt W78 warhead.
  • Under New START, the United States reduced the number of deployed ICBMs from 450 to 400. 50 excess silos have not been destroyed but have been kept in a “warm” operational status and can be loaded with missiles relatively quickly if necessary.
  • In 2015, the United States concluded a multibillion dollar, decade-long modernization program that will extend the service life of the Minuteman III to beyond 2030.  
  • The U.S. Air Force is also developing a new ICBM, known as the ground-based strategic deterrent, which is intended to replace the Minuteman III between 2028 and 2035.

Submarines and Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM)

Ohio-class submarines

  • The U.S. Navy operates 14 Ohio-class SSBNs submarines, two of which are undergoing overhaul of their nuclear reactors at any given time. The remaining 12 are available for deployment. However, since some operational SSBNs also undergo minor repairs at any given time the actual number of SSBNs at sea usually numbers at around 10.
  • 7 submarines are based out of Bangor, Washington and 5 submarines are based out of Kings Bay, Georgia.
  • The submarines originally had 24 missile tubes for Trident II D5 SLBMs, but under New START, the Navy deactivated 4 tubes on each submarine, finishing this process in 2017.
  • The Ohio-class submarines have a life-span of 42 years.

Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile

  • The Trident II D5 was first deployed in 1990 and has an operational range of 7,400-12,000 km.
  • The Trident II D5 missile can hold up to eight warheads (but usually holds an average of four to five) and carries 3 variants:
    • the W88—a 475 kt Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) warhead.
    • the W76-0—a 100 kt MIRV warhead.
    • the W76-1—a 100 kt MIRV warhead.
  • To comply with New START, the Navy will not deploy more than 240 missiles. As of February 2018, 203 submarine-launched ballistic missiles were deployed. 
  • An ongoing life extension program is expected to keep the Trident II D5 in service until  2042.
  • The Trident II D5 is the only MIRV’ed strategic missile remaining in the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Bombers

  • As of February 2018, the Air Force deploys 36 nuclear-capable B-52H Stratofortress bombers and 13 nuclear-capable B-2A Spirit bombers.
  • The Air Force plans to deploy no more than 60 nuclear-capable strategic bombers under New START.
  • An estimated 980 nuclear warheads are assigned to the strategic bombers, but only about 300 are typically deployed at bomber bases.
    • B-52H Stratofortress bombers: dual-capable; can carry 20 AGM-86B cruise missiles. The AGM-86B has a range of 2,500 km and is equipped with a 5-150 kt W80-1 warhead
    • B-2A Spirit bombers: dual capable; can carry 16 B61-7, B61-11, or B83-1 gravity bombs.
  • The United States also maintains several fighter-aircraft that serve in a dual-capable role. The F-15E and F-16C have been the cornerstone of this aspect of nuclear deterrence, carrying the B61 gravity bomb. The new stealth F-35 Lightning II, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter, will replace the F-16 as the U.S. Air Force’s primary nuclear capable fighter-aircraft.

Nuclear Doctrine

The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), released on Feb. 2, 2018, details the Trump administration’s approach to the size and role of U.S. nuclear forces. Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, in a Feb. 2, 2018 press briefing, claimed that the 2018 NPR “reaffirms that the fundamental role of U.S. nuclear policy is deterrence.” Critics of the document argue that the NPR reverses previous policy to reduce the role and number of U.S. nuclear weapons.

Declaratory Policy

The NPR dictates that the use of nuclear weapons will only be considered under “extreme circumstances” to defend the “vital interests” of the United States and its allies. It defines “extreme circumstances,” which the 2010 NPR did not, to include “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks” against “U.S., allied or partner civilian population or infrastructure, and attacks on U.S. or allied nuclear forces, their command and control, or warning and attack assessment capabilities.” For more on declaratory policy, see: Nuclear Declaratory Policy and Negative Security Assurances.

Negative Security Assurance

The NPR also includes a negative security assurance that the United States will not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapons states that are “party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and are in compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations.” It caveats its negative security assurance by retaining “the right to make any adjustment in the assurance that may be warranted by the evolution and proliferation of non-nuclear strategic attack technologies and U.S. capabilities to counter that threat.” For more on negative security assurances, see: U.S. Negative Security Assurances at a Glance.

Ballistic Missile Defense Systems

The United States develops and deploys several ballistic missile defense systems around the world. To learn more, see: "U.S. Missile Defense Programs at a Glance." 

Fissile Material

Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU)

  • The United States has publicly declared that it no longer produces fissile material for weapons purposes. It stopped production of HEU in 1992.
  • In March 2016, the United States announced the declassification of its national inventory of highly enriched uranium (HEU), as of September 30, 2013.
  • The United States halted the production of HEU for weapons in 1964 and ceased plutonium separation for weapons in 1992.
  • Estimates from 2016 place the U.S. HEU stockpile at around 600 metric tons, including 253 metric tons of military HEU and 264 metric tons of fresh and spent naval HEU.
  • According to the 2015 Global Fissile Material Report, the United States has about 40 metric tons of HEU remaining to be downblended of the 187 metric tons it declared as excess to defense requirements and has committed to dispose.

Plutonium

  • The United States ended production of separated plutonium in 1988.
  • At the end of 2014, U.S. military plutonium stockpiles amounted to a total of 87.6 declared metric tons (49.3 metric tons of which are declared as excess military plutonium).
  • In October 2016, citing U.S. failure to meet its obligations under the agreement, Russia suspended its own implementation of the deal. Russia refuses to resume the agreement’s implementation until U.S. sanctions against Russia are lifted and NATO forces in Europe are reorganized along lines favorable to Russia. Russia contends that U.S. plans to abandon the conversion of plutonium into MOX fuel in favor of a cheaper and faster downblending method does not meet the terms of the deal because doing so would fail to change the composition of the plutonium from weapons-grade to reactor grade. 
  • The United States possesses no separated civilian plutonium but at the end of 2014, an estimated 625 metric tons of plutonium were contained in spent fuel stored at civilian reactor sites.
  • Under the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA), finalized with Russia in 2000, the United States committed to disposing of 34 metric tons of excess weapons-grade plutonium beginning in 2018. The agreement was amended in 2010 to change the agreed disposition methods in which Russia abandoned using mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel in light-water reactors in favor or irradiating plutonium in its fast-neutron reactors. The amendment also expressed renewed U.S. commitment to provide $400 million towards the Russian disposition program. Russia suspended cooperation with the agreement in November 2016.

 Proliferation Record

  • A close relationship exists between U.S. and British nuclear weapons programs. The United States supplies the United Kingdom with the Trident II D5 SLBM.
  • Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey all host U.S. tactical nuclear gravity bombs as part of NATO nuclear sharing agreements. The estimated 180 weapons remain under U.S. custody during peacetime, but some may be released to U.S. allies for delivery in times of war.
  • Beginning with President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1953 “Atoms for Peace” initiative, the United States has engaged in extensive worldwide trading and exchanging of fissile materials and technical information for nuclear science research and the peaceful use of nuclear technology. In 1954, an amendment to the Atomic Energy Act allowed bilateral nuclear agreements with U.S. allies to proceed, with the intent of exporting only low enriched uranium (LEU) fuel; however, this soon expanded to include HEU.
  • Under the “Atoms for Peace” program a number of former, aspiring, and current nuclear-weapon states such as South Africa, Iran, India, Pakistan, and Israel all received, directly or indirectly, training and technology transfers utilized in their nuclear weapons programs. For example, in 1967, the United States supplied Iran with a 5 megawatt nuclear research reactor along with HEU fuel. Iran admitted to using the reactor in the early 1990s for the production of small amounts of Polonium-210, a radioactive substance capable of starting a chain reaction inside a nuclear weapon.
  • Since the end of the Cold War the United States has tried to mitigate the adverse effects of the “Atoms for Peace” initiative and returned exported HEU and plutonium to the United States.

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Biological Weapons

  • In the early 1970s, the United States destroyed its entire stockpile of biological weapons, which had been developed between 1943 and 1969.
  • In 2001, the Bush administration opposed and killed an effort dating back to 1995 to augment the Biological Weapons Convention with a legally binding verification protocol. U.S. officials said the protocol would be too burdensome on legitimate governments and private biodefense programs, while at the same time failing to deter cheaters.
  • According to a 2016 State Department report, “In December 2015 at the annual Meeting of States Parties to the BWC, the delegation of the Russian Federation asserted that the United States had knowingly transferred live anthrax spores to a foreign country for use in open-air testing, and that this constituted a ‘grave violation’ of Articles III and IV of the BWC [Biological Weapons Convention].”
  • The United States maintains that these transfers were a blunder. The report also notes that, “All U.S. activities during the reporting period were consistent with the obligations set forth in the BWC. The United States continues to work toward enhancing transparency of biological defense work using the BWC confidence-building measures.”

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Chemical Weapons

  • Behind Russia, the United States has declared the second-largest stockpile of chemical agents.
  • As of 2017, the United States had destroyed about 25,154 metric tons, or about 90.6 percent, of its declared Category 1 chemical weapons stockpile. The United States has completed destruction of all its Category 2 and 3 chemical weapons. 
  • The United States received several extensions on its initial deadline for chemical weapons destruction under the Chemical Weapons Convention, and it now due to destroy its chemical weapons arsenal by September 2023.
  • Destruction of the United States’ largest remaining stockpile of chemical weapons began in 2016 at Colorado’s Pueblo Chemical Depot. Upon completion, the Blue Grass Army Depot in Richmond, Kentucky will have the last remaining chemical agent stockpile in the United States.

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Other Arms Control and Nonproliferation Activities  

New START
In April 2010, the United States and Russia signed a successor agreement to the original Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) accord. The 2010 agreement, known as New START, commenced on Feb. 5, 2011. It requires that both sides reduce their arsenals to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear weapons on no more than 700 ICBMs, SLMBs, and bombers by Feb. 5, 2018 and both sides met the limits by the deadline. In addition, it contains rigorous monitoring and verification provisions to ensure compliance with the agreement. President Donald Trump has repeatedly questioned the value of New START, calling it a “one-sided” agreement.

Nuclear Reduction Beyond New START
In February 2013, President Obama announced that the United States intended to engage with Russia to further reduce deployed strategic warheads by one-third below the New START limit to around 1,100 to 1,000 deployed warheads. However, there has been little progress toward achieving such reductions due to the deterioration of U.S.-Russia relations in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Russia’s insistence that other issues, such as limits on U.S. missile defenses, be part of negotiations on further reductions.

Civilian Nuclear Trade with India & the 123 Agreement
In July 2005, the United States signed a controversial agreement with India to repeal most U.S. and multilateral civilian nuclear trade restrictions on India. In 2006, Congress amended its own domestic legislation to allow nuclear trade with India to proceed. The two governments later concluded a “123 Agreement,” which was approved by Congress and signed into law in October 2008. In September 2008, India received a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). The United States has pushed for India to become a member of the NSG, but in January 2017, China and other countries blocked India's membership bid on the grounds that India has not yet signed the NPT.

Nuclear Weapons Free Zones
The United States has ratified a protocol to the Latin America and the Caribbean Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NWFZ) treaty pledging not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against the contracting parties. The U.S. has declined to ratify similar additional protocols to any of the remaining NWFZ treaties for Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific. 

Nuclear Security Summits
In April 2010, the United States hosted the first Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) in Washington, DC. Participants included 47 countries, 38 of which were represented at the head of state or head of government level, and the heads of the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the European Union. At the summit, the participants unanimously adopted the goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear material in the next four years. The United States also attended the NSS in Seoul, South Korea, on March 26-27, 2012 and the third NSS on Mar. 24-25, 2014. Washington hosted a fourth summit in the Spring of 2016 where attendees developed action plans for five global organizations to continue the work of the summits.

Syrian Chemical Weapons
In September 2013, in the aftermath of the large-scale use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, United States reached an agreement with Russia to account, inspect, control, and eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons. Before the deal was reached, the United States was planning to use airstrikes to punish the perpetrators of the attack, which the United States blamed on the Syrian government. By July 2014, Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile had been successfully removed from the country and flagged for destruction following a broad multilateral operation. However, the United States has raised concerns about the accuracy of Syria’s declaration.

In September 2014, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed that chlorine gas was being used in Syria. The UN Security Council adopted a resolution on Mar. 6, 2015 condemning the use of chlorine gas in Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry was quick to suggest that the Assad regime was the likely perpetrator of the chlorine gas attacks; Russia, however, was hesitant to assign blame. In August 2016, the third report of the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism was released, finding that the Syrian government was responsible for chemical weapons attacks.

In April 2017, another chemical weapon attack was carried out in the Syrian town of Khan Shaykhun where Syrian government warplanes were accused of spreading a nerve agent via bombs, killing dozens. U.S. President Donald Trump responded by immediately blaming the regime of Bashar Assad and launching 59 Tomahawk missiles targeting the airfield that had allegedly launched the. Following the launches, Trump stated that “It is in this vital national security of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.” As a justification for the U.S. response, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that “If you violate international agreements, if you fail to live up to commitments, if you become a threat to others, at some point a response is likely to be undertaken.”   

(For a detailed timeline on Syrian chemical weapons, see our fact sheet here.)

Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)
Under the Obama administration the United States played the central role in the brokering of the July 2015 JCPOA, better known as the “Iran deal,” which limits and rolls back Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting economic sanctions. Congress in September 2015 debated a resolution that would have blocked implementation of the accord, but it failed to receive enough votes to pass the Senate. In January 2016, financial and oil sanctions on Iran were lifted along with the release of $100 billion worth of frozen Iranian assets after international inspectors confirmed that Iran had rolled back large sections of its nuclear program. In an effort to preserve the deal before leaving office, the Obama administration worked to fend off additional sanctions and encouraged American companies to conduct business in Iran.

On May 8, President Trump violated the JCPOA by committing to re-impose sanctions on Iran that were lifted by the agreement. After President Trump announced that he was withdrawing the United States from the deal, the other parties to the agreement decided to continue to implement their obligations.

Conference on Disarmament (CD)

The Conference on Disarmament was established in 1979 as a multilateral disarmament negotiating forum by the international community. At the 65-member CD, the United States has expressed support for continuing discussions on the CD's core issues: nuclear disarmament, a fissile material cut-off treaty (FMCT), prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS), and negative security assurances. The United States has been a prominent supporter of a proposed FMCT.

In March 1995, the CD took up The Shannon Mandate which established an ad hoc committee directed to negotiate an FMCT by the end of the 1995 session. A lack of consensus over verification provisions, as well as desires to hold parallel negotiations on outer space arms control issues, prevented negotiations from getting underway. Later, in May 2006, the United States introduced a draft FMCT along with a draft mandate for its negotiations. However, following an impasse in negotiations on a FMCT in 2010, the United States (and others) signaled its desire to look at alternative approaches outside the CD and called for negotiations to be moved to the United Nations General Assembly where the agreement could be endorsed by a majority vote. However, the United States no longer makes comments to this effect.

 The United States does not support negotiations on PAROS, deeming it unnecessary because there are no weapons yet deployed in outer space. China and Russia continue to articulate a desire to hold parallel negotiations, a point which has further stalled efforts to begin FMCT negotiations.

 

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Trump Favors Arms Industry in Effort to Loosen Export Controls

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If the Trump administration is serious about changing U.S. arms sales policies, it should add much greater transparency into the arms transfer and monitoring process. 

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Volume 10, Issue 6, June 7, 2018

The Trump administration is pushing to make sweeping changes in U.S. conventional arms export policies in order to sell more weapons, more quickly, and typically with less transparency and oversight. One reason given for these changes—advancing economic security—is simply faulty.

Worse still, the policies are dangerous, creating new risks that these weapons end up in the hands of terrorists and international criminals and further undermining the promotion of human rights norms that should be central to U.S. actions.

In mid-April, the president issued a new conventional arms transfer policy, giving the State Department 60 days to submit an implementation plan. In May, the administration also started a 45-day public comment period on regulatory changes that would transfer the control of assault rifles and other weapons of choice in armed violence to the Commerce Department.

If the administration is serious about claims that these changes make for responsible policy, it should add much greater transparency into the arms transfer and monitoring process. Congress, if it does not act to stop these new approaches, should make sure, at a minimum, that it maintains meaningful oversight to prevent abuses that undermine longstanding U.S. foreign policy objectives designed to avoid fueling conflicts around the world and propping up regimes that do not respect the basic human rights of their people.

Background

On April 19, Donald Trump issued a national security presidential memorandum replacing a January 2014 presidential policy directive that, like the 1995 iteration from the Clinton administration, included an unweighted list of criteria to guide decisions on U.S. conventional arms transfers.

Common to these policies are goals to improve the security of the United States and its allies, prevent proliferation, and support relevant multilateral agreements. With the backing of major arms producers, the Trump approach explicitly adds “economic security” as a factor in considering whether to approve arms exports. It promises that “the executive branch will advocate strongly” on behalf of U.S. companies and “maximize the ability” of U.S. industry “to grow and support allies and partners.”

Michael F. Miller, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, U.S. Department of State discusses new US conventional arms transfer policy and proposed changes to firearms exports at Forum on the Arms Trade conference in Washington DC on May 22. (Photo: Stimson Center)The memorandum retains many of the same provisions regarding human rights as the Obama-era conventional arms transfer policy, although consolidating their reference to a single section rather than reiterating them throughout. The new policy, however, does not explicitly say that past records on human rights will be a factor in decisions. It does contain a new commitment to “facilitate” ally and partner efforts “to reduce the risk of national or coalition operations causing civilian harm.”

Whether the implementation plan due soon from the Secretary of State explains how this will be done remains to be seen, but it is expected that training of forces will be touted as a critical component. Such training was written into arms sales last year to Saudi Arabia and Nigeria.

Proposed changes to the regulation of exports were announced May 14 and published in the Federal Register May 24, beginning a public comment period that ends in July.

Specifically, the rules relate to the first three categories of the United States Munitions List (USML) maintained under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), whose lead administrator is the Department of State. Under the proposal, many items would move from the USML to the Commerce Control List (CCL) to become part of the Export Administration Regulations (EAR), whose lead administrator is the Commerce Department. Most notably, non-automatic and semi-automatic firearms and their ammunition currently controlled under USML category I would move to new EAR 500-series classifications in the CCL.

The primary rationale given for the change is that these weapons no longer merit tight control. According to the State Department: 

The Department of State is engaged in an effort to revise the U.S. Munitions List so that its scope is limited to those defense articles that provide the United States with a critical military or intelligence advantage or, in the case of weapons, are inherently for military end use. The articles now controlled by USML Categories I, II, and III that would be removed from the USML under this proposed rule do not meet this standard, including many items which are widely available in retail outlets in the United States and abroad.

The revisions were drafted during the previous administration’s export reform control initiative, which sought to build higher fences on fewer items. During Obama’s presidency, action was taken on 18 of the USML’s 21 categories, but frequent mass shootings and an administration more supportive of gun control efforts contributed to the firearms categories going unpublished.

Critics of President Trump, such as Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), have pointed to the domestic U.S. gun lobby as the real driver behind these changes and called the decision to move forward “politically tone deaf as our nation reckons with a gun violence epidemic.”

Adding in Transparency and Enabling Assessment

As the Trump administration works to implement these changes, it should build in transparency and process changes that make it possible to assess whether U.S. arms exports are meeting the stated goals of the new policies.

This would not only be good public policy, but such an approach has the potential to address rising congressional and international distress about an administration that has shown less restraint, including by moving ahead with arms sales to Bahrain, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia that the previous administration had held back on due to serious human rights concerns.

As a start, a public accounting and evaluation of training that might go along with arms sales is desperately needed, especially if it will be a cornerstone of an effort to protect civilians. With another round of controversial precision-guided munition sales expected soon to Saudi Arabia (as well as the UAE), it is imperative that much more is shared about how training is done, who receives it, and whether it works.

As the Saudi-led coalition continues to hit civilian areas and an invasion of the port of Hodeida looms that threatens to further exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, it is not enough to simply say training is important. It must make a difference.

Similarly, much greater transparency into the arms sales process at a public level is critical. Under current procedure Congress is notified of potential major arms sales whether through the foreign military sales (FMS) process or via direct commercial sales (DCS), starting a review period by which it could block agreement to the sale.

Unlike FMS notifications, DCS notifications are not posted on a publicly accessible website, giving the American people less time to inform their representatives of any concerns. If the administration wants to make it easier for companies to negotiate their arms sales, it should also improve transparency into them.

While Congress can block or amend an arms sale up until a weapon is delivered, those deliveries often occur years after notification. There is typically much less public attention on arms sales during this period. If the administration wants to speed the time between agreement and delivery, it should agree to also make clear when a delivery is imminent, so as to create predictable moments for oversight. In 2014, Congress created a mechanism for receiving notification at least 30 days before delivery when requested on select sales, but has only used the authority once. The administration should instead make this standard on all sales and make it public.

Public reporting afterward, via the State Department’s so-called 655 report, also now has less detail than in the past. These reports, as well as others on end-use monitoring, should provide information on the number of specific weapons involved and other data, rather than broad categorical details. Importantly, reports from the Commerce Department should also improve in detail, especially if the changes on firearm exports are put into place that transfer oversight away from the State Department.

Without these specifics, it becomes more difficult not only to assess these policy changes, but to further goals such as combating illicit trafficking and weapons flows to terrorists and other unintended users.

A recent report from the Center for Civilians in Conflict and Stimson Center offers an array of good suggestions that run the life of a weapon—from pre-transfer to end-use monitoring—with “trigger” mechanisms along the way that allow for reassessment as situations change. Those recommendations, primarily focused on protecting civilians but also relevant to promoting human rights and international law, deserve strong consideration.

The Value of Congressional Oversight

In 2002 Congress amended its notification threshold so that it would be informed of potential commercial sales of firearms under USML category I when they were valued at just $1 million, as opposed to $14 million for other major weapons sales.

During a Sept. 26 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, then-ranking member Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) pointed to forestalling small arms sales to Turkey and the Philippines as recent examples of Congress’ needed role. In 2017, the administration notified Congress of more than $660 million of proposed firearms sales regulated under the USML, according to the Security Assistance Monitor.

Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.)No similar statutory requirement of congressional notification exists for most arms sales under the CCL, meaning Congress would lose its oversight role on these weapons. It could take steps to require that notification continues. In response to the new measures, Cardin said May 15

For years, I advised both the Obama and Trump Administrations against this type of transfer. Weakened Congressional oversight of international small arms and munitions sales is extremely hazardous to global security.  Small arms and light weapons are among the most lethal weapons that we and other countries export because these are the weapons that are most likely to be used to commit atrocities and suppress human rights, either by individuals, non-state groups, or governmental security and para-military forces.

While Congress does not have control over the president’s conventional arms transfer policy, it can mandate the types of transparency recommended above, including an expansion on pre-delivery notifications. It could also pass legislation that retains the classification of firearms as military weapons and placement on the USML.

The Administration’s Faulty “Economic Security” Excuse

According to the latest report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the United States remains the leading and expanding provider of major conventional weapons into a growing international arms market. Russia, long the number two arms exporter, is in decline as Washington accounts for more than one-third of all major weapons deliveries.

It begs credulity to argue that the United States needs a special push in order to compete in the international arms market. Linkages of U.S. jobs to international arms sales are also overblown as arms deals frequently come with co-production agreements or other incentives that support jobs abroad rather than at home.

At a more fundamental level, U.S. arms are not like any other commodity and should not be treated as such. These are first and foremost killing machines. The over-emphasis on economic security threatens to jeopardize higher priorities, including peace and security concerns. If more weapons flow to countries with poor human rights records, norms around responsible weapons use and transfer will be harder to build and uphold.

Regarding firearms, these weapons are controlled because a significant amount of violence that occurs, including against U.S. military and law enforcement personnel, is inflicted by small arms. Research indicates that the types of weapons being transferred to Commerce control—AR-15s and AK-47 style assault rifles and their ammunition—are “weapons of choice” of drug trafficking organizations in Mexico and other Latin American countries. Many can also be easily converted to fully automatic weapons, which will remain under USML control. U.S. military members often operate their fully-automatic-capable weapons in a semi-automatic or less-than-automatic mode.

The transfer of firearms export control to the Department of Commerce will also likely remove a number of brokering registration requirements, may open up license exemptions that facilitate weapons ending up in the wrong hands, and limit legal or investigative actions to stop such results.

Claiming that these weapons do not have military utility because they may be commercially available, are somehow less dangerous,or do not merit stronger international control, is wrong.

In the end, these policies continue the wrong-minded approach of the Trump administration to treat weapons as any other trade commodity, threatening to undermine long-term global security and true U.S. national security interests.—JEFF ABRAMSON, nonresident senior fellow

New Policies Promote Arms, Drone Exports

Trump administration emphasizes economic benefits of U.S. weapons sales abroad.


May 2018
By Jeff Abramson

The Trump administration has revised policies guiding conventional arm transfers and drone exports, controversially placing greater emphasis on U.S. economic interests. A plan for implementing the policies is due in two months.

The April 19 national security presidential memorandum replaces a January 2014 presidential policy directive that, like the 1995 iteration from the Clinton administration, included an unweighted list of criteria to guide decisions on U.S. conventional arms transfers. Common to these policies are goals to improve the security of the United States and its allies, prevent proliferation, and support relevant multilateral agreements. New to the Trump approach is an explicit inclusion of “economic security” as a factor in considering whether to approve arms exports.

President Donald Trump makes a point about the U.S. economic benefits from arms sales during an Oval Office meeting March 20 with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.  (Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)


The new policy on conventional arms transfers begins with an assertion that the defense industrial base employs more than 1.7 million people and that “the executive branch will advocate strongly” on behalf of U.S. companies and “maximize the ability” of U.S. industry “to grow and support allies and partners.”

The new policy on the export of unmanned aerial systems, full details of which remain classified, lists increasing trade opportunities for U.S. companies as one of five primary objectives. It replaces an “overly restrictive policy established in 2015 that hindered American companies,” according to a short White House statement. That statement places the new policies within the president’s “commitment to peace through strength” in part by “expanding opportunities for American industry [and] creating American jobs.”

The added focus on jobs and the economy was expected from the president, who has touted arms sales and called for speeding the process for arms deliveries. Exactly how that will be done remains to be determined. The policy says that the secretary of state is to deliver a proposed action plan within 60 days, a process that is expected to include consultation with industry and civil society groups.

In a news conference shortly before the new policies were released, Tina S. Kaidanow, principal deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, provided insights into how the policy changes for unmanned aerial systems, commonly referred to as drones, may speed delivery of certain items by allowing their sale to be directly negotiated by companies.

Under the new policy, so-called strike enabling technology, such as laser target designators that are not themselves armed, will no longer be required to go through the government-to-government process for negotiating foreign military sales, she said. Instead, the new policy allows companies to negotiate directly with foreign government buyers through the direct commercial sales process. Such an approach involves “fewer barriers and less confusion,” which can “potentially allow for faster procurement,” she said. The policy also allows for armed unmanned aerial systems to be transferred via either procurement process.

Citing increased competition from China, Peter Navarro, assistant to the president for trade and manufacturing policy, said the administration’s policy
on unmanned aerial systems “will level the playing field by enabling firms to increase their direct sales to authorized allies and partners.”

The policy also calls for the United States to seek changes to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) as it applies to unmanned aerial systems, most likely to ease some presumptive restrictions given that drones fly more slowly than missiles. The MTCR, which has 35 member-states, works to restrict exports of missiles and related technologies capable of carrying a 500-kilogram payload at least 300 kilometers, which applies to some
drone systems.

Both foreign military and direct commercial sales require that Congress be notified of certain potential arms sales. Congress can block the conclusion of an arms agreement within 30 days or act anytime until delivery. Kaidanow said that nothing in the new presidential memorandum “changes either the existing legal or regulatory requirements, and we are very respectful of Congress’ role in all of this.”

Although many worried that the new policies would jettison any mention of human rights, they do retain many of the same provisions as the Obama-era conventional arms transfer policy, although consolidating their reference to a single section rather than reiterating them throughout. The new policy also contains a commitment to “facilitate” ally and partner efforts “to reduce the risk of national or coalition operations causing civilian harm.”

Nonetheless, the administration’s approach did draw criticism. The policies “present a clear political objective by the Trump administration—to demonstrate its ‘America First’ approach and promote U.S. industry,” said Rachel Stohl, deputy director of the Stimson Center in Washington and a board member of the Arms Control Association. “The policies focus on the benefits, rather than the risks, of arms exports and take a short-term view without fully incorporating potential long-term consequences,” she added.

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