US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, 20 Apr 2010
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, 20 Apr 2010

The Obama Administration is moving to ease export controls on thousands of military items sought by allies and other friendly countries, while toughening controls on the most sensitive high-technology material.  The plan was announced Tuesday by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who said it would likely increase exports, but is mainly aimed at improving security for the United States and its partners.  

Secretary Gates says the current system, last updated more than 20 years ago, makes it difficult for the United States to provide critical items to allied troops.  He said it also hurts critical U.S. defense industries by driving some of the best scientists and engineers to work in other countries.

Speaking to a business group in Washington, Gates outlined a plan to streamline the process of approving exports of most military gear, while enabling officials to focus on the most sensitive items.

"We need a system that dispenses with the 95 per cent of easy cases and lets us concentrate our resources on the remaining five per cent," said Robert Gates. "By doing so, we will be better able to monitor and enforce controls on technology transfers with real security implications, while helping to speed the provision of equipment to allies and partners who fight alongside us in coalition operations."

The current system involves two lists of restricted items maintained by two government departments, and two processes for approving export applications.  

Secretary Gates used words like Byzantine (ancient and complex), labyrinthine (complicated) and confusing to describe the system.

Gates said it is even sometimes difficult to sell spare parts to countries that have already been allowed to purchase a major weapons system, like a fighter jet or military cargo plane.  And he said even simple items, like nuts and bolts or low-technology gadgets available in stores, are often difficult to export if they have military origins.

Gates said the administration will move in the coming months to consolidate the lists and the processes in a new agency, to create a new enforcement mechanism, and to seek congressional approval for further steps it wants to take by the end of this year.  And he mentioned one other part of the plan.

"An essential component of the reformed system is the list of entities - terrorist organizations, rogue states and others - that cannot be allowed access to sensitive items," he said. "This would deny them technology or force them to acquire it through more difficult routes."

Secretary Gates called it "a system where higher walls are placed around fewer, more critical items."  But he acknowledged there is a commercial aspect to the plan.

"Other countries that do not suffer from our encumbrances are taking the opportunity to sell weapons, build relationships and improve their strategic position and economic standing," said Gates.

Still, Gates said the main motivation is related to national security, and he added that American reforms may make other countries more willing to improve their export controls.

Pentagon officials who spoke on condition of anonymity acknowledged that such reforms have been attempted in the past, without success.  They said that is one reason they are framing these changes as based on security concerns, rather than merely motivated by a desire for more exports.  Still, Secretary Gates said the plan will likely face resistance from the government bureaucracy and from the Congress, where some members will likely be concerned about easing export controls on even basic military items.