The administration recently released its Treaty Priority List, designating the treaties for which it supports – and those for which it does not support – Senate action. The U.S.-U.K. Defense Trade Cooperation Treaty, and its U.S.-Australia counterpart, is on the List.
The treaties permit the U.S. to trade most defense articles with these nations without an export license or other written authorization. Currently, the U.S. reviews export license requests on a case-by-case basis. In 2006, the U.S. Department of State reviewed more than 7,000 licenses for defense exports to the U.K. Potential transatlantic projects often require many levels of government approval.
Despite some recent improvements, the export license process remains a cumbersome and lengthy one. This discourages defense suppliers from the U.K. and Australia from participating in U.S. defense acquisition programs, which raises costs and reduces the ability of the U.S. to supply its forces efficiently. At the same time, the license system raises barriers to profitable U.S. exports to its closest allies.
It also encourages the U.K. and Australia to procure from other suppliers, whose systems may not be interoperable with those of the U.S. This reduces the ability of the U.S., the U.K., and Australia to conduct joint operations. Over time, it will lead these closest of allies to become militarily and politically reliant upon other countries.
The treaties do not simply decontrol defense trade. Rather, under the treaties, the U.S. has negotiated with the British and Australian governments an approved list of private sector defense and counter-terrorism-related entities in these countries that are allowed end-user access to U.S. items. Both the U.K. and Australia will protect U.S.-origin items as classified, and will require prior U.S. approval for the re-export of these items. The treaties, therefore, will not expose U.S. technology to significant additional risks of transfer to unauthorized foreign users.
Not all the treaties the administration endorses are so worthy of early action by the Senate. But in the case of the two defense trade treaties, the administration has done the right thing.