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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Trump to call on Pentagon and diplomats to play bigger role in US arms sales

President is expected to announce 'whole of government' approach that will ease rules on weapons exports

US president Donald Trump sits after speaking during the UN General Assembly meeting in New York on September 19, 2017. Caitlin Ochs / Bloomberg
US president Donald Trump sits after speaking during the UN General Assembly meeting in New York on September 19, 2017. Caitlin Ochs / Bloomberg

The Trump administration is nearing completion of a Buy American plan that calls for US military attaches and diplomats to help drum up billions of dollars in business overseas for the US arms industry, officials said.

President Donald Trump is expected to announce a "whole of government" approach that will also ease export rules on US military hardware and give greater weight to the economic interests of manufacturers in a decision-making process that has long focused on human rights, according to people familiar with the plan.

The initiative, which will encompass everything from fighter jets and drones to warships and artillery, is expected to be launched as early as February, senior officials said.

A key policy change would call for embassy staff to act as a sales force for defence contractors. It was unclear, however, what specific guidelines would be established.

But under this approach, embassy staff would press foreign counterparts in a push for sales and brief visiting senior US officials so they can help advance deals, a source said.

One senior administration official described the proposal as a "180-degree shift" in the current arms-length approach to overseas weapons sales.

Mr Trump is seeking to fulfil a 2016 election campaign promise to create jobs in the US by selling more goods and services abroad and cut the US trade deficit from a six-year high of US$50 billion (Dh183.6bn).

The administration is also under pressure from US defence contractors that face growing competition from foreign rivals such as China and Russia. But any loosening of the restrictions on weapons sales would be in defiance of human rights and arms control advocates who said there was too great a risk of fuelling violence in regions such as the Middle East and South Asia or arms being diverted to be used in terrorist attacks.

Arms Regulations

Besides greater use of a network of military and commercial attaches stationed at US embassies, senior officials said another agenda of the plan will be to revise the International Trafficking in Arms Regulations. Those have governed arms exports since 1976 and have not been fully revamped in more than three decades.

This expanded government effort on behalf of American arms makers, together with looser restrictions on weapons exports and more favourable treatment of sales to non-Nato allies and partners, could bring additional billions of dollars in deals and more jobs, the senior official said.

The strategy of having the Pentagon and the state department take a more active role in securing foreign arms deals could especially benefit major defence contractors such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

"We want to see those guys, the commercial and military attaches, unfettered to be salesmen for this stuff, to be promoters," said the senior administration official, who is close to the administration's deliberations.

A state department official, asked to confirm details of the coming policy, said the revamped approach "gives our partners a greater capacity to help share the burden of international security, benefits the defence industrial base and will provide more good jobs for American workers".

The White House and Pentagon declined an official comment.

Defence industry officials and lobbyists have welcomed what they expect will be a more sales-friendly approach.

Mr Trump, a Republican, has the legal authority to direct government embassy "security assistance officers", both military personnel and civilians, to do more to help drive arms sales.

Administration officials see this group, which until now has had more limited duties such as helping to manage US military aid overseas and providing some information to foreign governments for buying US arms, as underutilised.

'Back seat' for human rights?

One national security analyst said that easing export restrictions to allow defence contractors to reap greater profits internationally would increase the danger of top-of-the-line US weapons going to governments with poor human rights records or being used by extremists.

"This administration has demonstrated from the very beginning that human rights have taken a back seat to economic concerns," said Rachel Stohl, director of the conventional defence programme at the Stimson Centre in Washington. "And the short-sightedness of a new arms export policy could have serious long-term implications."

The administration officials said human rights and regional security concerns would remain part of the formula for arms sales decisions. But they said such reviews would now afford greater weight than before to whether a deal would be good for the US economy and strengthen America's defence industrial base, in which case red tape would be cut accordingly.

Rules to make it easier to sell US-made military drones overseas and compete against fast-growing Chinese and Israeli rivals are also expected to be in the Trump plan, officials said.

Mr Trump's Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, also sought to make it easier to sell to America's most trusted allies but in a more cautious approach that his administration billed as a way to boost American business while keeping strict controls against more dangerous arms proliferation. Foreign weapons sales soared during his tenure, with the US retaining its position as the world's top arms supplier.

Shares of the five biggest US defence contractors, including Lockheed, Boeing, Raytheon, General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman, have more than tripled over the last five years and trade at or near all-time highs.

Foreign military sales in fiscal 2017, comprising much of Mr Trump's first year in office and the final months of Mr Obama's term, climbed to $42 billion, compared to $31bn in the prior year, according to the US Defence Security Cooperation Agency.

The Trump administration has already moved forward on several sales. Those include a push for $7bn in precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia and the unblocking of $3bn in arms to Bahrain.

Concerns have been raised over the administration's preparations to make it easier for American gun makers to sell small arms, including assault rifles and ammunition, to foreign buyers.

A draft of the overall policy recently finished by teams of state, defence and commerce department officials co-ordinated by Mr Trump's National Security Council must now be approved by a senior cabinet members before being sent to his desk, the government sources said.

Once Mr Trump announces an extensive framework of the plan, there will be a 60-day public comment period. After that, the administration is expected to unveil further details. Some of the changes are expected to take the form of what is formally known as a presidential national security decision directive, two of the sources said.