Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is continuing his crusade to transform the way in which the United States conducts national security affairs. The most revolutionary Secretary of Defense since Robert McNamara (and a much better one), Gates’ vision encompasses changing the way the Department of Defense organizes, trains, equips and employs military forces, altering the relationship between his department and the other departments and agencies involved in national security and, perhaps most important, changing the relationship between America and its allies by, in particular, enhancing their abilities to operate alongside U.S. forces and provide for their own defense.
All these changes appear to reflect a grand design. As Secretary Gates himself acknowledged the other day in his speech announcing his proposed export control reforms, all the institutional changes he is pursuing are “to one degree or another aimed at improving the way the United States works with and through other countries to confront shared security challenges.” Not only has Secretary Gates been managing two major wars, he has been creating the elements of a new global security architecture and attempting to reshape the U.S. national security establishment to integrate with that new architecture.
His most recent effort is a proposal to reform the U.S. export control system. Anyone who has had to deal with the U.S. export control bureaucracy and its antiquated set of rules will agree with the Secretary’s characterization of the system as Byzantine. The current system requires an export license for commonly available items associated with military systems such as spare tires, batteries and electric generators. In his speech announcing the proposed reforms, Secretary Gates used the example of a British-owned C-17 disabled in Australia that could not be repaired for many hours because the government in London first had to obtain a license to make the needed repair. This is crazy and does nothing to prevent our adversaries from getting really dangerous technologies.
So draconian are the rules that they have crippled the ability of U.S. satellite makers to compete in the commercial marketplace. The result has been the loss of foreign sales, a shrinking of the U.S. satellite industrial base, the expansion of foreign makers of these systems and less control over sensitive satellite technologies, not more.
The practical aspects of the Secretary’s proposal, a single agency responsible for licensing and enforcement, with one all-encompassing list of controlled items (right now there are several lists that are the responsibility of different agencies) and a unified information system for tracking license requests and licensed items, makes eminent sense. A simpler process, one with fewer steps, less bureaucracy and greater clarity, would be an obvious improvement.
Equally important are the strategic aspects of the Secretary’s proposal. If the United States is going to create a new strategic architecture, one in which it operates more consistently with and through other countries, it must both trust those countries and enable them to do more in their own defense and to address common strategic challenges. Traditional allies need and deserve our trust. It is important, therefore, that the Obama Administration move forward on the security treaties with the U.K. and Australia. In addition, key allies need to be given access to more advanced U.S. military technologies and to be allowed to acquire the best U.S. weapons systems. There are some examples of this, such as the international partnership on the Joint Strike Fighter and international sales of the Aegis missile defense system. Secretary Gates needs to provide more specificity regarding his vision for U.S. friends and allies and encourage them to acquire the needed capabilities so as to play a greater role in meeting those shared security challenges.