US industry lobbyists have three goals for arms export control reform in 2008: to clear UK and Australian firms for the vast bulk of transactions to obtain clear guidance for commercial manufacturers on dual-use items and to win the power to licence exports on a programme-wide basis.

Gaining approvals by the Bush administration and Congress on any of the three issues would have ranked as massive coup in the frustrated history of the export licence reform movement, but industry groups show a new confidence that all three objectives are within their grasp by 2008.

"The winds of change are in the air and have been for a couple of months," says Remy Nathan, director of international affairs at the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA).

The most vivid example of the turnaround came on 22 January when President Bush signed a new directive mostly aimed at improving the efficiency of administering export controls.

The package of initiatives appears modest compared to the lofty objectives of previous export reform proposals, but that was the point, according to industry advocates. Revamping export controls in the past led to clashes with lawmakers concerned about protecting US security and bureaucrats alarmed by the prospect of massive institutional change.


Industry officials, says Nathan, often enflamed these fears by employing the bold but opaque mantra of "higher walls around fewer things" without addressing the problem that such sloganeering never answered a fundamental question: "How do you turn that into a regulation?" Hence, Nathan adds, "In some ways, we abandoned responsibility for the success of the argument."

That realisation prompted a shift to a completely different lobbying strategy about a year ago, he says. Instead of bold, sweeping reform proposals, industry came forward with "highly specific" and "very targeted" requests for action.

The new strategy also led to a new organisation, the Coalition for Security and Competitiveness, which unites the AIA with such industry lobbying groups as National Association of Manufacturers, the Business Roundtable, the Electronics Industries Association and the US Chamber of Commerce.The coalition now includes 18 official members and that total is probably going to double very soon, says Nathan.

On 6 March, the coalition announced its existence and issued 19 reform proposals for consideration by the White House. Following the new strategy, the proposals were carefully crafted to be legally contained to the executive branch and requiring no approvals from Congress.

"There were 19 different recommendations and I believe we're getting action in one way or another on about 17 of them," says Nathan.

Of the two that did not receive attention, one calls for the appointment of an export control czar on the National Security Council and the other requests the creation of a presidential advisory council. Neither interests the Bush administration during its last year in power, he adds.

But the coalition's most significant victory was gaining a commitment by the White House to set a 60-day benchmark for processing all new licensing applications.

Government agencies are now allowed to have a 90-day window to clear new applications, of which about half are processed within 60 days.

The new metric "sets out an end result and leaves vague all the various ways they can go about doing it", says Nathan.

The US Department of State has reported that during the past year it has cut by 90% the number of licences in the queue for more than 60 days.

But meeting the new standard will require an intense re-examination of the government's processes, and perhaps generate a need for new administrative staff to clear the paperwork.

White House officials have floated a proposal to impose user fees on industry if the cost of approving licence applications increases dramatically.

"It's my hope that there's still a lot more things they can do without a lot more money," Nathan says. "In the short term I think there are still improvements that can be made."

Source: Flight International