Conventional Arms Transfer Policy: Advancing American National Security Through Security Cooperation

Gregory M. Kausner
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Political-Military Affairs
Remarks to IISS
Washington, DC
April 23, 2014


Thank you very much Sam. Sam is one of the leading Russia experts around, and as we grapple with the situation unfolding in Ukraine, his work will provide vital insight. So, I glad to share the stage with him. I am grateful to the International Institute for Strategic Studies for hosting me today. With its founding focus on arms control and renowned for its annual evaluation of the global military balance, the institute is the perfect venue for this discussion. For more than half a century IISS has helped us see beyond the headlines, so it is well placed to facilitate our understanding of the U.S. Conventional Arms Transfer Policy.

While the Conventional Arms Transfer policy is complex, its objective is clear: when the United States provides defense articles and military training to our partners and allies, it does so for one main reason: to further U.S. national security interests.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt called on us to look outward and fulfill our role as the great “Arsenal of Democracy,” and, in 1941, his Lend-Lease program enabled military aid to flow across the Atlantic to a beleaguered Britain. FDR championed U.S.-security assistance not just because it was the right thing to do, but because it was in our interest to stand with an ally fighting for freedom.

Security cooperation as a tool of U.S. foreign policy remains as important today as ever before. In a world of transnational threats, the United States is safer when countries and regions are secure, stable, and free.

With the globalization of commerce and the interconnected nature of economies and peoples, our security is now linked to more places, countries, and regions than ever before.

While the United States remains an unrivaled military power that can rapidly deploy forces around the world to ensure stability, we cannot be everywhere at once, nor do we seek to be. One of our country’s great strengths is that through our alliances and partnerships we do not have to be everywhere. We can share the burden of maintaining global security with others. In order to do so, however, we must ensure that our partners have the necessary capabilities and resources to contribute to the fight.

Opportunities and Challenges

People are often surprised to learn that it is the State Department that oversees security assistance. In some countries, arms transfers are treated as strictly economic, industrial, or military decisions. But in the United States security assistance is treated as a matter of foreign policy.

When we provide a defense article to a foreign recipient, we view it as more than just commercial transaction; it is a way to exert American influence and export our values. Security cooperation is about using all of our equipment, skills, and knowledge to shape a more prosperous and secure future – not just for us, but also for our partners.

Training and equipping these partners can advance a broad agenda of our foreign policy goals. Let me highlight some examples of what I mean:

Security assistance provides us with influence. When we transfer or sell a defense system to a partner nation, the delivery of that system is the beginning – not the end – of an enduring relationship – a relationship that includes maintenance, end-use monitoring -- and most importantly, training. That training happens at all levels – from the tactical to the strategic. Our security cooperation is not just about building new partnerships on a national level. It’s about creating personal relationships —relationships that often transcend the volatile political climates of the day. Personal relationships enable us to pick up the phone and call our counterparts when tensions run high -- to not only respond to crises, but to forestall them.

Security assistance provides the United States with access. Our aid oftentimes facilitates our transit through airspace and busy shipping lanes; provides the freedom to use foreign ports and bases; and offers unfettered access to critical geo-strategic locations – all crucial elements of our global posture.

Our security assistance enables us to operate together with partner militaries. In Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, we re-discovered the importance of interoperability on the battlefield. We are more effective when we can fight together, side by side using common platforms, because of the similarities in tools, training, tactics, techniques, and procedures.

Security assistance can support regional balance. Our arms transfers are an unequivocal signal to those who seek to counter U.S. interests or undermine international norms. When we train and equip our allies, it sends a message that their military strength should not be tested.

Finally, our security assistance enables burden sharing. By providing defense capabilities to our partners, we build their capacity to become self-reliant; to respond to threats; and to better contribute to multilateral coalitions. Such cooperation reduces our international burden and makes Americans safer at a lower cost.

That’s the power of our security assistance in action. And while the advantages are unmistakable, the risks are real.

The influx of advanced weapons into a region can destabilize established power balances.

Arms, when in the wrong hands, can contribute to human rights violations.

Industrial competitors are eager to exploit U.S. technology, the outcome of which could not only affect the health of the U.S. industrial base, but also endanger American lives.

So, the question isn’t whether there are challenges. We know there are. It is whether we can mitigate the risks and seize the opportunities that our security assistance provides. And I am confident that we can.

Conventional Arms Transfer Policy

This January, President Obama signed Presidential Policy Directive 27 on Conventional Arms Transfers – the CAT Policy for short. The President’s Directive brings clarity and purpose to U.S. security assistance. When we consider the merits of an arms transfer, we now have a transparent set of objectives to weigh.

The policy provides clear criteria -- applied on a case-by-case basis -- to ensure that every U.S. arms transfer promotes U.S. national security.

The CAT policy is not a formula. We cannot plug in complex variables and hope for a perfect policy prescription. It is instead a decision-making framework, the efficacy of which depends on policymakers being able to balance its two fundamental tenets:

On one hand, support for transfers that meet the legitimate security requirements of our allies and partners to advance our national security and foreign policy interests -- and on the other, promotion of restraint, in transfers of weapon systems that may be destabilizing or dangerous to international peace and security.

Why Now?

Before I get into the details of what this means in practice, let me answer the question of why we decided to update the CAT policy this year.

Much has changed since 1995, when the original CAT policy was issued. Our current doctrine needed to reflect the realities of the 21st century not those of the Cold War.

  • Transnational threats challenge our interests today in ways that were hardly imagined 20 years ago.
  • From Afghanistan to Libya, coalitions have emerged to play a central role in U.S. defense policy.
  • Technology has evolved. The provision of services and technical data related to arms has, in many cases, become as significant as the transfer of weapon.
  • Regional dynamics have changed dramatically. Take the remarkable events in the Middle East, which began in 2011. But the shifting geo-political landscape does not end there. As is evident in Eastern Europe and the Asia Pacific, territorial and maritime disputes continue to drive instability.
  • And while the importance of protecting fundamental freedoms and human rights hasn’t changed, it needed to be more prominently reflected in the policy. These ideals are not only central to promoting American values, but to preserving U.S. security.

We of course considered all of these realities prior to the President’s update. It is a standard of good governance, however, to regularly reevaluate our assumptions. Now, the context of today’s security environment is reflected in the text. And by updating the policy, we have re-validated its importance.

Objectives and Criteria

So what does the new CAT policy actually say? In short, it details objectives and criteria to consider when making or denying arms transfers. It is up to policymakers, however, to strike the appropriate balance between permitting legitimate transfers that support our security, and the need for restraint against the proliferation of arms. Indeed, that can be a challenging balance to maintain, so I will enumerate, in no particular order, each objective and some of the criteria we consider:

  • First, ensuring U.S. military forces, and those of allies and partners, continue to enjoy technological superiority over potential adversaries. This cuts both ways: We make transfers to bolster our partners’ legitimate defense capabilities. We deny transfers, however, when there is a high probability that the technology involved could be illegally diverted.

    To avoid such a result, we assess a potential recipient’s capacity to protect sensitive software and hardware design, development, manufacturing, and integration knowledge – critical to not only safeguard the U.S. industrial base, but to ensure system vulnerabilities are not revealed to those who seek to exploit U.S. operational capabilities.
  • Second, promoting the acquisition of U.S. systems to increase interoperability with allies and partners, lower the unit costs for all, and strengthen the industrial base. If we hope to retain our technological edge in a time of fiscal austerity, we must continue to invest in research and development. By contributing to economies of scale, foreign sales can help maintain U.S. investment in the defense sector.

    While we do not approve transfers strictly based on the health of the U.S. industrial base, we would be foolish not to consider its impact.
  • Third, enhancing the ability of allies and partners to deter or defend themselves against aggression. As President Obama said, “we should not be the world's policeman.” Supporting our partners not only lifts the burden from the shoulders of our military, but it also contributes to a more stable international order. To this end, we assess the ability of the recipient to field, support, and appropriately employ the requested system in accordance with its intended end-use.
  • Fourth, encouraging the maintenance and expansion of U.S. security partnerships with those who share our objectives, and regional access in areas critical to U.S. interests. The relationships we forge through security assistance are not only government-to-government – they are commercial, institutional, and personal. Think about the scope of a major arms sale, and the range of cooperation it often entails – from companies that collaborate on co-production, to technicians who team to maintain a common platform, to soldiers who train in shared tactics. But for such cooperation to take root, we must ensure that we team with stable partners.
  • Fifth, promoting regional stability, peaceful conflict resolution, and arms control. We are committed to nonproliferation and to the furtherance of peace. When we make the decision to transfer a capability to a foreign nation we do so mindful of the impact it could have on regional balance. So, we consider if capabilities that project power, provide for anti-access and area denial, or that are new introductions into a region, could foster increased tension or contribute to an arms race. We weigh the human rights, democratization, counterterrorism, counter proliferation, and nonproliferation record of the recipient, and the potential for misuse of the export in question.

    We also must consider if a country could procure arms from another source. The arms industry is a competitive market. Just because another exporter is willing to sell to a potential recipient, however, does not mean we should. But the influence that comes with an arms sale should not be underestimated, and we should be careful not to cede such influence to others.
  • Sixth, preventing the proliferation of conventional weapons that could be used as delivery systems for weapons of mass destruction. Countering WMD proliferation is a core U.S. national security goal. We recognize that some conventional arms may be used to support unconventional capabilities. For this reason, the CAT policy closely aligns with constraints imposed by multilateral arms control arrangements; where there is a strong potential for misuse or a transfer would set a dangerous precedent, we withhold our assistance. We assess the degree of protection afforded by the recipient country to sensitive technology and potential for unauthorized third-party transfer, as well as in-country diversion.
  • Seventh, supporting counterterrorism efforts. As Secretary Kerry said, “…the threat that we face is more diffuse, decentralized, and geographically dispersed than ever before, and addressing this threat will require every tool in our arsenal...” When a partner or ally can aid in the fight to confront the destructive forces of transnational terrorism, we will look to train and equip them.
  • Eighth, combating transnational organized crime and related threats to national security. International crime is not a new phenomenon, but its reach is expanded by a globalized economy and interconnected world. The U.S. cannot expect to effectively combat the threat alone.

    While any strategy must include efforts to reform institutions and build capacity throughout the justice sector, targeted security assistance will enable partners to identify, disrupt, and dismantle transnational criminal groups.
  • Ninth, supporting democratic governance and other related U.S. foreign policy objectives. Our security assistance can provide the United States access and influence that can be used to advance democratic ideals and promote good governance. We need to be clear-eyed though. Security assistance is not always the most effective leverage. To promote gains in democracy or governance, we should consider the full spectrum of tools at our disposal and not rely on security assistance as a panacea.
  • This brings me to the final objective: ensuring that arms transfers do not contribute to human rights violations or violations of international humanitarian law. This is a fundamental national value -- and, for all of us in the State Department, one we take personally. The policy makes very clear that we will not make transfers if U.S. equipment and training could be used to commit: genocide, crimes against humanity, or violations of international humanitarian law.

In updating the policy – outlining all of these objectives and criteria in a transparent way – we recognize that the example set by the United States as an exporter of security assistance plays a critical role in shaping international norms.

The Arms Sale Process

Some refer to our arms transfer decision-making process as onerous, inflexible, and arcane. There is no question; it is not perfect. As the policy states, we will continue to pursue efforts to streamline security cooperation. The deliberate review of U.S. arms transfers, however, is an affirmation of how seriously we take this business.

Both the Departments of State and Defense assess the policy and technical impacts of each and every transfer. The U.S. Congress plays a vital oversight role as well. All major arms transfers require us to notify Congress, and an extensive consultation process exists to ensure that congressional concerns are addressed.

Now, we often hear the question – do you ever reject an arms transfer? Although we do not advertise such decisions, we reject sales all the time.

When we decide to move forward with a transfer, however, transparency remains a hallmark of the CAT policy – in fact, our major Foreign Military Sales are posted upon notification to Congress on the public website of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, and the texts of both Foreign Military Sales and Direct Commercial Sales notifications are published in the Federal Register.


We recognize the challenges associated with U.S. arms transfers. Across the interagency, we work day in and day out to ensure transfers are carefully considered, and made – or denied – for the right reasons that promote American security and reflect American values.

Each delivery of U.S. security assistance sends a message to our friends and foes. It is an act of support and trust for our partners and allies. It provides them the capabilities to defend themselves, and to provide for the stability of their region.

The advantages of security assistance as both a complement to, and a substitute for, U.S. “boots on the ground” are clear and compelling. As someone who works these issues every day, however, I will be the first to tell you that the decision to train or equip a foreign partner is not always an easy one. Yet we cannot simply turn our back on the complexities of building partner capacity. To do so would open the door for other suppliers and actors. It would hamper our allies’ efforts to work with us on common security issues. It would distance us from our partners.

It would disadvantage the very industry on which we rely for our technological security capabilities and advantage. It would take away our voice in circumstances where it might matter the most.

So, we transfer arms with our eyes wide open, with laws, regulation, and policy designed to reflect caution, but also shaped to ensure that our security policy supports, and reinforces, our foreign policy. And we see results every day, from coalition operations against shared threats, to multinational training exercises, to the conversations that occur between American troops and foreign partners – partners who came here for training and left here as friends. We will remain cautious in using arms transfers as a tool of foreign policy, but we should never forget that our national security is in many ways dependent upon, and advanced as a result of, our security cooperation.

Thank you.