WASHINGTON - The White House has ordered a reluctant State Department to drop controls on most arms shipments to Britain and Australia, prompting some in Congress to charge that the Clinton administration is risking national security and fueling global weapons proliferation.
The decision to relax arms-export rules for the two close U.S. allies - for which the Pentagon and the defense industry pushed hard - is part of the biggest overhaul of defense-trade controls since the end of the Cold War.
Arms manufacturers had sought relief from the tangle of red tape that ensnares even such low-tech items as signal flares and M-16 rifles shipped to friendly countries.
Pentagon officials, who have called the White House decision "a national security imperative," wanted to ease the flow of war goods between the United States and its allies to improve technological cooperation, increase sales for the defense industry and avoid shipment delays such as those affecting NATO's air war in Yugoslavia last year.
"We have an export control system which is sclerotic, which is very slow. It does not serve national security interests as well as it needs to," said James M. Bodnar, a top policy official in the Pentagon. "We need to close the gap with our allies by facilitating their getting things, getting technology."
Many of the reforms announced by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright on May 23 - such as reducing the number of export licenses required for sophisticated arms systems - enjoy broad congressional support.
But a sweeping move to cut controls on most U.S. arms sold to Britain, Australia and potentially other allies stirred opposition not only on Capitol Hill but from Albright, several administration officials said.
"We will stop it. This will not come to pass," said a senior Republican congressional aide. "This notion of going license-free on weapons sales to various countries is an unsupportable step. It was opposed by the secretary of state ... and we oppose it for the same reasons."
Albright fought the deregulation of weapons sales to Britain and Australia but was overruled by White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, acting for President Clinton, in a meeting last month between Albright, Podesta and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, said congressional and administration officials.
U.S. companies have been required to have a State Department license for every defense-related export, from helmets to cruise missiles. The new rules would eliminate license requirements on items sold to Britain and Australia except on missiles, nuclear-weapons technology, sensitive electronics components and other so-called "classified" items.
Worries about resales
Critics of looser arms controls fear that a relaxation of U.S. export rules - even for close allies - will raise the risk of overseas arms dealers reselling American weapons or technology to potentially unfriendly nations. They also point to Europe's role as a major weapons exporter, noting examples of recent allied arms sales to China, which frequently threatens Taiwan, an American friend.
Britain, for example, has sold air-to-air refueling systems that increase the range of Beijing's fighter aircraft. Britain's Marconi company bid unsuccessfully to sell sophisticated AWACS airborne radar systems to China. France and Italy, which could eventually benefit from the same deregulation the administration is proposing for Britain and Australia, have sold missile components to China.
None of those sales involved U.S. products, but critics said they show a pattern among American allies that could cause defense-export deregulation to backfire on Washington.
"Those governments don't have the same standard of oversight on their defense companies as the United States does," said Tamar Gabelnick, an arms control analyst for the Federation of American Scientists.
Critics also note that a blanket license exemption for U.S. arms sales to Canada, which for decades was the only country to enjoy the type of deregulation being granted to Britain and Australia, was revoked last year. The State Department stopped uncontrolled weapons trade with Canada after authorities discovered evidence of armored vehicles, missile-guidance systems and other U.S. technology being shipped from Canada to Iran.
Pentagon and defense industry officials argue that reform of weapons-export procedure is overdue.
Government munitions monitors spend most of their time tracking widely available products going to close U.S. allies. More than two-thirds of weapons-export licenses granted last year covered sales to Australia, NATO countries and Japan, according to the State Department.
Freeing monitors to focus on export applications with greater potential to harm U.S. security is a better use of scarce government resources, defense officials argue.
Sufficient safeguards will remain in place after the United States loosens arms-export controls for Britain and Australia, administration officials argue.