Defense Trade:

Better Information Needed to Support Decisions Affecting Proposed Weapons Transfers

GAO-03-694: Published: Jul 11, 2003. Publicly Released: Aug 11, 2003.

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The heightened visibility of advanced U.S. weapons in military conflicts has prompted foreign countries to seek to purchase such weaponry. In 2001, transfers of U.S. weapons and technologies to foreign governments totaled over $12 billion. The potential loss of U.S. technological advantage has been raised as an issue in recently approved transfers of advanced military weapons and technologies--such as military aircraft that were reported in the media to contain superior radar and avionics than those in the Department of Defense's (DOD) inventory. GAO looked at how releasability of advanced weapons is determined, how U.S. technological advantage is considered and protected, and what information is needed to make informed decisions on the potential release of advanced weapons.

Before transfers are approved, the U.S. government must first determine if classified weapons or technologies are releasable to the requesting country according to the National Disclosure Policy (NDP). The process for determining releasability is complex. A foreign government's request is first reviewed by the military department that owns the requested weapon or technology. In cases where the request exceeds NDP's approved classification level, the military department forwards the request to the National Disclosure Policy Committee for its review. For some sensitive technologies, such as stealth, the case is also forwarded to a special committee for review. The process requires coordination among different U.S. government entities--including DOD, the military departments, the State Department, and the intelligence community--which have varying perspectives. Adding to this complexity, determinations of releasability are governed by broad guidance, which allows latitude in interpreting the unique circumstances of each proposed transfer. In determining the releasability of advanced weapons and technologies, a number of factors are considered, including how U.S. technological advantage would be affected. To protect U.S. technological advantage, safeguards--such as lowering the capability of a transferred weapon and withholding sensitive information on how the system operates--are considered for proposed transfers. However, the effectiveness of some individual safeguards may be limited. For example, one safeguard--the ability of the United States to deny spare parts to former allies--may not be effective if these countries are able to obtain spare parts through other means. While certain individual safeguards may not be as effective as desired, DOD officials said they consider various safeguards to ensure technological advantage is maintained. Information needed to assess releasability is not always complete, up-to-date, or available. For example, DOD's centralized National Disclosure Policy System database that was used to make decisions during the last 4 years only contained information for that time period. DOD has recently deployed an upgrade to the system, but has not yet determined its effectiveness. Other information, such as Central Intelligence Agency risk assessments--which provide counterintelligence information and risks involved in releasing advanced weapons to a foreign country--are often outdated or nonexistent. Finally, some intelligence information that could have a direct bearing on whether an advanced weapon or technology should be released is prepared for other purposes and is not provided to decision makers involved in releasability determinations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DOD contended that its current method of scheduling survey priorities meets the needs of NDPC members, and that establishing a cadre of personnel to conduct security surveys is not a realistic option. DOD further stated that, at current time, there is no known alternative analysis that can be used in lieu of the security surveys.

    Recommendation: To ensure that useful and timely information is available for making informed release decisions, the Secretary of Defense should direct the NDPC Executive Secretariat to develop a plan to be used as a business case for determining the appropriate level of resources required to conduct needed security surveys or if a survey cannot be conducted, ensure that an alternative analysis of or information on the foreign government's security capability is made available to NDPC members.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In October 2003, the NDPC Executive Secretariat requested the CIA to update risk assessments for 24 countries. CIA has conducted two of these assessments within the last year and these have been forwarded to the NDPC members.

    Recommendation: To ensure that useful and timely information is available for making informed release decisions, the Secretary of Defense should direct the NDPC Executive Secretariat to work with CIA to prioritize risk assessments that need to be updated, establish a schedule for performing these assessments, and systematically distribute the assessments to NDPC members through the automated system or other means.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD indicated that it has conducted a complete system review in September 2003, and has integrated the recommended modifications into its National Disclosure Policy System.

    Recommendation: To ensure that NDPC members have complete and accurate information in a centralized database that facilitates coordination and decision making on the potential release of advanced weapons and technologies, the Secretary of Defense should direct the NDPC Executive Secretariat to work with the DOD Policy Automation Directorate to address user comments and technical problems related to the upgraded system as they arise.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD has added data to the upgraded NDPS and has made user-suggested modifications to the system.

    Recommendation: To ensure that NDPC members have complete and accurate information in a centralized database that facilitates coordination and decision making on the potential release of advanced weapons and technologies the Secretary of Defense should direct the NDPC Executive Secretariat to determine with NDPC members the additonal capabilities, such as inclusion of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) risk assessments, needed for the upgraded National Disclosure Policy System.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: A complete system review was conducted in September 2003, with the NDPC members and recommended modifications having been integrated into the National Disclosure Policy System.

    Recommendation: To ensure that National Disclosure Policy Committee (NDPC) members have complete and accurate information in a centralized database that facilitates coordination and decision making on the potential release of advanced weapons and technologies, the Secretary of Defense should direct the NDPC Executive Secretariat to evaluate the accuracy and effectiveness of the upgraded National Disclosure Policy System.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  6. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DOD stated that one of the NDPC members has access to end-use monitoring reports and considers these reports to be too narrowly focused and not as useful as other information already available to the committee, such as NDPC's security surveys. No other additional information has been identified for systematic distribution to the committee.

    Recommendation: To ensure that useful and timely information is available for making informed release decisions, the Secretary of Defense should direct the NDPC Executive Secretariat to identify what additional information, such as end-use monitoring reports, would be useful to NDPC members, and establish a mechanism for requesting this information from appropriate sources, and systematically distribute it to NDPC members.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

 

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