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Revised USG Conventional Arms Transfer Policy -- Initial Perspectives

Revised USG Conventional Arms Transfer Policy -- Initial Perspectives

Revised USG Conventional Arms Transfer Policy -- Initial Perspectives
Frank Kenlon (Prof of Int'l Acq, DAU/DSMC-Int'l)

The Biden Administration published a long-awaited revision to the U.S. Government (USG) Conventional Arms Transfer (CAT) Policy on February 23, 2023. This was announced by the White House in National Security Memorandum/NSM-18 and a corresponding U.S State Department Fact Sheet. It replaces the previous Trump Administration's CAT Policy (NSPM-10) issued in April 2018. Since the USG's CAT Policy influences DoD's International Acquisition & Exportability (IA&E) efforts, here some initial perspectives on this topic for consideration by DoD acquisition and security cooperation workforce members.


  • The Trump Administration's CAT policy was based on the "Transfer U.S. Arms Expeditiously" principle.
  • The Biden Administration's revised CAT policy is based on the "Transfer U.S. Arms Carefully" principle.


This shift in Administration CAT policy emphasis is not unusual. Traditionally, Republican administrations have focused more on using U.S. arms transfers to build allied & friendly nation defense capabilities as well as U.S. defense industrial capability. Here's an NSPM-10 excerpt that illustrates this emphasis:

[This NSPM better aligns] our policy regarding conventional arms transfers with our national and economic security interests, the approach outlined in this memorandum will serve several functions. It will help us maintain a technological edge over potential adversaries; strengthen partnerships that preserve and extend our global influence; bolster our economy; spur research and development; enhance the ability of the defense industrial base to create jobs; increase our competitiveness in key markets; protect our ability to constrain global trade in arms that is destabilizing or that threatens our military, allies, or partners; and better equip our allies and partners to contribute to shared security objectives and to enhance global deterrence. These security objectives include countering terrorism, countering narcotics, promoting regional stability, and improving maritime and border security.

Democratic administrations, in contrast, have focused more on the human rights and arms control aspects of U.S. arms transfer policy. Here is an NSM-18 excerpt that illustrates this emphasis:

[This NSM's CAT Policy] will bolster the security of allies and partners and contribute to shared security objectives; enhance global deterrence; promote respect for international humanitarian law and human rights; adhere to international nonproliferation norms; strengthen partnerships that preserve and extend our global influence; spur research and development efforts; and enhance interoperability with our allies and partners. By aligning United States conventional arms transfer policy with United States foreign policy and national security objectives, the United States can continue to be the primary security cooperation partner of choice for its allies and partners, as well as a global leader in advancing the protection of human rights, supporting nonproliferation, and strengthening stability.


Trump Administration

The Trump Administration's CAT Policy resulted in a comprehensive effort -- led by the National Security Council (NSC) with participation by State, DoD, Commerce and other USG organizations -- that created three Lines of Effort (LOEs): Prioritizing Strategic Competition; Organizing for Success; and, Creating Conducive Environments. These were translated in several implementation task areas:

  • Working with Partners and Allies on Priorities
  • Improving our Ability to Compete with Adversaries
  • Increasing the Competitiveness of U.S.-Made Systems
  • Updating the Policy and Regulatory Framework
  • Expanding and Enhancing USG Advocacy and Trade Promotion
  • Working to Ensure Barriers to U.S. Entry are Reduced
  • Continuing to Improve our Arms Transfer Processes

These task areas eventually led to publication of new, stronger DoD acquisition and requirements policy for Defense Exportability in DoD systems as well as increased emphasis on DoD acquisition community support to U.S. industry in the global defense marketplace, particularly for Non-Program of Record (NPOR) systems.

Biden Administration

The new Biden Administration's CAT Policy does not contain any similar level of guidance or direction. The greater degree of emphasis on human rights considerations, exercising due diligence in USG arms control decision making, and engagement with allied & friendly nations in global arms control and non-proliferation activities is apparent throughout the document.

However, CAT Policy Section 2, United States Conventional Arms Transfer Policy Scope and Objectives, still repeats many themes in contained in the National Security Strategy that are familiar to DoD acquisition and security cooperation community members regarding the importance of working closely with allied & friendly nations including:

  • Strengthening the collective security of the United States and its allies and partners by enhancing interoperability and supporting United States-led diplomacy in building and maintaining international coalitions
  • Helping allies and partners contribute to global security and deter and defend themselves against aggression and foreign malign influence
  • Promoting international peace and stability and the settlement of international disputes through diplomacy and deterrence
  • Strengthening ally and partner capacity to respect their obligations under international law and reduce the risk of civilian harm, including through arms transfers, as well as appropriate tools, training, advising, and institutional capacity-building efforts
  • Ensuring the United States military maintains technological advantages over current and potential adversaries and promote the United States’ comparative advantage over our strategic competitors, including Russia and China
  • Strengthening the United States manufacturing and defense industrial base and ensure resiliency in global supply chains.

CAT Policy Section 6, Supporting Arms Transfer Decisions, also provides guidance regarding USG and DoD activities in the security cooperation area that is consistent with current USG/DoD security cooperation policy themes:

  • Arms transfer decisions are foreign policy and national security decisions that support broader United States policy objectives. The United States will pursue policies, processes, and regulatory changes to create efficiencies in the security cooperation field to provide conventional capabilities that support United States national interests.
  • Although the general policy principle of restraint shall govern decision making on arms transfers, in an increasingly competitive market, the USG will promote transfers when they are in the U.S. national interest, in line with the considerations of this policy, and consistent with defense trade advocacy procedures.
  • Arms transfers consistent with security cooperation objectives enable the United States to enhance partner interoperability and enable partners to export security.
  • The USG will seek to address impediments to bilateral defense trade relations with potential recipient countries that may preclude prudent arms transfers from proceeding, limit United States Government and United States defense contractors’ market access, or prevent United States entities from competing on a level playing field.


I recently read a Breaking Defense article entitled, "New Conventional Arms Transfer focuses on human rights over economics" that states:

"In effect, the Trump CAT [Policy's] mission was to sell more weapons specifically as a boost to the American economy; the Biden CAT walks back that drive, instead putting the emphasis on how arms transfers can further the White House’s foreign policy aims.

I find this interpretation of the new Biden Administration's CAT Policy revision is a bit too simplistic. My perspective is that the DoD acquisition policy on DODD 5000.01 and DoDI 5000.85 requiring incorporation of robust defense exportability features in our systems is a relevant to the 'new' Administration's CAT policy as it was to the previous Administration's CAT policy. Similarly, DoD acquisition community support of DoD security cooperation and U.S. industry POR and NPOR system sales that meet the new CAT policy's standards will be equally essential in ensuring high priority U.S. arms transfers to countries like Ukraine and Taiwan (current examples) are implemented efficiently and effectively.

The new CAT Policy's emphasis in these two areas is admittedly less explicit that the former CAT Policy. However, I believe that DoD's support to the new policy's scope & objectives and arms transfer decision implementation with respect to building defense exportability into new systems and carrying out future U.S. NPOR arms transfers that address the urgent defense capability needs of our allies and friends must remain substantially the same. If not, I submit that the new CAT Policy's Section 2 and Section 6 desired objectives and outcomes will not be realized.


The wheels of policy implementation in National Security & Defense circles often grind slowly, particularly in the Washington arena. I will do my best to conduct a 'temperature check' regarding how much (or how little) the new CAT Policy has affected DoD's IA&E activities 6-9 month report back to all of you on my findings.

Until next time,
Prof K