WASHINGTON — Congress on Wednesday took the first step in what is expected to be a lengthy effort to overhaul U.S. export control laws in order to expedite technology cooperation needed to implement a central pillar of the AUKUS trilateral agreement with Australia and the U.K.
The House passed a bill 393-4 directing the State Department and Pentagon to submit information on defense export licenses necessary to collaborate with the U.S. allies on hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence and quantum technologies. These technologies form what is known as pillar two of the AUKUS agreement, which all three countries view as critical to filling capability gaps before Australia receives U.S. and U.K. nuclear-powered submarines over the next two decades under pillar one.
Rep. Joe Courtney of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the Armed Services seapower subcommittee, told Defense News that he pushed throughout the past year to “get a circuit-breaker type of mechanism” that would expedite technology sharing arrangements with Australia and the U.K. to alleviate private sector concerns about potential violations of the U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations regime, or ITAR.
“That is clearly something that the White House and AUKUS team have been focused on themselves,” Courtney said on March 14. “I personally believe it’s going to be a multi-year process for Congress to address this issue.”
While the State Department oversees ITAR, the Defense Department is responsible for technological security and disclosure policy decisions before ITAR comes into play. A senior administration official told Defense News on March 9 that the Pentagon already initiated a review of these export control policies.
“We are currently looking at a wide range of potential changes to ITAR and to other technology sharing restrictions that go under categories like technology, security and foreign disclosure,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the non-public process. “We’ll be working with Congress, including the Appropriations, Armed Services and also Foreign Relations – which has authority over much of this – to get their support for reforms that we put forward.”
The the bill the House passed Wednesday, introduced by Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Mike McCaul, R-Texas, seeks more granular information on export control regulations from the State Department and the Pentagon. It requires a joint report from each agency on how the current U.S. export control regime affects technology cooperation with Australia and the U.K. under AUKUS pillar two.
A State Department spokesperson told Defense News on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic issues that the agency does “not anticipate any challenges in implementing AUKUS due to U.S. export control regulations, which exist to safeguard U.S. technologies and maintain the U.S. warfighter’s qualitative edge.” The spokesperson highlighted the State Department’s Open General License Pilot Program — a new ITAR exemption for Australia, the U.K. and Canada.
“Contrary to much recent commentary, export licenses for the U.K. and Australia move faster through our systems than for any other countries and our technology cooperation with those countries is both broad and deep,” said the State Department spokesperson. “We recognize the need to foster even more efficient and flexible export control systems in order to support operational readiness and interoperability of U.S. allies, and we continue to do that.”
Arthur Sidonos, Australia’s ambassador to the United States, voiced confidence in March in the ongoing work to accelerate export licenses to enable AUKUS technology sharing.
“That work is underway; it’s not finished, but compared with say six months ago, the work is getting done,” Sidonos said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
If the Senate passes the McCaul bill, the Biden administration will have to provide Congress with “an assessment of recommended improvements to export control laws and regulations of Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States that such countries should make to implement the AUKUS partnership.”
The report would include an “average and median time” it took the U.S. government to review arms exports applications and sales to Australia and the U.K. in 2021 and 2022. It also would include a list of the number of applications both countries have made for licenses to export defense articles and services in those years, and how many were approved and denied.
Additionally, it requires a list of “voluntary disclosures” between 2017 and 2022 that have resulted in ITAR violations while trying to export defense articles to either country.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.