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UK could get privileged access to American kill-tech

Slippery Brits promise no reselling

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The US and UK Governments have drawn up a treaty that will give Britain easier access to American military technology, but no rights to resell it.

Currently, US exports of weapons or military technology to Britain are subject to the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). Getting ITAR clearances is a cumbersome and difficult process, and causes much disquiet on the part of the overseas buyer. It can often take weeks to get approval even for relatively simple US purchases, such as bullets or rifle sights.

The UK was promised a special ITAR waiver by the Clinton administration, but this has never been delivered - in large part due to the concerns of certain American congressmen. Plain speaking has been noticeably absent during the resulting debate, with British politicos often wilfully misrepresenting the issues.

Essentially, however, America is more than happy to let Britain have advanced military kit and tech knowledge for its own use. But the UK has so far insisted on being allowed to resell these things to third countries, and this has not been acceptable to Americans worried about the spread of weapons tech around the world. Thus no ITAR waiver has been forthcoming.

It appears, however, that Britain may now have climbed down. When contacted by the Reg, a UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) spokesmen confirmed that the draft treaty requires US approval for any third-country dealings by Britain.

"The treaty only applies to items for US/UK Government end use," according to the MoD. "The current arrangements will continue to apply if UK companies wish to sell US technologies to a third party."

This concession is bad news for the British arms industry, who would dearly love to resell advanced American death-tech to their customers in Arabia, Indonesia and elsewhere. (This is a noticeable part of their business at the moment, despite ITAR.)

It's potentially excellent news, however, for British taxpayers and servicemen. The British forces should now be able, if they so choose, to buy American kit off the shelf without wading through mountains of bumf. Tech support and parts should be similarly easy to arrange.

In fact, wherever possible, British politicians will try to channel MoD pork via British firms even when buying American gear. But at least those firms will now be able to get that gear more easily and cheaply.

And, helpfully, the UK weapons biz won't be able to use ITAR as an excuse for setting up hugely-expensive (and lucrative, for them) development programmes to reinvent each new American wheel - often in partnership with European firms, which typically pushes up the price and widens British dependency.

As an example, it's now fairly hard to see the point in continuing with the MoD's "Taranis" project to build a flying stealth-robot demonstrator. If Blighty needs such tech, we can just buy it in from America. If builders BAE want to sell that kind of thing to suspect overseas governments, they can pay for its development themselves.

And then the MoD could spend that £124m on half-a-dozen new Chinook helicopters from America, which might give our lads in Afghanistan a bit more of a fighting chance.

This happy future isn't guaranteed, however. The deal has cunningly been framed as a treaty, which means that the potentially troublesome US Congress doesn't get a look-in. But the text will still need to be ratified by the Senate; and there it could face some stiff opposition.

The treaty is two-way, for one thing. It will potentially allow Brit firms to get involved in US projects more easily, perhaps taking work from Americans.

More significantly, there will be those in Washington who don't trust the Brits to keep US secrets to themselves. Here we are giving the Limeys stealth as part of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, they might say to themselves. (There's already a special UK-US tech agreement on the F-35, signed last year).

Then, right after we give them that, the Brits suddenly announce they've got this "Taranis" thing, in which they reckon to build a working stealth-plane almost from scratch* in a few years for just £124m, even though it took America decades and billions to achieve the same thing.

Coincidence? Maybe not, some Senators might be thinking. Looks a bit like perfidious Albion repackaging US stealth knowhow.

Which could well give them pause for thought, on Capitol Hill. The UK and US executives are trying to make the deal look good for America: they've suggested that Blighty will hand over its hard-won Northern Irish expertise on countering insurgent bombs, for instance, which would be useful for American forces in Iraq. Also, the Yanks aren't letting Britain have absolutely everything.

"A very small amount of sensitive [US] technologies will remain under existing export control arrangements," the MoD told the Reg.

Whether all this can win over the Senate remains to be seen.®

*BAE and the MoD had collaborated on various drone demonstrators beforehand, for example the Corax. Details are sketchy, but there's no indication that serious Stealth development was involved.

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