The United States is currently the largest arms exporter globally, accounting for almost 40 percent of the international arms trade. This figure is more than twice that of the second-largest competitor, Russia, and over eight times China’s share. Over the past seventy years, the United States has utilised its vast military cooperation and assistance program as a principal tool to establish and exhibit the durability of its international partnerships.
These programs involve the sale and provision of billions of dollars’ worth of arms and security aid annually. Policymakers view American arms transfers as crucial foreign policy investments that not only support U.S. security objectives but also act as significant sources of political leverage among foreign beneficiaries.
You Can Also Read: Pentagon document leak: Is US in deep water?
While proponents of weapons exports argue that they help allies defend themselves, stabilise regions, deter adversaries, build military relationships, and create jobs, there are also risks associated with arms sales. These risks include fuelling conflicts, provoking adversaries, stoking arms races, and drawing the US into counterproductive wars. The current US arms policy fuels war in many cases, as evidenced by the fact that 34 out of 46 on-going conflicts involve parties armed by the US
Impact on global security and peace
Although some US arms transfers serve legitimate defensive purposes, others contribute to conflicts, tensions, and arms races. The lack of transparency surrounding the role of US arms in some of these conflicts is concerning, and better tracking is necessary. Between 2017 and 2021, the US supplied $50 million or more worth of arms to countries engaged in conflicts, such as Afghanistan, Brazil, Colombia, Egypt, and Israel. Additionally, the US frequently sells to undemocratic regimes that violate human rights. As of 2021, the US has provided weapons and training to 31 nations that Freedom House has classified as “not free,” which contradicts the Biden administration’s commitment to prioritise democracy over autocracy.
The recent history of U.S. arms sales to the Middle East highlights the danger of relying on arms sales as a key foreign and military policy tool. Despite claims that such sales increase U.S. influence, they can actually destabilise entire regions and heighten the risk of the U.S. becoming involved, either directly or indirectly, in conflicts that do not align with its strategic interests. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been major players in the Yemen war, with the U.S. being their primary weapons supplier. This intervention has lasted for over seven years, with significant human and regional costs. While some suggest that the Houthis are an Iranian proxy force, they are actually an indigenous political movement with longstanding grievances.
U.S. arms sales in the Middle East
From the start of the Yemen civil war in 2015 until 2021, the U.S. has administered over $54 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, according to a June 2022 report by the Government Accountability Office. Sales to these countries accounted for 17 percent of total sales under the U.S. government’s Foreign Military Sales program between FY 2017 and FY 2021. However, the consequences of the war have been disastrous, with over 24,000 people, including nearly 9,000 civilians, having died in indiscriminate air strikes.
Many of these attacks have been carried out by the Saudi Royal Air Force using U.S.-supplied munitions and aircraft. A joint investigation by the Washington Post and the Security Force Monitor at Columbia Law School found that “a substantial number of the raids were carried out by jets developed, maintained, and sold by U.S. companies, and by pilots that were trained by the U.S. military.”
Meanwhile, Israel will continue to receive arms transfers under the 10-year, $37 billion U.S. military aid pledge made in 2016, aiming to maintain its “qualitative military edge” over other Middle East countries. The Biden administration offered guidance kits to Israel in May 2021, which converts unguided bombs into precision-guided “smart” munitions, just days before a major military operation in Gaza.
However, continued military aid to Israel raises questions about whether it aligns with U.S. interests, given Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, its on-going settlement expansion, and its own growing military capabilities. Despite Israel’s history of carrying out disproportionate attacks on Gaza that cause immense civilian harm, the United States continues to provide billions in annual, unconditional military assistance.
Arms sales to Europe on rise following Russian invasion of Ukraine
Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, U.S. arms sales to Europe are expected to increase as NATO fortifies its eastern flank. While Russia’s poor showing in combat in Ukraine could impact demand, political and strategic concerns about potential future Russian aggression are likely to drive the market for larger systems such as combat aircraft, tanks, and large anti-aircraft systems such as the Patriot.
Germany’s significant increase in military spending will create opportunities for U.S. weapons contractors, as evidenced by its $8.4 billion deal with Lockheed Martin for F-35s. The Czech Republic has also expressed interest in buying U.S. F-35s, while Poland was offered $6 billion worth of General Dynamics M-1 tanks. However, Poland’s decision to enter a massive multi-billion dollar deal with South Korea for 50 fighter jets and 1,600 tanks and howitzers suggests a possible counter-trend.
In late August of 2022, the Biden administration authorised two emergency aid packages in response to the Ukraine crisis, which included more than $23 billion for military purposes. An additional aid package passed by Congress in late September contained $8.2 billion for military purposes, including funding for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative and replenishment of U.S. stocks of systems already supplied to Ukraine. Foreign Military Financing (FMF) for NATO allies will also receive hundreds of millions of dollars in spending related to foreign weapons sales.
The revolving door: from the Pentagon to the arms industry
The major beneficiaries of U.S. arms sales are Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, and General Dynamics, with over 58 per cent of the $101 billion in major arms offers since the Biden administration took office going to one of these four companies. These contractors have been involved in major arms deals worth billions of dollars, with the biggest payoffs coming from sales of combat aircraft and missile defense systems. However, sales to countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Nigeria have caused concern in Congress, leading to resistance and aggressive lobbying efforts from the arms industry.
While not all of the revenue from these offers went to the top four firms, the concentration of the trade in major conventional weapons is evident. Lockheed Martin had the largest share of involvement in major deals, including a $6.9 billion offer of multi-mission combat ships to Greece, a $4.2 billion offer of F-16 combat aircraft to Jordan, a $1.75 billion share of an offer of Apache attack helicopters to Australia, and a $1.67 billion offer of F-16s to Bulgaria.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the arms industry has spent $2.5 billion on lobbying over the past two decades, accompanied by $285 million in campaign contributions. The industry has employed 766 lobbyists in 2021, including 300 employed by the top four weapons exporting companies. Many of these lobbyists have passed through the “revolving door” from senior positions in the Pentagon, Congress, the State Department, and the White House, using their connections to advocate for the interests of weapons manufacturers.
Former Pentagon and military officials have also gone on to work for the weapons industry, including Heidi Grant, former head of the Pentagon’s arms sales coordinating body, who joined Boeing just one day after her retirement from the US Department of Defense. Other officials have gone on to work for companies such as Lockheed Martin and oversee their operations in foreign countries.