Pentagon Notifies Congress of $13 Billion in Possible Arms Sales

Wade Boese

IN A SPAN of just three weeks, the Department of Defense notified Congress of more than $13.3 billion in proposed arms sales to 11 countries, including more than $5 billion in weapons to South Korea. This wave of congressional notifications, which began October 28, exceeded last year's total of $12.1 billion in notified sales and raised the value of proposed arms sales through the Pentagon's Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program above the $20 billion mark for 1999.

A Pentagon spokesperson said there was nothing "unique" about the timing of the notifications. Typically, the Department of Defense submits a slew of notifications before Congress leaves for recesses, a practice that, in effect can limit the time available for extensive congressional scrutiny, though most sales are discussed informally before official notification. While notifications can be made during congressional recesses, the Pentagon spokesperson remarked that that would not be the best way to "conduct business."

The 1976 Arms Export Control Act requires that all FMS sales, as well as direct commercial sales, of "major defense equipment" on the U.S. Munitions List valued at $14 million or more be reported to Congress. Congress then has 30 days (15 in the case of NATO members, Australia, Japan and New Zealand) to enact a joint resolution of disapproval to block a sale. Though Congress has never exercised this authority, not all notifications result in final sales as the purchasing country may buy all, some or none of the proposed arms.

South Korea, which suspended and canceled arms buys last year due to a severe economic slump, led all prospective buyers with more than $5 billion in possible purchases, including surface-to-surface missiles, 20 F-16C/D fighter aircraft component kits and 14 Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missile systems. Seoul's $4 billion buy of the PAC-3, which is being developed to defend against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and aircraft, has not been finalized because South Korea is considering Russian S-300 surface-to-air missiles as an alternative. Washington has warned that such a move could lead to inter-operability problems between U.S. and South Korean forces.

Thailand, another state recovering from an economic depression, requested 18 F-16A/B fighters for $157 million. The proposed buy follows Thailand's March 1998 cancellation of a purchase of eight F/A-18 fighters for which it had already made a partial payment of $75 million. In that case, Washington assumed the more than $250 million in remaining payments and delivered the fighters to the U.S. Marine Corps.

Despite renewed Asian interest in buying arms, Europe accounted for the highest value of the Pentagon's recently notified sales with six nations (Denmark, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Norway and the United Kingdom) asking for $6.9 billion in weapons. Greece topped the list with a request for up to 70 F-16C/D fighters worth $3.1 billion, and Norway was second with a proposed buy of 30 F-16C/Ds valued at $2.6 billion.

Other proposed deals included Egypt, Israel and Colombia, which is seeking 14 UH-60L Blackhawk helicopters. Helicopter sales to Colombia, intended for use in the U.S.-backed war on drugs, have long been contentious because of the Colombian military's poor human rights record, suspected ties with right-wing paramilitaries and alleged involvement in the drug trade.