Pakistan, Saudi Arabia Cleared for U.S. Arms Buys

Wade Boese

Key lawmakers this summer slammed the Bush administration for its handling of up to $5 billion in proposed combat aircraft sales to Pakistan, but Congress still let the weapons deals proceed. Legislators also recently assented to $9.7 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

The 1976 Arms Export Control Act requires Congress to receive notice of proposed arms sales exceeding $14 million that do not involve Australia, Japan, New Zealand, or NATO members, all of which have a higher reporting threshold and a shorter congressional review period. In all other cases, lawmakers have 30 calendar days to block a notified deal by passing a joint resolution of disapproval.

On June 28, the Pentagon detailed plans to provide Pakistan with 36 F-16C/D combat aircraft, an assortment of F-16 engines and upgrade kits, and thousands of bombs and missiles, including 500 advanced air-to-air missiles. Describing Pakistan as a “vital ally,” the Pentagon stated the arms would be used in fighting terrorists, such as al Qaeda, and “would not significantly reduce India’s quantitative or qualitative military advantage” in the region. With India, the Bush administration is pursuing closer military ties, including offering F-16s, as well as an enhanced civil nuclear trade relationship.

The United States and Pakistan have tangled for years over sales of F-16s, which can be built or modified to deliver nuclear weapons. The United States provided Pakistan with 40 F-16s during the 1980s but then halted deliveries in 1990 over Islamabad’s covert nuclear weapons program, which Pakistan unveiled to the world with nuclear tests in May 1998.

The United States resisted Pakistan’s pressure to end the F-16 freeze until President George W. Bush relented in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the subsequent U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan. The two countries started negotiating possible sale options in 2005, and the Pentagon transferred two older-model F-16s to Pakistan in December. (See ACT, January/February 2006.)

Still, the administration’s formal announcement to deliver three dozen new F-16s to Pakistan sparked an uproar from House International Relations Committee members, who convened a July 20 hearing to upbraid a senior administration official about the deal. Although some committee members faulted aspects of the sale, much of the outcry stemmed from the administration’s failure to follow traditional procedures.

Specifically, the administration did not give the 20-day advance notice typical for formal arms sales notifications. This period is intended to allow reservations about a particular sale to be expressed and worked out privately to avoid public quarrels.

At the hearing, Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) charged that neglecting the pre-notification process constituted a “deliberate and, we believe, wholly inappropriate maneuver by the State Department to diminish the Congress’ lawful oversight of arms sales.” Consequently, he said, “long-standing congressional concerns about the potential for technology diversion remain.” The Department of State administers arms sales policies and licensing, while the Pentagon helps negotiate and implement U.S. government weapons transfers to foreign governments.

Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs John Hillen defended the administration’s approach at the hearing. He contended the administration had taken “unprecedented” steps to keep Congress appraised and would require Pakistan to enact stringent measures to prevent unauthorized individuals from gaining access to or stealing U.S. technology. “The security plan greatly exceeds United States Air Force standards for our own security of these weapons systems,” Hillen claimed.

Ranking panel member Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) severely rebuked Hillen, charging that “the centrifugal force of this spin threatens to fling the facts right out the window.” He blasted the administration’s behavior as a “colossal mistake” and an “arrogant usurpation of congressional authority.”

Hyde and Lantos introduced legislation the same day that, among other things, would have codified the 20-day pre-notification practice. A congressional staffer told Arms Control Today Aug. 15 that the legislation is no longer under consideration because the administration provided assurances that the Pakistani case “was not a precedent and would not happen again.”

Some legislators objected to the sale for reasons other than procedure. Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (Calif.) argued that F-16s were not the proper weapons for Pakistan because the planes are suited to fighting “sophisticated air forces, not the Taliban, not radical Islam,” and could be converted to deliver nuclear weapons.

Hillen responded that Pakistan had employed F-16s in “hundreds of missions in the global war on terror.” He further said that the F-16s to be delivered to Pakistan “will not be nuclear capable” and that Islamabad has “given no indications that they want to [modify F-16s to deliver nuclear weapons].” The Arms Export Control Act prohibits any U.S. arms recipient from using imported weapons “for purposes other than those for which furnished.”

Whether Pakistan configured previously imported U.S. F-16s for nuclear missions is uncertain. Political-military affairs bureau spokesperson Jason Greer declined to answer Arms Control Today questions on the subject. A July 6 report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), which conducts studies for lawmakers, noted that “the 32 F-16s that Pakistan already fields are believed to be nuclear capable.”

Democratic Reps. Gary Ackerman (N.Y.) and Edward Markey (Mass.) proposed separate legislation to block the sale, but neither effort garnered much support.

Markey’s bill sought to tie the F-16 sales to Pakistan halting construction of a new heavy-water reactor, which was exposed publicly July 24 by the Washington-based nongovernmental Institute for Science and International Security. Once operational, the reactor could produce enough material to build up to 50 nuclear weapons a year, the organization reported. Administration officials, who claimed Washington knew of the project for “some time,” said they are urging Pakistan not to use the reactor for military purposes, but Markey argued on the House floor July 26 that U.S.-supplied F-16s might someday be carrying nuclear bombs made possible by this uncompleted facility.

Although nearly double the value of the sales to Pakistan, the proposed weapons deals with Saudi Arabia announced in July did not provoke any notable congressional reaction. Riyadh is now cleared to acquire 24 UH-60L Black Hawk helicopters, 58 M1A2S Abrams tanks, 724 light-armored vehicles, 1,700 night vision goggles, and thousands of radio systems. The sales also include upgrades for 315 M1A2 tanks and 12 AH-64A Apache attack helicopters already in the Saudi arsenal.

Since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Saudi Arabia has amassed significant quantities of foreign weaponry. An August 2005 CRS report identified Saudi Arabia as receiving nearly $55 billion in arms imports from 1997 to 2004, ranking it as the top arms importer for that period among developing world countries. This total far surpassed the second-highest tally of $13 billion for China.