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U.S. Arms Notifications Spike in 2008

Jeff Abramson

Notifications made to Congress in 2008 of requested U.S. arms sales reached their highest monetary level in more than a decade. Countries in the Middle East accounted for more than half of the $75 billion in government-to-government requests, which also included controversial arrangements with Taiwan. Notifications do not always result in deliveries, and experts warn against expecting the high level of possible deals to continue.

By law, Congress is notified when the Department of Defense proposes government-to-government foreign military sales (FMS) of major defense items, articles, and services, as well as construction and design projects if the value of those sales reach minimum thresholds. In 2008 the Defense Department informed Congress of potential conventional arms transfer agreements with 25 countries, Taiwan, and an international consortium made up of NATO allies together with Sweden and Finland.

The total potential value of all deals if they were to be completed is estimated to be more than $75 billion, up from $39 billion in 2007 and $37 billion in 2006, and significantly higher than the $14 billion average from 1997 to 2005.

No notifications have been made in 2009, and despite the recent increases, experts caution against seeing a trend in the recent proposal levels. In a Feb. 18 e-mail to Arms Control Today, a congressional source said that the high levels in 2008 stemmed from the confluence of several major initiatives that the Bush administration wanted to see move forward before the end of its tenure.

Israel's request to purchase as many 75 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft and associated equipment over the next 15 years was the single largest request, with a projected maximum value of $15.2 billion. The Joint Strike Fighter program, which has international partners and investors, is designed to provide the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marines and select U.S. allies with a state-of-the-art aircraft but has experienced cost increases and delays. Israel's purchase of the fighters, if realized, would constitute a significant investment in the program.

Israel, criticized for its recent military actions in Gaza, also identified interest in thousands of small-diameter bombs and tens of thousands of anti-tank weapons and training rockets.

Iraq's $18.7 billion in possible purchases, up from $4.5 billion in 2007 and $2.3 billion in 2006, included a wide array of military items, as well as technical and construction assistance. Combat-oriented equipment listed in the notifications included as many as 280 M1A1 tanks, 392 light armored vehicles, 50 armed helicopters, 200 Hellfire missiles, 20 coastal patrol boats, and more than 100,000 assault rifles. A congressional source told Arms Control Today Feb. 13 that these notifications were consistent with efforts to help Iraq develop its internal security capabilities.

Within the Middle East, notifications involving members of the Gulf Security Dialogue (GSD) accounted for nearly $13 billion in potential sales. The GSD is a security cooperation mechanism between the United States and six Persian Gulf states: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Arms sales to GSD members have been controversial (see ACT, September 2007), and an October 2008 Congressional Research Service report predicts that they will remain that way due to a long-standing U.S. policy of maintaining Israel's "qualitative military edge" over its neighbors.

In 2008, notified sales to the UAE were valued at just more than $9 billion. The UAE requests listed many missile and anti-missile systems, included the first potential foreign sale of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) fire units. The THAAD system is designed to counter missiles at altitudes as high as 150 kilometers, offering a response to concerns about Iran's ballistic missile capabilities.

FMS notifications included the possible sale of 900 satellite-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) to Saudi Arabia. In January 2008, a House resolution co-sponsored by 104 members of Congress was introduced to block the JDAM sale to Saudi Arabia but ultimately was not acted on by the House Foreign Affairs Committee within the required review period. Once notified, Congress has 15-30 days, depending on the intended purchaser, to block a sale by joint resolution of disapproval, but no sales have ever been blocked by this method. Congress also can pass legislation to stop or modify sales at any time up to the point of delivery.

Taiwan's potential $6.4 billion in foreign military sales, nearly twice the 2007 value of $3.7 billion, have also been controversial. The 2008 notifications included hundreds of Patriot missiles, 30 Apache attack helicopters, 1,000 Hellfire missiles, and 32 submarine-launched Harpoon missiles. China objected to the sales and cancelled senior-level military exchanges in the fall. China's defense white paper issued in January 2009 noted that "the United States continues to sell arms to Taiwan...causing serious harm to Sino-U.S. relations as well as peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits."

Despite China's concerns, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton confirmed that the United States would continue arms exports to Taiwan. Citing the Taiwan Relations Act, she stated Feb. 15 "that the United States will provide support for Taiwan's defense...our policy remains as it has been."

Within Asia, Congress added South Korea to a list of countries deserving lighter scrutiny. Under the 1976 Arms Export Control Act, notification threshold levels are $14 million for major defense equipment, $50 million for other articles and services, and $200 million for construction and design services. Notification thresholds for the so-called NATO Plus Three countries (NATO allies, Australia, Japan, and New Zealand) are $25 million, $100 million, and $300 million, respectively by type. In October, South Korea was added to the list, making a new NATO Plus Four group.

Accurately tracking recent arms sales is notoriously difficult because FMS notifications only capture proposals that reach threshold levels and tend to be bunched together, as well as representing only potential sales. The transfer of excess defense articles are handled separately. So too are commercial sales of certain military and dual-use items, with some licenses managed through the Department of State and others through the Department of Commerce. Recent-year State Department direct commercial sales licenses are estimated to be worth as much as $100 billion, but researchers typically do not rely on such figures because licenses can last for four years and actual agreements are not systematically reported.

Nonetheless, the concentration of notified government-to-government FMS to countries in the Middle East and Asia, with an overall tilt toward the Middle East, is consistent with global trends, as is the general increase in the overall value of the arms trade. (See ACT, December 2008.)

Many FMS agreements are supported by financial grants and other assistance provided by the United States. For example, Israel received more than $24 billion in U.S. military grants from 1997 to 2007.

Although such aid could provide a consistent base level of funding, given the global economic situation and the years it often takes to complete arms sales, experts warned that many of the notified deals may be delayed, altered, or fall through altogether. Future sales may also be impacted.