The value of proposed U.S. major conventional arms sales agreements through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program totaled just more than $63 billion in 2017—nearly identical to the amount in 2016. In May, new U.S. president Donald Trump touted potential major arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which accounted for the largest portion of the 2017 FMS notifications and also raised the most controversy. Traditional “northern” allies Canada, Poland, and Romania were the only other countries requesting $5 billion or more in sales. In total, notifications were made involving 28 different countries plus NATO in 2017.
The United States conducts government-to-government arms transfers through the Defense Department’s Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program. Not all notified sales result in final transactions. Under the 1976 Arms Export Control Act, Congress must be notified of proposed sales of “major defense equipment”—as defined on the U.S. Munitions List—that equals or exceeds $14 million; defense articles and services that are not defined as “major defense equipment” that total $50 million or more; and construction or design services amounting to or surpassing $200 million. However, if the proposed sale involves NATO members, Australia, Israel, Japan, South Korea, or New Zealand, the notification thresholds are $25 million for major defense equipment, $100 million for other defense articles and services, and $300 million for construction or design services. Once notified, Congress has 30 calendar days (15 in the case of NATO members, Australia, Israel, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand) to block a sale by passing a joint resolution of disapproval, although it has never stopped a sale once formally notified.
On May 20, during his first overseas visit as president, Trump announced $110 billion in prospective arms sales to Saudi Arabia, leaving many specific details to be worked out later. In October, the single largest portion was notified to Congress, the potential sale of 7 Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) radars and related missiles and other equipment valued at $15 billion. This followed a controversial roughly $510 million direct commercial sale of precision-guided munitions and related services that 47 Senators unsuccessfully voted to block in June. President Obama had suspended such munition sales in late 2016 due to concerns regarding civilian deaths caused by Saudi actions in Yemen, where a humanitarian crisis has developed as Saudi-led forces battled with Houthi forces who moved into the Yemeni capital Sana’a in 2014.
Other missile defense systems, aside from THAAD, accounted for high value potential arms agreements in 2017. Roughly $10.5 billion of the $11.2 billion of arms offered to Poland consisted of radars, missiles, other components and training for the first phase of a Patriot 3+ system. Romania requested 7 radar sets, fire units, and related missiles for a Patriot 3+ system ($3.9 billion of roughly $5 billion request). Instead of missile defense, much of Canada’s request consisted of 18 F/A 18 Super Hornet fighter aircraft ($5.2 billion).
Below is a chart of the top four countries that sought the highest values in U.S. arms exports via the FMS program in 2017, along with some of their specific requests.
Although many of these sales were already being discussed during the previous Obama administration and were generally uncontroversial, Trump did move forward a number of deals that Obama withheld due to human rights concerns. In addition to the precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia via the direct commercial sales (DCS) program, these included deals notified via FMS of 19 new F-16 fighter aircraft and upgrades to 20 F-16s to Bahrain in September (approx. $4 billion), and 12 Super Tucanos light attack aircraft to Nigeria in August ($593 million).
Below is a table of all 28 states, along with the NATO Support and Procurement Agency, which requested U.S. arms sales via the FMS program in 2017, in billions of dollars, in order:
Below are the total values of all notified requests each year from 1997 to 2017, in billions of U.S. dollars, as compiled each year (in current dollars, unadjusted for inflation):
1. The Department of State is also required to report to Congress any commercial sales it approves of “major defense equipment” that amount to $14 million or more, defense articles and services that equal or exceed $50 million, and any items defined as “significant military equipment.” As in the case of FMS sales, Congress can block the sale with a joint resolution of disapproval within 30 calendar days of notification (15 in the case of NATO members, Australia, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea). Commercially licensed sales of firearms controlled under category I of the U.S. Munitions List valued at $1 million or more must also be notified to Congress but are not considered here. There are no official compilations of commercial agreement data comparable to the FMS notifications and what exists is often incomplete and less precise than data on government-to-government transactions (Theohary, Catherine A., Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 2008-2015, Washington, D.C., Congressional Research Service, December 19, 2016, p. 16), although the non-profit Security Assistance Monitor is compiling much of this information from public data (including on direct commercial sales [DCS], which are generally in the tens of billions but not as large as FMS). The annual Section 655 report, prepared by the State and Defense Departments for Congress, details commercial licenses approved, but states typically have four years to act under the licenses. The State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls has final responsibility for license applications for commercial defense trade exports and all issues related to defense trade compliance, enforcement, and reporting.
2. Congress approved the higher notification thresholds for NATO members, Australia, Japan, and New Zealand in legislation passed in September 2002. South Korea was added to this list in 2008, and Israel was added in 2010. Congress, however, is free to pass legislation to block or modify an arms sale at any time up to the point of delivery of the items involved.
Sources: Congressional Research Service, Defense Security Cooperation Agency, and Department of State. For more details on Foreign Military Sales and other U.S. programs that result in arms transfer authorizations and deliveries, please also see the Security Assistance Monitor.