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Arms Sales Way Up – But Trump Wants More

Posted by Paul McLeary on

Lockheed Martin’s Multi-Mission Surface Combatant, slated to be sold to Saudi Arabia.

PENTAGON: The United States signed off on arms exports worth $192.3 billion over the past year, a full 13 percent increase from the previous year — even as the Trump administration keeps pushing hard to sell more weapons, more quickly, to more allies overseas. 

The massive increase was announced by the State Department on Thursday afternoon as a way to promote the release of more detail about its Conventional Arms Transfer policy, which has loosened restrictions on selling everything from guns to drones, while pushing US diplomats and officials to make selling more arms a larger part of their mission.

New details include the emphasis on the global competition for arms as more countries develop increasingly modern defense production capabilities and seek to sell them outside their borders, especially to rising economies in Asia — especially India — and to Middle Eastern governments with deep pockets and big appetites for military equipment.

Some of the key new provisions, according to a State Department fact sheet, include

  • developing financing options for countries who might have trouble with the cost of US weaponry,
  • streamlining the International Traffic in Arms Regulations rules to slash regulatory requirements for US industry,
  • revising the United States Munitions List, which defines and regulates what weapons systems can be sold overseas, and
  • updating the Commerce Control List to account for recent technological developments.

The $192 billion total is split between government-to-government Foreign Military Sales and Direct Commercial Sales between a company and a government. During fiscal 2018, as we reported previously, FMS sales rose 33 percent to $55.6 billion, up from $41.9 billion in fiscal 2017.  

Some of the biggest ticket items on that list include: $6.5 billion for Littoral Combat Ships for Saudi Arabia; $5.1 billion for F/A-18 aircraft for Kuwait; and $4.6 billion for Patriot Air and Missile Defense Systems for Poland. All of those deals were originally made under the Obama administration, but crossed the finish line in 2018.

Direct Commercial Sales totaled $136.6 billion for the year, a 6.6 percent increase from $128.1 billion in 2017.

Eric Fanning, president of defense industry trade organization AIA, applauded the changes, calling them “significant and important steps toward bringing more transparency, efficiency and predictability to the defense trade system” that “support U.S. foreign policy, meet the security needs of our partners and allies, and enhance America’s economic security.”

Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. graphic from DSCA data

SOURCE: Defense Cooperation Agency (DSCA). Note sales delivered lag sales approved (the previous chart).

All About The Allies

The push for sell more weapons to allies comes as Pentagon officials continue to trumpet the value of working more closely with allies to guard the land, patrol the seas, and watch the skies both in Europe and East Asia, where the geopolitical fault lines run deepest.

In Asia, the United States and China “will meet each other more and more on the high seas,” chief of naval operations Adm. John Richardson warned last month after a Chinese warship came within 50 yards of ramming the USS Decatur in the South China Sea. Just this week, a Russian fighter came dangerously close to a Navy land-based P-8 Poseidon patrol lane.

Navy photo

Adm. John Richardson, Chief of Naval Operations, addresses sailors in Norfolk

That message was put more bluntly by Rear Adm. Doug Perry, director of Joint and Fleet Operations at the Fleet Forces Command, who told the annual Naval Submarine League conference in Washington today that “when a ship deploys, they can expect to have an encounter with Russians or Chinese,” either physically or “in the electromagnetic spectrum.”

Perry noted that the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman recently deployed for six months in the Eastern Atlantic with the German Navy guided missile frigate Hessen. And next year, the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier will sail with a Spanish navy vessel for a six-month deployment in the Atlantic.

“We are in a battle for the Atlantic and we will contest it,” he added.

But budget constraints might make that more difficult.

Late last month, the White House surprised the Pentagon by ordering a $33 billion haircut to the planned $733 budget it was working on for fiscal year 2020. While some believe that even with Democrats in control of the House next year, that trim might inch back up, National security adviser John Bolton said last week that the national debt is “an existential threat to society” and that Pentagon budgets will have to “flatten out” over the next several years.

That flattening — which will likely target new programs that haven’t managed to get their own lines in budget documents just yet — has sent ripples of concern throughout the US defense industry. But the Trump administration hopes that boosting foreign sales might just take some of that sting away.


Sydney Freedberg designed the graphics for this article.

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