Amid Unrest in Arab World, U.S. Seeks to Boost Global Arms Sales

4/13/2011
By Sandra I. Erwin
Political turmoil in the Arab world is throwing a wrench in the Obama administration’s aggressive strategy to increase U.S. arms sales.
A surge of democratic uprisings this year in the Middle East and North Africa has stirred debate about the foreign policy implications of arms sales, especially when U.S. weapons might be used to quell popular revolts against regimes that are friendly to the United States.
The controversy comes at a time when the administration is introducing new policies to boost foreign sales of U.S. weapon systems.
The U.S. government is projecting arms sales to exceed $46 billion in fiscal year 2011. Demand for U.S. weaponry is “higher than ever,” said Richard A. Genaille Jr., deputy director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency.
The administration would like the upward trend to continue, and is launching a series of reforms that are designed to increase foreign military sales (FMS) as a means to court allies and boost Third World countries’ internal security, Genaille said April 11 during a panel discussion at the Navy League’s annual convention in National Harbor, Md.
The goal is to revamp how the U.S. government manages international arms sales so it can be more “anticipatory” of future needs and more responsive to foreign allies’ requests, Genaille said.
DSCA currently oversees a $330 billion portfolio of foreign military sales to 220 countries and international organizations.
Sales started soaring in 2006, Genaille said. “For years we were hovering at $10 billion to $12 billion a year in new business. Now DSCA is forecasting more than $46 billion, as more countries seek to recapitalize their fighter jet and cargo aircraft fleets, becoming more interested in missile defense, unmanned aircraft and space technology, he said. “The trend will continue in the near term.”
The Obama administration, which regardsweapon exports as a vehicle for bolstering the U.S. economy, believes that current methods for managing arms sales are too reactive, rather than proactive, he said. “It’s hard to be responsive when our system is geared to wait for a ‘letter of request’ from a country and then take action.”
In a world where events are unpredictable and alliances sometimes needs to be forged quickly, the United States cannot afford the traditional delays associated with arms sales, Genaille said. “You never know when and where you will need partners. … Partnership building must be done continuously.”
These arms-sales reforms are consistent with the administration’s policy of providing weapons and training to allies so they can defend themselves instead of having to rely on U.S. forces.
“If you start to build partnerships when combat breaks out, you are always going to be late,” Genaille said. Alliances forged via military sales also help ensure that U.S. forces have access to land bases, ports or airspace during crises, he said. When the United States needs to “project power,” he said, “We need willing and able and interoperable coalition partners.”
To expedite the FMS process, the Defense and State departments plan to do fewer “case by case” reviews and instead “look more broadly and try to develop broader policies and guidelines,” he said. “Our system has a tendency to default to a case-by-case” approach. “It’s easier to do it that way [but it] makes us less responsive.”
Another objective is to try to predict future FMS needs before a country even makes a request. A group of Defense and State officials have been assigned to focus on forecasting and to take action to fill projected requirements, Genaille said. “We are trying to find a way to buy things in advance.” Under an existing authority called the “special defense acquisition fund” that dates back to the 1980s, the U.S. government can purchase weapons that it believes a foreign ally will need, even if that country has not officially requested it yet. This is a useful tool, so equipment is “ready to go when the requirement hits,” said Genaille.
Closer dialogue with the defense industry also should help the Defense Department respond faster to FMS needs, saidRear Adm. Joseph W. Rixey, director of the Navy International Programs Office. “You probably have leads,” Rixey told the audience of predominantly defense contractors. “We need to understand those leads … get an understanding of what you all see out there.”
The U.S. Navy encourages ship sales to friendly foreign navies as a means to shore up their internal security. “Navies are buying our ships … and taking our excess ships, so we are much more interoperable,” said Navy Secretary Ray Mabus following a keynote speech at the Navy League conference.
“We obviously have the best hardware … the best software … the best people,” Mabus said. “As other navies see that, it leverages what we can do.” He cited the sale of a U.S. frigate to Singapore, which later brought the ship to San Diego to learn how to fly helicopters off the frigate’s deck.
The U.S. Coast Guard also has been actively pursuing foreign sales as it seeks to find homes for soon-to-be-decommissioned patrol boats and cutters.
Under the FMS program, the Coast Guard has delivered so far 337 ships worldwide.
“Last year we delivered 65 vessels to 17 countries,” said Michael Tangora, Coast Guard deputy assistant commandant for acquisition. Those deals were worth $260 million.
“Our niche is maritime law enforcement,” he said. Most of the Coast Guard’s FMS business is in the Third World.
Coast Guard ships truly are the proverbial trash that becomes someone else’s treasure. Because of the environmental restrictions on ship disposals, the cost of destroying a ship is so high that the Coast Guard is highly motivated to find a foreign country that will use it. “Transfers of decommissioned vessels have saved the Coast Guard $30 million in disposal costs,” Tangora said. By donating two cutters later this year to Nigeria and the Philippines, the Coast Guard will save double that amount, he said.
The next 10 years could see a surge of FMS activity, Tangora said. “We expect to decommission all 12 of our 378-foot high endurance cutters and 41 110-foot Island Class patrol boats.” By 2025, the 210-foot medium endurance cutters will be entering the FMS market. One already has been turned over to Sri Lanka. There are 12 or 13 remaining.
“As new assets come [into the Coast Guard’s inventory], these assets will be offered up,” he said. Old, run-down ships can be tough to give away, let alone sell. “I don’t know how much of a market there is for all this,” Tangora said. Some ships are over 50 year old.
Speaking in the context of the latest wave of unrest in the Middle East, Tangora noted that politics, indeed, looms large in the FMS business. The Republic of Yemen’s coast guard is in the process of buying two 87-foot Protector-class coastal patrol boats. Delivering those two boats to Yemen in the past few weeks “has been very trying,” he said. “Politics can get in the way.”
Increasingly, more FMS deals to Middle Eastern countries are being reviewed more closely, Genaille said. With countries such as Saudi Arabia seeking multibillion-dollar arms packages, the stakes are high for the U.S. government and for U.S. manufacturers. “The government is reevaluating sales in some cases,” Genaille said, “to ensure it’s in the best interest of our national security.”

Topics: Business Trends, International

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