Under Trump, US still world’s leading arms exporter

A Lockheed Martin missile display at a defence trade show.

A report released by the Security Assistance Monitor, a program of the Center for International Policy that tracks and analyses US security assistance programs worldwide, has documented that more than US$80 billion worth of arms sales notifications were sent to Congress last year.

The huge arms sales during President Donald Trump’s first year in office amounted to $5.7 billion more than the Barack Obama administration proposed during its final year in 2016. Obama’s banner year for sales, 2010, saw $102 billion worth of government-to-government sales proposed.

Owing to the spate of large sales under both administrations, the US has maintained its role as the biggest arms exporter in the world.

In a report released on March 12 by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), an international institute researching conflict and armaments, the US was found to be responsible for 34% of the world’s arms exports from 2013 to 2017. Russia follows with 22%.

All the while, US arms manufacturing corporations have been raking in tremendous amounts of cash. Stocks for Lockheed Martin — ranked first for arms sales in 2016 by SIPRI — have been steadily on the rise since 2013. Stocks for Boeing, which ranks second, have also been on the rise since 2013, but rose at an accelerated pace last year.

The Security Assistance Monitor’s report noted another difference between the Obama and Trump sale proposals: the types of equipment offered to foreign governments.

The most significant sale offers under Obama were for military aircraft. In Trump’s first year, missile and bomb sales dominated.

The top recipient of US weapons in the deals proposed by the Trump administration was Saudi Arabia. The Saudi-led war in Yemen, which has US support, has already killed thousands of civilians and led to mass starvation.

The Trump administration proposed almost $17.9 billion worth of arms sales to Saudi Arabia last year.

“Signing off on missile and bomb sales to Saudi Arabia when the country was using these weapons to attack the civilian population in Yemen sent an alarming signal about the US support for human rights,” said Colby Goodman, director of the Security Assistance Monitor and editor of the group’s report.

Saudi-US ties have grown warmer under the Trump administration. This is largely owing to a perceived carte blanche from the US for Saudi Arabia’s Yemen war, support for a Saudi blockade of its erstwhile ally Qatar, and virtual silence from the US in the face of a Saudi purge that reportedly involved abuse

Underlying this support is Saudi Arabia’s intense regional rivalry with the US’s long-time foe, Iran. In a meeting last March, Saudi leaders and Trump publicly declared Iran to be a key regional security threat. 

While his relationship with Saudi Arabia was rocky amid nuclear diplomacy with Iran, Obama also sold the Persian Gulf kingdom billions in weapons — his banner year for sales in 2010 included a $60 billion deal with Saudi Arabia for aircrafts and other arms.

Although a group of senators are attempting to end US support for the war in Yemen, Congress has largely failed to stop the flow of US arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition. 

The legality of US arms sales to Saudi Arabia was recently questioned by a report from the American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights, saying the sales violate stipulations under the Arms Export Control Act. Yet, arms transfers continue.

So far this year, the State Department has approved more than $770 million worth of arms sales and assistance to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Both are central players in the war in Yemen.

“Widespread violent conflict in the Middle East and concerns about human rights have led to political debate in western Europe and North America about restricting arms sales,” said Peter Wezeman, a senior researcher with SIPRI. “Yet the USA and European states remain the main arms exporters to the region and supplied over 98% of weapons imported by Saudi Arabia.”

The Arms Export Control Act requires the State Department to notify Congress of its approval for large sales. Congress then has a specific amount of time — which varies depending on the type of sale — to reject the State Department’s proposal. If Congress does nothing, the sale goes through.

Congressional notification does not necessarily mean an arms sale deal is completed. But the Monitor’s report notes that notifications are a good way to gauge the administration’s intent.

Congress did reject two arms sales deals last year, according to the report. One was for the Filipino police, which has been engaged in an anti-drug campaign of merciless street killings. The other was for the presidential guard in Turkey, where an apparent failed coup in 2016 opened the door for further consolidation of power by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The US partakes in two types of arms sales. The first is a foreign military sale, in which a country buys weapons from the US government — basically a government-to-government sale. 

The second type of sale is a direct commercial sale, which are private-corporation-to-government sales. Even though the equipment comes from private corporations, sales still need to go through a government approval process.

According to the State Department fact sheet, the arms sale process can take quite a long time depending on the type of sale. The long process makes it probable that some of the 2017 requests may have been made prior to Trump taking office.

There have been rumours that the Trump administration is trying to expedite and elevate arms sales. Trump has stressed that the defence equipment industry is a great opportunity to provide more jobs.

“It’s a bad deal,” said William Hartung, author of the Security Assistance Monitor report. “The jobs claims are overrated, and the decision to arm repressive regimes and support nations’ acts of war has serious negative consequences for US security.”

This year is already off to a great start for weapons manufacturers. According to data analysed by The Intercept, the State Department has already approved more than $13.4 billion worth of government-to-government arms sales this year.

[Abridged from The Intercept.]

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