The Trump administration has set its sights on expanding America’s substantial arms sales around the globe. The United States is already the world’s leading arms exporter, accounting for 34 percent of total arms exports in the world between 2013–2017 according to a recent release by the authoritative Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Arms sales constituted 6.2 percent of the value of all U.S. exports in the period from 2007 to 2014. During the Obama presidency, the administration approved more than $278 billion in foreign-arms sales, more than any administration since World War II. In the first year of President Trump’s administration, the United States signed arms-export deals in excess of $41 billion and notified Congress of potential deals that total more than $82 billion, though some of these were initiated under the previous administration.
In the effort to increase sales, President Trump is actively urging foreign leaders he meets to buy U.S.-made military systems and equipment. He also signed on April 19 a National Security Presidential Memorandum approving a new Conventional Arms Transfer (CAT) policy designed to ease export restrictions. The recent announcement by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency of the reduction of the surcharge foreign nations pay when buying American weapon systems from 3.5 to 3.2 percent, is another step designed to increase the competitiveness of “buying American” by this administration. Bolstering arms sales is seen by the administration not only as a tool to enhance traditional national security and foreign-policy goals but as serving its “America First” policy by supporting the manufacturing and defense industrial base and driving new innovation and creating American jobs.
Arms exports to the Middle East comprise a substantial part of America’s global sales, accounting for 49 percent of total US arms exports between 2013 and 2017. The overall value of U.S. major arms sales to the Middle East is difficult to determine exactly but a moderate estimate would put it at over $150 billion since 2007. This includes hundreds of advanced fighter jets, attack and utility helicopters; advanced munitions; Multi-Mission Surface Combatant (MMSC) Ships; as well as Patriot and THAAD air defense systems. Many of these arms sales frequently generate follow-on, multiyear paid training, technical and logistical support as well as the building of relevant infrastructure.
Retaining this level of arms exports in the coming years to the Middle East will be a very tall order for the Trump administration. Capacity limits combined with a deliberate policy of arms purchase diversification by the Arab states means that the chances of retaining previous levels of arms sales to the region in the years to come are slim. The projected fall in the value of arms sales to the Middle East will make it very difficult for the present administration to surpass the level of foreign-arms sales of the Obama administration. This unless more sales to the Asian market materialize or new technologies such as fifth-generation fighters are released to the Arab countries.
The sale of advanced fighter jets comprises a substantial part of the surge in arms sales to the Middle East. Since 2008 the United States has sold over two hundred 4 and 4.5 generation fighter jets to Arab countries, most of which are still in the process of being delivered. These deals have also included the upgrading of 182 existing US-made fighter jets (see Table 1). Additionally, some of these countries have also purchased further fighter jets from European and Russian manufactures (see Table 2). In total, the Arab countries have either purchased or upgraded over 650 fighter planes over the last decade.
While the most significant sales to the Middle East under the Obama administration were fighter jets and helicopters, air defense systems (THAAD and Patriot) and munitions top the list so far during the Trump presidency. Furthermore, European countries continue to make significant military sales to the Arab countries including not only fighters but helicopters (Italy) and warships (France, Italy and Spain) too.
Subsequently, the untapped demand for additional pricey U.S.-made fighters and warships in the coming years would appear to be limited. In addition, following the purchases of expensive THAAD and Patriot air-defense systems by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, and Qatar in the last few years, these lucrative platforms may also be mainly replete for now.
“Buy American” Versus the Arab Policy of Diversification
While the United States remains the main guarantor of Sunni Arab security, with the presence of naval, land and air forces in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, Oman, and Iraq, these countries have adopted a deliberate policy of diversifying their arms imports choosing to spend tens of billions of dollars on European or Russian weapon systems rather than on U.S.-made arms. Even Egypt, the recipient of a generous annual $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid, has tapped from its reserves and loaned from Gulf states and from suppliers in order to purchase at least $13 billions worth of weapon systems since 2013 from France, Germany, and Russia rather than from the United States.