U.S. Arms Transfers to the Middle East: Promoting Stability or Fueling Conflict?

Middle East and North Africa

This post was originally presented by William D. Hartung, Senior Adviser to the Security Assistance Monitor program, at the event, “Crisis in Yemen: Humanitarian and Security Consequences of Military Support to the Region” hosted by the Forum on Arms Trade and Security Assistance Monitor.

Washington, DC

October 20, 2015

Introduction: The Obama Arms Bazaar

The recent surge in U.S. arms transfers to the Middle East is part of an unprecedented boom in major U.S. arms sales that has been presided over by the Obama administration.  In President Obama’s first six years in office, new agreements under the Pentagon’s Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program – the largest channel for U.S. weapons exports – totaled over $195 billion.[1]  Overall, the Obama administration has approved more major weapons deals than any U.S. administration since World War II.

The majority of the Obama administration’s major arms sales – over 56 per cent – have gone to the Middle East and Persian Gulf, with Saudi Arabia topping the list with over $49 billion in new agreements.[2]  This is particularly troubling given the complex array of conflicts raging throughout the region, and given the Saudi regime’s use of U.S.-supplied weaponry in its military intervention in Yemen.

The increase in arms sales under the Obama administration is rooted in two factors, one political and one economic.  The political factor is grounded in President Obama’s pledge to avoid getting into any new, large-scale “boots on the ground” conflicts like Iraq or Afghanistan.[3]  His alternative has been to rely on tactics designed to limit U.S. casualties, from drone strikes to arming and training allies to carry out fighting that might otherwise have been done by U.S. troops.  This aspect of the Obama policy mirrors the approach taken by Richard Nixon in the wake of the Vietnam War, when he armed regional surrogates like Iran under the Shah to fight on behalf of U.S. interests in key regions.[4]

On the economic front, the Obama administration has been a major promoter of exports in general and arms exports in particular.  In doing so, it has been responding to pressure from weapons manufacturers like Boeing, Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics who are seeking to increase export sales to counterbalance a leveling off of Pentagon procurement spending.

The extent of the Obama administration’s commitment to promoting weapons sales was underscored at a March 2013 hearing on arms export control policy when Tom Kelly, who was principal deputy assistant secretary of the State Department’s bureau of political-military affairs, said that “it is an issue that has the attention of every top-level official who’s working on foreign policy throughout the government . . . in advocating on behalf of our companies and doing everything we can to make sure these sales go through.”[5]\

In addition to setting higher goals for arms exports in general, major weapons contractors have attempted to use foreign sales to keep open key production lines for systems that are reaching the end of the line in terms of Pentagon procurement.  For example, earlier this year it was reported that Boeing had concluded a deal to sell 40 F-18s to Kuwait, which will extend the life of the program for another year or more beyond its current projected end date of early 2017.[6]  Similarly, the General Dynamics M-1 tank has been surviving on a combination of Congressional add-ons and a deal for tanks and tank upgrades for Saudi Arabia.[7]

Recent Deals to the Region: What is Being Sold?

The figures on formal arms sales agreements cited above offer just a partial view of deals in the pipeline.  For Saudi Arabia alone, offers notified to Congress since 2009 have topped $100 billion, followed by the United Arab Emirates at over $20 billion in arms sales offers from the United States and Kuwait at over $13 billion.  Not all of these offers end up as formal Foreign Military Sales (FMS) agreements for equipment that is ultimately delivered to the recipient nation, but the majority of them will go forward.  They provide the best publicly available information on what kinds of weapons are being offered to states in the Middle East and Persian Gulf.

The biggest packages to Saudi Arabia were announced in October of 2010.  Four mega-packages worth a total over $60 billion cleared Congress that month.  The offers included 70 Boeing Apache attack helicopters, 72 Sikorsky Black Hawk transport helicopters, 84 Boeing F-15S combat aircraft, thousands of bombs and missiles, and hundreds of cannons, machine guns, and automatic weapons with accompanying ammunition.  These items were supplemented by radars, night vision devices, and other electronic equipment designed to enhance the performance of the weapons systems provided as part of the deal.  The October 2010 deals also included offers of howitzers, transport and refueling aircraft, patrol boats, and a $6.8 billion package of land-attack missiles, Harpoon missiles, small diameter bombs and Joint Standoff Weapons (JSOW).  And in July of this year, a deal was announced to provide $500 million in ammunition to the Royal Saudi Land Forces to replenish stocks used up in the war in Yemen, along with one for $5.4 billion to provide an upgraded Patriot missile defense system.  Perhaps most importantly, there is a deal in the works that has yet to be notified to Congress that would supply $1 billion or more in bombs and missiles for the Saudi Air Force, again for use in the Yemen war.[8]

The other most important recipient of U.S. weaponry in the region is the UAE, which has been the most active partner in the Saudi-led coalition that is involved in bombing and blockading Yemen.  Equipment offered to the UAE since 2009 includes hundreds of HELLFIRE missiles, 60 Apache helicopters, a $1.1 billion missile defense system, artillery systems, Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, and thousands of other bombs and missiles. And in May of this year the United States offered the UAE 1,600 guided bomb units, explicitly for use in the conflict in Yemen.[9]

In discussing the impact of U.S. arms sales on current conflicts in the region, it is important to note that many of the deals for larger equipment, such as combat aircraft and helicopters, can take years to move from offer to agreement to delivery.  For example, as far was we can tell from published documents, only about half of the over $100 billion in arms offered to Saudi Arabia since 2009 have resulted in $49 billion in formal sales agreements thus far, and the value of value of actual deliveries through the end of fiscal year 2014 was slightly over $13 billion.[10]  So most of the big-ticket items currently being used by the Saudis in Yemen were provided in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. Smaller items, like bombs and missiles, can be delivered much more quickly, and are of the most immediate concern with respect to their impact on current conflicts.

How Are U.S.-Supplied Arms Being Used in the Region?

Not all U.S.-supplied arms to the Middle East and Persian Gulf have been the forces for stability that the Pentagon routinely claims them to be when it provides notice of a new proposed arms deal to the Congress.  U.S.-supplied arms have been used to put down the democracy movement in Bahrain and to bolster the repressive regimes of Hosni Mubarak and Abdul Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt.[11]

Meanwhile, the use of U.S.-supplied helicopters, combat aircraft, bombs, and missiles in Yemen has contributed to the humanitarian catastrophe there.[12]  A recent attack on a wedding party that killed an over 130 people is just the latest example of the indiscriminate bombing that has resulted in the majority of the more than 2,300 civilian deaths caused by the war.[13]  The bombing has been coupled with a naval blockade that has led to a situation in which four out of five people in Yemen are now in need of humanitarian aid.  An estimated 12.9 million people in Yemen are considered food insecure, and more than 1.2 million children are suffering from moderate to acute malnutrition and half a million are severely malnourished, according to the United Nations World Food Programme.[14] There is a risk of mass starvation if the conflict is allowed to proceed on its current course.

In addition, evidence gathered by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International indicates that this includes the use of U.S.-supplied cluster bombs in Yemen.

Cluster bombs are indiscriminate weapons that are the subject of an international treaty banning their use – a treaty that unfortunately has not been signed up to by either the United States or Saudi Arabia.[15]

Strategic Consequences of U.S. Arms Supplies to the Region

Too often, U.S. arms supplies to the Middle East have done more harm than good.  This is true in the well-known cases of the loss of large quantities of U.S. weapons supplied to Iraqi security forces and Syrian rebels to ISIS.  But it is also true in Yemen, where the Pentagon has reported that $500 million in U.S.-supplied small arms and ammunition went missing earlier this year, some of which may have made its way into the hands of either the Houthi rebels or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).[16]

Things have gotten so out of hand that it is quite possible that U.S.-supplied arms have made their way into the hands of all parties to the conflict in Yemen.  As indicated above, U.S. arms are being used by Saudi Arabian and Kuwaiti ground and air forces that are intervening in Yemen, and some weapons may have been lost to either the Houthis or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.  In addition, the Yemeni military has split down the middle, with forces loyal to former Yemeni president Saleh making common cause with the Houthis while others have taken the side of the Saudis and former President Hadi.  Both factions have been on the receiving end of U.S. arms transfers and military training in recent years.  Statistics gathered by the Security Assistance Monitor indicate that Yemeni forces received or been offered over $900 million in U.S. military and police aid since 2009.[17]

Beyond the issue of U.S.-supplied arms and training fueling the conflict or falling into the wrong hands, the Saudi-led, U.S.-supplied intervention has empowered al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as its main potential adversaries –the United States, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, and the Houthis – are busy fighting each other.[18]  More generally, the chaos and suffering inflicted by the Saudi-Houthi war is likely to create more fertile ground for recruitment by AQAP. In short, the Saudi-led, U.S-armed intervention in Yemen has been counterproductive on security grounds as well as having disastrous humanitarian consequences.

Concern about the U.S. role in facilitating the Saudi bombing campaign is growing. Oxfam America has called on the United States “withdraw its support to the [Saudi-led] coalition including the transfer of arms to belligerent parties, publicly demand the free flow of commercial goods into all ports, and rally support at the United Nations Security Council for an immediate, unconditional cease-fire and inclusive political process to bring and end to the war.”[19]  Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has raised questions as to what U.S. responsibility may be for Saudi actions, and whether the bombings violate the U.S law that bears his name.[20]  The Leahy Law “prohibits the United States from providing assistance to any foreign military or police unit if there is credible information that such unit has committed grave human rights violations with impunity.”[21]

And a letter to President Obama organized by Representatives Debbie Dingell (D-MI), Keith Ellison (D-MN), and Ted Lieu (D-CA) has urged the president to make “greater efforts to avoid civilian casualties in Yemen and achieve a diplomatic solution to the conflict.”[22]

[1] Data on Foreign Military Sales used in this presentation are compiled from Defense Security Cooperation Agency, “Fiscal Year Series,” as of September 30, 2014: http://www.dsca.mil/sites/default/files/fiscal_year_series_30_september_2014_web.pdf.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jim Acosta, Kevin Liptak, and Josh Levs, “Obama, Kerry: No U.S Troops Will Be Sent Into Combat Against ISIS in Iraq, Syria,” CNN.com: http://www.cnn.com/2014/09/17/politics/obama-isis/ .  Some have argued that Obama’s U.S. trainers in Iraq are in essence ground troops, but the numbers pale in comparison the 160,000 U.S. troops that were in Iraq at the height of the U.S. intervention.

[4] For more on the Nixon Doctrine see William D. Hartung, “It’s Not Diplomacy, It’s An Arms Fair,” Foreignpolicy.com, May 14, 2015: http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/05/14/obama-arms-fair-camp-david-weapons-sales-gcc/.

[5] William D. Hartung, “Obama’s Arms Sales Policy: Promotion or Restraint?,” Foreign Policy in Focus, February 6, 2014: http://www.ciponline.org/research/entry/obamas-arms-sales-policy-promotion-or-restraint.

[7] “Saudi Arabia Orders General Dynamics Tanks,” Washington Business Journal, January 8, 2013: http://www.bizjournals.com/washington/news/2013/01/08/saudi-arabia-orders-general-dynamics.html .

[8] Data from Defense Security Cooperation Agency’s list of “Major Arms Sales”: http://www.dsca.mil/search/node/Saudi%20Arabia.

[9] Data from Defense Security Cooperation Agency’s list of “Major Arms Sales”: http://www.dsca.mil/search/node/United%20Arab%20Emirates.

[10] Data from Defense Security Cooperation Agency’s list of “Major Arms Sales” and the agency’s “Fiscal Year Series” document, op. cit.

[11] On Bahrain, see Justin Elliott, “Revealed: America’s Arms Sales to Bahrain During Bloody Crackdown,” ProPublica, January 15, 2013, available at http://www.propublica.org/article/americas-arms-sales-bahrain-crackdown.

Criticism by human rights groups and key members of Congress led to a cut of off deliveries for a time, but the prohibition was lifted in June of 2015: https://theintercept.com/2015/06/29/u-s-will-resume-sending-weapons-bahrain-despite-ongoing-repression/; for the view of two Congressional critics of U.S. arms supplies to Bahrain, see Ron Wyden and Jim McGovern, “ReThink U.S. Arms Sales to Bahrain,” September 10, 2015, at http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/10/opinions/wyden-mcgovern-bahrain-arms-sales/ .  Similarly, a freeze on deliveries of major systems to Egypt that had been imposed when the el-Sisi regime took power was lifted in March 2015 on the grounds that Egypt’s role as an ally against terrorism in the region trumped human rights concerns.  On this point, see Peter Baker, “Obama Removes Weapons Freeze on Egypt,” at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/01/world/middleeast/obama-lifts-arms-freeze-against-egypt.html?_r=0 .  In addition to lending legitimacy to the regime, U.S.-supplied Apache helicopters were involved in an attack by the Egyptian military that mistakenly killed 12 tourists in September of 2015, including two Mexican citizens: Charles Tiefer, “Egyptian Military Likely Used U.S. Weapons to Kill Tourists, Strengthening Case for Oversight, Forbes, September 14, 2015: http://www.forbes.com/sites/charlestiefer/2015/09/14/egyptian-forces-cause-tourist-deaths-so-secy-kerry-al-sisi-must-accept-oversight-of-u-s-weapons/.

[12] Paul O’Brien, vice president of policy and campaigns at Oxfam America, “Yemen Doesn’t Need the Obama Administration’s ‘Deep Concern”: It Needs Help Ending the War that Has Led to a Humanitarian Crisis,” Foreignpolicy.com, October 8, 2015, available at https://foreignpolicy.com/2015/10/08/yemen-obama-administration-end-war-humanitarian-crisis/ . See also letter from Reps. Debbie Dingell (D-MI), Keith Ellison (D-MN), and  Ted Lieu (D-CA) to President Obama on growing civilian death toll from Saudi bombing in Yemen, October 14, 2015, available at https://debbiedingell.house.gov/media-center/press-releases/reps-dingell-ellison-lieu-lead-letter-president-obama-expressing-concern. 10 additional members of Congress signed the letter.

[13]Amnesty International, “Yemen: UN Inquiry Needed as Civilian Lives Devastated Six Months After Saudi-Arabia-led Coalition Began Airstrikes, September 25, 2015, available at https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2015/09/yemen-un-inquiry-needed-as-civilian-lives-devastated-six-months-after-saudi-arabia-led-coalition-began-airstrikes/.

[14] United Nations World Food Programme, “What Are the Current Issues in Yemen,” available at https://www.wfp.org/countries/yemen.

[15] Ben Brumfield and Sima Shalbayah, “Report: Saudi Arabia Used U.S.-Supplied Cluster Bombs in Yemen,” CNN.com, May 4, 2015: http://www.cnn.com/2015/05/03/middleeast/yemen-hrw-cluster-munitions-saudi-arabia/ . See also Amnesty International, “The Human Carnage of Saudi Arabia’s War in Yemen,” August 27, 2015: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2015/08/the-human-carnage-of-saudi-arabias-war-in-yemen/.

[18] Hugh Naylor, “Quietly, al-Qaeda Offshoots Expand in Yemen and Syria,” Washington Post, June 4, 2015, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/quietly-al-qaeda-offshoots-expand-in-yemen-and-syria/2015/06/04/9575a240-0873-11e5-951e-8e15090d64ae_story.html.

[19] Paul O’Brien, op. cit., note 12. 

[20] Colum Lynch, “U.S. Support for Saudi Strikes in Yemen Raises War Crimes Concerns,” Foreignpolicy.com, October 15, 2015, available at http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/10/15/u-s-support-for-saudi-strikes-in-yemen-raises-war-crime-concerns/.

[21] Security Assistance Monitor, Center for International Policy and Latin America Working Group Education Fund, “Applying the Leahy Law to U.S. Military and Police Aid,” available at http://securityassistance.org/publication/applying-leahy-law-us-military....

[22] Letter from Dingell et. al., op cit. note 12.