America’s arms sales paradox — the price of self-sufficiency

Member Group : Gregory Archetto

According to recent reports, U.S. Special Forces arrived on the Yemen-Saudi border last year to assist the Saudi Arabian military in fighting Houthi rebels, which followed the March meeting between President Trump and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) where they discussed various arms sales to the Kingdom.

Seemingly tabled during that meeting was the conflict in Yemen, the desperate humanitarian disaster unfolding there, and the extent of U.S. military involvement. Given this, it is worth examining the strategic context in which Saudi military power is being exercised and their reliance on U.S. support?

In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait and began threatening Saudi Arabia. Possessing a majority of the world’s oil but lacking means to defend it, Riyadh enlisted the aid of the United States to repel the Iraqis and secure their country from imminent invasion. After all, a stable supply of Middle East oil was necessary to keep the global economy humming — thus, it was in the strategic interest of the west to intervene.

Following that Gulf War, the Saudis began purchasing U.S. military hardware in the hopes that it would lessen the need for American military presence, protection, and diplomatic finger-wagging. Concurrently, it is in America’s interest to avoid the mass deployment of troops across the globe for the sake of other countries’ security — it’s unsustainable.

So how to achieve this mutually beneficial goal?  Practice. Piles of money do not equal instant operational proficiency. Unfortunately, continued U.S. presence coupled with Saudi Arabian predilection for outsourcing tasks hinders self-sufficiency. Thus, the inflexible symbiosis persists.

The second Iraq invasion created a vacuum that Iran and its proxies were happy to fill. As Iran’s influence with its coreligionists in Iraq expanded, meddling in Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, increased along with that of the Houthi’s in Saudi’s backfield, prompting them to action, bringing us to Yemen.

That conflict bears some doctrinal resemblance to the initial Allied operations in the Second World War. In the Pacific, Allied troops engaged in an island-hopping strategy, partly to isolate fortified Japanese positions, but partly to gain valuable experience on the way to the inevitable invasion of Japan (i.e., practice).

Same in Europe. Allies engaged in operations in North Africa and Italy in preparation for the push on France and Germany. Again, practice. Saudi Arabia is hitting Yemen so they don’t have to fight on two fronts should war with Iran break out in the near term, but also as practice for potential conflict with an overtly hostile Shiite Iraq or with Iran down the road. Hence the paradox.

It is in America’s interest for the Saudi’s to share the burden of regional security and provide for their own defense — they therefore need equipment and practice. However, if we sell them armaments and then chastise the Saudis for using them, we push them to remain a paper tiger and dependent on U.S. military protection. After all, implicit in the sale of arms to allies is that if they can defend themselves, we won’t have to.

Some argue that the U.S. shouldn’t subsidize the disaster in Yemen by virtue of providing arms to the Saudis because America will be exposed to blowback in the form of increased animosity toward the U.S. However, if the U.S. stopped selling arms and our adversaries filled the void, would international ire shift away from the U.S.? Would our adversaries care if that ire shifted to them?  Wouldn’t the U.S. lose market share as adversaries reach parity with us from a technological perspective?

Does the sale of armaments to a warring nation constitute warring ourselves? The Germans seemed to think so during lend-ease in WWII. If that is the case, is getting the U.S. government out of the arms business — leaving it purely commercial — a viable strategic option?

Should there be a distinction made between an arms “sale” and grant aid? Should countries that pay cash receive more deference on the use of it than countries that receive U.S. aid?

Bottom line, strategic concerns often take precedence over humanitarian ones, but there are actions the U.S. arms control community could take to assuage fears that the U.S. does not take humanitarian concerns into consideration at all.

We could narrow the scope of future arms contracts with partner nations engaged in active combat with nations or groups not deemed outwardly hostile to U.S. interests to training only or non-kinetic support. How this could be accomplished with existing contracts with Saudi Arabia remains to be seen, but reflexively adopting Saudi Arabian interests as our own risks further enabling AQAP.

Congress recently tried to take a more active role when such conditions are apparent (S.J.Res 54 reclaiming war-making authority), to no avail.  There is a better way. The cost thresholds that trigger Congressional Notifications for arms sales have not been raised in years, but the price of platforms rises steadily. This means more and more sales must be reviewed by Congress, which slows down the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) process.

Congress could raise the thresholds, deferring more decisions to the executive branch in exchange for more oversight or even a vote requirement for sales that are being proposed for delivery into an active combat scenario commensurate with the above criteria. Such actions would not change the nature of war, but they might mitigate our complicity in future conflicts and more clearly define U.S. national interests apart from those of our allies engaged in actual combat.

Greg Archetto was a foreign affairs officer at Bureau of Political Military Affairs at State
Security Assistance and  a former officer at the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, Office of Secretary of Defense. He was also foreign policy advisor to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). He has a BA in Political Science from Rowan University, MA in Public Policy from Rutgers University, and MA in National Security/Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College. Follow him on Twitter: @GregArchetto