Tuesday, August 10, 2010
The Wall Street Journal ran a story today on the proposed $30B sale of F-15s to Saudi Arabia by the U.S. Those who don't know the security assistance business may be surprised to learn that American allies in the Middle East are among the freest-spending customers in the U.S. defense materiel market, though our government is statutorily required to ensure that none of these sales endanger Israel's qualitative military edge (QME). But Israeli qualms about this particular sale are mostly overstated in the Journal piece, and that's not really what I wanted to talk about. For me, the most interesting thing in the piece is this graphic:
This, more than anything in the text, is a sign of the times. You'll notice that the leading purchasers in the early part of the last decade tended to be traditional partners like Egypt, Israel, and Kuwait, along with our NATO and east Asian treaty allies. For about half a century, security assistance was mostly about satisfying treaty obligations, maintaining regional balance, executing foreign policy commitments, and assuring allies and partners.
In the post-9/11 era, as you can see, there's been a shift: weapons system sales are now very often geared towards increasing the fighting capabilities of foreign partners, frequently focusing on counterterrorism. That's why you see states like Morocco, Iraq, and Pakistan on the list, as well as many of the traditional recipients of U.S. gear. You'll also notice that the Emiratis joined the Saudis in opening their wallets, a result of anxiety on the part of the Gulf states about Iran's intentions.
The part of the story that's not being told in the graphic: Israel and Egypt are mostly spending U.S. dollars (in the form of State-appropriated Foreign Military Finance, or FMF funds), as are the Iraqis and Pakistanis via a number of different sources of grant aid and COCOM-directed assistance. (On this latter point, I would guess that the value of 1206 cases -- in which the relevant COCOM uses Defense Department funds to purchase capacity-building materiel for a foreign partner, rather than transferring the funds to the customer as grant aid -- is not included in these numbers, but I'm not 100% sure.) As security assistance has become increasingly focused on battlefield effect rather than the more wide-ranging foreign policy and political justifications applied to traditional military aid, the USG and the Department have understandably gotten a lot more interested in what exactly being purchased. This explains why many of the leading purchasers in the latter half of the decade are recipients of grant aid and special appropriations: it's easier to convince a foreign partner to buy the system you think is most appropriate to its needs when it's your cash he's spending. Though nobody much minds that the Egyptians spend their grant money on tanks they can't maintain and aircraft they can't fly, because the objective of that security assistance program is primarily about confidence-building and regional stability, not improvement to fighting capabilities.
This highlights a fundamental tension in the SECDEF's stated intent to institutionalize the security assistance and "building partner capacity" missions as core competencies of the Department: increasing dependence on foreign partners to address security challenges demands U.S. force structures and institutions that are optimized to provide support for partner forces. But our partners' awareness that this is our desired approach, and that this approach will demand the provision of certain weapons systems in certain configurations, will often mean that they're able to resist spending their own funds on the gear that we decide is best. In short, we're going to have a hell of a time convincing foreign governments that they ought to spend their own money on U.S. gear when we've got it down on paper all over the place that it's a strategic imperative for us to build their capacity.
And: if this just turns into a massive materiel-welfare system, then are we really saving that much cash and effort by transitioning to a more indirect approach, or should we just quit dealing with the myriad challenges of being a massive proliferator and pretty much look out for ourselves?