As defense budgets decline, it appears increasingly likely that the U.S. military will be required to cut force structure and capabilities. As a result the U.S. will need to emphasize all the instruments of security policy in order to minimize the risk of regional instability and even direct attacks on U.S. vital interests and allies. One key tool available to the U.S. will be foreign military sales and technology transfers. After first reviewing all pending arms sales, the Obama Administration has recognized the importance of this tool in its overall international security policy. Such sales are likely to become an ever more important tool in U.S. security policy.
Over the past fifty years, the U.S. has provided critical capabilities to dozens of friends and allies. Since 1978, the U.S. has sold hundreds of F-16s to more than 25 countries, the largest single international arms program in history. Together with sales of F/A-18s and F-15s, the United States provided the Free World with the means to defend its air space. The U.S. also enabled a global ground-based air defense capability, first with the sale of tens of thousands of Hawk missiles and for the past thirty years by selling allies the Patriot air and missile defense system. Some 67 countries have acquired various models of the C-130, enabling them to provide logistics support to military forces and humanitarian assistance in the event of natural disasters. The U.S. provided the M-60 main battle tank to numerous friends and allies while M-1 Abrams tanks have gone to such critical allies as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and now Iraq.
Most recently, the administration approved a major arms sale to Saudi Arabia. The proposed sale includes 84 new Boeing F-15s, the refurbishment of 70 F-15s already sold to Saudi Arabia, 72 UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopters and advanced targeting systems. Along with recent sales of F-16 fighters and Patriot and THAAD missile defense systems to several other Gulf countries, the Saudi sale will substantially tilt the balance of military power in the region against Iran.
The U.S. also provided critical technologies for weapons platforms being built by friends and allies. For example, the Swedish Gripen fighter’s engine and advanced radar are both U.S. built. U.S. technical support has been critical to the U.K.’s program for the Astute nuclear attack submarine.
The new face of U.S. foreign military sales is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Unlike previous programs, this is an international co-development program with the U.K., Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Australia and Turkey all providing funding and taking part in the program’s development phase. In addition to planned purchases by the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps and by the current international partners, dozens of countries are expected to buy the F-35 over the next several decades. The international sales of F-35s could exceed the record of the F-16, making the Joint Strike Fighter the most widely deployed aircraft in the world.
For decades, foreign military sales have been a critical part of U.S. efforts to maintain stable regional balances and deter potential conflict. This has been particularly the case in Northeast Asia, the Taiwan Straits and the Middle East. By providing friends and allies the same equipment used by its military, the U.S. enhances interoperability with those forces and helps built partnerships. Current U.S. efforts to provide India with either F-16 or F/A-18 fighters is a good example of how emerging political relationships can be backed up by judicious foreign military sales. Hopefully, the Obama Administration will recognize the strategic significance of the current competition for fighter sales to India and decide to match the involvement of other governments in the pending sale.
The sale of military technology remains one of the few areas which maintains a positive balance of trade. Because part of the overall development costs are included in the sale price, the U.S. government can recoup some of the expenses for developing systems employed by its own forces. In addition, foreign military sales maintain high tech, well-paid jobs in the United States.
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