Washington Institute For Defence & SecurityWashington Institute For Defence & SecurityWashington Institute For Defence & Security
Washington, DC 20001

The United States’ policy on arms sales is out of control. Since 2002, the United States has sold significant conventional weapons and accompanying military assistance to 167 nations for more than $197 billion. President Donald Trump signed a record number of arms agreements in his first year in office, potentially totaling hundreds of billions of dollars.

The United States has sold weapons to countries involved in violent conflicts and those with appalling human rights records on numerous occasions, with no way of knowing where the weapons would wind up or how they would be used. American forces have battled opponents armed with American weaponry on several occasions.

Arms sales, according to backers, improve American security by improving allies’ military capabilities, giving control over client countries’ conduct and policies, and increasing the American economy while bolstering the defense industrial base.

To comply with the Arms Export Control Act (AECA), the US government must conduct a risk assessment to ensure that sales would not result in unexpected consequences. This condition makes sense, as history has shown that arms sales may have a variety of unforeseen bad repercussions.

From 2002 to 2016, America sold $197 billion worth of weaponry to 167 countries throughout the world. 32 of these countries bought weapons worth at least $1 billion. Saudi Arabia was America’s most valuable customer, spending $25.8 billion on arms.

Furthermore, the US has a lengthy history of selling weapons to countries where the threats were clear. Between 1981 and 2010, the United States sold small arms and light weapons to  nations actively involved in a high-level war. 

Though arms sales add nothing to national security or the pursuit of national objectives, they have a wide range of negative effects that are frequently severe. On three levels, arms sales might result in unfavorable outcomes: consequences for the buyer, such as increased levels of corruption, human rights abuses, and civil conflict; regional consequences in the buyer’s neighborhood, such as the dispersion of weapons and increased instability; and consequences for the buyer, such as increased levels of corruption, human rights abuses, and civil conflict.

Since the conclusion of the Cold War, American forces and allies have encountered American-made weaponry in nearly every military conflict, including in Panama, Haiti, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Syria.

Blowback can happen in one of three ways. To begin with, a formerly favorable regime becomes hostile. During the 1970s, for example, the United States supplied the Shah of Iran billions of dollars in weaponry in the hopes of Iran being a stabilizing influence in the Middle East. Fighter planes for air campaigns and surface-to-air missiles to take down enemy fighters were among the items sold. Iran, on the other hand, used those weapons in its battle with Iraq after the 1979 revolution, allowing the new Iranian leadership to exercise influence in the area. During the 1980s, the US also sold Somalia surface-to-air missiles, towed artillery, tanks, and armored personnel vehicles.

Arms sales can also exacerbate and prolong existing conflicts, eroding rather than promoting regional stability. Few governments, and even fewer insurgencies, have sufficient weapon supplies to battle for extended periods of time without replenishment.

The United States sold weaponry to five countries that are considered high-risk on all fronts. Libya, Iraq, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan are among the countries that have purchased an average of $1.8 billion in US weaponry since 9/11. These five nations are categorized as having “terror everywhere,” “not free,” “most fragile,” “large impact from terrorism,” and being involved in high-level conflicts, according to different indicators. These regimes have utilized American weaponry to encourage tyranny, violate human rights, and prolong violent civil conflicts.

Arms sales to less dangerous countries are not without risk. The United Arab Emirates, for example, is engaged in an ongoing conflict in Yemen, and Georgia, which has hazardous borders, are both in the somewhat risky category of countries.

The United States’ track record of gaining influence through arms sales, in particular, is uneven. American military purchases, for example, may have enhanced Israeli security over time, but American efforts to compel Israel into reaching a long-term peace agreement with the Palestinians have had little effect.

The US should refocus its arms sales strategy to guarantee that sales are strategic in nature and do not have unexpected negative repercussions. On a practical level, this means drastically limiting arms sales, particularly to countries with a high risk of disastrous consequences. The arms sales procedure should also be overhauled to guarantee that all transactions are subjected to more comprehensive examination than they have been in the past.

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