Loren Thompson / Forbes – 2012-01-08 23:42:43
WASHINGTON (January 2, 2012) — In a striking departure from the ideological preferences of the post-Vietnam Democratic Party, President Barack Obama has made overseas arms sales a pillar of US foreign policy. The President and his advisors apparently have decided that well-armed allies are the next best thing to US “boots on the ground” when it comes to advancing America’s global security interests.
A case in point was the Christmas Eve disclosure that the administration would sell $30 billion in fighter jets, munitions, spare parts and support services to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
In the past, some Democrats in Congress might have questioned the propriety of selling high-tech weapons to a government noted for its conservative social policies. But administration officials described the deal as a pragmatic solution to regional security needs, one that would provide the world’s preeminent oil producer with the means to deter Iranian aggression without compromising Israel’s defense.
Having already approved a $60 billion package of arms sales with the kingdom — of which the fighter deal is only one part — Congress is sure to accept White House reasoning.
It doesn’t hurt that such sales create tens of thousands of jobs in the US Boeing assembles the F-15 fighters at the center of the deal in Missouri, and General Electric will build the engines in Ohio. Both are swing states whose electoral-college votes could determine the outcome of the 2012 presidential race.
Many additional jobs will be created at the sprawling Raytheon missile complex in Arizona, a state already poised to benefit from an earlier Saudi buy of 36 Boeing Apache tank-killer helicopters. Raytheon’s radar facility in Massachusetts should also be a big beneficiary.
What the president and his advisors have figured out is that, unlike sending troops to fight overseas, there is almost no downside to sending weapons. They allow partners such as Saudi Arabia to meet more of their own security needs indigenously rather than relying on an overstretched US military, and they stimulate economic activity in America’s industrial heartland at a time when well-paying, unionized manufacturing jobs are hard to come by.
So the Obama Administration has abandoned any pretense of limiting overseas arms sales, and embraced the reality that America is likely to remain the world’s biggest weapons merchant for many years to come.
The change of heart was signaled only months after Obama took office, when incoming Pentagon policy chief Michelle Flournoy dismissed the notion that the new administration would have an “arms sale policy,” describing the US approach instead as a “commitment to build partner capacity and doing that on a strategic basis that takes a requirements-based approach.” In effect, Flournoy set aside ideology in favor of a technocratic framework for assessing the military needs of overseas friends and allies.
This shift has proven to be a good fit for an administration that inherited two unpopular wars, massive budget deficits, and a weak economy. Not only do arms sales make it easier to draw down overseas forces while bolstering the nation’s trade balance, but they undermine Republican rhetoric about Obama being soft on national security.
When a president sustains high rates of military spending, takes out the world’s most wanted terrorist, and sells the latest military technology to friends around the globe, it’s difficult for his political opponents to explain how they could have been any harder on America’s enemies.
However, the administration’s embrace of arms sales is driven by much more than domestic politics. In the Middle East, US policymakers are intent on containing Iran as US forces in the region are reduced, and so Washington has moved to sell weapons to local friends that are far superior to anything the Teheran regime owns.
In December, it was disclosed that Iraq would be allowed to acquire 36 single-engine Lockheed Martin F-16s and that Oman would double its fleet of the same plane to 24 aircraft. When combined with the modernization of the Saudi air force and the extensive F-16 inventory of the United Arab Emirates, it is clear Arab gulf states will be positioned to greatly outmatch the antiquated tactical aircraft fleet of Iran.
Better fighters are just the beginning. The Obama Administration is moving to assure that the gulf states are capable of dominating local air space not just against airborne threats, but also ballistic threats such as Iran’s medium-range missiles. On the last day of 2011, it was announced the Emirates would spend $3.5 billion to acquire Lockheed Martin’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, a mobile land-based anti-ballistic missile system capable of countering the most advanced weapons in the Iranian arsenal.
The administration is also making Patriot air-defense systems available to friendly countries in the region, and there are rumors that Saudi Arabia may buy the latest version of Lockheed’s sea-based Aegis air defense system — which is being upgraded to defeat advanced ballistic threats.
Even as it vastly improves the defenses of gulf states, though, the administration is carefully calibrating Middle East arms sales to assure they do not impair the future defense of Israel. The F-15s and F-16s that Arab states will receive can quickly defeat any airborne threat posed by Iran, but they lack the integrated stealth features of so-called fifth-generation fighters that would make them invisible to Israeli air defenses.
As of today, Israel is the only country in the region other than Turkey scheduled to receive Lockheed Martin’s next-generation F-35 fighter, which the Jewish state will adapt to its unique needs by installing indigenous electronic systems. The Obama Administration thus is protecting Israel’s war-fighting edge even as it bolsters the arsenals of friendly Arab states.
The situation is different in East Asia, where the administration is using arms sales as a tool in its campaign to limit the regional influence of a rapidly growing China. The pace of Beijing’s military buildup over the past decade has exceeded the double-digit growth of the Chinese economy, and other local powers have become worried by the combination of frequent territorial disputes and new war-fighting capabilities.
The Obama Administration has made a calculated decision not to inflame Chinese nationalism by selling new fighters to Taiwan, but it is greatly improving the capabilities of the island nation’s existing F-16 fighters, and offering its most advanced weapons to countries such as Japan and South Korea.
Japan announced in December that it had selected Lockheed Martin’s F-35 as its next-generation fighter, citing its stealth design and cutting-edge electronics as key discriminators in a competition that pitted the plane against more mature tactical aircraft. South Korea may decide as early as this year to pick its own next-generation fighter, with local commentators betting it will follow Japan’s lead in selecting the F-35.
Although China and Russia have begun incorporating some stealth features into their fighter designs, it will be a long time before they achieve the sophistication of the F-35, and the more compelling near-term consideration is that air defense radars in North Korea and the People’s Republic cannot reliably track the low-visibility F-35.
Air dominance is even more important to US security goals in East Asia than it is in the Middle East because of the great distances involved and the difficulty of employing ground forces effectively. The Obama strategy in the region seems to be aimed at containing Chinese ambitions with an arc of well-armed allies stretching from Australia and Singapore in Southeast Asia to Japan and South Korea in Northeast Asia.
Although the US Navy will continue to play a crucial “forward presence” role in the Western Pacific, its surface vessels are increasingly vulnerable to Chinese attack and the need to give regional friends the best war-fighting technology thus is widely recognized within the Obama Administration.
Fortunately, most of those friends have robust economies capable of paying for whatever military technology governments need to buy, and the US could use a boost to its trade relations with the most dynamic Asian “tigers.”
US arms merchants have also made impressive inroads in other key overseas markets such as India, where Boeing has secured deals to sell advanced maritime patrol aircraft, airlifters and helicopters. The surge in overseas arms sales comes at a crucial time for US defense contractors, who are expected to face softening demand in their home market as Washington extricates itself from Afghanistan and turns to deficit reduction.
Working harder to find new overseas customers is a common strategy for military contractors facing tough times at home, but the Obama Administration’s support of expanded foreign arms sales has been a pleasant surprise for industry executives.
Whatever the left wing of the Democratic Party’s base may think of this trend, Mr. Obama clearly has decided he can bolster US security interests abroad and economic performance at home by helping arms makers to market their wares to the world.
Loren Thompson Chief Operating Officer at the Lexington Institute. The author is a Forbes contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.
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