U.S. Interests and Foreign Military Sales

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Is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia undergoing a concerted campaign to acquire a significant, more lethal, and survivable ballistic missile capability? According to a June 5 report from CNN, the evidence certainly points in that direction.

Citing overhead satellite imagery from private analysts and unidentified U.S. intelligence, the report paints a disturbing but predictable picture: Confronting what it sees as a dangerous adversary in the Middle East, Riyadh is racing to match Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal. “The previously unreported classified intelligence indicates Saudi Arabia has expanded both its missile infrastructure and technology through recent purchases from China,” CNN concluded.

The Trump administration has taken a low-key approach in its response, reiterating the common U.S. position that the Middle East should be a zone free of weapons of mass destruction. The last thing countries in the region wish to see is an arms race between Saudi Arabia and Iran at a time when both countries are fomenting proxy warfare against one another in multiple theaters. And yet from Riyadh’s perspective, expanding its own ballistic missile infrastructure is a prudent step to counterbalance a foe that already possesses missiles with a maximum range of 2,000 km. Many nations under the same circumstances would do precisely what the Saudis are reportedly doing today.

Adding more powerful firepower to an already dysfunctional Middle East and fiddling with the region’s tenuous balance-of-power arrangements are not ideal. And yet Washington is not a benign witness in this episode. U.S. arms export policy over multiple administrations has increased the region’s militarization, which shows no signs of diminishing anytime soon. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports the U.S. has proposed $138.9 billion in arms sales to the Saudis between August 2009 and April 2018—a significant portion of which can be classified as offensive weaponry, like F-15s and air-to-ground munitions, that persuade other states in the region to increase their stockpiles. U.S. national security interests should guide American arms exports, and it doesn't serve America to disrupt a workable modus-vivendi in the region. The Kingdom is the third highest military spender in the world in large part its purchase of U.S.-manufactured platforms and systems, spending more than France, Russia, India, and the United Kingdom.

This, of course, doesn’t even include U.S. defense exports to other Gulf Arab countries, like the United Arab Emirates, which purchased 30 F-16s from Washington in 2013 and is in preliminary discussions to procure F-35 aircraft as well.

For Iran, which in 2017 allocated only 15% of the Saudis and Emiratis expenditures on their defense, the conventional weapons buildup in the Gulf means they are faced with strong incentives to do the same. Investing in a ballistic missile program allows Tehran to develop the capability to check an arms procurement bonanza it cannot match financially. Indeed, with a U.N. Security Council arms embargo in place, the acceleration of ballistic missile production is one of the few avenues Tehran has available to respond to the Gulf Arab monarchies' buying-spree.

Riyadh’s weapons build-up has incentivized Iran to refine its missile program, which in turn has pushed Riyadh into enlarging its own missile capacity.

The moral of the story is clear. Instead of automatically selling more offensive weapons to governments in the Middle East, Washington should deliberate with the utmost seriousness whether the U.S. arms export in question is in the U.S. national security interest. Does it help a partner balance against a peer competitor? Or does it only convince the competitor to acquire ever-more high-caliber weapons in fear of being vulnerable?

Continuing the status quo will only reaffirm Saudi Arabia's belief that the United States is a benevolent junior partner who can be manipulated. Just as important, a U.S. arms export control policy detached from sound strategy has profoundly negative implications for U.S. national security interests in the Middle East by depicting Washington as a meddling power picking sides in a Saudi-Iranian rivalry violently playing out in several theaters. The proxy conflicts fueled by Tehran and Riyadh have produced a favorable environment for the very transnational terrorists Washington purportedly aims to combat. The Trump administration should be counseling de-escalation, not carelessly dragging itself into a sectarian-infused confrontation between regional governments.

The United States should redeploy from the Middle East and instead focus its attention and resources on higher priorities that are far more geopolitically and economically important to Americans. Serving as Saudi Arabia’s arms bazaar for its foolish offensive wars pulls the U.S. deeper into the Middle East’s troubled politics and undermines America’s interests and values.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

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