In the competition with Russia and China, one area in which the U.S. enjoys an asymmetric advantage is its strong network of allies and partners. But that advantage hinges entirely on their willingness and ability to operate alongside us.
Arms transfers go a long way to facilitate interoperability among allies. But beyond that, decisions about which weapons and platforms the U.S. sells, when, and to whom can tip the balances of stability and security in many regions around the world.
On Nov. 7, Heidi Grant will step down as the director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, a post she has held since August 2020. Grant’s departure gives the Biden administration a chance to rechart the course of U.S. arms transfers. Used wisely, military aid can strengthen alliances and bolster our national security. But if aid decisions place too much emphasis on other considerations, America’s current “allied advantage” could wither away.
The Defense Security Cooperation Agency delivers arms, military training and other defense-related services to eligible foreign governments via grants, loans, credit, cash sales or leasing. In fiscal year 2020, it financed over $5 billion in arms sales to partner nations. The agency manages other security cooperation activities — such as educational programs with foreign military officers to build English language and technical skills at U.S. institutions — but most its business is arms transfers.
American defense products remain the best in the world, delivering high-quality capabilities to those qualified to buy them. Moreover, unlike some other weapons vendors, our foreign military sales programs offer a “total package approach,” providing training, repairs, spare parts and logistics support along with the arms themselves. In many cases, the U.S. option is the best long-term value for interested nations, many of whom have tight defense budgets.
Of course, arms buyers have other options. Russian weapons, while cheaper, are generally of inferior quality. Its Su-57 stealth jet, for instance, fails to rival U.S. F-22s and F-35s in capabilities or exports. Russian arms also come with far fewer strings attached. Their customers can purchase weapons unencumbered by the layers of protections against technology theft, human rights abuses and unauthorized uses that accompany U.S. arms. The same goes for Chinese arms.
But in international dealings, trust and reliability can be as important as pricing when customers make their value calculations. And unfortunately, President Biden’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan has other nations wondering whether the U.S. remains a reliable and worthwhile security partner. Even before the August evacuation, the administration had been pulling back on arms sales agreements with partners in the Middle East. As the U.S. backs out of the region, Russia and China are quickly stepping in to expand their influence – and grow their bottom line.
After the Biden administration backed out of a Trump-era deal to sell drones to the United Arab Emirates, China stepped in and offered the UAE their military equipment. U.S. partners like Turkey and Saudi Arabia have opted to purchase a variety of defense capabilities from Russia, including advanced air defense systems. Strict limitations on technology transfer prevented them from buying these capabilities from the U.S.
Ms. Grant has not been silent on how these limitations have sometimes led nations to turn to China for weapons. At a conference hosted by the Association of the US Army, she discussed several sales opportunities missed because the U.S. is too hesitant to share capabilities, concluding: “It could have been us.”
She’s right. When it comes to strategic competition, inaction has consequences. It’s unclear whether Ms. Grant’s candor caused the Biden administration to “show her the door.”
Besides nominating (or firing) the Director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, each administration shapes U.S. weapons sales by issuing its own Conventional Arms Transfer policy to guide the agency’s decision-making on arms sale requests. Done right, the policy strikes a proper balance between the need to promote human rights and protect critical technologies and the need to develop strong security partners.
Current policy, established by the Trump administration in April 2018, requires arms transfer decisions to consider the national security, economic security, human rights, foreign relations and nonproliferation factors of each transfer. President Biden has yet to issue his own arms transfer policy, but reports indicate that it will increase the emphasis on human rights.
Congress also plays a role in arms sales by appropriating funds, holding the State and Defense Departments accountable to oversight, and passing legislation that prohibits or encourages transfers to certain countries. Still, the president holds the greater balance of authority to wield this powerful national security tool.
The last three administrations have all agreed that, to compete successfully against China and Russia, the U.S. cannot go it alone. U.S. policies for weapons sales can either encourage other nations to invest in the long-term relationship of buying American defense products or chase them into the arms of our rivals. As personnel and policy changes impact this critical tool of statecraft, the U.S. cannot afford for its security assistance to lose sight of national security priorities.
Janae Diaz is a researcher in The Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.