Foreign Military Sales in the Era of Great Power Competition

Main Image Credit A shipment of M1A1 Abrams tanks in Iraq, purchased through a Foreign Military Sales agreement with the US in 2011. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Decisions by Middle Eastern states to buy from a range of suppliers are fuelled by pragmatism, not geopolitics.

There have been calls for the US to revise its foreign military sales (FMS) procedures because of competition with Russia and China. This has been specifically said in relation to Chinese sales of UAVs to states in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). However, procurements in the MENA region suggest that some clients are pragmatic, as opposed to dogmatic, in their arms procurements.

Earlier this month, Heidi Grant, the first civilian head of the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), resigned after 15 months in post. Grant had recently indicated that the US must change FMS procedures to compete with China and Russia. ‘Our policies of the time were, we're not going to transfer that technology. So, guess what? Our strategic competitor transferred that technology, and have a significant footprint of training bases for unmanned ISR in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, UAE’, she said.

Grant’s position is a change from a 2016 comment that ‘the US [FMS] process is not broken…It’s actually thriving and doing better than ever’. At the time, the US government had approved export sales in excess of $30 billion for the third year in a row including significant sales to Saudi Arabia and others in the MENA region. It is presumably the shift in the US perception of its relations with China and Russia that has altered Grant’s perspective on the FMS process.

Using foreign arms sales to compete with rival powers raises a number of challenges, but for the sake of simplicity, there are two significant aspects of these relations. First is the presumption that arms sales are a form of competition that matters to the competitor. Second is the belief that the client states are willing to pick a side and to do so through arms sales. But the procurements in the MENA region suggest that neither assumption is entirely accurate.

China has successfully transferred many UAVs to the UAE and in one sense the US decision to delay the sale of MQ-9B Reapers has been justified by the use of Chinese weapons systems to engage targets in questionable circumstances. For example, the UAE has reportedly used its Chinese Wing Loong II armed UAVs in Libya during fighting in Tripoli in May 2019. Furthermore, the UAE was implicated in an August 2020 strike that killed 26 unarmed cadets aligned with the Government of National Accord. To add to this, a significant number of Wing Loong IIs have been shot down or crashed in Libya. This series of events raises two issues for the US FMS programme. First, partners such as the UAE may choose to use their systems in ways that do not align well with US values or international law, potentially exposing US companies and the US government to the risk of recrimination on the international stage. It follows that the use of an MQ-9 to kill unarmed personnel would hypothetically feed the Russian or Chinese propaganda machines, arguably outweighing the benefits the sale would have for Washington’s great power goals in the region.

Partners such as the UAE may choose to use their systems in ways that do not align well with US values or international law, potentially exposing US companies and the US government to the risk of recrimination on the international stage

Second, the UAE and others have been reckless in their use of UAVs and consider them an expendable asset. However, the downing of these systems presents risks as the wrecks could be transported to, and analysed by, the US's strategic competitors.

Speed Versus Needs

Another consideration flowing from Grant’s assertions is that revisions to the FMS process that would speed up procurements could help the US compete on the international arms market. It is likely that the lengthy process of procuring systems from the US, and the conditions that are often attached to those sales, impact some procurement decisions. However, the inventories of Iraq, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Morocco suggest that these countries have pursued a procurement policy that emphasises a range of factors, including: support for domestic industry; systems that fit the country’s military needs; and geopolitical considerations.

For example, the Iraqi armed forces operate the American M1 Abrams main battle tank (MBT) alongside T-72s procured from ex-Warsaw Pact countries and most recently, the T-90S from Russia. This mix of tanks serves alongside a bewildering array of armoured HMMWVs, BMPs and other vehicles procured in an effort to rebuild the Iraqi armed forces since the 2003 invasion. The M1 Abrams, HMMWVs and T-72s were procured with US help, which follows given US involvement in Iraq since 2003. The T-90 procurement from Russia, on the other hand, reflects an element of pragmatism from the Iraqi armed forces after the US withdrew in-theatre support for its Abrams fleet in 2018.

Two elements of Iraq’s purchase of Russian systems highlight the role of technological needs. First, Russia is less likely to remove something as important as in-theatre support for its vehicles at a critical time such as fighting a war against a large and established insurgency. Second, Russian equipment is known to be less complex than its American equivalents and therefore likely to maintain higher rates of readiness and availability with less intensive logistics requirements.

Iraq is not alone in operating a mixed inventory. Morocco deploys its own fleet of M1 Abrams alongside the MBT-2000 procured from China. The Moroccan armed forces also placed contracts worth $449 million with French companies in January 2020, shortly after receiving a $4.25 billion approval from the DSCA for the sale of 36 AH-64E Apache helicopters. The UAE operates with the Leclerc as its MBT, which serves alongside the Russian BMP-3 as well as the Patria AMV 8×8 Armoured Modular Vehicle from Finland and the Rabdan 8×8 manufactured locally by Al-Jasoor under license from Turkey’s Otokar. The Russian-made Pantsir-S1 short-range air defence system provides air cover, as does the American MIM-104 Patriot, albeit at different operational levels.

The bulk of the Saudi ground component is composed of US vehicles, although China has supplied PLZ-45 self-propelled howitzers, and the TOS-1A has been procured from Russia. The primary armed UAV is the Chinese Wing Loong II, which operates alongside China’s CH-4 UAV and a conventional fleet of F-15s and Typhoons. For Saudi Arabia, the Wing Loong II and CH-4 may represent a prestige procurement, reflecting the Kingdom’s desire to own an armed UAV fleet regardless of its actual utility.

The spate of procurements from China is a product of what MENA states need, not a result of geopolitical calculation

A neater explanation for these mixed procurements with no one single supplier is that many MENA states feel free to shop around. There is no US equivalent to the TOS-1A, and Russian equivalents to the Apache AH-64 lack its boutique capabilities. The same can be said of the UAE’s F-35 procurement. Therefore, the spate of Wing Loong II procurements in the Middle East and arms competition from China is a product of what MENA states need, not a result of geopolitical calculation. An MQ-9B is undoubtedly capable, but when all that is needed is a UAV capable of delivering effects in relatively permissive environments, why not pursue a cheaper solution?

National Agendas

A final element to consider, especially for the UAE and Saudi Arabia, is the need to build a prosperous national industry to diversify away from oil production. This leads to procurements that overtly benefit the domestic defence industry. Saudi Arabia is ambitiously driving to make half of its defence purchases from local manufacturers by the end of 2030. Saudi Arabian Military Industries has established a joint venture with Lockheed Martin, as well as L3Harris and Thales. In addition, the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology signed a partnership with the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation in March 2017 to establish a production plant in Saudi Arabia for the CH family of UAVs. The UAE’s Edge Group procured AMMROC from Lockheed and Sirkosky after a successful period as a joint venture in July 2020. Edge has also signed agreements with Ukraine’s UkrOboronProm, Saab and companies from China. These are not foreign policy snubs towards the US but pragmatic decisions by MENA states. US companies are involved in important discussions with key players, as are Chinese and European companies, which suggests that the market in the Middle East is an open one, and not one of overt competition between Russia, China and the US.

Taking it Personally

MENA states have pursued arms procurement policies that serve their military and industrial needs. These needs range from urgent operational requirements, to specific needs that cannot be met by US supply chains and in the interests of developing national industry. The failure to get US MQ-9s and other systems into these countries is not a defeat for the US on the international stage, but a defeat for American companies.

Grant’s comments raise further questions over the nature of the concept of ‘great power competition’. The aims of China and Russia in competing with the US and its partners abroad are clear. China seeks to secure its position as a global hegemon, likely with the goal of greater assertiveness in its near abroad. Russia is interested in regime survival and gaining respect within a multipolar world. Selling arms to MENA countries in this context represents either a victory for struggling state-owned defence companies that are paid a pittance for delivering their state contracts, or a means to cause minor annoyance to the US. True relationships are formed through economic and military partnerships, not through one-off sales of weapon systems. If the US and its allies are determined to engage in a great power competition, it is imperative that they identify an end goal and decide how to achieve it. Sporadic UAV sales are not the answer.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Sam Cranny-Evans

Research Analyst

Military Sciences

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