Foreign Military Sales: More than Meets the Eye

Foreign Military Sales: More than Meets the Eye

Posted on March 22nd, 2012 in Blog, Top Picks

Over the last few years the Department of Defense has publicly espoused an increasing desire to grow foreign military sales (FMS), and for good reasons – just not the ones generally espoused. Indeed, the deals are often described with benign terms such as “security cooperation” and “international partner assistance,” but in reality they are much more tied to the “realpolitik” needs of sustained industrial sales, deniability, and influence.

First, FMS provides continuity of income to the defense industrial base as we enter a period of declining domestic military spending. It is no accident that in the last year, during which there was perpetual talk of declining DoD investment, stock prices have increased for BAE Systems (11%), Lockheed Martin (10%), General Dynamics (9%), and Northrop Grumman (3.5%), among others. These companies are not experiencing the difficult financial straits one would have expected based on the persistent doomsday prognostications, and in some measure that is because overseas sales are filling their coffers.

Second, FMS falls in line with the evolving US strategy of “sharing the burden” for global security with more of the world while simultaneously absolving the US of responsibility for how our weapons are employed. For example, foreign nations are using high-tech US weaponry for their own counterterrorism operations including, as reported in Time magazine, the Philippine Air Force’s recent use of US laser-guided smart bombs against the Islamist separatist movement Abu Sayyaf. Similar reports run frequently in the press but barely generate interest among the American populace – presumably because as with the now prolific use of drone attacks, if it doesn’t involve US troops on the ground the American people have demonstrated indifference even in cases involving unintended civilian casualties.

Third, FMS of any significant size and over time means a nation’s continuing access to security equipment, spare parts, and upgrades requires a certain level of continued political ties to the US.  This should not be over-stated – just look at Iran, who continues to fly old US military planes but had a revolution in 1979 with little regard for our military relationship! Yet there is still a net diplomatic and political benefit that stems from many important nations being tied closer to us and their need for a relationship that supports continued sales of military equipment.

In short, then, FMS can be seen as a way to generate foreign income that reduces our trade imbalance AND allow others to eliminate foreign threats in a manner that precludes US casualties and avoids political backlash AND keeps those in power tied to us. So, even though this is a well-known secret in DC policy circles, as long as we don’t advertise it as such FMS is dismissed by the public at large as just another form of aid, a way to help our allies through “security cooperation” and “international partner assistance”.  What could be more benign than that?