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"I actually have a pretty good collection of Arms Control Today, which I have read throughout my career. It's one of the few really serious publications on arms control issues."

– Gary Samore
Former White House Coordinator for Arms Control and WMD Terrorism
Jeff Abramson

U.S. Arms Sales to Israel Challenged

June 2021

A proposed $735 million sale of precision-guided munitions to Israel drew intense scrutiny from Congress as fighting in that country escalated last month. 

A fire rages at sunrise in Khan Yunish following an Israeli airstrike on targets in the southern Gaza strip, on May 12, 2021. The Israeli retaliatory bombardment in May struck military and civilian targets. (Photo:  Youssef Massoud/AFP via Getty Images)A day before a cease-fire was declared on May 20, Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Mark Pocan (Wis.), and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) introduced a House joint resolution of disapproval for the sale. “Approving this sale now, while failing to even try to use it as leverage for a ceasefire, sends a clear message to the world—the U.S. is not interested in peace, and does not care about the human rights and lives of Palestinians,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a press statement.

The next day, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced a similar resolution in the Senate. It marked the end of a 15-day review period during which lawmakers could take action to block the administration from issuing licenses for the deals. 

According to news reports, the State Department issued those licenses on May 21. No vote is now expected on these particular resolutions. But at any point until delivery, expected to Israel next year, Congress could pass legislation blocking arms sales. 

When told on May 21 that the sales had already been licensed, Sanders put a hold on all State Department nominees. He lifted the hold after the administration committed to providing humanitarian aid for Gaza. Sanders’ office told Arms Control Today on May 25 that Sanders and his colleagues “would continue to push for greater debate to make sure that U.S. arms sales do not support human rights abuses.”

The potential sale drew little attention when notified to Congress on May 5, in part because it was not done according to the foreign military sales (FMS) process, which centers on government-to-government agreements and provides for notifications that are publicly available on a website managed by the Defense Department. Instead, the joint direct attack munitions and small diameter bombs were notified as a commercial sale, for which there is less transparency.

News of the potential deal surfaced on May 17, a week after fighting in Israel had intensified and Israeli forces faced international criticism for bombing civilian areas in Gaza.

An informal notification process exists for communicating these sales to the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before the formal notification occurs, but the lack of public awareness is endemic to the commercial sale process, which is becoming more common and is being used for transfers of more destructive weapons. Some key rules and procedures applicable to FMS sales do not apply or have been unevenly applied to commercial sales, raising the question of whether administrations are using the process to shield themselves from public scrutiny.

For example, these commercial sales are considered proprietary agreements. Under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, the State Department withholds some information about such licenses unless the secretary of state determines “the release of such information . . . to be in the national interest.”

In recent years, votes on resolutions of disapproval have occurred most frequently in the Senate because the rules allow individual senators to ask the full Senate to consider them even if the Foreign Relations Committee does not act. For all commercial sales, senators must wait 10 days before invoking this privilege. But in the case of an FMS sale to Israel and other close partners, that waiting period is only five days. 

In 2014, Congress passed legislation that would allow for the chair and ranking member of the relevant Senate or House committee to concurrently request a predelivery notification of weapons sold under the FMS program, but did not extend that notification authority to commercial sales.

For sales to most countries, Congress has 30 days from formal notification to pass joint resolutions of disapproval that bar the president from concluding agreements. For Australia, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and NATO and its member states, that timeline is 15 days.—JEFF ABRAMSON

A proposed $735 million sale of precision-guided munitions to Israel drew intense scrutiny from Congress as fighting in that country escalated last month.

U.S. Still Seeks Major UAE Arms Sale


May 2021
By Jeff Abramson

Last month, the Biden administration indicated that it will seek to complete more than $20 billion in controversial arms sales to the United Arab Emirates initiated at the end of the Trump administration. A number of Democrats in Congress expressed concern and sought to put restrictions on the potential deals, even though terms remain uncertain and any delivery would be years in the future.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft is among the high performance weapons that the Biden administration plans to sell the United Arab Emirates as part of a controversial package of arms sales totaling $20 billion or more. (Photo: U.S. Navy)The sales include up to 50 F-35 aircraft valued at $10.4 billion, up to 18 MQ-9B armed drones worth $3 billion, and a $10 billion package of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions, as well as a revision to a 2018 notification for $490 million in additional Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. With votes falling nearly entirely along party lines, the Senate narrowly failed to approve resolutions of disapproval for the F-35 and drone sales in December. (See ACT, January/February 2021.)

Media reported that the Trump administration then signed letters of offer and acceptance on some of the deals the morning of President Joe Biden’s inauguration. Typically, after such letters are executed, additional contract negotiations occur before weapons are built and delivered, often years later, which means it will be left to the Biden administration to implement the deals.

A State Department spokesperson told Arms Control Today in an email on April 16 that it “continue[s] reviewing details and consulting with [UAE] officials to ensure we have developed mutual understandings with respect to [UAE] obligations before, during, and after delivery.” The official wrote that the administration will reinforce with the UAE that “U.S.-origin defense equipment must be adequately secured and used in a manner that respects human rights and fully complies with the laws of armed conflict.”

The spokesperson also indicated that “delivery dates on these sales, if eventually implemented, will be several years in the future.”

In January and February, the Biden administration announced a review of Trump-era arms sales. It said it was communicating with the UAE, while also indicating it had suspended certain “offensive” arms sales to Saudi Arabia as part of an effort to address the conflict in Yemen, which Biden called “a war which has created a humanitarian and strategic catastrophe.” (See ACT, March 2021.) The UAE claims it is no longer active in the war there. Timothy Lenderking, the U.S. special envoy for Yemen, told a congressional hearing April 21 that the UAE retains influence in the country and remains a key member of the Saudi-led coalition.

On April 16, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced the Secure F-35 Exports Act, a lightly amended version of a 2020 bill that focused on the advanced fighter jets. The legislation would provide a vehicle for highlighting a range of concerns about the UAE’s use of U.S. military equipment, including the Persian Gulf state’s close relations with China and Russia and how its acquisition of the F-35 could affect Israel’s ability to maintain a qualitative military edge in the region.

For example, if enacted into law, the bill would require certification that any country in the region receiving F-35s, aside from Israel, has not transferred weapons to militias fighting U.S. interests. The provision would only date back to the time of signing the letter of offer and acceptance, but is particularly relevant to the UAE, which has been found to have transferred weapons to Libya in contravention of a UN arms embargo.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) said in an April 14 statement that he and others remained concerned and that he still has “many questions” about the UAE deal. On April 21, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Ct.) said: “The Emiratis already have a record of illegally transferring weapons to Salafist militias in Yemen, and Congress, frankly, has not received sufficient assurances that such transfers will not happen again.”

Congress can pass legislation placing new conditions on or blocking weapons sales at any time until they are delivered, although the most visible activity typically occurs in the first 30 days after members are officially notified of potential sales.

Many human rights and civil society groups reacted negatively to the news that the administration was proceeding with the UAE deal. Justin Russell, principal director of the New York Center for Foreign Policy Affairs, whose organization on April 14 filed an amended version of its lawsuit seeking to block the sales, said, “We had hoped that the Biden administration would have put the mitigation of the humanitarian crises in Libya and Yemen above starting what could be an arms race in this sensitive region of the world. We had hoped for better things out of the Biden administration...and now those hopes have been dashed.”

 

But some Democrats in Congress have expressed concern and sought to put restrictions on the potential deals, which could total more than $20 billion.

U.S. to Revise Landmine Policy


May 2021

Just two days after a Defense Department spokesperson said the Trump administration landmine policy remained in place and that landmines were a “vital tool,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said on April 8 that President Joe Biden “intends to roll back this policy, and our administration has begun a policy review to do just that.”

A U.S. Marine with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Africa 19.2, Marine Forces Europe and Africa, discusses explosive ordnance identification procedures with a member of the Moroccan Royal Armed Forces during training at Unite de Secours et Sauvetage’s Base, Kenitra, Morocco, April 22, 2019. (Photo: U.S. Marine Corps)That intention, was foreshadowed by Biden during the presidential campaign. It was reaffirmed after Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), a long time anti-landmine champion, criticized the Defense Department statement and said on April 7 that he was “confident” that the Biden administration would “do the right thing and renounce these indiscriminate weapons that have no place in the arsenal of civilized nations.”

The Trump policy, announced in January 2020, permitted the use of victim-activated anti-personnel landmines anywhere in the world, citing great-power rivalries and a need to counter near-peer competitors. (See ACT, March 2020.) The Obama administration policy, announced in 2014, had banned production and acquisition of such landmines and halted their use outside the Korean peninsula. It also set a goal of eventually acceding to the Mine Ban Treaty, which today has 164 states-parties, including every NATO member except the United States.

The United States remains the world’s largest contributor of funds to support demining and related efforts to prevent new victims and aid those harmed by the weapons. The multifaceted approach is collectively known as humanitarian mine action. The April 5 release of the State Department’s annual report that details this support, titled “To Walk the Earth in Safety,” combined with the annual International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action on April 4, drew attention to U.S. landmine policy and prompted the initial Defense Department statement.—JEFF ABRAMSON

U.S. to Revise Landmine Policy

U.S. Largest Seller in Flat Arms Market


April 2021
By Jeff Abramson

The United States accounts for an increasing share of global trade in major conventional weapons, according to the annual arms transfer survey by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). The SIPRI report reviewed global conventional arms transfers through the end of 2020 and before the arrival of the Biden administration.

Missiles manufactured by Lockheed Martin are displayed during the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) Annual Meeting and Exposition in Washington, DC, October 13, 2014. (Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)The volume of exports last year was exceptionally low in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Pieter D. Wezeman, one of the report co-authors, said in a March 15 statement accompanying the report that “[i]t is too early to say whether the period of rapid growth in arms transfers of the past two decades is over.”

SIPRI researchers measured the volume of trade with a trend-indicator value, a metric based on actual deliveries of major military equipment rather than purchasing announcements, and analyzed trends spanning the past decade. It found that the volume of international trade had decreased by 0.5 percent during 2016–2020 compared to five years earlier, but was 12 percent higher compared to 2006–2010.

United States accounted for 37 percent of exports over the past five years, which is an increase from 32 percent during 2011–2015, with identified exports of major arms to 96 states. Russia and China saw their respective shares of the global arms trade decline. Russia provided 20 percent of global arms, down from 26 percent in the previous period, with declines in transfers to India accounting for the major difference between these two periods. Russia accounted for 13 percent of arms supplied to states in the volatile Middle East region.

China, which is the fifth-largest arms supplier, was responsible for 5.2 percent of global arms transfers in 2016–2020, down slightly from its 5.6 percent share during 2011–2015. Pakistan accounted for more than one-third of the volume of China’s arms exports among Beijing’s 51 clients in the past five years.

SIPRI once again reported that Saudi Arabia continues to be the largest importer of major conventional weaponry, a position it has held for the past several years. The United States accounted for 79 percent of Riyadh’s weapons imports over the past five years, with Washington providing more than half of all weapons that were sold to states in the Middle East during that period. Ongoing policy reviews by the Biden administration concerning arms sales to nations where there are significant human rights concerns, including on multibillion-dollar sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, could affect U.S. arms transfers to these states in the future. (See ACT, March 2020.)

Human rights concerns, as well as arms purchases from Russia, may factor into future U.S. arms sales to other states in the region. Shortly after notifying Congress of a potential $197 million sale of 168 RAM Block 2 ship-defense missiles, Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed concerns to Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry about Cairo’s possible procurement of Su-35 fighter aircraft from Moscow. Blinken has also indicated the Biden administration would make human rights central to U.S.-Egyptian bilateral relations. Egypt was the world's third-largest arms importer over the past five years, according to SIPRI.

In 2019 the United States suspended Turkey’s participation in the F-35 fighter program over its planned acquisition of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems. In December 2020, Washington imposed sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) for procuring the systems after Congress required it to do so in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act. Partly due to the halted F-35 deliveries, as well as increases in its own defense production, Turkey moved from being the world’s sixth-largest arms importer to its 20th largest.

India’s possible acquisition of the Russian S-400 systems is also raising concerns among some U.S. lawmakers. In his March 20 press conference during a visit to counterparts in New Delhi, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he did address concerns about possible Indian acquisition of the S-400 system, but said that “the issue of sanctions is not one that's been discussed” since the weapons had not yet been acquired.

Shortly before the visit, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) sent a letter to Austin urging him to address possible CAATSA sanctions should India purchase S-400s, as well as the country’s anti-democratic activities. In the letter, Menendez said, “I strongly encourage you to make clear that in all areas, including security cooperation, the U.S.-India partnership must rest on adherence to democratic values.”

Report finds U.S. accounted for 37 percent of global arms transfers from 2011–2015.

U.S. Arms Sales Under Review


March 2021
By Jeff Abramson

In a significant reversal from the Trump administration, President Joe Biden said that the United States would end its support for “offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.” His announcement came a week after Secretary of State Antony Blinken indicated that the administration was pausing recent arms sales in order to review them, putting in question the fate of billions of dollars of Trump-era deals with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The Biden administration decision to end U.S. support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales, will affect the transfer of certain Raytheon Technologies munitions, including the proposed sale of 7,000 Paveway IV smart bombs for $478 million to Saudi Arabia. (Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)During his first major foreign policy address, delivered from the State Department on Feb. 4, Biden also pledged support for a ceasefire and revitalizing peace talks between warring factions in Yemen, including through the appointment a special envoy to the conflict. On Feb. 16, the State Department lifted the Jan. 19 designation of one of the major actors, the Houthis, as a foreign terrorist organization. The designation was one of the last acts by the Trump administration related to the conflict.

Writ large, the break with the previous administration's approach was expected based on pledges made by Biden to reset the relationship with Saudi Arabia. The administration has been short on specifics about the scope of weapons halted and duration of the review, but National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on Feb. 4 that they did include precision-guided munitions sales to Riyadh that the Trump administration notified to Congress in late December. (See ACT, January/February 2021.)

Precision-guided munitions have been particularly controversial in recent years, with President Donald Trump vetoing joint resolutions from Congress to block their sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE in 2019. (See ACT, September 2019.)

On Jan. 15, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) introduced a joint resolution of disapproval to block the precision-guided munitions sales. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) had introduced a similar resolution Jan. 1. Although the 30-day initial review period had passed before the administration could move forward, such resolutions if they are approved by the House and Senate are binding if the administration does not move ahead with concluding letters of offer and acceptance. At present, there are no indications that Congress is likely to take up such resolutions, especially given Biden's indication he was stopping the sales.

But Biden indicated on Feb. 4 that the United States would continue to support Saudi Arabia “to defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity,” pointing to threats from “Iranian-supplied forces in multiple countries.” Exactly what this would mean in terms of arms transfers is not clear, leading to questions of how to define “relevant” arms sales that Biden promised to stop. Some members of Congress, such as Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), have called for stopping all arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

On Feb. 11, more than 75 civil society organizations and experts issued a letter detailing $36.5 billion in arms sales and services to Saudi Arabia and the UAE that they believe should be considered relevant to "offensive operations" and permanently halted.

The Biden administration is also reviewing major arms sales to the UAE that were highly controversial. Sullivan said on Feb. 4 that the administration had spoken with senior UAE officials about the review and was “pursuing a policy of ‘no surprises’ when it comes to these types of actions so they understand that this is happening and they understand our reasoning and rationale for it.”

In December, the Senate narrowly failed to pass resolutions of disapproval on portions of a $23 billion package for which the Trump administration notified Congress a month earlier. (See ACT, January/February 2021.) On the day of Biden's inauguration, reports emerged that the Trump administration had concluded agreements with Abu Dhabi for F-35s and armed drones, possibly just an hour before Biden was sworn into office.

In November, Trump notified Congress of potential sales of up to 50 F-35 aircraft valued at $10.4 billion, up to 18 MQ-9B armed drones valued at $3 billion, and a package of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions valued at $10 billion, as well as a revision to a 2018 notification for additional Sidewinder air-to-air missiles valued at $490 million.

The Biden administration has not entirely stopped arms sales during the review. By the end of February, the administration had notified Congress of more than $500 million combined in potential arms sales to Chile, Egypt, Finland, Jordan, and NATO members.

Biden’s actions have taken place as international concern about arms sales to states involved in the war in Yemen is growing. In January, Italy permanently revoked existing licenses to export more than 12,000 bombs to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, making permanent a suspension that had been announced in 2019, while continuing to deny any new licenses.

On Feb. 11, the European Parliament adopted a resolution that welcomed the U.S. actions and reiterated its call “for an EU-wide ban on the export, sale, update and maintenance of any form of security equipment to members of the coalition, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, given the serious breaches of international humanitarian and human rights law committed in Yemen.”

President Biden announced an end to support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.

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