"I salute the Arms Control Association … for its keen vision of the goals ahead and for its many efforts to identify and to promote practical measures that are so vitally needed to achieve them."

– Amb. Nobuyasu Abe
Former UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs
January 28, 2004
Jeff Abramson

Inspector General Reviews U.S. Arms Sales

September 2020
By Jeff Abramson

Congressional oversight of U.S. arms sales to the Middle East drew a spotlight in August when a new State Department Office of the Inspector General (OIG) report was released examining the propriety of emergencies the Trump administration declared in 2019 to speed certain exports. At the same time, administration officials continued to press for new weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Models of U.S.-supplied Saudi Royal Air Force fighter jets are displayed at the 2017 Dubai Airshow. Last year, the Trump administration declared an emergency to forestall congressional review of certain U.S. arms sales to the Middle East. (Photo: Karim Sahib/AFP via Getty Images)Claiming heightened threats from Iran and frustrated by holds put on arms sales, the Trump administration declared an emergency in May 2019 allowing it to bypass a review period that would customarily have followed formal notifications for 22 arms transfer cases to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan, valued at approximately $8.1 billion. Among these were at least $3.8 billion in precision-guided munitions, which were central to extremely rare Congressional joint resolutions of disapproval passed in July 2019, that were then vetoed by President Donald Trump. (See ACT, September 2019.) It was during this period that a request was made for the OIG to investigate whether the emergency declaration was proper.

The OIG investigation, conducted from October to December 2019, but only released in August, did find that the State Department had followed the law. It also noted that a fraction of the weapons included in the May 2019 emergency declaration had been fully delivered by late 2019.

The May 2020 firing of Inspector General Steve Linick recently raised concerns that his dismissal might be related to the investigation. (See ACT, June 2020.)

The report did not assess whether an emergency existed in 2019, but members of Congress continued to press that question. Shortly after the report was released, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), and Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) sent a letter to R. Clarke Cooper, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, expressing concern that his 2019 testimony about there being an emergency was untrue given the report's timeline of how that declaration
was made.

In an Aug. 17 response letter, Cooper defended the State Department and his prior testimony, and cited recent announcements of the UAE and Israel moving to establish normalized relations as further indication of the wisdom of the sales. He also asked Congress to conclude its informal review of potential sales to the UAE of small arms and chain guns, and of Paveway IV guided munitions and other weapons systems to Saudi Arabia, noting that the customary informal review period deadline had ended between two and eight months ago. Separately, Trump said on Aug. 19 that sales of F-35 aircraft to the UAE were under review.

In recent months, media reports have indicated that the administration has been planning to do away with the informal review process, particularly due to holds placed on weapons to Saudi Arabia. Cooper's letter, however, appeared to indicate that on the weapons referenced the administration would wait for the informal process to conclude before making a formal notification. The OIG report noted that 15 of the 22 cases that were part of the emergency declaration in 2019 had been subject to an informal hold, six for more than a year.

The OIG report also found that the department approved transfers of weapons below the threshold for congressional notification, with an estimated $11.2 billion in approvals to Saudi Arabia and the UAE between January 2017 and late 2019. It also concluded “that the department did not fully assess risks and implement mitigation measures to reduce civilian casualties” as related to the precision guided munitions.

Under the Arms Export Control Act, transfers of major defense equipment valued at $14 million or more, and non-major defense equipment at $50 million or more, to countries such as Saudi Arabia and UAE must be formally notified to Congress, which starts a 30-day review period during which Congress could block the administration from agreeing to the transfer. By custom but not by law, that formal process is preceded by a 40-day informal notification during which members of Congress have often put a “hold” on sales.

The Trump administration continues to push Middle East arms sales after an internal U.S. State Department report was released.

Civil Society Letter on Humanitarian Disarmament Advocates Path Ahead

Today, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, threatens the lives and livelihoods of millions worldwide, has laid bare the terrible human cost of misaligned security policies. It underscores that global challenges, like the threat of nuclear war and the global trade in conventional arms, require global solutions. In response, a network of more than 250 organizations, have issued an open letter with advice built from decades of success using the humanitarian disarmament (HD) approach. That approach, which takes human security, rather than state security, as the organizing principle has led...

U.S. Arms Deals Continue During Pandemic

June 2020
By Jeff Abramson

As the Trump administration designated the defense industry as essential, notifications of potential new international arms sales have continued during the coronavirus pandemic. In May, however, the firing of the State Department's inspector general and push for new arms sales raised controversy.

The most high-profile concerns, however, focus on a deal that has not yet been formally notified to Congress for new weapons for Saudi Arabia. In a May 27 CNN commentary, ranking Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said he had not received sufficient answers as to why the deal, details of which were not yet public, was needed and that, “Until we have an answer, Congress must reject this new multi-million dollar sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia.” The following day, The New York Times reported that the deal valued at $478 million would include 7,500 precision-guided missiles and licenses to allow Raytheon to expand manufacturing capacity in Saudi Arabia.

Menendez linked his concerns to a congressional effort to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in 2019, which was given greater attention when President Donald Trump fired the State Department’s inspector general on May 15. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sent a letter to Trump on May 18, saying, “It is alarming to see news reports that your action may have been in response to Inspector General [Steve] Linick nearing completion of an investigation into the approval of billions of dollars in arms sales to Saudi Arabia.”

After Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that weapons sales to the countries needed to proceed on an emergency basis in May 2019, bypassing the 30-day notification period, both chambers passed resolutions of disapproval that the president vetoed last July. (See ACT, September 2019.) Members of Congress had asked for the inspector general to start an investigation into the arms sales.

Overall, between March 30 and May 28, Congress was notified of potential foreign military sales of approximately $7.5 billion. If annualized, that pace of $45 billion for sales notifications would be lower than the nearly $70 billion in sales that were notified in 2019.

The recent notifications included two possible attack helicopters sales, valued at either $1.5 billion or $450 million, for a bid request issued by the Duterte regime in the Philippines, as well as $2.3 billion to refurbish 43 Apache attack helicopters in Egypt and $556 million to sell 4,569 mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles to the United Arab Emirates that were declared excess defense articles in 2014. Potential sales to Hungary, Taiwan, and India, valued at $230 million, $180 million and $155 million, respectively, were notified during the period, which also included Kuwait, Morocco, the Netherlands, and South Korea as possible clients.

As expected, the May 20 notification of the potential sale of 18 heavy-weight torpedoes to Taiwan for $180 million elicited Chinese opposition.


The Trump administration has pressed forward with foreign military sales, triggering calls of concern from some U.S. lawmakers.

Lawmakers Press Esper on Landmine Policy

June 2020
By Jeff Abramson

More than 100 members of Congress expressed their “disappointment” over a new U.S. landmine policy in a May 6 letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper. The message noted that reductions in landmine use and casualties could be put in jeopardy.

Rather than geographically restricting landmine use and setting a notional goal of one day joining the Mine Ban Treaty, the new Trump administration policy announced at the end of January allows for using landmines outside the Korean peninsula. The updated policy also allows combatant commanders to authorize landmine emplacements, a power that was previously held only by the president. (See ACT, March 2020.) Thirty-four senators, led by Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and including Jack Reed (D-R.I.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, signed the congressional oversight letter. In addition, Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) joined 105 Democrats on the message, led in the House by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.).

The letter asks Esper a list of 27 questions, grouped into sections. The initial six questions on “specific policy issues” are particularly pointed about whether circumstances have recently changed in terms of threats, weapons technology, and the decision-making process to use landmines. Other questions focus on Pentagon reports that might explain the rationale for the new policy, where landmines might be used, alternatives to the weapons, production, transfer, and stockpiling.

Former Vice President and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has indicated he would reverse the Trump policy, Vox reported in February.—JEFF ABRAMSON


Lawmakers Press Esper on Landmine Policy

U.S. Fuels Growing Arms Market

April 2020
By Jeff Abramson

Although the pace of increase has slowed, the global trend for major conventional weapons trade remains upward, according to a March study released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). In that trade, the United States continues to account for the largest and growing share, with more than half of its weapons delivered to the conflict-torn Middle East.

The SIPRI report, released March 9, measures the volume of trade with a trend indicator value, a metric based on actual deliveries of military equipment rather than just financial value, and compares five-year periods as a way to measure change. It found that the volume of international trade had increased 5.5 percent during 2015–2019 compared to five years earlier, and 20 percent compared to 2005–2009.

The United States accounted for 36 percent of exports, up from 31 percent during 2010–2014, with identified exports of major arms to 96 states.

Russia, the only other country accounting for more than 10 percent of global exports, had 47 client states and provided 21 percent of global arms, down from 27 percent in the previous period. China, at fifth largest, was responsible for 5.5 percent of exports in each period, with Pakistan accounting for more than a third of the volume of its exports among 51 clients in the past five years.

Saudi Arabia and the Middle East

In justifying arms and other trade with Saudi Arabia, U.S. President Donald Trump pointed to Russia and China as countries likely to replace the United States should it discontinue trade with the Middle Eastern kingdom. More broadly, his administration has elevated economic considerations and argued for greater governmental involvement and faster approval of arms sales as critical to U.S. competition in the arms trade. The SIPRI findings suggest that rather than the United States losing its place, it is expanding its share of global arms trade.

The arms trade, especially to the Middle East, continues to be controversial domestically and internationally. Countries in that region imported 61 percent more arms during 2015–2019 compared to five years earlier, with Saudi Arabia now both the region’s and the world’s top arms importer.

Washington supplied nearly three-quarters of weapons exports to Riyadh in that period, including combat aircraft and large numbers of missiles and guided bombs. It is unclear how much of the nearly $8 billion in arms for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been delivered since Trump used emergency provisions in the Arms Export Control Act to waive congressional notification requirements last May, then used vetoes to override three congressional resolutions of disapproval in July. (See ACT, September 2019.) His administration has yet to notify Congress of any new sales via the foreign military sales program to either country since then.

A number of European countries have stopped arms deals with Saudi Arabia out of concern over the nation’s use of weapons in Yemen, where five years of war have exacerbated a humanitarian crisis. In March, Belgium took new steps to suspend export licenses, and Germany renewed preexisting holds.

In the United Kingdom, an appeals court ruled in May that the country had not properly accounted for possible harm in making arms trade decisions. In December, a group of civil society organizations presented a dossier to the International Criminal Court in an effort to convince that body to investigate European arms suppliers.

India Arms Trade Changes

Cross-border attacks in early 2019 involving India and Pakistan using weapons provided by an array of countries, including the United States, drew international attention to the arms trade involving the long-time rivals. Generally, however, trade with India has not raised the same concerns as that with Middle Eastern states.

India, which until two years ago had been listed as the world’s largest arms importer, now is second largest, accounting for 9.2 percent of global arms imports, according to SIPRI. Russia remains the country’s top supplier, providing 56 percent of arms deliveries, down from 72 percent during the earlier five-year period. The United States, which was India's second-largest arms supplier in 2010–2014, delivered half as many weapons to New Delhi in 2015–2019 as Israel and France provided the second- and third-most weapons to the country, with a combined 26 percent.

That position may change. On Feb. 25 during a visit with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi, Trump announced $3 billion in arms agreements, saying they “will enhance our joint defense capabilities as our militaries continue to train and operate side by side.” In total during 2019-2020, the Trump administration has notified Congress of more than $6.3 billion in potential foreign military sales to New Delhi.

Some members of Congress have raised alarm about India’s actions in Kashmir and its treatment of Muslims, drawing the defense trade into the debate. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) tweeted on March 2, “President Trump is engaging in arms deals with Modi while his administration is ethnically cleansing the country’s religious minorities. We must not enable this rise in sectarian violence.”

Global arms transfers continue to grow, with Washington providing more than one-third of them.

Firearms Export Changes Partially Blocked

April 2020

Despite opposition from some members of Congress and a wide range of civil society groups, Trump administration changes to its oversight of certain firearms exports took effect in March. A federal district judge, however, issued a temporary injunction on portions of the rules that deal with 3D gun-printing plans.

The rules came into effect on Mar. 9, despite congressional efforts such as those of Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who had twice sought holds on the new rules in 2019. The new system transfers overall authority for the export of certain types of semiautomatic and other firearms and their ammunition to the Commerce Department from the State Department. (See ACT, March 2020.) Renewing a letter delivered in May 2019 from more than 100 civil society organizations, 23 groups sent a message to Congress on March 4 encouraging them to stop or reverse the changes, arguing that the new rules “will thwart congressional oversight and exacerbate gun violence, human rights abuses, and armed conflict around the world.”

On March 6, Judge Richard Jones in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington ordered a preliminary injunction in a case filed by more than 20 state attorneys general that sought to block all the changes. Jones limited the injunction to prohibit changes to how online 3D printing plans for firearms, sometimes called “ghost guns,” are regulated.

Some of the attorneys general criticized the president’s efforts. “If the Trump administration has its way, these ghost guns will be available to anyone regardless of age, mental health or criminal history…. We will keep fighting back against this unlawful, dangerous policy,” said Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson on March 9.—JEFF ABRAMSON

Firearms Export Changes Partially Blocked


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