Monday, August 11, 2008

U.S. Surges $11 Billion in Arms Sales to Iraq

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By Travis Sharp

During the last week of July, the Department of Defense notified Congress about the proposed sale of $10.9 billion in U.S. military equipment and support to Iraq through the Foreign Military Sales program. Besides the eye-catching price tag – which, at $10.9 billion, is greater than the value of all other U.S. arms sales to Iraq since 2005 combined – the equipment included in the proposed agreement represents a potential watershed in the development of Iraq’s military capabilities. The sale not only carries implications for the balance of power in the region, but also raises important questions about oversight, accountability, and transparency in a country riddled with internal violence.


The Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) manages the U.S. Foreign Military Sales program. In its notification about the proposed sale to Iraq, the Agency reiterated that the ultimate goal was “to improve the security of a friendly country.” DSCA spokesman Charles Taylor toldBloomberg that Iraq will pay for the equipment with its own funds.

Congress must receive 30-day advance written notification of the intended sale of weapons, equipment, and services to another country if the total value is over $50 million. Congress may enact a joint resolution to stop an arms deal, but if no action is taken in 30 days, the deal is almost certain to go forward as planned. With Congress in recess throughout August, the sale will assuredly go through. Few members of Congress would oppose it anyway.

Under the proposal, Iraq would receive numerous defense articles and services, including:

• 140 M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks upgraded to the M1A1M configuration
• 6 C-130J-30 Hercules transport aircraft
• 160 M1117 Guardian armored security vehicles
• 24 helicopters (either Bell Armed 407 or Boeing AH-6 Little Bird), with AGM-114M Hellfire missiles and launchers
• 392 light armored vehicles
• 26 M72 light anti-tank weapons
• U.S. Army Corps of Engineers support for building facilities for Iraqi Security Forces

The DSCA claimed in its notification that the $10.9 billion weapons package “will not affect the basic military balance in the region.” However, a number of experts expressed skepticism about this claim, arguing that some equipment included in the package would start the process of transforming the Iraqi Army from a force focused on counterinsurgency and enforcing internal order to a force capable of counterbalancing other countries in the region.

Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, remarked that the proposed sale shows that Iraq needs “to gradually build up capability to deter any attacks from its neighbors.” The respected Defense Industry Daily newsletter said the DSCA’s claim that the sale will not affect the regional military balance is true only “if one factors in the American presence in Iraq. If the Americans are removed from the equation, however, this purchase crosses a Rubicon.”

The proposed sale foreshadows a time when U.S. forces will no longer be responsible for protecting Iraq from external threats. The 140 Abrams tanks and 392 light armored vehicles would equip between two and four mechanized brigades. In a defensive role, these tanks and vehicles “would present very formidable mobile opposition against even numerically superior foes,” notedDefense Industry Daily. “The Abrams’ battlefield performance against enemy T-72s and other Russian stock would have to give neighbors like Iran and Syria pause, if a North Vietnam-style armored invasion were ever contemplated.”

The six C-130J-30 Hercules transport aircraft and 24 helicopters are noteworthy upgrades for the Iraqi Air Force, which already is set to double in size by 2009. Adding six C-130s will triple Iraq’s inventory of the aircraft, which the DSCA said Iraq intends to use “for intra-theater support for its troops.” But, with a range of approximately 2,000 miles, C-130J-30s flying out of Iraq would be able to complete round-trip sorties to all the major cities in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Turkey, and Israel. This would expand the regional power projection capabilities of the Iraqi Air Force.

As for the helicopters, which will likely perform scout missions and close air support, the DSCA noted that they “will be used to develop new Iraqi Air Force (IAF) squadrons and/or wings.” While the Bell Armed 407 or Boeing AH-6 Little Bird are not out-and-out attack helicopters, the mounting of laser-guided Hellfire missiles with blast-fragmentation warheads would give the post-Saddam Iraqi Air Force airborne weaponry it “has not really had to this point,” notedDefense Industry Daily. DJ Elliott, an analyst at The Long War Journal, suggested that these helicopters may be destined for Iraqi Special Operations support.


The United States has rapidly increased its arms sales to Iraq over the last several years. With the $10.9 billion deal announced in July, the United States has completed approximately $20 billion in arms sales agreements with Iraq since 2005. This total includes $132 million in 2005, $2.3 billion in 2006, $4.5 billion in 2007, and $12.7 billion (thus far) in 2008. Since the United States averaged only $15.4 billion per year in global arms agreements from 1999 to 2006, Iraq is receiving an increasingly significant proportion of total U.S. worldwide sales.

Separate from these Foreign Military Sales, the United States also provided $17.9 billion in military-related aid since 2005 through the Iraq Security Forces Fund, according to the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction’s latest July 2008 report.

The United States is already the unparalleled leader in arms sales agreements to the Middle East. As a March 2008 analysis by the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation detailed, the United States was responsible for 56% of all arms sales agreements with Middle Eastern countries from 1999 to 2006. This was nearly five times greater than Russia’s share, the second highest supplier, and over eighteen times greater than China’s. Blocking Russia and China’s influence in Middle Eastern arms markets is considered an important foreign policy goal by many U.S. defense officials.

The recent surge of sales to Iraq has supplanted other Middle Eastern countries’ long-standing status as the preferred destination for U.S. weapons. Since 2005, the United States averaged $4.9 billion per year in arms sales with Iraq. This places Iraq far ahead of other U.S. allies like Egypt and Israel, which averaged $1.2 billion and $1.1 billion, respectively, in arms sales with the United States from 1999 to 2006.


The New York Timesrevealed in April 2008 that 22 high-ranking Iraqi officials secretly negotiated an $833 million arms agreement with Serbia. When the secret deal was exposed, Iraqis and Americans were quick to criticize both the process used and the quality of the equipment provided. However, Iraqi officials involved with the arrangement argued that the inadequacies of the U.S. Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program justified seeking an alternative supplier. “The problem with FMS is that it didn’t deliver on time,” one senior Iraqi official said. “This [secret deal] was used by some in government to say, ‘Look, this is deliberate. The U.S. is trying to keep us unarmed so that we’ll always be in need of the Americans.’ ”

A chasm is growing between U.S. arms sales procedures – designed for accountability and standardization, not speed or flexibility – and Iraq’s purported need for better military equipment. As Ahmed Mahmoud, a lieutenant in the Iraqi Army, asked a New York Times reporter August 6, “In your opinion, do you think I could fight an army with those trucks?” One fifth of the vehicles in Mahmoud’s battalion were rotting and bomb-demolished, but they were still considered operational for bureaucratic reasons.

Of course, rapidly surging weapons into Iraq carries significant risks. A November 2007 audit by the Department of Defense Inspector General concluded that Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq (MNSTC-I) “was not able to demonstrate proper accountability for and management of the Iraq Security Forces Fund and could not always demonstrate that the delivery of services, equipment, and construction was properly made to the Iraq Security Forces.” The audit also revealed that in 2005, MNSTC-I could not verify that Iraqi Security Forces received 12,712 of 13,508 light weapons. This expanded upon previous Government Accountability Office reporting that the United States couldn’t account for 30% of the weapons provided to Iraq since 2004.

Providing Iraqi Security Forces with the equipment they need to achieve their objectives will help increase Iraqi soldiers’ confidence and effectiveness as the United States begins commencing troop withdrawals. However, Iraqi oversight of military equipment coming into the country must be bolstered. If weapons are channeled toward dangerous insurgents, and away from the legitimate development of Iraqi Security Forces, the security environment in Iraq could take another perilous turn for the worse.

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