This is the first blog post in a series looking at an array of issues in 2018 related to weapons use, the arms trade and security assistance, at times offering recommendations.
Trump’s penchant for seeing arms sales as a jobs program was clear for all to see in his first foreign trip as president, a May 2017 trip to Saudi Arabia. With great fanfare, Trump announced that the United States would be selling $110 billion worth of weaponry to Riyadh – almost as much as the record levels offered during the eight years of the Obama administration. But upon closer scrutiny, tens of billions worth of sales that Trump was claiming credit for had been put together under the Obama administration. Other aspects of the deal involved vague promises of sales that may never come to fruition. Despite these facts, Trump threw up a nice fat number, and bragged that it would bring “jobs, jobs, jobs” to America. This is not to say that his administration will not seek major new sales to Riyadh, as evidenced by the October 2017 offer of $15 billion in missile defense technology to Saudi Arabia. But the $110 billion figure is a convenient fiction concocted for domestic consumption.
Similarly, in a November 2017 trip to Japan, Trump crowed about the “massive” amounts of weaponry Japan was going to buy from the U.S., “as they should.” And of course, he bragged about all the jobs that would bring to America. Trump’s number one example was the sale of Lockheed Martin F-35 combat aircraft to Japan.
There are two problems with Trump’s boasting. First, he seemed to be implying that he had something to do with brokering the F-35 sale to Japan. He did not. That offer was made during the Obama administration back in 2012. It seems like the only thing Trump truly likes about the Obama legacy is our ex-president’s ample arms sales offers – so much so that he routinely tries to take credit for them.
Second, and even worse, Trump has no idea of how few jobs the F-35 deal with Japan will actually create. As my colleagues at the Security Assistance Monitor have documented, the State Department has licensed a deal under which Japan will spend over $5 billion in exchange for the construction of an F-35 final assembly facility there. So, the Japanese purchase of F-35s will indeed create jobs – in Japan. Yes, the United States will be exporting F-35s to Japan. But it will also be exporting most of the jobs involved in building those aircraft. Another F-35 final assembly plant is being established in Italy to do much of the work involved in U.S. sales of the aircraft to its European allies.
The point that Trump seems to be missing is that most foreign arms sales these days involve “offsets” – investments in the recipient nation that, as the term suggests, help offset the huge costs of importing a modern weapons system. Under his Plan 2030, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (or MBS, as he is known more colloquially) has decreed that Saudi Arabia’s goal is to produce 50% of the value of any arms it imports in Saudi Arabia, up from 2% currently. U.S. firms like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon have duly sworn allegiance to this goal, and a recently offered batch of Lockheed Martin/Sikorsky helicopters will be assembled in Saudi Arabia. In another example, Lockheed Martin is helping the UAE develop an industry to produce robotic machine tools that can be used in the defense and aerospace sectors, potentially in competition with U.S. and European firms. In other words, jobs in the UAE, brought to you by Lockheed Martin.
One of the ironies in Donald Trump’s continued bragging about the domestic jobs impact of arms exports is that weapons spending is virtually the least effective way to create jobs. A study by economists at the University of Massachusetts has demonstrated that almost any other activity – from infrastructure investment to alternative energy production to education – would create one and one-half to two times as many jobs per amount spent as weapons production. If jobs are the issue, the United States economy would be far better served by a focus on alternative energy technologies, a burgeoning field with a global market many times larger than the market for weaponry.
Things to look for in 2018 include the possibility of a sale of F-35s to the UAE – the first export of this aircraft to any Middle Eastern country other than Israel; more costly missile technology exports to the Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia; and a possible surge in the export of U.S. firearms in line with administration plans to deregulate major categories of these systems as it seeks to carry out the final phase of the Export Control Reform Initiative that was initiated by the Obama administration. Expect all of the above to be justified in significant part with cries of “jobs, jobs, jobs,” no matter how exaggerated those claims may be.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and a senior adviser to the center’s Security Assistance Monitor.