Who does the US sell to?
The US sells arms to the majority of countries worldwide. Between 2016-20, according to SIPRI data, the US transferred major conventional weapons to 94 states, as well as to NATO, Syrian rebel groups, and the Libyan General National Council. Based on Foreign Military Sales data, which includes equipment not counted as major conventional weapons by SIPRI, the US agreed sales of at least $1 million worth of arms with 122 states in the same period. Some countries however are particularly major customers, and some raise severe concerns over conflict and human rights.
The US is the leading supplier of arms to Saudi Arabia. According to SIPRI, the US supplied 79% of the country’s major conventional weapons between 2016-20. This accounted for 24% of all US arms sales in that period, making Saudi Arabia by far their largest customer. In financial terms, the US agreed nearly $37 billion worth of FMS arms sales with Saudi Arabia between 2016-20.
Around half the Saudi Air Force is US-made (the other half being from the UK), and like the UK, the US provides constant maintenance, support, training, logistics, and services for the planes they supply, without which Saudi Arabia could not keep them flying. This has continued throughout the war in Yemen, as has the supply of the precision-guided munitions and missiles dropped on Yemen. In those cases where weapons fragments have been identified from Saudi coalition air attacks on civilians in Yemen, the majority have been US-made.
Major recent arms sales to Saudi Arabia (with deliveries 2015 or later) include:
- a 2011 order for 152 F-15 Advanced Eagle fighter/ground attack aircraft, as part of a $29 billion deal. 91 of these have been delivered, all during the war on Yemen
- 24 Patriot anti-missile systems ordered in 2011 and 2015, and delivered 2014-19, for a total of $3.7 billion
- 7 THAAD anti-missile systems ordered in 2018 as part of a $15 billion deal
- 48 combat helicopters and 84 other helicopters
- 153 tanks, 4 frigates, 2 tanker/transport aircraft, and a host of missiles, radars, combat systems, and other associated equipment.
The Biden Administration has pledged to end support for “offensive operations” in the war in Yemen, and has suspended arms sales pending a review. However, Biden also said it would continue to support Saudi Arabia’s “defence” needs, and it is still unclear which, if any arms sales will be permanently cancelled. Administration officials have indicated that it is only the sale of bombs and air-to-surface missiles that are likely to be cancelled, with other planned sales going ahead. There is no indication that the maintenance and support provided to the Saudi Air Force, necessary for them to continue the war, will be stopped.
The United Arab Emirates and other Gulf states
As with Saudi Arabia, the US is a strong supporter of the absolute monarchic regimes of the Gulf, all of which are serious human rights abusers, and most of which have been involved in the war in Yemen. The UAE is also deeply involved in conflicts in Libya and Syria and elsewhere, and has diverted weapons to a variety of armed groups. Meanwhile in Bahrain, US arms supplies are used to prop up a brutal dictatorship that treats its Shia minority as second-class citizens.
Between Financial Years 2016-20, the US agreed FMS deals worth $4.7 billion with Bahrain, $9.4 billion with Kuwait, $15.9 billion with Qatar, and $9.4 billion with UAE. Moreover, in the dying months of the Trump Administration, the US provisionally agreed a $23 billion package of arms sales to UAE, including F-35 stealth fighter aircraft. Despite holding a review, the Biden Administration decided in April 2021 to proceed with these sales. (These are not counted in the above figures, as they came after the end of the 2020 fiscal year, and as it is not clear yet if the contracts have been finalised). These countries, together with Oman, accounted for 11% of transfers of major conventional weaponry by the US during 2016-20 according to SIPRI.
The US is Israel’s largest foreign arms supplier by far, providing the great majority of the country’s arms, apart from those it produces itself. Otherwise only Germany is a significant supplier of major conventional weapons to Israel, especially submarines. The combat aircraft used by Israel in its numerous wars on Gaza are all US-made, as is a large proportion of the munitions fired by them. Israel has large numbers of US F-15 and F-16 aircraft, and has started to receive F-35 stealth fighters as well. Between 2016-20, the US agreed $6.1 billion in FMS arms sales with Israel, while 4.8% of deliveries of major conventional weapons by the US in this period were to Israel.
Most, if not all, of Israel’s arms imports from the US are paid for with the $3.8 billion a year in military aid provided by the US. This military aid arrangement, which has increased substantially in recent years, started in a major way following the 6-day war in 1968. US military support for Israel, though increasingly challenged by progressive activists and politicians, enjoys strong support among both Republican and Democrat politicians and voters.
Egypt also receives regular US military aid, to the tune of $1.3 billion a year. This began after the Camp David peace agreement between Egypt and Israel in 1978, essentially as a reward for agreeing and keeping to the treaty. It has continued ever since, long after its original purpose has become moot, with the two countries maintaining a close relationship regardless of US inducements. The US agreed $2.5 billion in FMS deals with Egypt between 2016-20, and delivered major conventional weapons accounting for 1.4% of US exports in this period. While the Obama Administration briefly suspended arms sales in the wake of the military coup in 2013 and subsequent massacres of protesters, they were resumed soon afterwards in spite of the extreme brutality of the dictatorship against political opposition, as well as in its military campaign against rebels in the Sinai region.
Afghanistan and Iraq
The US has been major suppliers of arms to the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq as it has sought to build up their military strength and help them fight armed groups such as the Taliban and ISIS. US arms supplies have been accompanied by substantial military aid. As well as enabling widespread human rights abuses and killing of civilians, US military assistance has been the subject of massive corruption and the diversion of arms to the enemies they were supposed to be fighting. Afghan security forces have never become an effective fighting force and the future of the Afghan government following US withdrawal in 2021 looks very uncertain. The Iraqi army collapsed in 2014 in the face of ISIS advances, in large part the result of wholesale corruption which had left troops without basic equipment in spite of the vast aid pouring into the country. The US has consistently relied on a military-first approach to dealing with the conflicts in these countries that have resulted from or been exacerbated by the US invasions, supporting security forces regardless of their records on human rights and corruption, with devastating consequences. During 2016-2020, Iraq and Afghanistan accounted for 2.8% and 2.4% of US major conventional weapon deliveries respectively, while new FMS agreements worth $6.8 billion to Iraq and $10.6 billion to Afghanistan were signed.
Asia Pacific allies
A large proportion of US arms sales go to their key allies in the Asia Pacific region, as part of a strategy of countering Chinese military power in the region. Thus, Australia, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan accounted for 9.4%, 6.7%, 5.7%, and 1.6% of US deliveries of major conventional weapons during 2016-20. The value of new FMS agreements signed to these countries in the same period was $7.4 billion, $10.2 billion, $19.3 billion and $16.7 billion, respectively. Sales of F-35 stealth fighters to Australia, Japan, and South Korea have been among the biggest deals in recent years. These arms sales contribute to a growing arms race in the region between China on the one hand, and the US and many of China’s neighbours on the other.
According to SIPRI data, 15% of US major conventional weapons transfers between 2016-2020 were to fellow-NATO members, many of whom have joined the US in some or all of its recent wars. The largest NATO recipient was the UK, with 4.0% of all US exports over the period, followed by Norway with 2.8%, Italy (2.5%), the Netherlands (2.4%) and Turkey (1.1%).
According to Department of Defense data, the US agreed $51.3 billion worth of Foreign Military Sales agreements with NATO members from 2016-20, led by Poland ($10.8 billion), the UK ($7.6 billion), Belgium ($5.7 billion), the Netherlands ($3.8 billion), and Romania ($3.3 billion). As with US allies in the Asia Pacific, sales of F-35 stealth combat aircraft have been among the largest recent deals to numerous NATO members, including the UK.
Within the Asia Pacific region, the Philippines is a relatively minor customer for US arms, but one raising significant concerns. The US agreed $537 million worth of arms sales to the country during 2016-20, but in early 2021 announced the sale of 15 Black Hawk attack helicopters to the Philippines. The Philippines armed forces have also received substantial quantities of small arms from the US. Under its far-right President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ security forces have been engaged in widespread extra-judicial killings of citizens, supposedly as part of a “war on drugs”, while the armed forces have been fighting a brutal counter-insurgency campaign in Mindanao, which has displaced over 450,000 civilians.
The US has long been a major supplier of arms, military aid, and military training to Colombia, throughout most of its decades-long civil war. Despite the signing of a 2016 peace agreement between the Colombian government and the main rebel group, FARC, the country has continued to be plagued by violence, involving state forces, other rebel groups, drug cartels, far right-wing militias, and others. Journalists and environmental and labour activists have frequently been targeted for attack. The current right-wing government of President Iván Duque has been accused on going back on aspects of the peace deal, and supporting or turning a blind eye to attacks on former rebels, now disarmed and supposedly reintegrated into society. The Colombian armed forces have long been responsible for serious human rights abuses and attacks on civilians – most notoriously, during the 2000s, of “false positive” killings, where civilians were killed and then claimed to be rebels, to improve units’ figures. Abuses have continued since the peace agreement, and have been consistently enabled by US arms and military aid. The US agreed $207 million in FMS arms deals to Colombia from 2016-2020, and provided $1.2 billion in military aid. The US trained 11,215 members of the Colombian security forces during this period.
The US agreed FMS contracts worth $505 million with Nigeria from 2016-2020. The largest contract was in November 2018, for the $329 million sale of A-29 Super Tucano trainer/ground attack aircraft, to support the Nigerian military’s fight against Boko Haram, ISIS, and other armed groups. The Super Tucano is a Brazilian-designed plane, produced under licence by the Sierra Nevada Corporation in Colorado. This was approved despite severe concerns over the Nigerian military’s extensive human rights abuses, including the 2017 bombing of a refugee camp. More recently, the Nigerian military launched helicopter attacks on several villages, killing numerous civilians. The extreme level of corruption in the Nigerian military is a further concern. Nigeria received its first 6 Super Tucanos in March 2021.