While Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon and the White House make policy, the Élysée Palace makes sales.
King Abdullah wants drones, and 23 US congressmen want to loan Jordan some American Predators for the duration of the war. The Emirates want drones, and my colleague Bilal Saab told the Beirut Daily Star that industry there is getting quite capable making its own. Congressman Gregory Meeks of New York notably wanted drones because Da’esh and Boko Haram “don’t belong on this earth.” Drones needs missiles, so in February, the USAF ordered $144 million worth of Hellfires for allies in the Middle East. Arthur Herman and William Luti of the Hudson Institute think that Da’esh can be defeated almost with those drones alone. Maybe, as RAND asserts, “drones do not win wars,” but few single weapons are decisive in their own right, and everyone seems to want them. Just a few weeks ago, Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work admitted that the government “simply underestimated the continued demand” for drones across the Middle East.
Egypt wants fighter jets.
Fighter jets, however, may no longer be on the foreign military assistance agenda in Washington. In its reset of its policy on aid to Cairo, the Obama Administration announced this week that what’s delivered will now be aligned with American interests, and no longer simply what the Egyptian government (er, military) wants. In the future, should the Congress continue to send that $1.3 billion annually for American weapons, it won’t be available for more M-1 tank kits and F-16 fighter jets. Those are expensive to maintain, and possibly not as relevant to the current threats in the region. From here on, as former official Derek Cholet wrote on Defense One this morning, the aid is to be focused on “border security, maritime security, and counterterrorism”—not coincidentally the missions of drones these days.
The contract for 24 Rafale fighter-bombers from France’s Dassault was signed in Cairo on 16 February. (Update: Dassault is on a roll this month, with an announcement in New Dehli that the Indian government wants its first 36.) The Egyptian deal publicly calls for first deliveries in 2018, because three years is a reasonable time for building a modern jet. But the first three aircraft—perhaps from the existing inventory of the Armée de l’Air—may be delivered in time for the ceremony in August kicking-off construction of the New Suez Canal. Whatever the mechanism, six months is fast for that kind of weapon. Thus the Obama Administration very publicly loosened its export policies for drones, specifically aiming to speed up the approvals process. The announcement came just before the Bangalore and IDEX arms shows in late February, at which drones were featured prominently.
Ahem, says President Sisi, fighter jets.
Perhaps this is because fighter jets and tanks bring the prestige that the Egyptian military craves. Perhaps this is because the legitimacy of semi-military rule in Egypt requires some pushback against American diktats, even when they’re wholly US-funded. Perhaps this is partly about keeping up with the Israelis, even if relations are as friendly as can be for now. Perhaps this is because the whole Arab world considers the Egyptian Army a strategic manpower reserve against Houthis or whomever. Whatever the case, the Egyptian military isn’t content to be just a counterinsurgency force. And that American aid is somewhat fungible, so the Egyptians will spend it on patrol boats and maintenance and ground surveillance drones, and use the savings there for Rafales, thank you.
Any business deal requires a coincidence of supply and demand: a seller with something for which he wants cash, and a buyer with cash to spend. A legitimate arms deal generally requires a third coincident want: a means of the furthering the interests of the seller’s government. But the more strongly that regulating government aims to fine-tune local politics to its interests, the more likely the buying government will find another seller. It’s often said that buying American in the international arms market means buying a relationship—interoperability with the US armed forces. But buying British or French brings a relationship too, and perhaps one not so paternalistic.
It’s well-intentioned that the Administration wants to change its policies on military aid. It’s well and good that the Administration is moving to accelerate the process, for there is rising concern that the slowness and ardor of the American bureaucracy is opening possibilities for sellers outside the US. If that’s so, getting a little faster in a multiyear effort isn’t the point. Getting to six months is what wins business.
James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.