Updated 1/27/2021 at 3:56 pm est with new comments from Blinken
WASHINGTON — The Biden administration has temporarily paused movement on weapon sales cleared by the Trump administration, including a weapons package for the United Arab Emirates, as part of a broad review of arms transfers abroad.
A State Department spokesman described the action, taken the day after Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was sworn in, as “temporarily pausing the implementation of some pending U.S. defense transfers and sales under Foreign Military Sales and Direct Commercial Sales to allow incoming leadership an opportunity to review” the decisions.
“This is a routine administrative action typical to most any transition, and demonstrates the Administration’s commitment to transparency and good governance, as well as ensuring U.S. arms sales meet our strategic objectives of building stronger, interoperable, and more capable security partners,” the spokesman said. The pause was first reported by Bloomberg.
It is unclear how long the pause will last for, nor how many foreign weapon sales are wrapped up in it. But the dollar amounts at stake for industry are significant: the state department has stated that the U.S. sold $175 billion in weapons to foreign partners and allies in fiscal 2020 alone.
It seems likely the review will pay special focus to agreements cleared by the State Department in the latter half of 2020. In the two and a half months between the Nov. 3 presidential election and the Jan. 20 inauguration of President Joe Biden, the Trump administration cleared 14 FMS packages, worth an estimated $26.3 billion.
Many of those packages, such as C-17 sustainment for Canada or F-16 support for Romania, will likely sail through with no problems, but the review is likely to look closely as the proposed sale of F-35 joint strike fighters, drones and munitions to the United Arab Emirates.
That sale, which the Trump administration rushed to get into a formal agreement literally hours before Biden was sworn in, has been controversial. Members of Congress previously raised concerns that the deal is being rushed without proper consideration. Blinken told reporters in late October that the deal is “something we would look at very, very carefully.”
However, during a Wednesday press conference, Blinken downplayed the review, saying “Generally speaking, when it comes to arm sales, it is typical at the start of an administration to review any pending sales to make sure that what is being considered is something that advances our strategic objectives and advances our foreign policy. So that’s what we’re doing.”
As proposed, the UAE deal comes with an estimated $23.37 billion price tag, which includes up to 50 F-35A fighters worth $10.4 billion, 18 MQ-9B drones worth $2.97 billion, and $10 billion worth of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions. Those dollar totals are estimates and may shift during final negotiations.
Another sale that may be targeted in the review are ongoing weapons transfers to Saudi Arabia, which were pushed through using a bureaucratic move that avoided congressional oversight.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.