WASHINGTON AND PARIS — Foreign military sales (FMS) are a critical foreign policy tool, one used to bind partners to America while bolstering interoperability on US systems — and providing a boost to domestic industry.
The administration of US President Barack Obama has made good use of FMS, setting records for foreign weapons sales in 2015 and coming close in 2016. But as President-elect Donald Trump's administration spins up, the future of US sales abroad is unclear.
As with everything related to the Trump administration at this point, there is little hard evidence to go by. But analysts are watching closely for signs of what might come. In particular, there is concern that two areas of strong sales — the Gulf region and Europe — could be impacted by either the policies of the next administration or the statements of the next president.
Analyst Byron Callan, of Capital Alpha Partners, wrote to investors the day after the election, noting some of Trump's campaign positions could impact foreign weapon sales.
"We would expect if countries increase spending, it would be to the benefit of their own industries and not necessarily favor US defense firms," Callan wrote to investors, adding: "If a Trump administration takes a harder line on Muslims, that may also bear on US defense exports to some Middle Eastern and Asian countries."
Doug Berenson, managing director with Avascent, agrees there are potential roadblocks from Trump policies but stresses that a lot is still in the air.
"I think there is a chance that many European countries could get nervous about what this means, about the reliability of the US as a supplier," Berenson said. "But I think it’s too early to assume that would be the outcome."
One British industry executive, however, warned it was "difficult" to make assumptions about a Trump presidency given how unclear those policies may be.
"The only real growing defense market is Asia and he has yet to clarify what his foreign policy position will be in the region. In a sector where the ability to apply political pressure is often crucial to winning business, these policy decisions are important. It’s going to be a similar story with the Gulf," the executive said.
Adds Remy Nathan, vice president of international affairs with the Aerospace Industries Association, "I think everyone, regardless of what industry you’re looking at, everyone is trying to understand what’s going to be different between the theory of what might be done in a Trump administration, versus what will be done in a Trump administration."
Throughout the campaign, Trump targeted Muslims, including voicing support for a registry of all Muslims within the United States. (A Trump spokesman has recently denied those comments despite video evidenceof then-candidate Trump making them.)
The candidate’s Dec. 7, 2015, statement calling for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States" alarmed the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leadership so much that the group issued a statement condemning "the increase of hostile, racist and inhumane rhetoric against refugees in general and Muslims in particular."
And while some spokespeople for Trump have downplayed the idea of a Muslim ban or registry, other surrogates continue to say the president-elect is looking at the idea. Reince Preibus, who has been tapped as Trump’s chief of staff, recently said on NBC’s Meet the Press that "I’m not going to rule out anything," but "we’re not going to have a registry based on religion."
Even without outright legal targeting of Muslims, if President Trump continues to make public statements against the Islamic faith, the GCC states may react with alarm. Several of those countries, including big customers like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, began looking at dual-sourcing key military items from Europe following the Obama administration’s decision to cut off weapon sales to Egypt following a 2013 coup, and that backup plan could again be in play.
"The Gulf states previously sought other arms suppliers as a means to send a message to the Obama administration about their unhappiness over US policy and their relationship with Washington," said Becca Wasser of the think tank Rand. "Many of these arms sales — particularly the French and Russian sales — come without strings attached, which is attractive to many of the GCC countries. Furthermore, arms sales have been a means for the Gulf states to pursue closer relationships with other countries, perhaps as a hedge against a perceived abandonment by Washington."
European nations would certainly welcome that, and both China and Russia would happily increase their sales to the region if offered the shot. However, Wasser notes the Gulf nations may actually find they can do business with America more easily under Trump than with Obama.
"The Obama administration has tied human-rights issues to arms sales, for example conditioning Bahrain’s purchase of F-16 fighter jets to progress on human rights," she said. "A Trump administration is more likely to adopt a more transactional approach to arms sales as they support the US bottom line and add to the Gulf states' ability to ensure their own security."
Another potential danger zone for FMS deals is Europe, particularly in the East. Over the last year, President-elect Trump has made comments many interpreted as threats to NATO nations that they would not be protected unless they invest more in defense.
US industry may find itself regretting such a move, however. Royal United Services Institute analyst Elizabeth Quintana said in a post-election note that pushing Europe to spend more on defense means those nations may invest more internally, rather than buying from across the ocean.
"The US will need to accept that the Europeans, Japanese, Koreans and the Gulf States will look to build and protect their own defence industries as they rebuild their national capabilities, which will hurt US industrial interests," Quintana said.
Trump’s campaign threat to withhold help to NATO allies should encourage Europe to get organized in the defense sector, said François Lureau of consultancy EuroFLconsult and former French defense-procurement official. He noted that a US policy chill would help stimulate support for the European Commission’s plan to set up a budget for defense research and development.
Trump’s arrival could also push France and Germany — the two largest EU military powers once Britain leaves the European Union — to cooperate more on programs, Lureau said.
In December 2015 Donald Trump's name was briefly removed from the Akoya Hotel in Dubai following his comments about Muslims; the signage returned a few days later.
Photo Credit: Francois Nel/Getty Images
European industrial cooperation led to the creation of Airbus, MBDA and the Nexter–KMW joint venture. That cross-border European drive could extend to German vehicle builder Mannesmann acquiring Renault Trucks Defense from Volvo.
Each European country might be tempted to seek strong bilateral ties with the US but there is need for greater European "solidarity," Lureau said. Germany is unlikely to hit the NATO target of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense, as that was "politically impossible," he said, and France lacks the means to do so.
France can pursue defense cooperation with the UK through the bilateral Lancaster House treaty, but Paris could still pursue cooperation with Berlin on arms programs and the battle group.
Eastern Europe, however, might attempt to strengthen political ties to Washington through arms deals, particularly given concern over Trump’s friendly relations to Russian President Vladimir Putin, a French executive. Poland, for instance, could still order a multibillion-dollar US missile defense system in a bid to boost ties with Washington.
Berenson said to keep an eye on Poland as a potential bellwether for how NATO allies might respond to a Trump administration’s rapprochement with Russia.
"Poland has not really been in the mix of European defense industry. I think it generally gravitates pretty strongly to the United States, but it is also on the front line of the NATO conflict with Russia," Berenson said. "Seeing how Poland will accept the Trump administration policy is going to be very telling about how the rest of the continent moves."
There are smaller-scale sales of French Mistral missiles and the Swedish Carl Gustav weapon in Eastern Europe, but countries in the region could seal big-ticket deals with the US in the pursuit of closer political links, the industry executive said. Apart from the Airbus MultiRole Tanker Transport and A400M airlifter, there are no new cooperative European programs. Cybersecurity, however, could be an area for heavy European investment.
FMS Reform Under Trump
One positive sign for foreign sales under Trump is that there appears to be an interest in continuing export-control reform efforts that are currently underway.
Nathan said that officials from AIA met with Trump and part of his team over the summer to express where the aerospace industry stands on a number of issues, including regulatory reform. He added that there have also been early discussions with members of the transition team about export control.
Berenson also said he had heard from individuals involved in the Trump transition, and that they were "surprisingly focused on reforming the FMS and ITAR approval processes. I think they get the need to streamline and smooth these processes which have been very immune to reform over the years. So there could be a real move to try and shake up how these programs are managed to get them moving faster, which is something industry and our partners overseas have wanted for a long time."
And, Nathan noted, there is already momentum towards making FMS deals easier in Congress, something he predicts a Trump administration would agree with.
"I think there is all the positive indicators out there, not because of anything the Trump administration has said relative to an Obama administration but because the facts are the facts and the trends are the trends," he said. "Doing security cooperation properly is a bipartisan affair, because it’s the right thing to do given the challenges we face out there."
Andrew Chuter in London and Jen Judson in Washington contributed to this report.
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.