Comparing arms sales under Trump & Biden
Speaking Security Newsletter | Note n°197 | 8 March 2023
The US is the world’s biggest weapons dealer, accounting for about 40 percent of all arms exports in a given year. This proliferation mostly happens through grants and sales. The latter category has two pathways: Foreign Military Sales and Direct Commercial Sales. DCS acquisitions are between a US company and a non-US country. For FMS, the US government acts as an intermediary, buying the matériel from the company first before delivering the order to the foreign recipient. Government approval is required regardless of whether it brokers the sale. (See this CRS report for a more detailed/nuanced description.)
Arms sales policy under Trump and Biden
Several factors inform an administration’s decision to approve or reject a proposed sale. Some considerations matter more than others: the Trump administration structured its arms sales policy primarily around economic considerations, which predictably led to a dramatic increase in the volume of US weapons exports. (See here for an elegant summary of Trump’s arms sales policy.)
Biden was supposed to elevate human rights to a non-negotiable condition. He broke with this supposed commitment not too long after entering office by approving weapons sales to authoritarian governments and chronic human rights abusers. But the total volume of US weapons sales in 2021 dropped—by a lot—leaving some feeling optimistic. However, during Biden’s second year in office, total US arms sales exceeded anything Trump was able to accomplish in his four years. (Spencer Ackerman’s synthesis/analysis of US arms sales data is predictably very good—it also inspired this newsletter and saved me a bunch of research time.)
Alt text for screen readers: U.S. arms sales in 2022 surpassed Trump-era highs. This mostly pink and purple column chart shows the value of commercial arms sales and government-brokered arms sales between 2016 and 2022. Those years’ totals are as follows: 2016, $152 billion; 2017, $170 billion; 2018, $192 billion; 2019, $170 billion; 2020, $175 billion; 2021, $138 billion; 2022, $206 billion. Data via Departments of Defense and State, and Congressional Research Service.
Is the 2022 surge the result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Some, but not nearly as much as I initially thought. The arms transfers you hear about all the time are overwhelmingly funded through military grant programs and not military sales programs.
Because arms sales often take years to fully implement (which is considered in arms sales pricing), I wasn’t exactly sure how to best adjust for inflation. Below, I used a GDP deflator and found that total sales volume in 2022 was only about $20 million more than 2018. Still, the Trump-approved sales during 2018 were when America, according to many foreign policy commentators, was supposedly at its worst. In other words, Trump’s behavior wasn’t supposed to become the new normal. Like with military spending, there’s a lot more Trump-Biden continuity than folks realize.
Alt text for screen readers: U.S. arms sales in 2022 surpassed Trump-era highs. This chart has two lines that express total U.S. arms sales from 2016 to 2022. The dotted pink line shows current dollars and the solid purple one shows constant 2022 dollars. Sales in 2022 exceed the previous peak in 2018. Data via Departments of Defense and State, and Congressional Research Service. The GDP deflator comes from Office of Management and Budget Historical Table 10.1, rebaselined to fiscal year 2022.