US foreign military sales totaled $55.66 billion in 2018, a 33% increase compared to the nearly $42 billion in weapons sold in 2017, the Defense Cooperation Agency announced Wednesday.
It is the highest annual total for military sales to foreign governments since 2012 when the US conducted upwards of $69 billion in arms deals with allies and partners around the world.
The upward trend is due, in part, to the Trump administration’s push to relax restrictions on foreign military sales. Though critics suggest human rights concerns are being relegated in the rush to increase sales.
Since taking office, President Donald Trump has demonstrated an insatiable appetite for selling American weaponry abroad — at times using face-to-face meetings with foreign leaders to make a personal sales pitch.
Trump signed a nearly $110 billion defense deal with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in May last year in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on what was his first stop abroad as President.
In the same month, the US government reauthorized the export of Paveway munitions to Saudi Arabia, ending Obama’s December 2016 ban.
He has also encouraged US officials to take on a more active role in facilitating foreign military sales abroad in order to increase business for the US weapons industry.
In April, the administration rolled out its “Buy American” plan to lift — what it views — as self-imposed policy restrictions that limit potential opportunities for business.
“These policy changes advance US national security and foreign policy because they make FMS more attractive in a very competitive market,” DSCA Director LTG Charles W. Hooper said in a statement on Wednesday.
“The United States not only sells the world’s most state-of-the-art defense systems, but we also strengthen our alliances and attract new partners through enduring strategic and defense partnership,” he added.
Under the Trump administration’s Conventional Arms Transfer (CAT) policy and Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) export policy, private US defense companies are allowed to directly sell some types of conventional weapons and a broader range of unmanned drones to allies without having to go through the US government.
“The organizational culture of the Trump administration is ‘Buy American. Hire American.’ These are the two simple rules that President Trump has repeatedly stressed,” Dr. Peter Navarro, assistant to the President for trade and manufacturing policy and director of the White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, told reporters when the policy was unveiled.
Under this policy, DSCA says it has been able to reduce the cost of doing business with the US government through Foreign Military Sales and streamlined the transfer process.
However, Trump’s emphasis on stripping away the red tape when it comes to foreign weapons deals has raised questions about how human rights fit within the administration’s arms sales strategy.
“Rather than focusing on risks of arms transfers, the policy really focuses on all the potential benefits,” Rachel Stohl, managing director at the Stimson Center, told CNN in April.
“We didn’t need this policy to know how the administration feels about human rights,” she said, noting the US has recently approved arms sales to several countries with questionable human rights records.
Those concerns have persisted in recent months, particularly when it comes to dealing arms to Saudi Arabia.
The bomb used by the Saudi-led coalition in a devastating attack on a school bus in Yemen was sold as part of a US State Department-sanctioned arms deal with Saudi Arabia, munitions experts told CNN in August.