January 16, 2007

Giveaway Madness

The AP has an alarming story today about how sensitive military equipment sold through the Defense Department's surplus sales program has been finding its way to China and, in at least one case, Iran. Federal investigators are especially worried that the surplus sales are poorly regulated, and that Iran could find the parts it badly needs to maintain its F-14 fleet--which was bought from the United States in the 1970s when the two countries were still allies--through this market. Bad news.

It's also familiar news. Last year, the GAO discovered that private citizens could buy "two launcher mounts for shoulder-fired guided missiles, several types of body armor, a digital signal converter used in naval electronic surveillance," and other fun toys from the Defense Department's surplus inventory, without hassle. Body armor was being offered for a fraction of the price that military units in Iraq had to pay for it. And a leaked 2003 GAO report revealed that stuff needed to make biological weapons could be bought on the Internet for pennies on the dollar.

Call me crazy, but maybe it's time to revisit the whole idea behind the Pentagon's surplus sales program. The most comprehensive report on the subject, compiled in 1996 by the Federation of American Scientists, found that the United States had given away--or sold at steep discount--$8.7 billion worth of arms considered "surplus" between 1990 and 1996. Not only are weapons being dumped on the world market, but in many cases, "the services appear to be giving away useful equipment to justify procurement of new weaponry."

To take one present-day example, the Pentagon is spending billions to acquire a new fleet of F-22 Raptor stealth fighters. The Air Force and Navy have justified the program, which has turned into something of a boondoggle, by pointing to the spread of U.S.-built F-15, F-16, and F-18 fighters around the world--many of which were originally given away by the services in surplus auctions. (One mildly infamous promotional pamphlet for the F-22, which circulated some years back, stressed the need to maintain U.S. "air superiority" by pointing to worrisome countries around the world that were either adversaries or potential adversaries. It turned out that most of those countries were worrisome because they had had fleets of U.S.-built F-16s.)

Arms-control experts often argue that the United States could just keep and upgrade many of its existing weapons rather than auctioning them off at bargain prices. (In 1994, a GAO report suggested that the Pentagon could simply upgrade its existing fleet of F-15s and still defeat potential foes for years to come, rather than invest in the F-22.) Defense contractors, though, see giveaways as "loss leaders" that give cash-strapped countries a taste for buying U.S. arms, setting the stage for future sales down the road. Plus, they put upward pressure on the procurement budget. So it's doubtful that the surplus sales program is going anywhere anytime soon, risks and all.
-- Brad Plumer 3:04 PM || ||