Only more fighter jets can calm Gulf state nerves now

Arsenal Bolt: Quick updates on the news stories we’re following.

“The Iran Deal: Just Another Sales Opportunity” – The Globalist
The Gulf countries are lusting for more U.S. military hardware. Washington’s influence peddlers love that. By Stephan Richter:

[…] the deal has actually turned into a major business opportunity for him and his firm. “Take the Gulf states, for example,” he said.

“They are obviously very nervous about the U.S. government doing a deal with Iran, which they consider their arch enemy – not least because of the Shiite connection. Same for the Saudis. And that’s a good thing.

“Why then worry about what’s in it for Iran or not? While these Gulf nations complain about the deal very publicly and very loudly, all this translates into in the real world is an ardent desire on the part of these countries to buy even more arms from the United States. What’s not to like about that?”

Obviously, the man’s “consulting” firm was operating as an eager facilitator for such transactions. Those deals all translated into very nice sales commissions, which would boost his and other senior managers’ annual salaries big time.

 

A Royal Saudi Air Force F-15 Eagle fighter aircraft, May 1992, Operation Desert Shield. (Credit: U.S. Department of Defense / TECH. SGT. H. H. DEFFNER)

A Royal Saudi Air Force F-15 Eagle fighter aircraft, May 1992, Operation Desert Shield. (Credit: U.S. Department of Defense / TECH. SGT. H. H. DEFFNER)

Notes for a better American foreign policy doctrine

American foreign policy would be significantly improved by adopting the medical ethics principle of “First, Do No Harm.”

In fact, this seems like a really obvious core principle to include:
1. It’s realistic, but not cynically “realist.”
2. It’s values-positive, while remaining within the country’s means and without overstretching capacity.
3. It’s not isolationist or irresponsibly disengaged, even if it’s not enthusiastically internationalist.

If we can’t be everywhere making everything better (and we can’t), we should at least not make things worse.

On the implementation side: I’d start by halting arms sales to governments that will use them destructively, and by generally rethinking many of our “strategic” alliances that don’t get us much but do give us a black eye or harm local populations.

And if we ourselves intervene militarily in places, we should be prepared to see it through fully, including meaningful reconstruction and with a full awareness for the risks of insurgency. If we don’t intervene directly, we should employ diplomatic channels to try to resolve the situation by other means, and we should ensure that whatever active policy is applied (such as relations with opposition groups or indirect paramilitary activities and support) remains in sync with our nominal values and overall strategic aims.

While I appreciate the need to take each situation as unique to some extent — to avoid sweeping generalizations and misapplication of past lessons — we should also try to be somewhat uniform in how we approach crises, rather than creating ad hoc responses that do not fit into any bigger picture and have no cross-situational logic to them. That’s expensive, confusing, and damaging.

If we can’t fix all the things in the world that are broken, let’s not break them further, and let’s try to have a clear set of rules and benchmarks for when we do step in. First, do no harm. Everything else, after.

With omnipresent video, foreign arms in Ukraine stand out

One of the advantages of quality video cameras in phones becoming accessible to the masses around the world is that it is now easier than ever to track arms flows in conflicts. While we have seen this method used to spot weapons in the recent/ongoing wars in Libya and Syria, the Ukraine conflict has provided a particularly exceptional chance to test it by differentiating locally available weapons from Russian Federation weapons suspected to be entering the stockpiles of Russian-speaking separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Nic R. Jenzen-Jones, the director of ARES [Armament Research Services], was able to positively identify 20 weapons systems in Ukraine that had never previously been exported from their country of origin. Nineteen of those came from Russia, and one was from Poland. He calls these “flag items” because they can be clearly tied to outside nations.

From Russia, ARES identified exotic killing tools like the VSS suppressed marksman rifle, heavy armor like the T-72B3 main battle tank, and newer thermobaric rocket launchers like the MRO-A that have not been seen outside the Federation’s borders.

The lone Polish flag item was the PPZR Grom man-portable air defense missile system, which ARES spotted in a YouTube video released by the Ukrainian military. The missile was manufactured in 2007, according to markings painted on its exterior.

But the report also draws conclusions that counter the widely accepted narrative that the insurgents depend on Russian matériel.

By analyzing photographs of captured ordnance, ARES also determined that existing stockpiles of weapons were the single biggest source of military goods used by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

4 reasons the US doesn’t need Saudi Arabia anymore

Highlights from The Economist’s excellent article on why these days the United States can afford to (and should) drop Saudi Arabia as a major ally, to stop undermining all of U.S. foreign policy:

1. Oil: “Oil is fungible: lousy relations with Russia, the second-biggest producer, do not threaten America’s economy. […] America’s shale technology has put a ceiling on the oil price, and its economy is less oil-intensive than three decades ago.”

2. Counterterrorism: “Intelligence co-operation may be valuable, but its main task is tracking threats that have been subsidised by the Saudis themselves.”

3. Stability: “If the regime is as secure as it seems, however, why should America abandon its basic values in the name of keeping it in place?”

4. Arms Sales: “Strip these things away and what’s left is the arms sales. These at least have the virtue of being nakedly self-interested. […] yet America need not be so eager to put principle aside when dealing with its old ally” [merely to sell arms to Saudi Arabia].

Read the full article for explication/justification of each of these quotations.

Pictured: FDR meeting with King Ibn Saud, of Saudi Arabia, on board USS Quincy in Egypt, on 14 February 1945.

Pictured: FDR meeting with King Ibn Saud, of Saudi Arabia, on board USS Quincy in Egypt, on 14 February 1945.

UK has a real arms sales problem on its hands

No. 10 Downing St (Credit: Sergeant Tom Robinson RLC - Ministry of Defense via Wikimedia)

No. 10 Downing St (Credit: Sergeant Tom Robinson RLC – Ministry of Defense via Wikimedia)

A parliamentary report has found that the British government has not revoked arms sale licenses to Russia in compliance with sanctions against the country following its annexation of Crimea, despite bold claims by the Cameron government.

This comes on the heels of detailed allegations that UK firms sold dual-use (military or police) weapons to Turkey immediately following the vicious 2013 crackdown by Turkish police in several cities, and it echoes revelations that, in 2012, the UK government knowingly approved exports of a key ingredient in Sarin gas to the sanctioned regime in Syria during the Civil War (which were only blocked by the EU).

Details on the new Russia report, according to The Guardian:

More than 200 licences to sell British weapons to Russia, including missile-launching equipment, are still in place despite David Cameron’s claim in the Commons on Monday that the government had imposed an absolute arms embargo against the country, according to a report by a cross-party group of MPs released on Wednesday.

A large number of British weapons and military components which the MPs say are still approved for Russia are contained in a hard-hitting report by four Commons committees scrutinising arms export controls.

Existing arms export licences for Russia cover equipment for launching and controlling missiles, components for military helicopters and surface-launched rockets, small arms ammunition, sniper rifles, body armour, and military communications equipment, the committee says. They also include licences for night sights for weapons, components for operating military aircraft in confined spaces, and surface-to-surface missiles.
[…]
Sir John Stanley, former Conservative defence secretary and chairman of the Commons arms control committees, said there was evidence that appeared to directly contradict the prime minister’s claim that he had already stopped all arms exports to Russia.
[…]
Stanley had already written to Philip Hammond, the new foreign secretary, asking him to explain why, according to official figures given to the MPs, of 285 current licences for Russia, only 34 had been suspended or revoked.

 
Why can’t David Cameron’s government get it together to halt British companies from selling weapons to governments they shouldn’t be doing business with, by law? Is it intentional negligence to keep the arms and money flowing?

On Syria, the laughable line from the government was that the system had worked. This time:

“We will not a grant a licence where there is a clear risk the equipment might be used for internal repression.”

 
So when exactly does it become clear that Russia or Syria might use weapons for internal repression? Or what about Turkey, literally right after it engaged in internal repression?

And what do we make of this accusation in the Russia report?

It says the most significant change in the government’s policy on arms exports over the past year is the dropping of the wording in the arms sales criteria that: “An export licence will not be issued if the arguments for doing so are outweighed … by concern that the goods might be used for internal repression”.

You know, in the sense, that that action is exactly the opposite of the supposed policy stated by the government spokesperson.

The United Kingdom is the 7th largest arms exporting country in the world by dollar value annually, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

More questionable UK weapons export authorizations discovered

Investigative journalists at BuzzFeed put in a lot of hard work (and Freedom of Information requests) to uncover hundreds of deeply dubious authorizations last year for the sale and export of dual-use weapons to Turkey immediately following a violent government crackdown that began in late May 2013. The crackdown and clashes with protesters across the country resulted in the deaths of at least 11 people and injuries to literally more than 8,000 others.

The authorizations for the sale of controlled goods were made at a high level and almost no requests were denied despite the unfolding repressive response to the protests.

According to a Freedom of Information request made by BuzzFeed, the Department for Business Innovation and Skills granted multiple export licences to arms companies to export sniper rifles, bullets, gas masks, drone parts and other assorted military equipment to the country.

Ministers scrutinise the export of weapons, ammunition and other military technology to foreign countries and have to grant an explicit licence to companies looking to sell controlled goods.

Responding to the official request for information, the department told BuzzFeed that there had been 196 licences awarded by the UK government to firms since the clashes began in May, with only five requests refused.

The UK licenced over £90 million in military and dual-use licences to Turkey, according to the Campaign Against the Arms Trade.

 
It’s not unusual for the United Kingdom, the United States, or other manufacturers of advanced military and anti-riot hardware to sell to questionable governments — indeed there was heavy criticism that many of the tear gas canisters fired at protesters during the Arab Spring several years ago said “Made in the U.S.A.” in big letters.

And it’s also likely true most of the hardware being sold to Turkey last year was indeed for military use, rather than law enforcement use. That would separate it from the government and police, whose response last year was more or less separate from the erstwhile rivals in the Turkish Armed Forces. But a lot of it falls under the “dual-use” header, which means it could be used for a “legitimate” purpose but could also easily be used for a repressive or illegal purpose.

And, either way, selling it during and immediately following a crackdown (especially in a state where the military violently seized power as recently as 1980 before several more less successful attempts) seems like poor decision-making.

Moreover, poorly timed UK weapons sales to dubious governments in the region has not been limited to sales to this latest discovery. Just last September, a different journalistic investigation discovered horrifically worse sales had been authorized the year before (though fortunately were blocked externally in time). Here’s what I wrote last year:

Nearly a year into the brutal Syrian Civil War [in 2012], the British coalition government somehow decided to issue a license for a UK firm to export to Syria the chemical components used in sarin gas manufacturing. To a regime known to hold chemical weapons. In the middle of a civil war. The exports were only blocked by external, EU trade sanctions added 6 months later.

 
Granted, authorizing the sale of “dual-use” components that can be used to make chemical weapons, to a regime with just such a stockpile in the middle of a civil war, is an order of magnitude less explicable or justifiable than the Turkish deals.

And the UK government probably believes that there is no reason for it not to authorize weapons exports to a fellow founding member of NATO, Turkey, which is (a bit) more reliable than neighboring Syria.

We have no idea, according to BuzzFeed, whether the sales went through in this case, after authorization, because that’s proprietary information of the companies. But we do know that the licenses were granted and the Department for Business still doesn’t see a problem with it:

“The UK government takes its defence exports responsibilities extremely seriously and aims to operate one of the most robust export control systems in the world. All export licence applications are assessed thoroughly on a case-by-case basis against rigorous, internationally recognised criteria. If circumstances change, licensing decisions are reviewed quickly.”

 
Assessed thoroughly? If circumstances change, licensing decisions are reviewed quickly?

I mean, that’s an amazing claim to make from a government that had authorized weaponizable chemical sales to Syria the year before and then literally had the Prime Minister’s office declare that having the exports blocked only by the European Union’s intervention later with sanctions that didn’t exist earlier was “the system working.”

And the best part of that story is of course that the same UK government is trying to renegotiate its membership in the European Union before holding a deeply misguided referendum on whether or not to leave altogether.

Once outside the EU, I suppose, the United Kingdom will be free to export as many weapons to questionable states on the other perimeter of Europe to its heart’s content.

I’m sure Thatcher would be proud.

Riot police officer in action during Gezi park protests in Istanbul, June 16, 2013. (Credit: Mstyslav Chernov via Wikimedia)

Riot police officer in action during Gezi park protests in Istanbul, June 16, 2013. (Credit: Mstyslav Chernov via Wikimedia)

Securing loose arms

Besides regular domestic gun control and gun safety, there’s also been a growing concern since the fallout from arming the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s as to what happens to those weapons (and bigger, military-grade hardware) once they go overseas into war zones. So how to solve that? Lots of solutions are being floated, and The Economist has an extended rundown on them:

Technological tweaks may be able to make possible weapons that stop working after a certain period of time, or can only be used by specific people or in particular places. Proponents of such technologies believe they have the potential to succeed where political and legislative attempts at arms control have failed…

I suspect — and this is sort of alluded to in the article linked above — that the major flaw in these concepts is that the secondary market, particularly in developing nations, doesn’t acquire the weapons until maybe 15 years after they were sold to the primary buyers.

I’m not an expert by any means, but just from reading news descriptions of the equipment seen in various ongoing conflicts, I think they end up having a use lifespan of 20-30 years (depending on the type of weapons). So most of the technologies being developed now could probably be hacked or eliminated in refurbishment by the time the secondary market was using them.

It would be like selling safes with fifteen-years-behind-state-of-the-art security to third world banks and then being surprised that ten years after they were first cracked in the first world, people were able to crack them all over the third world and make off with lots of money.

I guess then the question becomes whether this high-tech approach is better than doing nothing. Letting top of the line U.S. weapons systems and light arms fall into the wrong hands is something to be avoided, but this may not actually be solvable. And other, older weapons that can’t be traced (or even new issues of old models by less scrupulous manufacturers in some countries) are likely to be fueling wars for many years still to come. The people selling the tech are pitching this as a panacea that will succeed where legal measures have failed. I don’t buy that.