Power, Profit, or Prudence? US Arms Sales Since 9/11

Summary of Study

Bottom line: The United States is doing too little to incorporate risk assessments into its arms sales decisions. It should analyze arms sales along a risk matrix assessment and avoid selling to the riskiest nations. At the very least, risk assessment cost/benefit trade-offs should be made more explicit in the arms sales decision process.

Strategic and economic considerations currently guide U.S. arms sales. Yet a different factor that receives little attention is risk-sensitivity, namely, how risk is measured when sales are made. As recent history proves, all arms transfers, including those with strategic and economic benefits, carry risks.

These risks include weapons falling into the hands of criminals, terrorist groups, or rogue regimes; weapons being used by recipient governments to commit human rights violations against their own people; accidentally amplifying conflicts and arms races; and American weapons being used against American troops on the battlefield. Arms sales can also generate negative unintended consequences, including blowback, entanglement, arms races, and increased instability.

Every arms sale presents a cost/benefit tradeoff: will the strategic and economic benefits outweigh the potential costs? Little current literature about arms sales risk assessments exists. To fill this gap, this report uses an Arms Sales Risk Index (ASRI) to gauge the potential for risky outcomes of arms sales. The index assesses the overall “riskiness” of each potential customer for US arms on a 0–100 scale based on the equal weighting of a set of risk factors, including corruption, stability, behavior toward citizens, and conflict.

The 2020 ASRI scores range from a low of 2 to a high of 95, with an average of 39 and a standard deviation of 24.2. The U.S. has sold almost as many weapons since 9/11 to risky countries as non-risky ones.

A risk-reward matrix that measures whether countries receiving arms are allies of the U.S. and have any red flags is a useful way to judge risks. Its primary use is to encourage policymakers to weigh risks and benefits more explicitly in hopes of making future arms sales more effectively.

Read the full study HERE

Feature Charticle

Risk and Arms Sales, 2002–19

Strategic Studies Quarterly

Findings:

  • The 2020 Arms Sales Risk Index (ASRI) scores range from a low of 2 to a high of 95, with an average of 39 and a standard deviation of 24.2. 
  • The U.S. has sold almost as many weapons since 9/11 to risky countries as non-risky ones. 
  • The U.S. should analyze arms sales along a risk matrix assessment and avoid selling to the riskiest nations. 
  • At the very least, risk assessment cost/benefit trade-offs should be made more explicit in the arms sales decision process. 

Read the full study HERE