The State Department announced the first arms sales of the Trump administration Monday, saying it approved sending various munitions and equipment to four countries, including Saudi Arabia. Approval of the transfers has to be finalized by Congress. The $1.85 billion in sales is a fraction of the $40 billion in transfers the Obama administration agreed to as recently as 2015, but the decision signals continuity in foreign arms sales under President Trump.
A U.S. official with knowledge of the sales said that they had been in “the pipeline for months,” and were announced after “informal consultations” with congressional staff. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the transfers have yet to be approved by lawmakers, added that they received “full standard inter-agency assessment and consideration” from Congress.
The sales, once finalized, will send $525 million in observation balloons to Saudi Arabia; $400 million in helicopter gunship parts and air-to-air missiles to Kuwait; and $400 million in maintenance support for Britain’s fleet of C-17 cargo jets. On Thursday, the day before Trump’s inauguration, the State Department notified Congress it was prepared to sell Kenya $418 million in propeller-driven close air support aircraft and their accompanying weapons but only publicly announced the deal Monday. The awkward-looking aircraft, known as the Air Tractor 802L, will likely be used by Kenyan forces to hunt the terrorist group al-Shabab.
William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at Center for International Policy, said in a statement that Congress should “closely scrutinize” the newly announced transfer to Saudi Arabia because of the country’s conduct in the ongoing civil war in Yemen.
The observation balloons, known as Aerostats, bound for Saudi Arabia will likely be used for border security. The balloons are widely used in Iraq and Afghanistan to observe contested areas and provide additional surveillance capabilities for base perimeters.
Saudi Arabia regularly clashes with Houthi rebels near its borders and is known to have positioned artillery and other long-range weapons there.
In September, lawmakers from both the House and Senate moved to block a $1.15 billion sale that would send up to 153 main battle tanks to Saudi Arabia. In an open letter, 64 members of Congress wrote to then-President Obama asking him to cancel the deal because of Saudi Arabia’s bombing of Yemeni civilians. The transfer was ultimately approved and signed off on by Obama.
During his time in office, Obama transferred more than $100 billion in over 40 different arms sales to Saudi Arabia, more than any other administration in history. It is unclear what Trump’s relationship with the kingdom will be and how his administration will leverage arms sales to advance foreign policy aims. In 2015, however, Trump tweeted, “Saudi Arabia should be paying the United States many billions of dollars for our defense of them. Without us, gone!”