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Analyzing risk assessment for foreign arms sales

August 16, 2018   /   by Buzz McClain

Between 2002 and 2016, the United States sold $197 billion worth of arms and training through the Foreign Military Sales program to foreign countries. The United States, in fact, rarely turned down a request despite possible national security threats.

A new risk index created by A. Trevor Thrall, associate professor of international security at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, and Caroline Dorminey, a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Defense and Foreign Policy Department, reveals that 32 of the 167 nations receiving weapons and training from U.S. sources had higher risk index scores than the average score of 16 banned countries.

Thrall, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, was surprised by those numbers.

“First, that the U.S. has sold arms to 167 countries,” he said of the data that most alarmed him. “And second, that 32 of those customers scored higher than the countries banned from buying any weapons by the United Nations.”

Thrall said he was inspired to create the index because he could find no evidence of the risk assessments the government is required by law to conduct before approving arms sales.

“The failure to conduct adequate risk assessments means that weapons will wind up being used in ways that intensify civil and interstate conflict, amplify insurgencies, or promote corruption and instability,” he said.

Thrall said he was struck by the lack of transparency in U.S. arms sales and the apparent ease with which arms deals are made.

“There was no sign that a risk assessment had ever caused the government to refuse a sale,” he said.

He advocates a more cautious approach to arms sales.

“An easy first step would be to stop arms sales to any nation that scored as ‘most risky’ in one or more components of the risk index,” he said.

Thrall and Dorminey spent about a year creating the index using a variety of different available metrics.

The negative consequences of arms sales don’t materialize until much later, once the damage has been done, such as when American weapons are turned on American forces or they wind up in the hands of criminal groups, Thrall said.

“Failed states, countries with terrible human rights records, and countries mired in conflict are not places that should be receiving American weapons,” he said. “The federal government should make the arms sales approval process more transparent so that both Congress and external analysts can track the decision-making behind arms sales.”

The risk evaluation should not end once the sale is complete, Thrall added.

“The U.S. needs to start doing more end-use monitoring to determine what actually happens with U.S. weapons in the years after a sale is made. With that data in hand, future risk assessments will be much more useful.”

The index will be revised and updated this fall by Thrall and Schar School PhD student Jordan Cohen.