WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is pushing through a broad array of foreign weapons deals as it seeks to rearm Iraq and Afghanistan, contain North Korea and Iran, and solidify ties with onetime Russian allies.
From tanks, helicopters and fighter jets to missiles, remotely piloted aircraft and even warships, the Department of Defense has agreed so far this fiscal year to sell or transfer more than $32 billion in weapons and other military equipment to foreign governments, compared with $12 billion in 2005.
The trend, which started in 2006, is most pronounced in the Middle East, but it reaches into northern Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe and even Canada, through dozens of deals that senior Bush administration officials say they are confident will both tighten military alliances and combat terrorism.
“This is not about being gunrunners,” said Bruce S. Lemkin, the Air Force deputy under secretary who is helping to coordinate many of the biggest sales. “This is about building a more secure world.”
The surging American arms sales reflect the foreign policy tides, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the broader campaign against international terrorism, that have dominated the Bush administration. Deliveries on orders now being placed will continue for several years, perhaps as one of President Bush’s most lasting legacies.
The United States is far from the only country pushing sophisticated weapons systems: it is facing intense competition from Russia and elsewhere in Europe, including continuing contests for multibillion-dollar deals to sell fighter jets to India and Brazil.
In that booming market, American military contractors are working closely with the Pentagon, which acts as a broker and procures arms for foreign customers through its Foreign Military Sales program.
Less sophisticated weapons, and services to maintain these weapons systems, are often bought directly by foreign governments. That category of direct commercial sales has seen an enormous surge as well, as measured by export licenses issued this fiscal year covering an estimated $96 billion, up from $58 billion in 2005, according to the State Department, which must approve the licenses.
About 60 countries get annual military aid from the United States, $4.5 billion a year, to help them buy American weapons. Israel and Egypt receive more than 80 percent of that aid. The United States has also recently given Iraq and Afghanistan large amounts of weapons and other equipment and has begun to train fledgling military units at no charge; this assistance is included in the tally of foreign sales. But most arms exports are paid for by the purchasers without United States financing.
The growing tally of international weapon deals, which started to surge in 2006, is now provoking questions among some advocates of arms control and some members of Congress.
“Sure, this is a quick and easy way to cement alliances,” said William D. Hartung, an arms control specialist at the New America Foundation, a public policy institute. “But this is getting out of hand.”
Congress is notified before major arms sales deals are completed between foreign governments and the Pentagon. While lawmakers have the power to object formally and block any individual sale, they rarely use it.
Representative Howard L. Berman of California, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said he supported many of the individual weapons sales, like helping Iraq build the capacity to defend itself, but he worried that the sales blitz could have some negative effects. “This could turn into a spiraling arms race that in the end could decrease stability,” he said.
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