Trends in U.S. military export (fun fact: N. Korea uses U.S. military helicopters)

If you didn’t know any better, you might think that the U.S. weapon export goes through the Pentagon / Department of Defense, but it is actually done through the State Department because weapon sales are political by nature.

FDR said that the U.S. must be the arsenal of democracy in 1940. The U.S. became an arsenal alright, but for strategic reasons. Weapons are one of the few things that can be both carrots and sticks.

Arsenal of democracy

Shifting priorities and interests over the years can be observed in the chart above:

  • Support for post-war Europe and focus on propping up south and central American governments resulted in a higher share of weapon sales to Europe (58%) and the Americas (23%). But that was the only time.
  • After the Iranian revolution, the U.S. arms sales shifted towards the Asia Pacific, providing weapons to allies in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.
  • Now the focus is back on the Middle East, as a resurgent Iran competes for influence in the Middle East against an ambitious young Saudi King (Mohammad Bin Salman, 32), who happens to be a great customer to the U.S. (Saudi Arabia accounted for 18% of sales in 2015-2016)

Fun fact I came across while researching this topic. I saw that U.S. exported to North Korea back in the ’80s and reached out to SIPRI to understand what the hell happened there (I thought the data was incorrect). It turns out that the U.S. exported $62M USD worth of Helicopters to North Korea in 1983/84, and those are still being used today:

In 1983-1984 a US company (Associated Industries) sold 87 brand-new Hughes-500C and Hughes-500D light helicopters to North Korea, circumventing US export rules by supplying via a West German dealer and deliveries via various countries. Since then the helicopters have been in service in North Korea – they were for example seen in several parades and in air shows in 2016 and 2017 (see here). The illegal export-led to a court case against the US company in 1987.