By Leslie Wayne The New York Times
International Herald Tribune, October 31, 2006
NEW YORK. Across the world, the Pentagon has thousands of garages, hangars and sprawling lots to store all its jets, tanks and other weaponry. But like most households, it suffers from the clutter of old, unused and unwanted things.
And so the Pentagon runs a little-publicized tag sale and giveaway program to clean out its overstuffed storage areas, which are bulging with the result of the greatest weapons buildup since the Reagan era. The Pentagon also uses the Excess Defense Articles program, as it is called, to reward friends and allies across the globe with equipment that the Pentagon says it no longer needs.
There are deals galore, available for cents on the dollar of their original cost, or even free to the right customer. And there are lots of deal hunters.
Pakistan and Jordan have snapped up a bunch of used F-16 Fighting Falcon jets. Afghanistan kicked the tires on a fleet of slightly used armored personnel carriers and walked away with 75 of them. A small fleet of 30-year-old sea rescue lifeboats has become the backbone of the Yemeni Coast Guard, and Portugal is about to take possession of a decommissioned guided missile frigate.
"It is a flea market," said a State Department official who oversees the program and who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing a standard policy in his department against being identified as a source for reporters.
"It's our yard sale, and we make no guarantees."
The program is meant to generate good will among foreign governments. Business has been picking up: The equipment offered in 2006 had an original price tag of about $1.56 billion, double the amount of the previous year, and it is expected to grow again in 2007.
"There's everything from M-16s to F- 16s," said Rachel Stohl, a senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information, a nonprofit group often critical of military spending priorities. "You can't get everything you want. But, boy, can you get a bargain."
From 2000 to 2005, the Pentagon stocked its tag sale with wares originally valued at $8 billion – helicopters, torpedoes, airplanes, a wind tunnel, landing craft, cargo trucks, high-power radar, missiles, ammunition, uniforms and harbor craft, tenders and other vessels.
About $2 billion worth of this merchandise was given away at no cost to countries deemed needy enough to qualify. An additional $800 million was sold at drastically reduced prices – as low as five cents on the dollar. The rest had no takers.
Most of the recipient countries cannot afford new equipment. The Philippines, Morocco and the Dominican Republican have been recent shoppers. But first-world countries like Australia and Canada have picked up cheap castoffs, as well.
As with any yard sale, the merchandise is offered on an "as is, where is" basis, with the buyer having to pay for shipping and repairs. That can sometimes make the bargain less appealing and explains why not all the merchandise moves. Few shoppers, however, complain.
"We're grateful," said Sergeant Major Irving Estrada, assistant to the military attaché of Guatemala. His country has received used body armor, flight suits, boots and computers, which were presented by the American ambassador at a ceremony in Guatemala City last April.
"This is very important to us," Estrada said. "Everything is useful, and we use everything that we get."
The program is not without critics, who say it contributes to a global arms race and may be a short-sighted way of winning friends.
"Aren't there more constructive ways for the United States to make friends?" asked Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a group that studies Pentagon spending. "We are arming countries that otherwise would not afford to be armed. If we want to make friends, we should have something better to offer."
Critics also say the tag-sale metaphor is not apt; they prefer to describe the program in terms of a business giving out free samples. The program, they say, gives nations a taste of weapons that they might like to purchase later, often with foreign aid from the United States.
"Excess defense articles are a springboard to other sales," said Stohl of the Center for Defense Information. "No country can be sustained on excess defense articles alone."
State Department officials say the program provides a steady source of rewards to help build critical international relationships. Last year, Pakistan obtained two used F-16s as a sign of appreciation for its help to the United States in the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11, according to statements from State Department officials at the time. These were 1980s vintage planes with a current value of $6.5 million, but they were given to Pakistan free.
President George W. Bush has also used the program to provide old equipment as gifts. In 2003, for instance, as Bush threatened war against Iraq, a squadron of used National Guard F-16s was transferred free to Jordan, which shares a border with Iraq.
The arrival of the first six F-16s was heralded at a ceremony at an air force base in northern Jordan attended by Major General Faisal bin Hussein, brother of the Jordanian king, and by the U.S. ambassador to Jordan and high-ranking Pentagon officers.
"It's hugely important," said General Jeffrey Kohler, director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which manages the transfers. "It is one of the ways that we can help some of our friends obtain the capabilities they need. Our program of getting equipment to friends and allies who need it, but cannot afford brand new equipment, has been very, very successful."
Kohler noted that used personnel carriers had gone to the Lebanese Army and excess Coast Guard cutters patrolled the Caspian Sea. "It gives us access and influence and builds friendships," he said.
In a policy statement, the State Department said that the program had "contributed to our foreign policy successes" and had a "positive global impact, furthering U.S. national security interests and supporting the growth and strengthening of democracies."
Critics say that the government may not be able to control the ultimate uses of the weapons. While the State Department says that it will not ship arms to countries that violate human rights and that it prohibits countries that receive weapons from selling them to others, critics argue that such restrictions can provide false comfort.
Brian, of the Project on Government Oversight, says she suspects the Pentagon may be pushing perfectly usable military goods out the door to make way for new equipment. "The Pentagon is always trying to mothball weapons," Brian said. "It's a perennial excuse to buy new ones."
But military contractors do not see it that way, and they have mixed feelings about the program.
The industry fears that these used goods might compete with new products they are trying to sell overseas. At the same time, the industry welcomes the business of refurbishing the used equipment, since American manufacturers are sometimes the only companies capable of doing the work.