The U.S. Needs to Stop Throwing Weapons at Problems

An Afghan Mujahideen demonstrates positioning of a hand-held surface-to-air missile.

The survival of the Iran nuclear agreement in Congress sent countless members of Congress scrambling for new ways to demonstrate their opposition to the deal and to throw sand into the gears required to carry out the agreement. One of the more preposterous ideas put forward was to send Massive Ordnance Penetrators (or MOPs) to Israel. MOPs are essentially really, really big bombs that have the capacity to penetrate up to 200 feet into the ground.

Lawmakers proposed sending these weapons – which could give Israel the capability of destroying Iran’s underground nuclear facilities – in response to complaints from Israel that the Iran agreement jeopardizes its national security; however, the proposal was ill-conceived.

To begin with, Israel does not have the military infrastructure to integrate the MOPs into their security forces. Furthermore, the cost for purchasing them would be exorbitant. Israel would need to divert funds from other programs to purchase the MOPs and to also purchase the planes needed to deploy the MOPs. Shipping U.S. bombers to Israel to carry the bombs would violate existing arms control treaties. Most importantly, Israel never even asked for the MOPs. A former Israeli commander described the idea as a “pair of shoes many sizes too large.”

Unfortunately, this proposal to send MOPs to Israel is typical of what the United States loves to do: throw weapons at a problem without considering whether it is the correct strategy. The United States all too frequently uses the sale and transfer of arms as a political bargaining chip.

This recurring pattern of using weapons politically is exemplified by the U.S. strategy in the Middle East. The United States has consistently pledged to maintain Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge over its adversaries; however, the U.S. also wants to supply arms to its ally, Saudi Arabia. Since the U.S. supplies armaments to Saudi Arabia, it needs to supply even more to Israel in order to maintain Israel’s qualitative edge. Thus, the United States has created a system of conventional weapons proliferation in the Middle East in an attempt to keep everyone happy. The United States has long supplied weapons to multiple sides of conflict in the Middle East.

Haphazardly throwing weapons at a problem is particularly dangerous because it can easily lead to an escalation of the conflict. When one side believes that a large influx of equipment shipped to their adversary may adversely affect the balance of power, the natural reaction of that side would be to acquire even more weapons.

This scenario is playing out in Ukraine. Many members of Congress are clamoring to send defensive and offensive weapons to Ukraine to response to Russian aggression there. However, Russia borders on Ukraine, and could easily respond to new weapons shipped there with their own escalation. This risk of increasing levels of violence that would not improve Ukraine’s situation but probably result in more civilian casualties was part of the reasoning behind the U.S. hesitation to supply Ukraine with lethal aid to combat the separatists.

Supplying weapons to conflicts with no clear battle lines and shifting coalitions risks the chance of them falling into the wrong hands. With the U.S. reluctant to put boots on the ground in the Middle East, policymakers resort to the “strategy” of supplying lethal equipment.

The result: many of the weapons that the U.S. secretly shipped to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980’s in their fight against the Soviet Union wound up in the hands of the Taliban in their own fight against U.S. forces two decades later during the Global War on Terror.

Many of the arms shipped to Iraq after our invasion there in 2003 have wound up in the hands of the ISIL – especially when Iraqi military forces fled the battlefield and left behind their weapons for their opponents to capture. There are also logistical issues in successfully getting weapons to their intended destination. In one instance, a weapons airdrop intended for the Kurds ended up in ISIL hands because strong winds blew the package off course and into ISIL-held territory.

In Iraq and Syria, United States-backed and armed forces on the ground are hemorrhaging personnel to ISIL, thereby turning over weapons to people who use them against the United States. This same pattern has also occurred in Yemen, Libya, and Somalia, when as much as half of the U.S.-supplied arms in the fight against al-Shabaab in Uganda and Burundi ended up in the hands of Somali militants.

The international landscape is constantly changing and whoever the United States supplies arms to today may turn out to be opponents in the future.

This reckless pattern needs to be curtailed. Since the end of World War II there has been much focus on the important issue of nuclear non-proliferation; it is essential not to forget non-nuclear weapons that produce the bulk of the killings around the world.

As Kennette Benedict states in an article for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: while nuclear attacks are utterly devastating,

“…the current use of powerful conventional weapons is killing hundreds of thousands, destroying cities, collapsing societies, and spurring mass migrations that are causing suffering and disruption in nearly all countries. While nuclear weapon disarmament still demands the world’s attention, the humanitarian motivation for general disarmament is plain.”

Recently, there have been some attempts to curb conventional arms proliferation, for example the Arms Trade Treaty, but the problem continues. The United States needs to minimize its propensity for throwing weapons at conflicts in an effort to remedy them.