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U.S. military aid may have outsized leverage

  • Article by: ERIC SCHMITT New York Times
  • August 20, 2013 - 9:08 PM

– The money seems like a pittance for Egypt, which has a $550 billion economy. But the $1.3 billion in military aid that the United States gives the country every year is its main access to the kind of big-ticket, sophisticated weaponry that the Egyptian military loves.

In fact, Egypt is so enamored of Apache attack helicopters, M1A1 battle tanks and F-16 fighter jets that exasperated U.S. military officials have been telling generals there for years that they need to expand beyond the hardware of bygone wars and spend more U.S. money on border security, as well as counterterrorism and surveillance equipment and training that a truly modern military needs.

Either way, a close look at the details of U.S. military aid to Egypt shows why the relatively modest $1.3 billion may give the United States more leverage over the Egyptian military than it might seem, although still not as much as it wants.

Even if Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf monarchies make up for any aid the United States might suspend, Washington would block Egypt from buying U.S. weaponry — a serious long-term problem for a military that is already viewed as sclerotic and has so neglected pilot training that the Egyptian air force has one of the worst crash rates of any F-16 fleet in the world.

‘Planes won’t fly’

What Egypt’s generals fear most is the cutoff of hundreds of millions of dollars in mundane but essential maintenance contracts that keep the tanks, fighter jets and helicopters running, U.S. officials and lawmakers said. In the past, maintenance costs have represented roughly 15 percent of total U.S. military aid to Egypt, the Government Accountability Office said.

“The spare parts and maintenance of this military equipment that we’ve given the Egyptians is important to their capabilities,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told CNN on Sunday.

Or as Robert Springborg, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., and an expert on the Egyptian military, put it this week, “Without that sustainment money, planes won’t fly and tanks won’t drive.”

Of course, if U.S. aid for spares and maintenance were suspended, Egypt could cannibalize parts from its existing fleets of tanks, planes and helicopters — probably for some months or even a few years, procurement experts said. With no external threat on Egypt’s borders, the Cairo government would not jeopardize protection to the country.

Knotty contractual battle

Similarly, canceling helicopters and tank kits would be a symbolic blow — U.S. military aid covers as much as 80 percent of Egypt’s weapons purchases, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report — but would not immediately decrease the capability of Egypt’s armed forces.

At the same time, cutting off U.S. military aid presents its own complications for the United States and could ensnarl the Obama administration in a knotty contractual battle with U.S. military contractors, said military procurement specialists and congressional aides.

Egypt can submit large orders in advance for weaponry and equipment that takes years to produce and deliver, under the assumption that Congress will continue to allocate the same $1.3 billion in military aid year after year. Some Egyptian orders now extend to 2018 under this arrangement, called cash-flow financing. In effect, officials said, the United States has handed Egypt a credit card with a maximum limit of billions of dollars — a perquisite extended only to Egypt and Israel.

The administration has told Congress in recent days that canceling weapons and maintenance contracts could force the government to incur as much as $2 billion in penalties. Under the terms of the tank program, for example, most components are produced in the United States — Ohio, Michigan, Alabama, Florida and Pennsylvania — and shipped to a facility outside of Cairo for assembly.

Obama officials insisted that all aspects of the relationship were under review, including the military aid. Military aid has served as a foundation of the U.S. relationship with Egypt for more than three decades. In basic terms, it acts as an annual incentive payment to Cairo for abiding by the 1979 peace treaty with Israel. It also initially sought to wean Egypt off its longtime arms supplier, the Soviet Union.

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