Nuclear Weapons

FAS Obtains a Copy of U.S. Arms Sales Report

09.19.06 | 3 min read | Text by Matt Schroeder

The Arms Sales Monitoring Project has obtained, via the Freedom of Information Act, a copy of the Defense Department’s contribution to the annual “Section 655” report* on U.S. arms transfers and military assistance.

The report contains data on the five main U.S. security assistance programs: the Direct Commercial Sales Program (administered by the State Department), and the International Military Education and Training Program, Defense Drawdowns, the Excess Defense Articles Program, and the Foreign Military Sales Program (administered by the Defense Department).

While much of the data is available elsewhere, the “655 report” is unique in that it provides detailed information on the type of defense articles and services licensed through the Direct Commercial Sales (DCS) program and delivered through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) Program to a particular country, not just the aggregate dollar value of these sales. The DCS and FMS sections are arranged by country (or international organization), and describe the category of defense articles/services licensed or delivered, the quantity, and the dollar value. Data on certain countries (Australia, Finland, Japan, and Taiwan), and on most missile transfers, has been redacted in the FMS section.

Data sources like the 655 report are important because transparency is essential for proper public and Congressional oversight – the sine qua non of an effective arms export control system. Scrutiny of U.S. arms export programs helps to ensure that they do not run afoul of U.S. law and that they promote the full range of America’s interests abroad, not just the narrow agendas of the White House or the implementing agencies. Without clear, complete and timely data, systematic Congressional and public oversight of U.S. arms transfers would be impossible.

The 655 report is one of several public data sources on arms sales compiled by the U.S. Government that, together, provide arguably the most complete picture of national arms sales made available by any country. Indeed, the U.S. consistently ranks No. 1 in the Small Arms Survey’s Transparency Barometer for small arms trade data.

Yet the report is far from perfect. For example, many of the item/service descriptions in the Foreign Military Sales section are vague to the point of being meaningless. Category descriptions such as “OTHER WPNS + ORDNANCE EQP” and “OTHER AMMO AND COMPONENTS” – with no explanation as to what items are included in these categories – are common throughout the section. The other big problem with the Defense Department’s sections is that they are made available to the public only in response to FOIA requests filed by the FAS. The processing time for such requests is six months or more, during which time the public is unnecessarily deprived of the data. More importantly, if the FAS were to get out of the arms trade monitoring business, the data might not be released at all.

The State Department’s report on Direct Commercial Sales is better than the FMS section in some ways and worse in others. Its category descriptions are much clearer and more specific, and State is very good about posting the report on its website shortly after delivering it to Congress. It suffers from two significant shortcomings, however. The first is its subject matter. The data in this section is for licenses issued, not items delivered. Since not all licenses result in actual deliveries, or deliveries in the amount specified in the license, the data is of limited utility to many researchers.

Secondly, the Government Accountability Office has identified reliability problems with the data on Direct Commercial Sales. In a 2005 study, the GAO found coding errors, database limitations, and inaccurate reporting practices that raise “…questions about the accuracy and reliability of data in State’s Section 655 reports to Congress.” It should be noted that this study did not examine FMS data, only DCS. A similar analysis of the FMS section might be warranted given the egregious typo that made it into last year’s report. Under India, the report logged the delivery of $3.038 billion in “radar air search EQP,” an error that was carried over not only into the country total for India but also the worldwide total. As a result of the error, the worldwide total was off by nearly 25%.

To view the 655 reports for FY05 and previous fiscal years, visit our “Government Data” page.

For more GAO reports on U.S. arms sales and arms sales reports, visit our “Government Documents” page.

*Section 655 is the section of the Foreign Assistance Act that requires the report.