The Middle East Military-Industrial Quagmire

In his farewell address to the nation in January 1961 President Eisenhower warned of the dangers of the military-industrial complex; the undue influence resulting from policy and monetary relationships between legislators, the armed forces and the military industries. American defense industries no longer pose such a threat in 2013 as the Russian defense industrial base is usurping Middle East influence because of changes in the foreign policy of President Obama. This year the Russian state arms exporter will deliver more than $13 billion worth of military equipment to foreign customers. Some of these are Israel’s neighbors and some are Israel’s adversaries. For Israel, the question is not whether these weapons pose a threat but to what extent her ally, the United States, is losing influence. The capability of Russian weapon systems are not on par with those that Israel acquire from the United States or manufactures domestically. The issue is that weapons sales enable the seller to have leverage over the purchaser because the purchaser is dependent upon the seller for spare parts, maintenance, training, upgrades and eventually replacement. Russia is on the way to becoming the prominent and dominant seller to Egypt and Jordan and already is to Syria. This reduces the influence that the United States has in the region.

So why is this happening? The answer is a change in President Obama’s foreign policy cancelling deals with Egypt; and that Russian weapons are cheaper with less “strings attached” to their use. This makes Russia the preferred supplier. The Middle East countries are not unduly concerned that they are not procuring state-of-the-art computerized American weapon systems. Most of their requirements are for prestige or for domestic use. Traditionally American systems have the edge in electronic and computer elements however Russian systems make up for this in mechanical durability. So in lower intensity conflict and in harsher environments the Russian systems are ideal for the Middle East, exampled by the AK-47 over the M-16 assault rifle. As American forces withdraw from Afghanistan the best choice for the Afghan air force is the Russian manufactured Mi-17 helicopter as a gunship and for transport. The Middle East military market, excluding Israel, is thus a market that does not function commercially. Price and quality are forsaken in order to be independent of any constraints that the supplier may impose on their use.

Russian, for example, has placed “no strings attached” restrictions in supplying weapon systems to Syria. Consequently Russia has a Mediterranean naval base and sway over Syria. President Assad of Syria in turn has been able to remain in power despite a protracted civil-war and international pressure. The Syrian case of the “supplier-recipient relationship” is apparent to any non-elected leader in the Middle East. This is clear with regards to Egypt. The Obama administration suspended some military aid to Egypt, including $260 million in cash and deliveries of F-16 fighter jets, helicopters and tanks in an effort to prod the North African country toward democracy after the military ousting of President Morsi. Russia is stepping in to fill this vacuum. Egypt is seeking as much as $2 billion of Russian weaponry, including MiG-29 fighter planes, air-defence systems and anti-tank missiles. Egypt intends to spend six times more on purchases from Russia than the amount cut in American aid. A third Israeli neighbour Jordan has expressed a strong interest in locally assembling Russian-designed helicopters and the portable Kornet anti-tank missile system.

The United States is aiming to influence states through its policy but the opposite is taking place. A Middle East military-industrial quagmire is emerging as a consequence of the Obama administration’s changes in foreign policy. Washington is apparently oblivious that Middle East countries don’t look towards it as the sole super-power it portends to be. Washington is apparently unmindful of the “supplier-recipient relationship” where Middle East states have an alternative supplier with “no-strings-attached”.  Israel continues to hold the military advantage over its neighbors in quality and quantity of weapons and service personal. However there is a political loss for Israel. The disconcerting point is the waning of American influence and the potential return to a Cold War proxy struggle. Indicative of the need to clarify Russian relations with Egypt, Jordan and Syria and to sway Russian influence over them and Iran; Prime Minister Netanyahu has met President Putin more times than he has met President Obama.

Dr. Glen Segell, FRGS, is Researcher at The Institute for National Security Studies Tel Aviv, Lecturer at Bar-Ilan University and Senior Researcher for the Ariel Research Center for Defense and Communication.

About the Author
Dr Glen Segell is Fellow at the Ezri Center for Iran & Persian Gulf Studies, University of Haifa.