October 19, 2011

Proposed U.S. arms sale to Bahrain - the wrong weapons

The State Department announced that it will take into consideration an upcoming report on how Bahrain handled recent protests in the Gulf kingdom before approving the proposed sale of $53 million of American-made weapons. The State Department announcement is in response to Democratic senators who voiced concern that United States was in effect arming a nation who may have abused its citizens' human rights. They cite the Egyptian example that we might be perceived as arming a repressive government, a perception that in the future might harm our relations with the Bahraini people.

I have problems with the arms sale package, but not because of the concern over the ruling family in the Kingdom of Bahrain. My issue is with the makeup of the arms package itself - we're selling them the wrong weapons for their needs. I understand that a $53 million sale would be nice for contractors AM General and Raytheon, but isn't someone advising the Bahrainis on what they need?

Let's take a look at the relationship between the United States and Bahrain. Bahrain has been a staunch ally of the United States for years, in fact, the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet is headquartered in the island kingdom. The Bahraini royal family, the Al Khalifah, is Sunni in a 70 percent Shi'a country. Because of the Shi'a's natural affinity for the Iranians, Iran has been a constant thorn in the side of the Al Khalifah. The United States supports Bahrain's efforts to minimize Iranian influence on the island. Despite that, the Iranians have fomented unrest in the Shi'a community. The Iranians have gone so far as to claim that Bahrain is actually part of Iran.

Given the fact that the kingdom is ruled by a Sunni minority, it is doubtful that in a future change of government the Shi'a majority will ever gravitate towards the United States, so I think we should not consider how our support of the al Khalifah is viewed by the Shi'a. When push comes to shove, they will align with their Shi'a allies in Tehran.

The proposed $53 million arms package consists of 44 up-armored Humvees, 48 TOW anti-tank missile launchers, almost 300 TOW missiles (in various configurations), and associated night sighting devices. 

Approval of the sale requires the Defense Security Cooperation Agency to certify that it will contribute to the foreign policy and national security of the United States, specifically in this case, "by helping to improve the security of a major non-NATO ally that has been, and continues to be, an important force for political stability and economic progress in the Middle East. The proposed sale will improve Bahrain’s capability to meet current and future armored threats. Bahrain will use the enhanced capability as a deterrent to regional threats and to strengthen its homeland defense."

This is where I have a problem. Armored Humvees and TOW missiles constitute an anti-armor capability, defending against tanks and armored personnel carriers. From the certification: "The proposed sale will improve Bahrain’s capability to meet current and future armored threats." Hey, DOD, just where is that armored threat?

Bahrain is an island in the Persian Gulf. It's nearest neighbors are Saudi Arabia, less than 20 miles to the west, and Qatar, a little over 20 miles to the east. Bahrain is connected to Saudi Arabia by a causeway. Iran, which might pose the greatest threat to the kingdom, is over 100 miles away across the Persian Gulf.

I am having trouble picturing an armored vehicle threat to Bahrain. Perhaps the Saudis - a close ally of Bahrain, by the way - might run an armored column down the causeway? First, they would not do that. Bahrain has fairly liberal rules when it comes to Islam - Manama has bars and nightclubs. The causeway is usually packed on Wednesday (last day of the Saudi workweek) afternoons with Saudis heading for what passes for "sin city" in the region.

Which brings me to the next point. In the far-fetch likelihood of an attempted incursion via the causeway, it could easily be stopped with air power. It is hard to imagine any real land threat to Bahrain. Is someone postulating that the Iranians would attempt an amphibious assault across the Persian Gulf? Here again, the answer is air and sea power.

As with many of these small Gulf nations, Bahrain's best "bang for the buck" (excuse the obvious pun) lies in acquiring a capable air force and navy. A potent air force and navy can blunt almost any threat to Bahrain, or at least buy enough time for more capable allied forces such as the United States and Saudi Arabia to enter the fray.

Humvees and TOW missiles? I would ask if anyone at the Pentagon has actually thought this through, but the answer is obvious in their certification: "The proposed sale will improve Bahrain’s capability to meet current and future armored threats."

In case I am being too subtle, that's a no.