The Arsenal of Democracy Is Back in Business

Proposed U.S. arms sales to NATO almost doubled this past year as Russia’s aggression spooked the continent.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Ukrainian soldiers load a truck with a U.S.-made FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missile on its delivery.
Ukrainian soldiers load a truck with a U.S.-made FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missile on its delivery.
Ukrainian soldiers load a truck with a U.S.-made FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missile on its delivery at Kyiv's Boryspil Airport on Feb. 11. Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images

The United States nearly doubled the number and price tag of approved arms sales to NATO allies in 2022 compared with 2021, as alliance members scramble to stock up on high-end weapons in the wake of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

In 2021, the U.S. government approved 14 possible major arms sales to NATO allies worth around $15.5 billion. In 2022, that jumped up to 24 possible major arms sales worth around $28 billion, including $1.24 billion worth of arms sales to expected future NATO member Finland, according to a Foreign Policy analysis of two years of data from the U.S. Defense Department’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency.

While not all arms sales will be finalized with the same numbers outlined in the proposals, the sharp uptick in these plans reflects a massive shift in Europe’s security landscape after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February. After some European countries allowed their defense capabilities to atrophy for decades, Russia’s invasion jolted Europe into a scramble to rapidly boost military spending.

The United States nearly doubled the number and price tag of approved arms sales to NATO allies in 2022 compared with 2021, as alliance members scramble to stock up on high-end weapons in the wake of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

In 2021, the U.S. government approved 14 possible major arms sales to NATO allies worth around $15.5 billion. In 2022, that jumped up to 24 possible major arms sales worth around $28 billion, including $1.24 billion worth of arms sales to expected future NATO member Finland, according to a Foreign Policy analysis of two years of data from the U.S. Defense Department’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency.

While not all arms sales will be finalized with the same numbers outlined in the proposals, the sharp uptick in these plans reflects a massive shift in Europe’s security landscape after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February. After some European countries allowed their defense capabilities to atrophy for decades, Russia’s invasion jolted Europe into a scramble to rapidly boost military spending.

“Everyone is trying to lock down arms sales deals as quickly as possible,” said one Eastern European defense official, who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity. “Russia’s invasion has brought a cold new reality to Europe.”

Some of the approved U.S. arms sales in 2022 were years in the making, such as Germany’s plan to purchase F-35 fighter jets in a deal worth around $8.4 billion. But many other major arms sales were rushed after the war broke out in Ukraine, as European countries on NATO’s eastern flank dashed to bulk up their own military capabilities in an effort to backfill the equipment they shipped to Ukraine and deter Moscow from any military incursions on alliance territory.

In early December, for example, the State Department cleared a possible sale of 116 M1 Abrams battle tanks to Poland, after an initial proposed plan to sell Poland 250 of such battle tanks was announced in April. The three Baltic countries on NATO’s vulnerable eastern flank—Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia—all pursued plans to procure the types of U.S. long-range rocket and missile systems that helped Ukraine turn the tide of the war against Russia in recent months. The State Department approved a plan to sell up to six HIMARS rocket launchers to Estonia in July under its foreign military sales program, in a deal worth around $500 million. It approved a similar sale to Lithuania in November. A U.S. deal to sell HIMARS to Latvia is expected to be announced in early 2023, according to several U.S. and European officials familiar with the matter.

The data showcases how the United States remains a major arms supplier for allies in Europe in the short term, even as Europe’s own defense industries scramble to meet wartime demands for conventional arms and ammunition. The flurry of new defense sales comes amid growing concerns in the West that NATO countries are running out of excess military equipment and munitions to send to Ukraine to aid its fight against the Russian invasion. Defense officials and experts say Europe’s defense industrial base is struggling to rapidly expand its capacities to keep pace with the new demand.

“Europeans are getting extremely worried about not having enough of their own military equipment after sending so much to Ukraine,” said Rachel Rizzo, a scholar at the Atlantic Council. “The United States certainly plays a role in helping here, which is evidenced by the increase in arms sales in 2022 compared to 2021. However, it also highlights that Europe needs to get its act together in the security and defense realm.”

At this phase in the war, Ukraine is firing some 4,000 to 7,000 rounds of artillery a day, rapidly using up munitions delivered by the West shortly after they arrive. The United States has sent some 806,000 155 mm artillery rounds to Ukraine since Russia began its invasion. By comparison, the United Kingdom, which has one of Europe’s strongest militaries, has sent around 16,000 rounds to Ukraine as it grapples with its own supply shortages. In November, the British government notified one of the country’s top defense industry firms to expand its production of artillery shells.

On the other side of the conflict, however, Russia’s battered forces are also running low on ammunition after a series of stinging battlefield defeats that pushed them farther back into eastern Ukraine before winter set in. Moscow has sought to backfill its own dwindling munitions supplies through deals with Iran and North Korea. It has also taken some 20,000 tons of ammunition from neighboring Belarus, Lithuania’s defense minister, Arvydas Anusauskas, told Defense News in an interview this week. Under President Aleksandr Lukashenko, Belarus has served as an accomplice and logistical staging ground for Russia’s invasion.

Successive U.S. presidents have long called on NATO’s European allies to boost their defense spending, a campaign that at times caused rifts within the alliance and diplomatic headaches, particularly under former U.S. President Donald Trump. But Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine and illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 slowed the decline in Europe’s overall defense spending. Its full-fledged invasion in February has completely reversed the trend, as more NATO allies announce massive increases in defense budgets.

In 2014, just four NATO allies—the United States, United Kingdom, Estonia, and Greece—met the alliance’s benchmark of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense. By 2022, 10 of NATO’s 30 members are slated to spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense. Some countries are going even further: Estonia pledged to boost its annual defense budget by 42 percent in 2023 and committed to spending 3 percent of its GDP on defense.

Finland and Sweden, which declared their intent to join NATO this year after Russia’s invasion, have also announced plans to increase their defense spending. Finland already spends around 2 percent of GDP on defense, while the Swedish government has unveiled plans to increase defense spending to 2 percent of GDP by 2023. The two Nordic countries’ accession to NATO has been delayed by Turkey, but U.S. and NATO defense officials say they expect Turkey to approve their membership by next year.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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