Loose lips sink ships, as the United States war office used to warn. Today it’s Donald Trump’s loose language that threatened to dampen Australia’s own shipbuilding and acquisition.
The Pentagon has intervened to reverse a White House order that, briefly, blocked Australia from filling essential positions in its acquisition program of naval and aircraft technology from the US government’s arms seller.
The original memo from the US President ordered a hiring freeze on all federal civilian positions, but was worded so broadly as to cover any executive-branch role “regardless of the sources of their operational and programmatic funding, excepting military personnel”. Included, unintentionally, were thousands of positions funded by allied governments to support foreign military sales (FMS).
America’s partners quickly discovered they were caught in an overly broad net to rein in spending — even when that spending wasn’t paid by US taxpayers.
The order stood for just 10 days before Robert Work, the deputy Defense secretary, intervened last week to exempt positions funded by foreign military sales along with 15 other categories. Other positions deemed too essential to leave unfilled include armament maintenance, emergency medical, childcare, and military funeral services.
Work is an Obama administration carryover, and he is not expected to remain in the post.
Hiring freeze was a fiscal and strategic risk
Trump claims to know the art of the deal, but it would have been a very bad idea to interrupt these. Foreign military sales bring in $40-50 billion in profit each year for the US Treasury, of which Australia contributed approximately $183 billion over the last 10 years.
As one of America’s favoured partners, Australia has access to more technical detail and higher technology materiel than most purchasers. Although, top range technology, such as the F22 fighters, remain off the menu even to its closest partners.
Like Trump’s promise to build a wall and get Mexico to pay for it, these deals are very much in the US national interest but foreign militaries are charged for all US costs — including expenses that are unquestionably not in the purchaser’s interest. For instance, FMS charges Australia for the employment of American staff whose job is to protect US military superiority, intellectual property and run interference if the deal starts to look too good.
FMS staff on the Australian payroll cover everything the US needs to facilitate the deal including contracting, security, training, engineering and administrative support. They also act as the go-between of the US companies that produce the armaments and the officials of the purchasing nation, collecting a tidy fee in the process.
The Department of Defense also claims a strategic gain from these sales. In a statement for US media on the recent sale of AEA-18G Electronic Warfare Range System for $115 million, the DoD said supporting Australia’s capability is “vital” to US national interest in the region and to support US personnel who train and operate here:
“This sale will contribute to the foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to improve the security of a major contributor to political stability, security, and economic development in the Western Pacific. Australia is an important Major non-NATO Ally and partner that contributes significantly to peacekeeping and humanitarian operations around the world. It is vital to the U.S. national interest to assist our ally in developing and maintaining a strong and ready self-defense capability.”
The Indo-Asia-Pacific region is the most consequential region for America’s future, says the outgoing Defense Secretary Ash Carter — it’s a quote that is often repeated by top US commanders whether meeting Australians or appearing before House and Senate Armed Services Committee hearings.
Senior ADF officers who deployed with the income Secretary, James Mattis, told The Mandarin that he will be a firm supporter of even closer ties between the two countries.
If getting wrong the name of the Australian prime minister can be brushed off, halting foreign military sales due to overconfidence among White House staff could not be dismissed quite so easily.
The broad and indiscriminating language of the presidential memorandum resembled the carelessness and overreach of some of Trump’s other executive orders. In the most well-known of these cases, acting Attorney General Sally Yates — another Obama appointee — was sacked by Trump for her effort to temper what she interpreted as unconstitutional overreach from the White House in the border ban on green card holders.