Egypt May Not Need Fighter Jets, But The U.S. Keeps Sending Them Anyway : Planet Money American military advisers in Cairo say the U.S. should stop sending F-16s to Egypt. Military contractors disagree.

Egypt May Not Need Fighter Jets, But The U.S. Keeps Sending Them Anyway

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

This morning, Egypt remains locked in a, quote, dangerous stalemate. That phrase comes from a grim statement issued yesterday by Secretary of State John Kerry along with the EU's top diplomat. That follows a failure to mediate an end to the conflict between protestors backing former President Mohamed Morsi and the military that ousted him last month.

WERTHEIMER: Security forces have Morsi and his associates in detention. And the government threatens to clear the streets by force. More than 250 people have already died amid the political crisis.

MONTAGNE: The U.S. says one way it influences Egypt's generals is through American military aid of around $1.3 billion a year. But much of that money ends up far from the land of the Nile.

Julia Simon of our Planet Money team wanted to know where exactly that money goes.

JULIA SIMON, BYLINE: The first thing you need to know about the money we send to Egypt is we don't really send it to Egypt. Every year, the $1.3 billion in military aid appropriated by Congress is sent here, 33 Liberty Street, Manhattan, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

An official at the Department of Defense explained this to me. He says the money sits in an account somewhere inside this building for a while, then it's sent to a trust fund at the U.S. Treasury, and from there the money is finally disbursed to its ultimate destination.

SHANA MARSHALL: Dallas, Texas; Fort Worth, Texas; Greenland, New York, Seattle, Washington...

SIMON: This is Shana Marshall, an expert on Middle Eastern militaries at George Washington University. She's listing cities where some of the largest military contractors in the U.S. make the weapons the Egyptian military buys.

MARSHALL: The money actually just sort of circulates within the U.S., it never actually makes it to Egypt.

SIMON: Getting American-made weapons to an ally isn't that unusual. It's just that unlike Egypt, most countries use their own money. But there's something else unusual in the Egyptian case: the equipment we're providing. Specifically F-16 fighter jets and M1A1 Abrams tanks.

Let's start with the tanks. The U.S. started sending M1A1 tanks to Egypt in the late '80s. Cost: $3.9 billion for more than a thousand tanks. Which Marshall says are added to the several thousand Soviet-era tanks Egypt already has.

MARSHALL: There's no conceivable scenario where the Egyptian army would need that many tanks, short of an alien invasion.

ROBERT SPRINGBORG: I don't think it's a useful procurement.

SIMON: Robert Springborg is an expert on the Egyptian military at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. I reached him via Skype. He says tanks might be useful for big land wars. But when it comes to Egypt's threats today, like counterterrorism and border security problems in Sinai, tanks aren't so helpful.

SPRINGBORG: Of the thousand M1A1s, we know at least 200, 250 are essentially still sitting in boxes. They've really never been used.

SIMON: They just put them straight in a warehouse?

SPRINGBORG: Well, yeah. They're crated up and then they are put in deep storage and that's where they remain.

SIMON: And then there's the F-16 fighter jets. Since 1980 we've sold Egypt 221 for $8 billion. Egypt now has the fourth largest fleet in the world. But Robert Springborg says Egypt really doesn't need that many F-16s. And he's not the only expert who will tell you that.

SPRINGBORG: Our American military advisors in Cairo have for many years been advising against further acquisition of F-16s. Indeed, the head of our office of military cooperation defense attache - himself an F-16 pilot - actually advises against it on the grounds that other needs are more pressing.

SIMON: That former defense attache didn't want to be recorded for this story, but he confirmed Springborg's account. So all this raises the question: Why are we giving the Egyptian military weapons that our own military personnel advise against giving?

For answers, I started with the State Department. They, along with Congress, give final approval on all the weapons we send to Egypt. The State Department responded to our questions in an email. About those tanks in warehouses, they say, it's not usual for a country to, quote, "maintain a portion of its equipment in reserve in the event of security contingencies."

They added that helping the Egyptian military is in the U.S.'s security interests. And also the U.S. decides which weapons to send to partners like Egypt, quote, "in consultation with our partners' own determination of their strategic and force structure requirements." Meaning part of the reason we send the Egyptian military these weapons: They say they need them.

I met with a high ranking official in the Egyptian military who confirmed that Egypt does request those tanks and the fighter jets. The military feels they're necessary for Egypt's security. But at the end of the day, he said, quote: "The U.S. wouldn't have given us weapons they didn't want us to have."

So why does the U.S. government still want Egypt to have weapons they might not need? Partly because of guys like this.

BRUCE BARON. BARON INDUSTRIES: The aid that we give to Egypt is coming back to the U.S. and keeping 30 of my people working.

SIMON: This is Bruce Baron, president of Baron Industries, a small business in Oxford, Michigan. Thirty of his 57 employees are working on parts for those tanks that we give to Egypt. And Baron says that the past few years, every March he and other small-business owners have gone to Capitol Hill at the invitation of the larger contractor General Dynamics.

INDUSTRIES: We usually take that opportunity to go and make visits to our congressmen and let them know of our support for some of these programs and also the impact that these programs have on employment in their state and in their region.

SIMON: Former Republican Congressman Jim Kolbe often received visits from military contractors like Bruce Baron. Before he retired in 2007, Kolbe was the chair of the appropriations subcommittee that approves the military aid we give to Egypt. And he says in a perfect world the U.S. wouldn't be sending more F-16s and more M1A1s to Egypt today.

JIM KOLBE FORMER CONGRESSMAN: I think that legitimate questions need to be asked of the Egyptian military. What is the objective, what is the mission of the military these days? What do you see as the real threat? And I think the Egyptian military needs to be doing a little bit more hard thinking about some of those things But you know, big toys are things that generals and military people like to have around.

SIMON: As Kolbe knows, aid to Egypt is a complex proposition. He says the State Department doesn't want to upset the status quo, the Defense Department doesn't want to upset a valuable ally in the region, and of course contractors want to keep their contracts.

CONGRESSMAN: So everybody really has an interest in keeping things the way they are. Changing things, whether it's in this or any other part of government is often the most difficult thing to do.

SIMON: Stability, Kolbe says, that's what everybody wants in the U.S. relationship with the Egyptian military. For NPR News, I'm Julia Simon.

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