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The Coveted, Overpriced Missile at the Heart of Trump’s Ukraine Scandal

How the president took his predecessors’ gun-running tradition to dirty new depths.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

However narrow the managers may try to make it, the impeachment inquiry that has finally engulfed the presidency of Donald Trump after nearly three years of malfeasance is a scandalous goulash: a bald attempt to solicit foreign interference in the 2020 presidential election, to strongarm a foreign leader into cooperation, to retain power at all costs. But at its heart is an American-made missile that, like the Russian AK-47 rifle, has evolved into a powerful symbol of its producer’s geopolitical reach.

In his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, detailed in a now-infamous whistleblower complaint, Trump appeared to guarantee the sale to Kiev of FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missiles in return for a “corruption” investigation into Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. Subsequent reports revealed that Attorney General William Barr met with Ukrainian officials, as well as those from four other countries, about the origins of the FBI investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Vice President Mike Pence, too, was reportedly enlisted to tell Zelenskiy the Javelin shipments depended on a “more aggressive action on corruption,” and Trump is now openly asking foreign countries to help him screw one of his political challengers to the wall, as more evidence of a clear Ukraine quid pro quo emerges by the minute.

But the cretinous foreign policy practiced by the Trump administration at least helps to remind taxpayers of the way in which American foreign weapons sales have reordered presidential priorities, from the War of 1812 to Franklin Roosevelt’s “arsenal of democracy” to the Cold War and today. The Ukraine Javelin affair reflects a sad truth about American foreign policy in general, and the last half-century in particular: Strip away the soaring rhetoric of freedom and liberty, and the U.S. government is the world’s most heavily-armed protection racket—and by embracing foreign military sales, it’s exporting Trump’s fabled “American carnage” abroad.

Foreign military sales have always been a fixture of U.S. history, but the development of the post-World War II military-industrial complex—and the American desire to pull troops out of Vietnam while still maintaining an air of military supremacy—made arms transfers a pillar of U.S. geopolitical power. The Nixon Doctrine opened the floodgates, out of conviction that the U.S. would “assist in defense and development of allies and friends” around the globe, but not with boots on the ground. President Richard Nixon—who, like Trump, shared a penchant for secret and likely illegal foreign-policy backchannels—defended arms-based partnerships to a war-weary nation by arguing that American troops “cannot—and will not… undertake all the defense of the free nations of the world.”

Foreign military sales grew even more dramatically following 9/11, as successive administrations used security assistance programs to shore up partners in a Global War on Terror. Owing to that trend, the U.S. remains the world’s top arms exporter today, by a wide and increasing margin: The gap between American exports and those of the next-biggest arms dealer, Russia, has effectively sextupled since President Barack Obama’s first term. And the Trump administration has only hastened the flow of weapons abroad: U.S. arms sales jumped 33 percent between fiscal years 2017 and 2018, to $55.6 billion; through three quarters in 2019, the U.S. has already hit $44.15 billion in sales, putting it on pace for another record year.

The Javelin, a shoulder-fired tank-killing missile that soldiers can fire at targets up to three miles away without much hassle, was adopted to replace the M47 Dragon “man-portable” launcher in the mid-1990s, freeing those older models for sale to Saudi Arabia and Israel, among others (some were reportedly found in Iranian hands, as well). Raytheon’s Javelin first saw action during the 2003 invasion of Iraq; just 18 days into America’s war, two Javelin-toting Green Berets aided their comrades in holding off a larger and better-armed Iraqi force on a critical highway to the country’s Kirkuk oil fields. The engagement gained the missile a reputation for lethality, one that could help Raytheon move units.

But the Javelin hasn’t always proved useful to American troops in post-9/11 counterinsurgencies, where the targets aren’t tanks but “technicals,” beaten-up trucks toting fighters and light arms. “The irony of using Javelins to destroy pickup trucks and machine guns is that the roughly $80,000 Javelin missiles cost considerably more than the weapon systems they are destroying,” War Is Boring correspondent Sebastien Roblen reported last year. This occasionally has led U.S. forces to “hold back on using the weapon in Afghanistan.”

Who would want or need such a thing? Every U.S. ally, it turns out. A 2016 analysis by three civilian Army researchers found that foreign military sales of Javelins tend to swell whenever U.S. forces “begin their retrograde actions” from a given area of responsibility; when U.S. troops can’t stick around, this logic goes, regional partners and a bunch of Javelins can get the job done. The Nixon Doctrine is alive and well. (As is Raytheon, whose stock value has risen 33 percent since Trump’s inauguration.) Fifteen years after the “Javelin Aces” targeted Saddam Hussein’s aging T-55 tanks on Iraq’s Highway 2, major recipients of the missile’s foreign military sales include Jordan, Qatar, Taiwan, and Australia, regional allies positioned to help contain armor-heavy perceived competitors like Iran, China, and North Korea.

It’s no wonder that Ukraine stood desperate for U.S. support against tank-heavy “great power competitor” Russia following 2014 annexation of Crimea. The Pentagon, transitioning from its post-9/11 obsession with “asymmetrical” foes to a renewed obsession with Russian and Chinese ambitions, recently began to upgrade its armored-vehicle brigades with Javelin missiles. The weapons would have an obvious role in checking the Russian advance in East Ukraine. Kiev had already purchased 210 Javelin missiles and 37 launchers from the U.S. for an estimated $47 million in May 2018. Trump’s intimated quid pro quo, besides being criminally stupid and self-interested, seemed to add a corollary to the Nixon Doctrine: The nature of a U.S. partner’s conflict or its larger importance doesn’t matter as much as the partner’s willingness to kiss the ring.

This has all put U.S. military commanders—who have long recommended the Javelin sales to protect Ukraine against further Russian encroachment, and who want to avoid involvement in Trump’s political shitshow—in a tight spot. On Thursday, as the impeachment clouds gathered, the DOD’s chief of European Command, Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters, told Pentagon reporters that he recommended the Javelins get to Ukraine posthaste. “I think more of those will probably help, and right now it is my military advice that I think we should go forward with that,” he said. But when reporters pressed Wolters on whether he’d ever inquired why the sales had been held up by the White House, he declined to answer, and a spokeswoman stepped in to tell the press corps: “We’re not going to get into the politics here.”

But Trump chicanery or no, the military leadership’s zeal for arms transfers is already deeply political. Javelins could be just as effective against civilians and American troops as they are against Russian-built armor—and, like other globally popular U.S. weapons systems, they almost always end up used against civilians and American troops. A 2014 Pentagon report found that 43 percent of U.S. weapons of all types funneled to Afghan security forces simply vanished; a subsequent 2016 analysis revealed that the DOD could barely account for half of the 1.5 million weapons provided to Afghan and Iraqi security forces since the start of the invasions there. All of these arms flow freely between ISIS contingents across the Middle East and North Africa. In July, Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman Col. Ryan S. Dillon gave a flaccid answer when asked how the U.S. planned to keep track of weapons distributed to partner forces in Iraq and Syria: “Whenever we sign up for something, you know, we go through every serial number.”

Small arms may seem easier to traffic, but the uber-desirable Javelins end up in enemy hands, too. In 2003, a GAO report found that the U.S. Army had lost track of 36 Javelin launch units following the invasion of Iraq. While the Pentagon and State Department both denied sending any anti-tank weapons to regional forces fighting ISIS in Syria, The Washington Post in February 2016 identified a Javelin in the hands of Kurdish YPG forces at work in northern Syria. A year later, footage from television station Al-Mawsleya appeared to show a Javelin missile and launcher among a cache of weapons recovered from an ISIS weapons cache just outside the Iraqi city of Tal Afar; as recently as this July, The New York Times reported that the Libyan government had recovered a quartet of Javelin missiles, first sold to France, from an encampment belonging to rebels seeking to overthrow the UN-recognized central government. The Javelin isn’t a tool of democracy: It’s a highly portable, highly destructive weapon that serves no ideology in particular.

In his inaugural address, Trump decried the America he had inherited as a carnage-filled hellscape; a few months later, he would be the guest of honor at the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting, thanking the group for its effusive (and potentially illegal, foreign-supported) support of his campaign. That supreme disconnect mirrors multiple presidential administrations’ embrace of foreign military sales, along with the idea that—as beloved proto-fascist Robert Heinlein put it—“an armed society is a polite society.” But just as with domestic inaction on gun control, foreign arms proliferation only fuels violence and bloodshed in ways that the United States government can’t, and won’t, control. By incorporating foreign military sales into his paranoid style of executive power, Trump has simply dropped the illusion that the U.S. is anything more than the world’s largest gun dealer, and business is damn good—good enough that he feels he can set his own onerous terms.