Across the world, the Pentagon has thousands of garages, hangars and sprawling lots to store all its jets, tanks and other weaponry. But, like most US households, it suffers from clutter, with old, unused and unwanted things.
And so the Pentagon runs a little-publicized giveaway and tag sale program to clean out its overstuffed attics and closets, which are bulging with the greatest weapons buildup since the Reagan era. The Pentagon also uses the Excess Defense Articles program, as it is called, to reward government friends and allies across the globe with equipment the Pentagon says it no longer needs.
There are deals galore, available free to the right customer or for cents on the dollar of their original cost. And there are lots of deal hunters, but access is by invitation only, and only for governments.
Pakistan and Jordan have snapped up a bunch of used F-16 Fighting Falcon jets. Afghanistan kicked the tires on a fleet of slightly used armored personnel carriers and walked away with 75 of them. A small fleet of 30-year-old sea rescue lifeboats has become the backbone of the Yemeni coast guard, and Portugal is about to take possession of a decommissioned guided-missile frigate.
"It is a flea market," said a State Department official who oversees the program. "It's our yard sale, and we make no guarantees."
The program is meant as a good will operation that the government uses to build friendships internationally. And the program has been picking up: The equipment offered this year had an original price tag of around US$1.56 billion, double the amount from the previous year. It is expected to grow again next year.
"There's everything from M-16s to F-16s, and anything in between," said Rachel Stohl, a senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information, a nonprofit group often critical of military spending priorities. "You can't get everything you want. But, boy, can you get a bargain."
Between 2000 and last year, the Pentagon offered up wares originally valued at US$8 billion: helicopters, torpedoes, airplanes, a wind tunnel, utility landing craft, cargo trucks, high-power radars, missiles, ammunition, uniforms and tenders, harbor craft and other vessels.
Around US$2 billion of this merchandise was given away to countries deemed needy enough to qualify. Another US$800 million was sold at drastically reduced prices -- even as low as US$0.05 on the dollar. The rest had no takers.
Most of the recipient countries cannot afford brand-new equipment on their own; the Philippines, Morocco and the Dominican Republican have been recent shoppers. But first world states like Australia and Canada have picked up some cheap castoffs, as well.
There is no central site where all the weaponry is gathered for inspection by would-be buyers. Instead the merchandise is offered on an "as is, where is" basis, with the buyer having to pay for shipping and repairs -- which can sometimes make the bargain less appealing and accounts for why not all the merchandise moves. Few shoppers, however, complain -- and they often observe the hand-off of weapons in ceremonies in their home countries, with US officials in attendance.
"We're grateful," said Sergeant Major Irving Estrada, assistant to the military attache of Guatemala.
His country has received used body armor, flight suits, boots and computers which were presented by the US ambassador at a ceremony in Guatemala City last April.