Lockheed Martin Tried to Trade F-16s for Frozen Chickens

Reuters uncovers the strange world of international arms sales

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The secretive world of international arms sales just became a little less secret thanks to a special report by Reuters. After an in-depth review of last year's leaked State Department cables, the wire service has uncovered several strange and unsettling dealings between military contractors and foreign governments, with U.S. diplomats obseqiously paving the way. There are a bunch of oddball deals in here, but want to know our two favorites? The deal to give Chad planes to kill pro-democracy demonstrators and the part where Lockheed Martin nearly sold Thailand F-16s in exchange for several boatloads of frozen chickens. Behold.

The Deal: Lockheed Martin wanted to sell C-130 military transport planes to Chad

The Problem: Chad couldn't afford the planes and lied about what it wanted to use them for (supressing a pro-democracy uprising)

The Role of U.S. Diplomats: The U.S. ambassador to Chad knew about Chad's lack of funds and even its intentions to use the planes for ill. Despite that, it promoted the deal: "Our conclusion is that, like it or not, our interests line up in favor of allowing the sale in some form to go forward."

The Other Deal:  Lockheed Martin wanted to sell F-16 fighter jets to the Thai government

The Problem:  Lockheed Martin was competing with Russia's Sukhoi and Sweden's Saab. Also the Thai government didn't want to pay in cash, so it proposed paying with 80,000 tons of frozen chickens.

The Role of U.S. Diplomats: They actually worked to promote the odd-ball deal since it A) helped Lockheed and B) kept the Russians from winning the deal. Incredibly, Lockheed indicated that it was "was willing to play ball" and accept chickens as payment. Nevertheless, the chickens-for-jets plan never panned out because the Thai regime was ousted in a military coup.

The Takeaway? Reuters' Ben Berkowitz puts it like this:

[The review of documents] paints a picture of foreign service officers and political appointees willing to go to great lengths to sell American products and services, and to prevent similar sales by other countries.

To be sure, that has been a big part of their job since the end of the Cold War. Nor do the cables point to any wrongdoing. But in some cases, the efforts were so strenuous they raise the question of where if anywhere the line is being drawn between diplomacy and salesmanship.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.