U.S. Exports Arms to the World
by Anna Rich
Resist newsletter, May 1999
As the end of the millennium approaches, the United States
is doing well, globally speaking-acting as economic exemplar,
rich old uncle, and global policeman. Increasingly, the U.S. has
added another leadership role: generous and enthusiastic arms
merchant to the world.
Since the demise of the Soviet Union, the United States has
dominated the global arms market. During 1994-1996, the United
States exported $67.3 billion dollars worth of armaments: 55%
of global arms exports, quadruple the share of its closest competitor.'
With one year left to go, the U.S. has already sold tens of billions
of dollars more weapons during the 1990s then throughout the entire
The result of these exports is weapons globalization-like
McDonalds and CocaCola, American arms and military training have
found their way to virtually every country on earth. Of the 24
countries which experienced at least one major armed conflict
in 1997,3 the United States sold arms or provided military training
to 21 of them at some point during the l 990s. In exceptions such
as Iran and Afghanistan, plenty of U.S. hardware no doubt remains
from previous decades.
But the omnipresence of U.S. weaponry hasn't come easily.
The global arms trade
has shrunk since the 1980s, due to the end of the cold war
and economic turmoil. Governments have been buying less weaponry,
resulting in excess arms industry capacity. Inventory cuts have
also left many countries with large holdings of surplus weaponry;
between 1990-95, for instance, the United States exported an estimated
$7 billion of surplus arms for free or deeply discounted.
Regional economic instability has further tightened the market
for U.S. arms. In East Asia, many U.S. customers are feeling the
pinch and cutting back on weapons imports. Most Latin American
countries, only recently allowed to buy U.S. advanced weapons,
have wisely decided that weapons systems are not a top priority
right now (though U.S. arms gifts are another matter). Europe
and the Middle East, the main buyers of big-ticket items, absorbed
nearly two thirds of the total dollar value of U.S. arms exports
Yet despite these constraints, the United States has dramatically
increased its market share and even increased its total arms exports
(see chart on page one). That the United States can export so
much so consistently is a tribute to U. S. weapons manufacturers'
advanced technology, governmental support-and willingness to cater
to customers' desires.
In today's commercially driven arms bazaar, U.S. customers
demand special price and financing packages, technology to produce
sub-components, components, or entire weapons systems themselves,
and ultra-high-tech weaponry-and they get it.
Spreading Weapons Around the World Arms transfers have been
a primary instrument of U.S. foreign policy since the Nixon Doctrine,
an "easy way to win friends and influence people. Recipient
nations are said to need U.S. arms in order to take responsibility
for legitimate self-defense. In reality, the U.S. uses arms exports
and joint military exercises to gain access to overseas bases
and to establish the infrastructure and inter-operability necessary
for U.S. intervention. Other strategic rationales include maintaining
"regional stability" and preserving the U.S. defense
industrial base, regardless of the risk that weapons exports may
undermine regional peace and security.
Recent arms deal negotiations reveal an increased willingness
to sell top technology regardless of the effects of proliferation:
Middle Eastern countries have been regular U.S. customers,
but low oil prices have intensified competition for their patronage.
Pentagon officials have recently allowed introduction of Advanced
Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles-a deadly state-of-the-art missile
system-and other ultra-high-tech armaments to the region. Since
first agreeing to sell AMRAAMs to Saudi Arabia and Israel in April
1998, the Pentagon has offered:
* $3.2 billion of arms to Egypt, including the most advanced
version of the F- 16, paid for with U.S. military aid;
* AMRAAMs and associated technology to Bahrain, worth $1 10
* $2 billion of AMRAAMs, ammunition and bombs to complement
a previous $6-8 billion F- 16 fighter jet sale to the United Arab
Emirates. The U.A.E. has also demanded the computer coding for
the F- 1 6s which would enable it to modify or replicate the jet's
intelligence. If the U.A.E. gets the source code, other buyers
will be sure to want it too.
Secretary of Defense William Cohen explained that he had to
sell friendly Gulf states whatever they requested because otherwise
they "would take it as an insult" and seek another supplier.
Meanwhile, some in the Arab media allege that the U.S. is "exploiting
the issue of the so-called Iraq-Iran danger" to sell more
arms in the Gulf.
In Europe, Turkey, another long-time customer, is also up
for a major purchase of U.S. equipment: they would like to buy
145 attack helicopters worth about $3.5 billion. When this deal
was originally proposed, vociferous criticism by human rights
and arms control groups forced the State Department to issue a
conditional license requiring that Turkey improve its human rights
record in order to buy U.S. models. Amnesty International and
Human Rights Watch have documented the use of U.S.-supplied weapons
in the commission of political and human rights abuses, including
indiscriminate attacks on Kurdish civilians. The economic incentives
for approving the sale may, however, impede an honest assessment
of Turkey's progress.
Meanwhile, the US is also arming Greece, Turkey's main rival,
with proposed deals worth over $5 billion in 1998. Perhaps arming
both sides equally is what is meant by the Pentagon's oft-used
phrase, "the proposed sale ... will not affect the basic
military balance in the region."
The Small (but Deadly) Stuff
Next to multi-million dollar missile systems, "small"
arms may seem like a minor problem, yet they are thought to be
responsible for most combat-related deaths today. Massive stocks
of these durable, portable weapons that were transferred to conflict
zones in the 1 980s are now being recirculated around southern
and eastern Africa, South Asia and Central America. As recently
as 1997, the State Department issued licenses for small arms to
such countries as Bulgaria, Colombia, El Salvador, Indonesia,
Mexico, South Africa, and Turkey, all of which are currently involved
in internal conflicts, human rights abuses, or willful diversions
to suspect third parties. Recent small arms sales to Albania,
Bosnia, and FYR of Macedonia could come back to haunt us sooner
than we think.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced at a September
1998 United Nations meeting that arms exporting states "bear
some responsibility" for a trade which "fuels conflict,
fortifies extremism and destabilizes entire regions" in Africa
and worldwide. So far, however, the U.S. administration has taken
few concrete actions to live up to this responsibility.
Military Training and Assistance
U.S. provision of training and equipment to foreign militaries
has long been a cause for concern to human rights and peace activists.
Last year, the Department of Defense (DOD) trained over 7,000
members of 120 foreign militaries, at a cost of $50 million, as
part of its "International Military Education and Training"
(IMET) program. Some past graduates of the "School of the
Americas," a Spanish-language training center run by the
U.S. military, have gone on to commit notorious human rights crimes.
Yet these better known training programs are just the tip of the
Hundreds of millions of dollars are allocated each year to
the DOD and State Department for foreign militaries under counter-narcotics
and "special operations" training programs. Colombia
and Mexico, two leading recipients, have received millions of
dollars worth of training and equipment to help fight the "drug
President Clinton made history this year when he apologized
for the U.S. role in training and arming Guatemalan troops who
committed acts of genocide against the indigenous population.
"The United States must not repeat that mistake," he
warned. Yet his administration seems reluctant to take his advice
seriously. After Congress in 1992 banned provision of IMET to
Indonesia due to human rights abuses in East Timor and elsewhere,
the DOD evaded Congressional mandate by conducting "joint
exercises" between U.S. and lndonesian military forces.
Your Tax Dollars at Work
U.S. weapons and training could not have made it so far around
the world without the help of U.S. taxpayers. U.S major weapons
systems occupy the "top end" of the global arms market,
and many poorer countries cannot afford U.S. weapons outright.
For those unable or unwilling to purchase U.S. arms directly,
there are a variety of options. In its FY2000 budget request,
the Clinton administration asked for $6.5 billion in military
aid, including: $3.4 to underwrite foreign purchases of U.S. arms;
$2.4 billion in "security assistance," such as arming
Iraqi opposition groups; $295 million for counter-narcotics training
and equipment; and $52 million for IMET. Taxpayer subsidized loans
and surplus U.S. military equipment are also readily available.
Economic Benefits... And Costs
In the post-Cold War era, U.S. arms manufacturers appeal to
more overtly commercial motives for subsidies, export promotion,
and military assistance. Arms sales are promoted as a way to cut
down on U. S. military costs. John Douglass, president of the
Aerospace Industries Association, testified that "increasingly,
the Department of Defense looks to our foreign sales of military
equipment to keep crucial defense lines open and reduce unit costs
to the military."
Military assistance and training, in turn, bring economic
benefits to arms makers. As then-Assistant Secretary of State
for Inter-American Affairs Alexander Watson explained to Congress
candidly, "[training programs] bring certain economic benefits
as well; they give Latin and Caribbean officials experience using
American hardware, and thus can influence their future procurement
decisions." And whenever Congress threatens to veto a particularly
objectionable arms sale, industry representatives are quick to
argue that refusal to export weapons will cost American defense
The Clinton administration has clearly taken this logic to
heart, and does what it can to promote U.S. arms sales. Arms exporters
have been pressing for reform of the government's export control
system, complaining about the length of time an arms sale takes
to make it through the requisite layers of bureaucracy and Congressional
oversight. The DOD has responded with elaborate plans to streamline
and speed up the arms sale process-it even proposed that weapons
be promoted on the internet in a planned "Electronic Mall."
Yet the rationales of the defense lobby don't take the full
costs of exporting weapons and assistance into account. According
to William Hartung's report Welfare for Weapons Dealers: the Hidden
Costs of the Arms Trade, the American public spent an estimated
$7.6 billion to promote and finance weapons exports in 1995 alone.
Taxpayers underwrite the research and development of weapons and
employ a Pentagon sales force of several thousand people here
"Offsets," the trade concessions required by foreign
buyers as conditions of sale in today's competitive arms market,
significantly reduce the supposed trade and jobs benefits of arms
exporting. A recent Commerce Department report found that between
1993 and 1996, U.S. defense companies entered into offset agreements
valued at $15. billion in support of $29.1 billion worth of defense
contracts. In other words, for every dollar a U.S. company received
from an arms sale associated with offsets, it returned 52 cents
worth of offset obligations to the purchasing country.
Offsets may include agreements that will eventually increase
competition in the defense market by granting licenses to recipient
countries to produce parts or entire weapons systems. For instance,
both Greece and Turkey would like to develop an indigenous capacity
to build sophisticated weaponry. Taking advantage of the tight
arms market, they demand up to 100% in returned investment on
major arms deals, often in the forms of co-production deals. Lockheed
Martin already produces many F-16 fighter jets in Turkey, and
Boeing has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Greece covering
the "future production" of F-15s and "new production
and maintenance capabilities." This practice not only exports
U.S. jobs abroad, but will also result in even greater global
surplus weapons production.
Finally, everyone ultimately pays a higher DOD bill because
of exports. Weapons proliferation, instability and warfare in
the developing world are used to justify Pentagon budget requests.
The development and production of next-generation U.S. weapons
are rationalized by DOD officials as necessary to keep up with
the high-tech weapons now being shipped to developing countries.
Who's Taking Responsibility?
The practice of treating lethal goods as just another product
to be promoted and sold is problematic on a more fundamental level.
While the United States is very concerned about its responsibility
to prevent nuclear proliferation, there is no corresponding acknowledgment
of the danger of filling the world up with conventional weaponry,
even when, as in the case of Iraq or Somalia, U.S supplied arms
later "boomerang" back to hit American troops.
Arms manufacturers take refuge in the amorality of the bottom
line-they will sell whatever foreign countries are willing to
buy. They don't need to worry about the global effects of their
products, they claim, because the U.S. government screens to prevent
sales that would contribute to proliferation or could fall into
the wrong hands.
The administration, in turn, washes its hands of responsibility
for evaluating the overall effects of arms sales. As Defense Secretary
Cohen said during a recent arms sales promotion tour in the Gulf,
"to the extent that each country feels they need to have
measures to protect its population and its military, then certainly
we are in a position to, and are eager to, provide whatever equipment
that we can."
Both the arms industry and the Clinton administration are
reluctant to impose additional controls on U.S. arms exports or
military assistance. Someone will be sure to sell to those who
wish to buy, reasons the defense lobby, and unilateral controls
would be "damaging [to] our industry, while seldom preventing
the buyer from obtaining the desired technology or commodity."
Despite the uniquely dominant U. S. role in the arms market, they
claim, we still cannot risk losing market share over mere principles.
Campaigning for a Code of Conduct
An "Arms Sales Code of Conduct" is a solution championed
by a coalition of arms control, religious, and human rights organizations.
Associated with Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Oscar Arias' international
code of conduct campaign, it was introduced in the U.S. Congress
by Representatives Cynthia McKinney and Dana Rohrabacher. The
Code would prohibit arms exports to any government that does not
meet the criteria set out in the law unless the President exempts
a country and Congress does not overturn the waiver. In order
to be eligible for U.S. weapons or military assistance, countries
would need to meet the following criteria: democratic government;
respect for human rights of citizens; non-aggression (against
other states); and full participation in the U.N. Register of
The Code's criteria are all primary foreign policy tenets
given lip service by past and present administrations. Nevertheless,
an estimated 84% of U.S. arms transfers during 1991-95 went to
states which did not meet the Code's criteria, according to analysis
by Demilitarization for Democracy. The Code of Conduct would not
necessarily prevent any given sale, but it would require the administration
to publicly acknowledge instances in which it decided that closing
an arms deal was more important than democratic principles. The
burden of proof would shift toward those who wished to export.
The Code of Conduct's greatest success to date came on June
10, 1997, when the House of Representatives unanimously passed
the Code as an amendment to the State Department Authorization
Act. It was subsequently killed in conference committee.
Late in the summer of 1998, Representative Sam Gejdenson introduced
a "multilateral code of conduct" which imitated parts
of the McKinney/Rohrabacher bill. Code of Conduct supporters dubbed
this rival proposal the "faux Code," as it did nothing
to alter current U.S. exports or military aid. Pro-Code advocates
feared that Gejdenson's code would fulfill the arms industry lobby's
stated desire to "euthanize the Code." Letters from
Oscar Arias, McKinney, and grassroots activists kept this from
reaching a vote in Congress. This year, McKinney and Gejdenson
agreed on the introduction of a compromise bill that would require
additional transparency of the human rights and democracy records
of countries receiving U.S. arms exports and assistance. McKinney
will still introduce her more substantial Code of Conduct later
The vast majority of the general public supports a U.S. Code
of Conduct, but passively. The major players-the military, the
Clinton administration, the defense lobby- are not going to reverse
current export policy any time soon. Clearly, no major progress
will be made on the issue of limiting the global arms trade without
significant new grassroots pressure.
Anna Rich is a research assistant at the Arms Sales Monitoring
Project of the Federation of American Scientists in Washington,