The Bazaar Way US Sells Weapons
by Scott Peterson
Christian Science Monitor, 4/17/97
The menacing American special operations vehicle darts across
the obstacle course like a black scorpion, making tight corners
and zigzags, and churning up more dirt than a desert dung beetle.
A .50-caliber heavy machine gun is mounted at the back, with a
smaller one positioned at the side for the passenger riding shot
gun. Jumping off one hill and catching air, it looks more like
a desert rally car than a high-tech attack craft.
But instead of secretly sneaking about behind enemy lines
in Iraq, as it did during the 1990 1991 Gulf war, this advanced
light strike vehicle is being exhibited for sale here at the largest
weapons bazaar in the world.
Few know the vehicle's capabilities - and selling points -
better than Bill Weber, a former Navy SEAL, during the Gulf war.
Climbing out of the cockpit splattered with mud, he has a smile
on his face.
His job during the Gulf war, he says, was "to recover
downed pilots, use lasers to identify targets for jets, and whatever
we could get our fingers into."
The climax came during the liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi
forces, when his platoon - driving earlier models of this vehicle
helped escort the first American military convoy into Kuwait City
to recapture the US embassy.
Mr. Weber is surrounded by Arab sheikhs, foreign military
officers, and arms buyers who are considering the strike vehicle
made by US companies Chenowth Corp. and General Dynamics - for
their own arsenals.
There could be few better places for marketing weapons systems
than in the Persian Gulf where organizers of the International
Defense Exhibition (IDEX) gathered together 750 companies from
more than 50 countries in March.
Gulf states, wary of their large and militarily strong neighbors
Iraq and Iran, are expected to spend $75 billion over five years
The Middle East is the last region in the world that continues
to soak up so many weapons, and there could be no better showcase
for "merchants of death" - as critics call arms dealers
- than the Abu Dhabi meeting. The United States, the largest arms
exporter in the world, has been pushing
hard to sell its wares in the Persian Gulf and sent a high-level
Pentagon delegation to the exhibition. All the missiles and artillery
are on display here: tanks, ships, attack helicopters, jet fighter
engines, and every conceivable weapon and munition. More than
170 American companies came to sell and check out the tough worldwide
And US representatives - many of them veterans who have combat-tested
the goods they are selling - chuckle when they put a new spin
on an old adage: "Old soldiers never die," they note,
"they just sell weapons systems."
The Middle East is by far the world's largest regional arms
market, accounting for more than 40 percent of total sales. The
region shelled out a decade-high $22 billion of arms purchase
agreements in 1993 alone, a post Gulf-war jump largely driven
by high-tech US prowess on the battlefield that persuaded the
sheikhdoms to buy American.
Search for new markets
Squeezed by big defense cuts at home, US industry experts
say that winning markets abroad is still not easy, despite the
solid American fighting record and reputation for top quality,
high-tech machines of war.
The Patriot antimissile defense system, for example, is battling
against cheaper Canadian and Russian versions. And a big $8 billion
fighter air craft deal with the United Arab Emirates is still
a tossup between the American F-16 and British and French models.
The Gulf nations are such large purchasers, says retired Lt.
Gen. John Yeosack, commander of the US, British, and ~ French
forces during the Gulf war, "that they bring the market to
"The credentials of former military people are critical,"
says General Yeosack, who is currently an adviser for Lockheed
Martin in Bethesda, Md. "There is a big difference between
one who knows how to fly, and one who has flown in harm's way."
American defense companies, like their counterparts abroad,
pepper their staffs with combat veterans. But even Gulf petrodollars
are dwindling, and much of the spending for the next five years
has already been earmarked.
"We don't have any shoe salesmen here," says Yeosack,
"be cause they aren't buying shoes from us."
That is clear in one corner stall of Talley Defense Systems,
which advertises the "ultimate assault weapon." Talley
makes everything from car air bags to air-burst elements for the
Tomahawk cruise missile.
But its biggest item here is a series of shoulder-fired anti
armor weapons, dubbed bunker busters.
"During the heat of battle, a warfighter's goal is not
enemy incapacitation," shouts one poster, "it's TOTAL
A soft-spoken retired tank colonel, Thomas Simcox, sells the
system and has firsthand knowledge of its effectiveness: He fired
the first generation of the weapon in 1966 in the central highlands
"We don't need to be taught the language [to sell weapons]
because we already speak it," he says. "We have simply
changed one uniform for another."
That uniform fits some veterans better than others.
"Five years ago, if you told me I'd be watching Russian
tanks here churning mud, I never would have believed you,"
says the retired Navy SEAL Weber, brushing off flecks of mud after
his own vehicle demonstration. "I've never seen one in action
before that didn't have a laser spot and was looking for targets."