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 1980s.

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.

Market Trends

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 between 1994-96.

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 million;

* $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 iceberg.

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 war."

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 jobs.

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 and abroad.

"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 Conventional Arms.

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 this year.

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, DC.

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