America’s Global Weapons Monopoly

Don’t call it “the global arms trade.”

| Wed Feb. 17, 2010 7:00 AM EST

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

On the relatively rare occasions when the media turns its attention to US weapons sales abroad and shines its not-so-bright spotlight on the latest set of facts and figures, it invariably speaks of "the global arms trade."

Let's consider that label for a moment, word by word:

*It is global, since there are few places on the planet that lie beyond the reach of the weapons industry.

*Arms sounds so old-fashioned and anodyne when what we're talking about is advanced technology designed to kill and maim.

*And trade suggests a give and take among many parties when, if we're looking at the figures for that "trade" in a clear-eyed way, there is really just one seller and so many buyers.

How about updating it this way: "the global weapons monopoly."

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In 2008, according to an authoritative report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS), $55.2 billion in weapons deals were concluded worldwide. Of that total, the United States was responsible for $37.8 billion in weapons sales agreements, or 68.4% of the total "trade." Some of these agreements were long-term ones and did not result in 2008 deliveries of weapons systems, but these latest figures are a good gauge of the global appetite for weapons. It doesn't take a PhD in economics to recognize that, when one nation accounts for nearly 70% of weapons sales, the term "global arms trade" doesn't quite cut it.

Consider the "competition" and reality comes into focus. Take a guess on which country is the number two weapons exporter on the planet: China? Russia? No, Italy, with a relatively paltry $3.7 billion in agreements with other countries or just 9% of the US market share. Russia, that former Cold War superpower in the "trade," was close behind Italy, with only $3.5 billion in arms agreements.

US weapons manufacturers have come a long way, baby, since those Cold War days when the United States really did have a major competitor. For instance, the Congressional Research Service's data for 1990, the last year of the Soviet Union's existence, shows global weapons sales totaling $32.7 billion, with the United States accounting for $12.1 billion of that or 37% of the market. For its part, the Soviet Union was responsible for a competitive $10.7 billion in deals inked that year.  France, China, and the United Kingdom accounted for most of the rest.

Since then, the global appetite for weapons has only grown more voracious, while the number of purveyors has shrunk to the point where the Pentagon could hang out a sign: "We arm the world." No kidding, it's true.

Cambodia ($304,000), Comoros ($895,000), Colombia ($256 million), Guinea ($200,000), Greece ($225 million), Great Britain ($1.1 billion), the Philippines ($72.9 million), Poland ($79.8 million), and Peru ($16.4 million) all buy US arms, as does almost every country not in that list. US weapons, and only US weapons, are coveted by presidents and prime ministers, generals and strongmen.

From the Pentagon's own data (which differs from that in the CRS report), here are the top ten nations which made Foreign Military Sales agreements with the Pentagon, and so with US weapons makers, in 2008:

Saudi Arabia $6.06 billion

Iraq $2.50 billion

Morocco $2.41 billion

Egypt $2.31 billion

Israel $1.32 billion

Australia $1.13 billion

South Korea $1.12 billion

Great Britain $1.10 billion

India $1 billion

Japan $840 million

That's more than $17 billion in weapons right there. Some of these countries are consistently eager buyers, and some are not. Morocco, for example, is only in that top-ten list because it was green-lighted to buy 24 of Lockheed Martin's F-16 fighter planes at $360 million (or so) for each aircraft, an expensive one-shot deal. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia (which inked $14.71 billion in weapons agreements between 2001 and 2008), Egypt ($13.25 billion) and Israel ($11.27 billion) are such regular customers that they should have the equivalent of one of those "buy 10, get the 11th free" punch cards doled out by your favorite coffee shop.

To sum up, the US has a virtual global monopoly on exporting tools of force and destruction. Call it market saturation. Call it anything you like, just not the "global arms trade."

Getting Even More Competitive?

It used to be that the United States exported goods, products, and machinery of all sorts in prodigious quantities: cars and trucks, steel and computers, and high-tech gizmos. But those days are largely over.

The Obama administration now wants to launch a green manufacturing revolution in the US, and in February, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke announced a new "National Export Initiative" with the aim of doubling American exports, a move he said would support the creation of two million new jobs.  The US could, of course, lose the renewable-energy race to China and that new exports program may never get off the ground. In one area, however, the US is manufacturing products that are distinctly wanted—things that go boom in the night—and there the Pentagon is working hard to increase market share.

Don't for a second think that the American global monopoly on weapons sales is accidental or unintentional. The constant and lucrative growth of this market for US weapons makers has been ensured by shrewd strategic planning. Washington is constantly thinking of new and inventive ways to flog its deadly wares throughout the world.

How do you improve on near perfection? In the interest of enhancing that "competitive" edge in weapons sales, the Obama administration is investigating the possibility of revising export laws to make it even easier to sell military technology abroad. As Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morell explained in January, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wants to see "wholesale changes to the rules and regulations on government technology exports" in the name of "competitiveness."

When he says "government technology exports," Morell of course means weapons and other military technologies. "Tinkering with our antiquated, bureaucratic, overly cumbersome system is not enough to maintain our competitiveness in the global economy and also help our friends and allies buy the equipment they need to contribute to global security," he continued, "[Gates] strongly supports the administration's efforts to completely reform our export control regime, starting ideally with a blank sheet of paper."

The laws that regulate US weapons exports are a jumbled mess, but in essence they delineate what the United States can sell to whom and through what bureaucratic mechanisms. According to US law, for example, there are actually a few countries that cannot receive US weapons. Myanmar under the military junta and Venezuela while led by Hugo Chavez are two examples. There are also some weapons systems that are not intended for export. Lockheed Martin's F-22 Raptor jet fighter was—until the Pentagon recently stopped buying the plane—deemed too sophisticated or sensitive to sell abroad. And there are reporting requirements that give members of Congress a window of opportunity within which they can question or oppose proposed weapons exports.

Given what's being sold, these export controls are remarkably minimal in nature and are constantly under assault by the weapons industry. Bans on weapons sales to particular countries are regularly lifted through aggressive lobbying. (Indonesia, for example, was offered $50 million in weapons from 2006 to 2008 after an almost decade long congressional arms embargo.) The industry also works to relax controls on new technology exports to allies. Japan and Australia have mounted campaigns to win the ability to buy F-22 Raptors, potential sales that Lockheed Martin is now especially happy to entertain. The reporting window to Congress remains an important export control, but the time frame is shrinking as more countries are being "fast tracked," making it harder for distracted representatives to react when a controversial sale comes up.

In addition to revising these export controls, the administration is looking at the issue of "dual-use" technologies. These are not weapons. They do not shoot or explode. Included are high-speed computer processors, surveillance and detection networks, and a host of other complex and evolving technologies that could have military as well as civilian applications. This category might also include intangible items like cyber-entities or access to controlled web environments.

Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and other major weapons manufacturers have invested billions of dollars from the Pentagon's research and development budgets in exploring and perfecting such technologies, and now they are eager to sell them to foreign buyers along with the usual fighter planes, combat ships, and guided missiles. But the rules as they stand make this something less than a slam dunk. So the weapons industry and the Pentagon are arguing for "updating" the rules. If you translate updating as "loosening" the rules, then the United States would indeed be more "competitive," but who exactly are we trying to beat?

Weapons Sales are Red Hot

"What's Hot?" is the title of Vice Admiral Jeffrey Wieranga's blog entry for January 4, 2010.  Wieranga is the Director of the Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which is charged with overseeing weapons exports, and such pillow talk is evidently more than acceptable—at least when it's about weapons sales. In fact, Wieranga could barely restrain himself that day, adding: "Afghanistan is really HOT!" Admittedly, on that day the temperature in Kabul was just above freezing, but not at the Pentagon, where arms sales to Afghanistan evidently create a lot of heat.

As Wieranga went on to write, the Obama administration's new 2010/2011 budget allocates $6 billion in weaponry for Afghan Security Forces. The Afghans will actually get those weapons for free, but US weapons makers will make real money delivering them at taxpayers' expense and, as the Vice Admiral pointed out, that "means there is a staggering amount of acquisition work to do."

It's not just Afghanistan that's now in the torrid zone. Weapons sales all over the world will be smoking in 2010 and beyond. 

The year began with a bang when Wieranga's Agency announced that the Obama administration had decided to sell a nifty $6 billion in weapons to Taiwan. Even as the United States leans heavily on China for debt servicing, Washington is giving the Mainland a big raspberry by offering the island of 22 million off its coast (which Washington does not formally recognize as an independent nation), a lethal cocktail of weaponry that includes $3 billion in Black Hawk helicopters. This deal comes on top of more than $11 billion in US weapons exports to Taiwan over the last decade, and is certain to set Chinese-US relations back a step or two.

Other bonanzas on the horizon? Brazil wants new fighter planes and Boeing is battling a French company for the contract in a deal that could be worth a whopping $7 billion. India, once a major arms buyer from the Soviet Union, is now another big buy-American customer, with Boeing and Lockheed Martin vying to equip its air force with new fighter planes in deals that Boeing estimates may reach $11 billion.

Such deals are staggering. They contribute more bang and blast to a world already bristling with particularly lethal weaponry. They are a striking American success story in a time filled with failures. Put in the lurid but everyday terms of a nation weaned on reality television, the Pentagon is pimping for the US weapons industry. The weapons industry, for its part, is a pusher for every kind of lethal technology. The two of them together are working to ensure that more of the same will flow out of the US in ever easier and more lucrative ways.

Global arms trade? Send that one back to the Department of Euphemisms. Pimps and pushers with a lucrative global monopoly on a killing drug—maybe that's the language we need. And maybe, just maybe, it's time to launch a "war on weapons."

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