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U.S. Maintains Perch Atop Rising Arms Market

Wade Boese

Russia and France last year eclipsed the United States in arms sales to developing countries, but Washington still led in total global weapons deals, according to a recent report to Congress.

The United States has ranked as the world’s most prolific arms seller since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the nearly simultaneous triumph of U.S. arms over Soviet weapons in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. But figures in the Oct. 23 report Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 1998-2005 indicate Washington faces renewed competition, particularly in sales to developing countries.

The annual report by Congressional Research Service analyst Richard Grimmett classifies all countries as developing except Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, the United States, and all European states.

Last year marked the first time in the eight-year period covered by the report that the United States did not conclude the highest value of arms agreements with developing countries. The United States finalized nearly $6.2 billion in such sales, but France tallied $6.3 billion and Russia posted $7 billion.

Still, the United States signed $12.7 billion in total arms agreements in 2005, surpassing every other supplier in worldwide weapons deals. In comparison, France’s grand total was $7.9 billion and Russia trailed with $7.4 billion.

Although annual U.S. arms sales have remained relatively level over the past several years, the U.S. share of global deals has varied depending on fluctuations in the overall market. For example, in inflation-adjusted dollars, U.S. arms agreements in 2003 totaled $15.5 billion and accounted for one-half of the $29 billion in worldwide sales, while the U.S. sum last year made up just more than one-quarter of the global total of $44 billion.

The recent global upsurge stems from increased sales by China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom. French agreements last year exceeded those from 2004 by $5.7 billion. Russia showed a smaller gain of $1.8 billion, while China tripled its 2004 sales total to $2.1 billion.

Although the United Kingdom’s $2.8 billion in agreements last year marked a $3.8 billion decline from 2004, the 2005 total still ranked as London’s second-highest sum in the past eight years. A $1.8 billion agreement to sell 66 Hawk advanced jet trainers to India played a big part in the abnormally high 2004 British total.

India was the leading developing-country arms buyer in 2005 with $5.4 billion in agreements. Those included contracts for six French Scorpene attack submarines worth $3.5 billion and roughly a billion dollars in Russian missile and rockets.

The United States traditionally has not been a major arms seller to India, but Washington is seeking to change that by offering New Delhi combat aircraft. (See ACT, May 2005. ) Grimmett told Arms Control Today Nov. 16 that Indian leaders appear to be “seriously thinking” about the proposal.

Even if Washington fails to lure New Delhi away from Moscow and Paris, the United States is unlikely to be supplanted as the globe’s top arms marketer because of its large stable of customers. Grimmett noted in his report that U.S. clients include the developing countries “most able to afford major new weapons purchases.”

Seven of the top 10 developing arms buyers since 1998— Egypt, Israel, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Taiwan, and the United Arab Emirates—are dedicated U.S. customers or made major past purchases of U.S. arms. China, India, and South Africa are the other three.

The $107 billion in global weapons deals signed by the United States since 1998—more than double that of second-place Russia’s $45.6 billion in agreements over the same span—will help ensure that steady business flows to U.S. arms manufacturers. “The fact that the U.S. has such a wide base of arms equipment clients globally means that it still will be able to conclude a notable number of agreements annually to provide support, upgrades, and ordnance” for previously sold weapons, Grimmett wrote.

Russia is working to improve its post-sales support to attract new customers. It has also sought to expand arms sales through counter-trade arrangements, co-production agreements, and debt forgiveness. Algeria and Syria are recent beneficiaries of the latter practice.

Although arms orders are up for the Kremlin, Grimmett assessed that its efforts to woo new buyers has “met with mixed results.” Algeria, Indonesia, Malaysia, Venezuela, Vietnam, and Yemen have all recently acquired Russian arms, but China and India still account for a substantial portion of Moscow’s arms sales.

Russia’s long-term ability to retain its past customers, let alone add new ones, is uncertain because “the Russians have not sunk a lot of money into research and development,” Grimmett said Nov. 16. As a result, Russian arms manufacturers risk not keeping pace technologically with Western rivals and losing potential customers, particularly richer states.

The relative inferiority of Chinese weapons has relegated most of Beijing’s sales to poorer countries in Africa and Asia that cannot afford more advanced and expensive Western arms. The report suggests that future Chinese sales will be predominantly small arms and light weapons rather than major conventional arms, such as battle tanks or combat aircraft.

A key exception could be missiles and missile technologies, which the United States frequently criticizes or sanctions China for reportedly exporting. “ China can present an obstacle to efforts to stem proliferation of advanced missile systems to some areas of the developing world where political and military tensions are significant,” the report states. Beijing’s alleged missile transfers have stifled its bid to join the voluntary 34-member Missile Technology Control Regime. (See ACT, November 2006. )

Compared to their Western counterparts, Chinese arms exports, particularly of small arms and light weapons, do not generate significant revenue. The motivation underlying Beijing’s sales, according to Grimmett, appears to be to extend Chinese political influence and gain access to natural resources, particularly oil.

In this respect, the report suggests that China might be different from some other arms suppliers. “Where before the principal motivation for arms sales by foreign suppliers might have been to support a foreign policy objective, today that motivation may be based as much on economic considerations as those of foreign or national security policy,” Grimmett wrote.

Beijing also differs from other major arms exporters in that it is also a top arms importer. Buying primarily from Russia, China has acquired $14.3 billion in foreign arms since 1998. This amount is second only to Saudi Arabia’s receipt of $50 billion in arms deliveries. (These two sums are not adjusted for inflation.)

Nonetheless, neither Beijing’s nor Riyadh’s arms appetite appears sated. Aside from India, no other developing countries signed up for more new arms agreements in 2005 than Saudi Arabia ($3.4 billion) and China ($2.8 billion).

This trio of top buyers seems motivated and positioned to continue making major foreign arms purchases, although the report observes that arms sales trends can change quickly based on economic factors and national threat assessments. Grimmett stated, “A significant increase in the total value of arms agreements in one or two years is not necessarily predictive of the immediate years to come.”