Accessibility links

International Arms Sales Fall, US Dominates the Market  - 2004-08-31

A new study by the Congressional Research Service shows that arms sales worldwide have declined for the third consecutive year. The United States, the world’s largest arms seller, continues to dominate the global arms market and as VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports, its sales have increased.

In 2003 the world spent about 900 billion dollars for military purposes, with the United States accounting for about one half of that amount. The United States signed arms-sales agreements worth fourteen-and-a-half billion dollars, more than 56 percent of all such transactions worldwide. In addition, it has sold military technology and supplied military aid and training, much of it to the developing world. David Isenberg, a senior analyst at the Washington branch of the research organization called British-American Security Information Council, says in any given year the United States holds more than half of the global market.

“It’s sought after by a number of countries due to the diverse broad scope of armaments which can be bought as well as the variety of means by which such weapons can be paid for,” says Mr. Isenberg.

“The U.S. does not sell strictly on a cash-and-carry-basis, but is also -- depending on who wants to buy -- often a very generous seller in terms of offering loan guarantees or foreign military financing, as well as outright grants, which makes it very convenient for those states which are considered to be allies of the US to gain weaponry.”

Russia, Germany, Great Britain, France, Italy and Spain are other large exporters of arms. And who buys all this weaponry?

“Year after year, Saudi Arabia has always been a huge buyer of goods mainly from the US of course, but sometimes from other countries such as Great Britain,” says David Isenberg.

“Saudi Arabia in the past few years has cut back a bit because it is still trying to absorb everything in the pipeline coming to it from previous years sales as well as the constraints of its own economy, which has not been doing well in the past few years.”

Other Middle Eastern states are also major buyers of weapons, especially Persian Gulf nations and Israel. Seema Gahlaut of the Center for International Trade and Security at the University of Georgia says in recent years there has been an increase of arms sales in Asia and Africa. She says countries buy more weapons either because developments in their neighborhood make them feel insecure or because they have ambitions to dominate their neighbors.

“In the Middle East, of course, there is a growing uncertainty about the future of the Middle East now that the United States has removed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussien. In the case of Iran, they are building nuclear weapons, according to reports. So this may spur more arms spending. In Asia, there are indications to suggest that countries are not quite sure of the Chinese role in the region, whether China is going to grow more assertive," says Professor Gahlaut.

Whatever the reasons, many people say arms are sold too freely and often get into the wrong hands: militias killing civilians or members of rival ethnic groups, and, worst of all, terrorist groups such as al-Qaida. The United States as the largest seller of weapons is the most common target of such criticism.

Frida Berrigan, a senior researcher at the World Policy Institute, a private research organization in New York, says: “We see some of this at the United Nations around discussions about small arms and light weapons, where developing nations -- third world nations -- are saying: ‘Hey, stop manufacturing these weapons, stop selling them to our governments. They are killing our people. But then the western nations, the arms exporters, say: ‘We are just producing a product and we don’t have any control over what happens to it.’”

American arms manufacturers have two major channels through which they can sell weaponry to foreign countries. Military sales are negotiated by the US Defense Department on a government-to-government basis and commercial sales are negotiated directly between the U-S arms producers and the purchasing country. Commercial sales have to be licensed and are thus also controlled by the government.

Gregory Suchan, an assistant for political and military affairs at the US Department of State says the United States has tougher arms sales regulations than any other country. He says the government also maintains a list of countries to which no arms can be sold for reasons such as harboring terrorists, a poor human rights record or an ongoing civil war, for example: “Belarus, Cuba, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Syria, Vietnam, Burma China, Haiti, Liberia, Somalia, Sudan….”

Gregory Suchan notes that international laws on arms sales are not binding, which in effect enables governments to make any weapon deals they wish, except selling to states under an international arms embargo. Analysts say as long as this is not changed, weapons will continue to get into the wrong hands.