Military Moloch

July 01, 1992

The United States is the world's biggest arms dealer. Exports of military arms and assistance totaled nearly $63 billion last year, a 34 percent jump over fiscal 1990. This is one American export industry with bullish prospects. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the poor performance of its military equipment in Iraqi hands last year mean that everybody wants to Buy American.

The justification for many of these sales vanished with the end of the Cold War. Regional disputes no longer become proxy battlegrounds for the superpower rivalry, but they can be inflamed by the international arms trade. Countries with weak economies (Slovakia being the newest player) need the hard currency arms sales can bring. Boris Yeltsin is under intense pressure to keep Russian armaments factories producing for the export trade.

America feels the same pressures. Saudi Arabia's bid to buy 72 F-15 fighter aircraft was on hold during Israel's election campaign, but it will spark vigorous congressional debate about the Middle East military balance. What may mean more, however, is that the U.S. may be too hard-up to say no.

McDonnell Douglas, the prime contractor for the F-15, is lobbying hard for a sale that it says is worth $13 billion to the U.S. economy. It would sustain 40,000 aerospace jobs in 46 states (and 345 congressional districts) and improve the trade balance by $5 billion. The sale probably would spawn follow-on contracts worth additional billions for support, training and construction.

McDonnell Douglas warns, naturally, if American companies don't make the sale, European arms merchants will be only too happy to pick up Saudi Arabia's business. Thus the new profit-driven arms race replaces the old ideology-driven one.

The Bush administration, proclaiming a "New World Order," does little to create one. It should use the present, perhaps fleeting reduction in global tension to work out with the world's other arms merchants tight limits on international transfers. It also must come up with incentives and cushions to enable the U.S. military-industrial complex to reduce its work force and diversify into civilian work. Otherwise precious resources will continue to be drained away to feed the military Moloch.

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