U.S. tops world in arms sales, report says

October 15, 1992|By Mark Thompson | Mark Thompson,Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- Despite the end of the Cold War and President Bush's pledge to curb overseas weapons sales, the United States has become the world's leading arms merchant.

U.S. weapon sales abroad surpassed those of the former Soviet Union in 1990 and 1991.

U.S. arms exports to the Third World have risen from $4 billion in 1986 to $14 billion last year, according to the Congressional Research Service. The United States now supplies more than half of all arms sold to the Third World.

Pentagon suppliers, plotting even greater future sales, were in Washington this week to seek eased export restrictions and more help from U.S. officials in marketing their weapons abroad.

"It's understandable that the goals of the U.S. defense industry are to hold on to old markets, open new ones and be capable of competing freely with foreign defense industries," a top State Department official told the U.S. Defense Trade Advisory Group yesterday.

Doing that, said Assistant Secretary of State Robert Gallucci, means "the resulting economic prosperity will be good for the whole nation."

This year, the Pentagon plans to supply arms and military aid worth $32.7 billion to 154 of the world's 190 nations, including such recent foes as Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Russia.

In recent weeks, the Bush administration, in a series of campaign announcements, has trumpeted multibillion-dollar sales of warplanes to Saudi Arabia and Taiwan, as well as tanks to Kuwait. Defense experts predict that the share of U.S. weapons sold overseas will more than double, to more than one-third of U.S. production, in the years ahead.

The administration, sensitive to job losses during a long recession, is helping arms makers boost their international sales. The State Department office responsible for monitoring such deals, originally known as the Office of Munitions Control, has tellingly changed its name to the Center for Defense Trade.

And the Pentagon office that oversees such sales gets 80 percent of its budget from a 3 percent tax on the selling price -- "powerful incentive" to push for such trade, according to the congressional Office of Technology Assessment.

But a report by the OTA underscores the downside to all this commerce: "The international arms business is building up a dangerously armed world in which potentially renegade or terrorist nations can use military equipment or technologies imported from the advanced industrial states to threaten or invade weaker neighbors."

Since the Persian Gulf war ended 18 months ago, the United States has sold Middle Eastern nations about half of the $45 billion in arms they have ordered.

Workers building the weapons know the fat years are over. "A sinking man will grab hold of anything he can," said Cassell Williams, the head of the machinists' union in St. Louis that builds F-15 jets for McDonnell Douglas. Four thousand of his members are unemployed, and the union hall's food bank runs out every week.

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