U.S. moves to forefront as world's arms supplier

May 30, 1994|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Next year, for the first time, the United States will produce more combat planes for foreign air forces than for the Pentagon, highlighting America's replacement of the former Soviet Union as the world's main arms supplier.

Encouraged by the Clinton administration, the defense industry last year had its best post-Cold War export year, selling $32 billion worth of weapons overseas, more than twice the 1992 total of $15 billion.

As the administration and the industry look abroad for new markets to offset military spending cutbacks at home, they are raising concern in Congress and a chorus of criticism from arms control advocates.

"Things have moved toward the 'merchants of death' view of arms production," said Randall Forsberg, executive director of the Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies in Cambridge, Mass. "It's becoming a commercial business involved in profits and jobs rather than security."

This will be the last year this century that the U.S. defense industry will produce more combat planes for domestic than overseas use, according to a study by Ms. Forsberg.

Next year, 92 combat planes will be delivered to U.S. forces; 97 will go abroad. In 1996, the Pentagon will get just 24, compared with 153 for overseas. Planes are, except for ships, the most expensive weapons and account for more than one-half the value of U.S. arms exports.

The increase in arms exports, Ms. Forsberg said, creates a long-term paradox for the United States: Foreign sales were meant to help keep the U.S. defense industry operating and able meet future threats, but the main source of new threats is likely to come from the proliferation of arms abroad.

"They are going to create the very threats they are insuring against," she said. "Short-term commercial interests are outweighing our long-term security interests."

Joel Johnson, international vice president of the Aerospace Industries Association, countered that, as the United States reduces its overseas military presence and demands that allies accept more of the defense burden, it is inevitable that the allies will need more weapons.

7+ "You can't have it both ways," he said.

New product development

The export of older-model combat planes is overtaking their production for domestic use, he said, as the Pentagon develops such new programs as the F-22 fighter, improved F-18 attack jets and the Commanche helicopter.

Once those new planes go into production for the Pentagon around the turn of the century, the gap between higher exports and lower domestic sales will be corrected, he said.

"The only thing now keeping the [production] lines open is exports," Mr. Johnson said.

Noting that 450,000 U.S. defense workers have lost their jobs since 1991, Mr. Johnson said: "Why do you want to fire people in St. Louis and hire them in Paris?"

Mindful of the controversy, the Clinton administration is forging a new arms sales policy. A senior White House official involved in drafting the policy said it would seek to establish an "international regime" of nations with "a common set of standards" for arms exports.

The intent would be to restrict arms exports to particular regions or countries and bar the sale of certain weapons systems altogether. The official declined to be more specific.

"The object of the policy is to address American interests and, more broadly, the interests of peace and stability," said this official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It is not to cut arms sales by some specific dollar amount, or percentage.

"Clearly, what we want to do is create a policy that restrains those things that ought to be restrained, and, at the same time, doesn't preclude arms sales in those situations in which it remains in the national interest to proceed."

Security, not economics

Testifying to the Senate Budget Committee earlier this year, Defense Secretary William J. Perry said: "The dominant criterion for determining whether any weapons systems . . . are sold to a foreign government still is a national security decision, not an economic decision."

But critics question that assertion.

"The [Clinton] policy and practice, as far as we can see, is a continuation of what the policy under Bush and Reagan was, which was sell, sell, sell," said Sima Osdoby, director of policy for Women's Action for New Directions, a Washington group that is seeking to divert defense spending to social programs. "The real imperative was most sharply articulated during the '92 campaign, when arms sales were announced as a way to jobs, jobs jobs."

Natalie J. Goldring, of the the British American Security Information Council, a Washington-based advocacy and research group, said: "The United States has a special responsibility to lead efforts toward arms-transfer control. Instead, U.S. policy is moving in the direction of less-restricted arms sales."

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