Merchants of death

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Merchants of death - John Cherian, Bob Strong / Reuters, K. Murali Kumar

John Cherian

The big arms companies based in the U.S. are likely to create a record in arms sales worldwide this year.

The F-35 Lightning II, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter, is the most expensive fighter plane developed so far. Israel will get 20 of these between 2015 and 2017.

The extradition of the notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout to the United States by the government of Thailand has once again put the spotlight on the global arms trade. Bout is described in the Western media as an individual arms dealer with few scruples who sold his lethal supplies to the highest bidder. According to the U.S., who had put Bout on its most wanted list, the former Russian naval officer had supplied arms to groups on Washington's so-called terror list, such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Taliban and insurgent groups in Somalia. The U.S. has given the Colombian armed forces $5 billion in military aid since the late 1990s. Many more billions have been spent in Afghanistan in the continuing efforts to defeat the Taliban.

The real “merchants of death” are the big arms companies, based mainly in the U.S. and Europe, that sell weapons worth billions to countries in the developing world. Companies in the U.S. lead the pack. The latest arms deals signed by the U.S. with Saudi Arabia and other states in the West Asian region will see the profits of Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman soar in the next fiscal. The global arms trade is worth $60 billion dollars annually. The U.S. has consistently topped the list of arms exporters. The other nations on the list are Russia, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Israel, China, Sweden, the Netherlands and Italy.

In 2009, the U.S. share of the global defence market was 39 per cent, followed by Russia with around 20 per cent. China was the third biggest exporter. India has been among the top purchasers of military equipment. In 2008, India, along with Pakistan, Algeria and Malaysia, was among the top five buyers of weapons. In 2009, Brazil emerged as the biggest recipient of arms, with $7.2 billion in purchases, followed by Venezuela, which spent $6.4 billion in arms deals. Between 2002 and 2009, Saudi Arabia led the pack of recipient nations, having inked arms deals worth more than $39.9 billion, followed by India, which had entered into arms deals worth $32.4 billion.

This year, the U.S. is likely to break a record in arms sales worldwide. Financial Times has reported that the Gulf Arab states have ordered U.S. weapons systems worth $123 billion “to counter Iran's military power”. The biggest deal, worth $60 billion, is with Saudi Arabia and was formally announced in October this year. Among other things, the U.S. will be supplying the Saudis 84 new F-15 jet fighters and will be upgrading another 70 fighter planes. The U.S. expects to reap an additional $30 billion when the Saudi navy is upgraded in the near future. American commentators have said that the Saudi deal is a “huge bailout” for American military contractors.

Bob Strong / Reuters

The U.S.' biggest arms deal this year, worth $60 billion, is with Saudi Arabia. Among other things, the U.S. will be supplying the Saudis F-15 fighter jets, shown in the picture.

Many West Asia watchers are of the opinion that the region is already overflowing with arms. Saudi Arabia, many military experts have opined, is already over-armed and has military capabilities in excess of its legitimate needs. President Barack Obama's administration, however, seems determined to militarise the tense region further, regardless of the consequences. The U.S. is also sending a strong signal to its enemies that despite its declining superpower status it proposes to remain the major power in the region. “This proposed sale has tremendous significance from a strategic regional perspective,” said Andrew Shapiro, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, while announcing the arms deal with Saudi Arabia. “It will send a strong message to the countries in the region that we are committed to support the security of our key partners and allies in the Arabian Gulf and the broader Middle East [West Asia],” said Shapiro.

U.S. Defence officials have said that Tel Aviv did not object to the sale of sophisticated weaponry to Saudi Arabia as “it will not affect Israel's upper hand in the region”. But just to make sure, the Obama administration announced that Israel would be given the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the most expensive fighter plane developed so far, which costs $184 million apiece. Israel will get 20 of these planes between 2015 and 2017. There are also reports that the Obama administration's offer of the F-35 jet fighters was made on the basis of the Israeli government's decision to once again “freeze” the building of settlements on the West Bank and go back to the dialogue table.

The UAE recently signed with the U.S. military contracts worth $35.6 billion. The purchases include that of a missile defence system called Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD), which is still in the development stage, and Patriot anti-missile batteries. The UAE also purchased 80 American-made F-16 jet fighters.

A U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report accessed by the media in September faults the Obama administration for concluding multi-billion-dollar arms deals with Gulf countries without establishing whether they were in the national interest of the U.S. The GAO, which reports to the U.S. Congress, had looked into U.S. defence deals conducted with the Gulf states from 2005 to 2009. The Obama administration has disagreed with the GAO's contention that U.S. national interests were not prioritised. Administration officials told the GAO that arms sales to the Gulf “support the U.S. defence industrial base” and represented “a key component of the U.S. security relationship in the region”.

The U.S. has for a long time been seeking to make the Gulf a front line against Iran. The huge volume of military sales to Saudi Arabia is also meant to make the biggest Gulf country a strategic buffer between Israel and Iran. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia have shared a close strategic relationship for the past seven decades, which is based on oil and security. Though relations between Riyadh and Teheran have improved a lot, the Saudi monarchy seems to be in Washington's corner as far as the nuclear dispute is concerned.

K. Murali Kumar

Vice Admiral Jeffrey A. Wieringa, Director of the Pentagon's Defence Security Cooperation Agency. He has made eight visits to India so far.

Vice Admiral Jeffrey Wieringa, the Director of the Pentagon's Defence Security Cooperation Agency, has predicted that U.S. weapons sales will cross the $50-billion mark this year. Oman and Kuwait are likely to place orders with the U.S. to upgrade their air forces. Oman has reportedly earmarked $12.3 billion for arms purchases from the U.S. and Kuwait $7.1 billion. In September, the U.S. signed a deal with Iraq to sell it weapons worth $4.2 billion, including 18 F-16 fighter aircraft, Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, laser-guided bombs and reconnaissance equipment.

The other recent notable arms sales concluded by the U.S. include a $3.2-billion sale of F-16s to Egypt, $7-billion worth of Boeing F-18 bombers to Brazil and $134-million worth of Chinook helicopters to Morocco. The arms deal the U.S. signed with Taiwan in January this year triggered a diplomatic row between Washington and Beijing. Under the deal, the U.S. will sell advanced weaponry worth more than $6.3 billion to the island, which China considers its province. In retaliation, China suspended military exchanges with the U.S. and warned that the deal would have an adverse impact on bilateral relations. In 2008, the U.S. sold Taiwan aircraft and missiles worth $6.4 billion.

India is now emerging as a key market for the U.S. Wieringa has made eight visits to India so far. He boasted in a recent blog post about the huge strides the U.S. had made in weapons exports. The Indian defence market was so far virtually monopolised by Russia and Israel. A major thrust of the Obama visit to India was to sell American weaponry. The Obama administration is reportedly “investigating” ways to make the selling of defence weaponry to countries such as India easier.

While signing this year's military budget, Obama said that the document took “necessary steps towards reshaping priorities of America's defence establishment and changing the way the Pentagon does business”.

India has set aside $50 billion for the next five years to modernise its armed forces. A sum of $10 billion has been earmarked for the purchase of 126 multi-role combat fighters. If an American company clinches this deal, the U.S. could then emerge as India's biggest defence partner and military ally. This year alone, India has already gone in for some big-ticket purchases, including cargo transport aircraft, long-distance reconnaissance planes and 145 U.S.-made howitzers. The deals are worth more than $5 billion.

India, unlike Pakistan, pays for these weapons from its budget. Countries such as Pakistan and Israel pay for U.S. weaponry from the defence aid they receive from Washington. The U.S. counter-insurgency fund for Pakistan for the fiscal year of 2011 is to increase to $1.2 billion.