America -- the world's arms
No one is paying much attention to it, but our top export is the
By Frida Berrigan
Angeles Times" --- - THEY DON'T CALL US the sole
superpower for nothing. Paul Wolfowitz might be looking for a
new job right now, but the term he used to describe the
pervasiveness of U.S. power back when he was a mere deputy
secretary of Defense — hyperpower — still fits the bill.
Consider some of the areas in which the United States is still
• First in weapons sales: Since 2001, U.S. global military sales
have totaled $10 billion to $13 billion. That's a lot of
weapons, but in fiscal 2006, the Pentagon broke its own recent
record, inking arms sales agreements worth $21 billion.
• First in sales of surface-to-air missiles: From 2001 to 2005,
the U.S. delivered 2,099 surface-to-air missiles like the
Sparrow and AMRAAM to nations in the developing world, 20% more
than Russia, the next largest supplier.
• First in sales of military ships: During that same period, the
U.S. sent 10 "major surface combatants," such as aircraft
carriers and destroyers, to developing nations. Collectively,
the four major European weapons producers shipped 13.
• First in military training: A thoughtful empire knows that
it's not enough to send weapons; you have to teach people how to
use them. The Pentagon plans on training the militaries of 138
nations in 2008 at a cost of nearly $90 million. No other nation
Rest assured, governments around the world, often at each
others' throats, will want U.S. weapons long after their people
have turned up their noses at a range of once dominant American
consumer goods. The "trade" publication Defense News, for
instance, recently reported that Turkey and the U.S. signed a
$1.78-billion deal for Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter planes. As
it happens, these planes are already ubiquitous — Israel flies
them; so does the United Arab Emirates, Poland, South Korea,
Venezuela, Oman and Portugal, among others. Buying our weaponry
is one of the few ways you can actually join the American
In order to remain on top in the competitive jet field, Lockheed
Martin, for example, does far more than just sell airplanes. TAI
— Turkey's aerospace corporation — will receive a boost with
this sale because Lockheed Martin is handing over responsibility
for portions of production, assembly and testing to Turkish
The Turkish air force already has 215 F-16 fighter planes and
plans to buy 100 of Lockheed Martin's new F-35 Joint Strike
Fighter as well, in a deal estimated at $10.7 billion over the
next 15 years. That's $10.7 billion on fighter planes for a
country that ranks 94th on the United Nations' human development
index, below Lebanon, Colombia and Grenada and far below all the
European nations that Ankara is courting as it seeks to join the
European Union. Now that's a real American sales job for you!
HERE'S THE strange thing, though: This genuine, gold-medal
manufacturing-and-sales job on weapons simply never gets the
attention it deserves. As a result, most Americans have no idea
how proud they should be of our weapons manufacturers and the
Pentagon — essentially our global sales force. They make sure
our weapons travel the planet and regularly demonstrate their
value in small wars from Latin America to Central Asia.
There's tons of data on the weapons trade, but who knows about
any of it? I help produce one of a dozen or so sober annual (or
semiannual) reports quantifying the business of war-making, so I
know that these reports get desultory, obligatory media
attention. Only once in a blue moon do they get the sort of
full-court-press treatment that befits our No. 1 product line.
Even when there is coverage, the inside-the-fold, fact-heavy,
wonky news stories on the arms trade, however useful, can't
possibly convey the feel of a business that has always preferred
the shadows to the sun. The connection between the factory that
makes a weapons system and the community where that weapon "does
its duty" is invariably missing in action, as are the
relationships among the companies making the weapons and the
generals (on-duty and retired) and politicians making the deals,
or raking in their own cuts of the profits for themselves and/or
their constituencies. In other words, our most successful (and
most deadly) export remains our most invisible one.
Maybe the only way to break through this paralysis of analysis
would be to stop talking about weapons sales as a trade and the
export of precision-guided missiles as if they were so many
widgets. Maybe we need to start thinking about them in another
language entirely — the language of drugs.
After all, what does a drug dealer do? He creates a need and
then fills it. He encourages an appetite or (even more
lucratively) an addiction and then feeds it.
Arms dealers do the same thing. They suggest to foreign
officials that their military just might need a slight upgrade.
After all, they'll point out, haven't you noticed that your
neighbor just upgraded in jets, submarines and tanks? And didn't
you guys fight a war a few years back? Doesn't that make you
feel insecure? And why feel insecure for another moment when,
for just a few billion bucks, we'll get you suited up with the
latest model military, even better than what we sold them — or
you the last time around.
Why do officials in Turkey, which already has 215 fighter
planes, need 100 extras in an even higher-tech version? They
don't, but Lockheed Martin, working with the Pentagon, made them
think they did.
We don't need stronger arms control laws, we need a global
sobriety coach and some kind of 12-step program for the
dealer-nation as well.
FRIDA BERRIGAN is a senior research associate at the World
Policy Institute's Arms Trade Resource Center. A longer version
of this article appears on tomdispatch.com.
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