US Still Top Arms Supplier to South as Record Sale to Saudis Pends

Despite an unusual dip in global weapons sales in 2009, the United States retained its spot as the world’s top arms supplier of developing countries, according to an authoritative new report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

The report, the latest in an annual series produced by CRS on conventional arms sales, was released Monday as the Wall Street Journal reported that the Pentagon will ask Congress as early as next week to approve a record $60 billion sale of jet fighters and helicopters to Saudi Arabia.

The proposed sale, which could be supplemented by an additional $30 billion deal to upgrade the Saudi kingdom’s naval forces and yet another for new missile-defense systems, would not only consolidate Washington’s position as the world’s dominant arms provider.

It would also by itself exceed the value of all conventional arms transfers agreements signed worldwide by developing and developed countries alike in 2009 – $57.5 billion, according to the CRS report – and would easily restore Saudi Arabia’s status as the developing world’s biggest arms consumer, a position from which it was dethroned in 2009 by new arms agreements signed by Brazil and Venezuela.

“Sixty billion dollars is about half of what the Pentagon spends on weapons every year,” said William Hartung, a veteran arms-sales analyst at the New America Foundation. “It’s a huge bail-out for the military contractors who are facing a period when Pentagon spending is leveling off.”

The report, which is prepared each year by CRS’s top arms expert, Richard Grimmett, is widely considered to be one of the most authoritative on the conventional arms trade because it is based on classified information, as well as public data, and its methodology has remained consistent for nearly three decades. Its statistics include both military sales and assistance.

As in previous reports, the latest distinguishes between arms agreements that were signed during the previous year and actual arms deliveries that took place during the same year. Actual deliveries often fall short of what agreements originally called for.

This year’s report, “Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 2002-2009,” found that arms transfers to developing countries made up nearly 80 percent of the $57.5 billion in all arms transfer orders signed worldwide during 2009.

The $45.1 billion in new deals in 2009 was down from $48.8 billion in contracts for 2008, consistent with a more general decline in global arms sales of about 8.5 percent.

“[T]he clear decline in all arms orders collectively in 2009 reflects, in part, the effect of the international recession” that broke out in late 2008, the study said.

The impact of the recession on arms sales was particularly evident with respect to actual arms deliveries last year, the report noted. The value of all arms deliveries to developing nations fell just short of $17 billion, it found. That was the lowest total since the early 1990s and down from $20 billion in 2008.

In both new arms agreements and in actual deliveries, the U.S. served as the top supplier to developing countries in 2009, as it has overall since 2002, according to the report.

It signed new arms agreements worth $17.4 billion – or 38.5 percent of all such deals – in 2009; ahead of Russia, Washington’s chief arms-sales rival for the past two decades, which landed $10.4 billion worth of new deals; and third-place finisher France, which signed $7.1 billion in new contracts, according to the report.

Despite claiming the top spot, Washington’s percentage of new deals fell sharply from 2008, when it accounted for some 60 percent – or $29.5 billion – of all transfers to the developing world.

In actual arms deliveries to developing nations, Washington accounted for $7.4 billion, or 43.6 percent of all such deliveries.

Russia ranked second with $3.5 billion worth of deliveries, or 20.6 percent, while China ranked third at $1.8 billion, or just over 10 percent. They were followed by Germany ($1 billion), Britain ($800 million), and Israel ($700 million), which has emerged over the past eight years as the world’s seventh biggest supplier of weapons to developing countries, according to the report.

Among the recipients of new arms transfers, Latin America beat out both the Near East and Asia – which have traditionally dominated the consumer list – to top the rankings in 2009.

With $7.2 billion in purchases, primarily of warplanes, Brazil ranked number one among the leading recipients last year, followed by Venezuela, with $6.4 billion worth of new arms deals.

With $4.3 billion in new agreements, Saudi Arabia took third place. It was followed by Taiwan ($3.8 billion), the United Arab Emirates ($3.6 billion), Iraq ($3.3 billion), Egypt ($3 billion), Vietnam ($2.4 billion), India ($2.4 billion), and Kuwait ($1.6 billion).

For the entire period 2002-2009, Saudi Arabia ranked first with $39.9 billion in signing new arms deals, followed by India ($32.4 billion), the UAE ($17.3 billion), Egypt ($13.9 billion), and Venezuela ($12.7 billion).

As for actual deliveries in 2009, Saudi Arabia also ranked first, with $2.7 billion; China, second at $1.5 billion; South Korea, third ($1.4 billion); and Egypt, fourth ($1.3 billion). They were followed by India and Israel ($1.2 billion); Pakistan ($1.0 billion), Venezuela and Algeria ($900 million), and Iraq ($800 million).

For the period 2002-2009, Saudi Arabia dominated the market, with $31.5 billion in actual arms deliveries – or a little over half of what the Pentagon is now proposing to sell in new aircraft.

China and India each received around $14.3 billion in weapons (much of it Russian-made) over the same eight years, while U.S.-supplied Egypt ($12.2 billion) and Israel ($10.1 billion) have claimed the fourth and fifth spots, followed by UAE, Taiwan, South Korea, and Pakistan, according to the report.

Despite its massive arms purchases – including the pending deal that, if it goes through, will dwarf its predecessors – Saudi Arabia has not had much occasion to demonstrate its military prowess. Late last year, it suffered unexpectedly high losses in battles against Houthi rebels along its border with Yemen.

“From a practical point of view, these kinds of purchases have never been very effective,” said Hartung, who noted that the sales to the Saudis appear to be aimed “more at buying a relationship with the U.S.”

Congress is not expected to oppose the proposed aircraft sale, which would save or create some 75,000 jobs across the country.

Israel has also reportedly gone along with the deal after receiving assurances that the aircraft involved, notably the F-15, will not be equipped with long-range missile systems. In addition, the administration is supporting Israel’s bid to buy top-of-the-line F-35 fighter jets, which are one generation beyond the F-15.

“It’s almost like we’re running this little arms race between Israel and Saudi Arabia,” noted Hartung, who added that sale’s sheer size will also likely increase tensions with Iran, which may in turn be tempted to buy warplanes from Russia. “This deal is good for the companies, even if isn’t good for the region.”

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.