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Obama Says No to Nukes, Yes to Conventional Arms

by Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS - U.S. President Barack Obama's pledge to take concrete steps towards "a world without nuclear weapons" has garnered overwhelming support from peace activists worldwide.

Hillary Clinton (R) shakes hands with Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna in July 2009. India and the United States agreed to a new defense deal expected to boost US arms sales there. It will be welcomed by Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co., which are both competing with Russian, French and Swedish companies for a massive 12-billion-dollar tender to provide 126 fighter jets to the Indian Air Force. But at the same time he has given no indication of any similar cutbacks on conventional arms sales - at least judging by rising U.S. weapons exports this year.

"Thus far, the Obama Administration has devoted little attention to U.S. arms sales policy," says Natalie J. Goldring, a senior fellow with the Center for Peace and Security Studies at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

She says sales of major U.S. weapons systems, including fighter aircraft, missiles, warships and battle tanks, have continued to soar.

In effect, Goldring told IPS, it seems to be "business as usual," as the U.S. predicts unprecedented arms sales in 2009.

According to the Pentagon, U.S. government-to-government sales are expected to exceed an estimated 40 billion dollars by the end of this year compared with 36.4 billion dollars in 2008.

In the early 2000s, the annual average sales were in the region of about 8.0 billion to 13 billion dollars. But in the first half of this year alone, total U.S. weapons sales have hit the 27 billion dollar mark - and are rising.

The projected sales are mostly to U.S. allies, including Egypt, Israel, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey, Greece, South Korea, Bahrain, Jordan, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), among others.

"That's good news for weapons contractors, who have historically tried to sell weapons to counteract possible cuts in the military budget," Goldring said.

"But its bad news for those of us who were hoping that the Obama Administration would re-evaluate U.S. arms transfer policy," she added.

Siemon Wezeman, senior researcher in the Arms Transfer Program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), one of the world's leading think tanks, says the data given by the Pentagon is slightly unclear.

He said he was not sure if the 40 billion dollar figure refers to real sales or only proposed/requested/possible sales for 2009.

However, having said that, U.S. exports are clearly showing an upward trend, for which there are several reasons, he added.

"Probably the most important is that there are now less producers of advanced larger weaponry than 10-20 years ago, which means that buyers have less options to choose from," Wezeman told IPS.

The U.S., he pointed out, is generally the most advanced producer with a wide range of products and offers basically everything a buyer could wish for - especially in the popular fields of advanced combat and other aircraft, missiles and electronics.

He said there are very few major arms producers around, and the U.S. part of the pie has grown, and is likely to grow even more.

One good example is the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) combat aircraft, for which there is very little tactical alternative and for which contracts have been signed in 2009 - it is possible the U.S. projections included further orders for the JSF in 2009.

The JSF program is already slated to be the largest - in value - arms export deal ever, and it still has a massive growth potential. It has very little competition globally.

This alone would be enough to keep U.S. exports at a very high level for the coming 20 or more years, Wezeman added.

Also important is that many of the larger traditional U.S. customers in Asia (Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Pakistan, Australia), the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, UAE) and Europe (Turkey, UK) all have recently placed large orders for U.S. equipment or are planning to do so soon.

Despite the financial crisis, Wezeman said, many of these countries are significantly increasing their military budgets and plan orders of the latest military equipment.

He said part of this is because these countries react to a perceived threat - for example, war against ‘terrorism', China's ongoing modernization, North Korea's and Iran's nuclear programmes, or ongoing operations in Afghanistan.

Taiwan alone, for example, is expected to sign arms orders worth several billion dollars this year, after about 8 years of negotiations and low levels of arms imports from the U.S. in previous years.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia has announced plans for over 10 billion dollars worth of U.S. arms, part of which has been or is expected to be signed in 2009-2010.

In addition, the U.S. has entered the huge Indian market - with a few ‘appetizers' worth around 2-3 billion dollars. Agreements were signed recently and there are expectations for further orders this year.

The U.S. is also currently the main arms supplier to Iraq (with planned orders for nearly 10 billion dollars, much of which is supposed to be finalized in 2009-2010).

Goldring of Georgetown University said the Obama Administration started slowly in authorizing new arms sales, according to Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) data.

During the first five months of the new administration, DSCA notified Congress of a total of eight possible major weapons sales.

The pace soon accelerated, however. In July alone, DSCA notified Congress of an additional eight potential major sales, matching the notifications of the previous five months. And in just the first week of August, DSCA submitted an additional ten notifications to Congress.

"Public statements suggest that Obama Administration officials have already been tempted to use arms sales as a symbol of U.S. friendship and commitment to bilateral and multilateral relationships," Goldring noted.

In the past, U.S. officials also frequently argued that such sales would help countries provide for their own defenses.

But U.S. arms sales have often seemed to exacerbate the very threats they were intended to prevent - spurring arms races, intensifying regional rivalries, and increasing the human cost when conflicts occurred - she added.

Instead of allowing the excesses of the past to continue, policy makers should factor in the potential long term negative consequences of these sales.

Goldring said the burden of proof should be on those who want to sell arms, not on those who try to stop the sales.

President Obama seems to understand the destabilizing effects of unrestrained sales of small arms and light weapons because he has spoken eloquently of the damage caused by such weapons.

He has already begun working to reverse some of the policies of the former Bush Administration in that area.

"Our national security would be well served by expanding this effort to include the full range of conventional weapons," Goldring said.

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