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Arms Trade: A 'Booming' Business

President Barack Obama recently signed into law the 2010 military budget, saying that it takes the "necessary steps toward reshaping priorities of America's defense establishment and changing the way the Pentagon does business."

It was not quite that dramatic. For 2010, total military spending is $680 billion. For the 2009 budget, when the defense budget and war costs were added together, the total budget came to $654 billion. So, while some systems were cut, the overall budget increased by 3.9% or $26 billion. This is not the end of business as usual at the Pentagon.

But it was (is) a beginning. The budget does accomplish the elimination of-- or deep cuts in-- about a half dozen major weapons programs. Usually cancelling even one major system is a big deal -- and it often doesn't stick due to the lobbying clout of the military-industrial-congressional complex.

The $11.2 billion Presidential Helicopter program was eliminated. Missile defense systems were cut, a portion of the Army's Future Combat System was terminated at that $160 billion program was reorganized. These are steps in the right direction, but there is a lot more work to be done....

And the Pentagon and White House's efforts to buck the military industrial complex's business as usual are significantly undermined by the Pentagon and Whie House's approach to an inter-related (but often overlooked) issue--the arms trade.

The best current example of the linkages between military spending and the arms trade is the C-17 Globemaster, a large cargo plane manufactured by Boeing at a cost of $250 million per plane. This plane ship supplies, troops and even vehicles from bases and supply depots in the United States to the far flung corners of Overseas Contingency Operations.

Every year since 2006, the Pentagon has stated that no more C-17s are needed. In response, Secretary Gates put the program on the chopping block for the 2010 budget. But, because they are manufactured in 43 states and Boeing has a first-rate lobbying operation, the planes have lives to soar and ship another day. In October, the Senate approved $2.5 billion in the 2010 budget for 10 more C-17s, over the Administration's strong objections. That money is still in the final version of the budget that Obama signed, although with the caveat that there are funds for up to ten planes.

If the Pentagon does not need more C-17 planes, and Congress keeps funding them and Boeing keeps building them, where do they go?

They go to foreign buyers. Already United Kingdom, Qatar, Canada and Australia are flying the planes, and the United Arab Emirates and India have both expressed interest.

The appetite for U.S. weapons systems has not been sated by a string of strong export years. In fact, it looks like we are just getting started.

Vice Admiral Jeffrey A. Wieringa is the head of the Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which oversees Foreign Military Sales (FMS). In a recent blog post, the Admiral crowed about his bumper crop of weapons exports for 2009. "We can take pride in the fact that we achieved a new record," Wieringa wrote, pointing out that not only was the $37.9 billion in weapons sold in 2009 higher than ever before, it was 465% higher than a record low of $8.1 billion in 1998.


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A few recent arms sales notifications, some of which may be included in the 2009 total, and some of which may be counted in next year's figure, are as follows:

  • $134 million in Boeing Chinook helicopters to Morocco $3.2 billion in Lockheed Martin F-16s to Egypt $7 billion in Boeing F-18 fighter planes to Brazil

Looking ahead, the agency is optimistic, projecting $38.4 billion in foreign military sales for 2010.

Given the arms trade glut, this news from the United Nations could not be more timely: On Friday, October 30th, the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to pursue "common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms." Only Zimbabwe voted against the measure, and 19 other nations abstained including China and Russia --which are both major weapons exporters.

The last time this issue was on the front burner at the UN, the United States was the only nation to vote against formation of a 2012 UN Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty. But now, with a new administration and a new tenor in international relations, the United States is on board.

In advance of the October vote, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton articulated U.S. support for the effort, saying "the United States is committed to actively pursuing a strong and robust treaty that contains the highest possible, legally binding standards for the international transfer of conventional weapons." Organizations that have been working on this issue for years welcomed the shift in U.S. policy, except for one significant reservation (see below).

The General Assembly conceded to a U.S. demand for the "rule of consensus decision making" in the process. For many, consensus decision-making conjures up images of long meetings of people sitting cross-legged on the floor using non-violent communication and copious amounts of butcher paper; but in the UN it is more like giving a veto to any nation that wants to block a treaty. This aspect of the U.S. position may have to change if a substantive treaty is to be developed.

As Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, explains, the United States' "insistence on consensus is likely to prove counterproductive. It will give any country that wants to derail the process the opportunity to do so."

John Bolton, who served as State Department Undersecretary for Arms Control and then UN Ambassador under Bush, takes a different view. At the UN meeting on small arms in 2001 he gave a speech that could have been written by the National Rifle Association. His tenure at the UN was a high point for the NRA and other members of the gun lobby. responded to the news of the ATT treaty by raising the specter of jack-booted UN officials eager to take guns from law-abiding Americans. Bolton, who is now at the American Enterprise Institute railing against arms control in all forms, said that the treaty "has little or nothing to do with the international trade in conventional arms. This will strengthen the hand of a government who wants to regulate private ownership of firearms."

To the contrary, the General Assembly went out of its way to acknowledge "the right of all States to manufacture, import, export, transfer and retain conventional arms for self-defense and security needs."

Adoption of an Arms Trade Treaty is still years away, but as billions of dollars in weaponry are exported every year to the profit of war and the manufacturers, it deserves our attention and support.

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Frida Berrigan

Frida Berrigan

Frida Berrigan, a columnist for, serves on the board of the War Resisters League and organizes with Witness Against Torture.

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