For two decades, the United States has dominated the global arms trade, reaping a broad range of economic and geopolitical benefits in the process. But shortsighted decisions to produce expensive, cutting-edge weapons systems, rather than cheaper, more practical ones, are squandering this monopoly and letting other countries get into the market.
An essay in images about the U.S.'s fading position as arms dealer to the world.
U.S. Air Force F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter crew chief, Tech. Sgt. Brian West, watches his aircraft approach for the first time at Eglin Air Force Base, 2011. (U.S Air Force, Flickr)
J. Thomas Moriarty
According to Jonathan Caverley and Ethan Kapstein ("Arms Away," September/October 2012), the United States' domination of the global arms market is disappearing, and as a consequence, Washington is squandering an array of economic and political benefits it has enjoyed as the foremost weapons dealer in the world. They argue that although the U.S. defense industry spent the last decade developing expensive, high-tech systems, such as the Joint Strike Fighter, also known as the F-35, foreign customers actually want cheaper, less advanced weapons. For Caverley and Kapstein, simpler is better.
Even if that were true, it would be a secondary concern. First and foremost, U.S. defense firms need to serve their most important client: the Pentagon. The U.S. military should not have to forgo stealth technologies, for instance, which better protect pilots and allow them to attack complex air defense systems, because the rest of the world is supposedly more interested in old airplanes equipped with outdated technology.
Moreover, the United States' declining market share in recent years is not a result of the Pentagon's pursuing cutting-edge technology, as Caverley and Kapstein argue. The landscape of global arms sales is shifting because medium-sized powers, such as India, South Korea, and Turkey, have enjoyed robust economic growth lately and are using that growth to reduce their dependence on Washington for military technology. Dozens of countries have built their own weapons-manufacturing industries in order to create high-paying jobs, generate profits, and address domestic security concerns, despite the fact that cheaper, more reliable systems are already for sale on the international market.
India, for example, has spent billions developing its own light combat aircraft, the Tejas, even though more economical alternatives are available from foreign sources. And Israel is producing its own precision-guided munitions and unmanned aerial vehicles, even though it could buy U.S. systems at discounted rates. Much of the decline in U.S. arms sales is a byproduct of foreign governments' decisions to do more business at home, not the result of misguided strategy in Washington. As a consequence, the United States should keep doing what it does best: building state-of-the-art weapons equipped with the latest technology.
Caverley and Kapstein point to France's success in selling its Rafale fighter jet in a $11 billion deal with India as proof that states aren't interested in "gold-plated" aircraft. The Rafale is indeed less expensive and less capable than the F-35, but it is by no means simple or cheap. The difference in price is negligible: recent estimates put the flyaway cost of a Rafale at $100 million, whereas the U.S. Government Accountability Office has estimated the F-35's price tag at around $108 million. India's decision to purchase the Rafale over the F-35 had more to do with geo-strategic concerns -- such as a desire to avoid an overreliance on U.S. advanced weaponry -- than financial or technological considerations.
Meanwhile, France has sold Rafales to just one country. Even if it wins pending contracts in Brazil and the United Arab Emirates, Paris will export only about 200 aircraft. By comparison, ten countries have pledged to buy the F-35 from the United States, and it is also expected to win contracts in Malaysia, Singapore, and South Korea. If all goes according to plan, Lockheed Martin will export at least 500 F-35s in the coming decades.
More misleading than the Rafale example is Caverley and Kapstein's reference to Sweden's Gripen. The Gripen's flyaway cost is only about $60 million, but the plane lacks the advanced capabilities of both the Rafale and the F-35. In the 1980s, Sweden bet that there would be a healthy market for a simple and cheap aircraft, because the United States and western Europe were focusing on expensive, high-tech models. If the Gripen had managed to capture a substantial part of the global combat-aircraft market, it would serve as conclusive empirical evidence that the "simpler is better" strategy works. But Sweden's projected buyers have not materialized: only three countries have purchased the Gripen, together buying about 60 of the planes from Sweden, and another two countries are leasing about 28 additional planes. In fact, the program has been such a flop that Stockholm is now debating whether it should spend several billion dollars more to upgrade the jet's technology. Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin is expected to export more F-35s to more countries and for more profit than sales of the Rafale and the Gripen combined.
Caverley and Kapstein are wise to caution against overindulgence in technology. Cutting-edge weapons systems are difficult to develop, as the case of the F-35 has shown, and this problem is hardly confined to the last decade. But the real dilemma for U.S. defense firms is that because they have become so adept at innovation, military officials are often overly ambitious in what they ask for. The solution is not to produce simpler weapons systems, as Caverley and Kapstein suggest, but rather to rationalize the procurement process so that it leads to useful innovations. Technology gives the United States its competitive edge today, and it will continue to do so in the future. It would be folly for Washington to relinquish its foremost advantage.
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