DILEMMAS OF THE ARMS TRAFFIC

THE United States' practice of selling or giving large quantities of military equipment to foreign countries gives rise to a series of policy problems which, though often simple to identify, are not easy to resolve. Over the past two years, in an effort to exercise more control over the transfer of arms, Congress has added several restrictive clauses to the Foreign Assistance Act, which authorizes military aid, and a new Foreign Military Sales Act, which controls sales. Although tighter control may have a marked effect upon the overall nature and size of military aid and sales programs, the basic issues at stake inevitably escape the somewhat cumbersome and general language of legislation. In essence, the problems are ones of judgment in particular and highly differentiated cases.

Much of the underlying criticism that surrounds these programs is based upon several consistent themes: that arms sales and aid have become a bad investment and have contributed to the already dismal number of conflicts in the non-industrialized areas of the world; that there is a basic inconsistency in the logic of a foreign policy that professes to be concerned with arms limitations and the reduction of defense expenditure throughout the world and yet has resulted in the United States becoming the world's largest arms supplier; that the argument that arms transfers buy the United States political influence is seriously mistaken, as Pakistan, Greece, Iran and several Latin American countries have shown; and, most important, that arms aid can herald the beginnings of a major military commitment by the United States to the defense of other countries, such as Viet Nam, Laos or Thailand.

Other critics, though not prepared to agree with such sweeping generalizations, have raised questions concerning programs in certain areas, and have called for more open discussion of the various policy trade- offs. Should the United States make an open-ended commitment to supply combat aircraft, tanks and surface-to-air-missiles to Israel? If so, how many and what types and for how long? Would such a commitment be a realistic price for Israel's restraint in the nuclear weapons field? Which military assistance programs to Latin America should be abolished or cut back? Military assistance to authoritarian régimes, such as those in Greece, Portugal and Spain, raises the question as to whether the strategic benefits to the alliance balance the political costs. How should the United States respond if Zambia requests military aid to defend itself against American-equipped Portuguese forces in Angola or Mozambique?

The list of questions could be extended, for the sheer size of the U.S. involvement in the arms business is almost bound to create problems. Therefore, before focusing on the policy issues, it is necessary to give a few figures.[i]

II

Between 1950 and 1968, the United States appropriated over $33 billion for military assistance programs to foreign countries. Approximately $15 billion of this was earmarked for Europe and Japan (excluding Greece and Turkey); $9.7 billion for East and Southeast Asia; $5.6 billion for the Near East and South Asia (including Greece and Turkey); $687 million for Latin America; and $218 million for Africa, of which over 50 percent went to Ethiopia. The major individual aid recipients since 1950 have been: France, $4.1 billion; Turkey, $2.6 billion; Korea, $2.5 billion; Taiwan, $2.4 billion; Viet Nam, $1.5 billion (up to 1966); Greece, $1.4 billion; Belgium, $1.2 billion; Italy, $1.2 billion; and Britain, $1.0 billion. Thus nine recipients out of a total of at least eighty have received over 50 percent of the total. The overwhelming bulk of U.S. arms aid has gone to those countries which have been assumed to have faced major military threats from communist countries: the NATO allies and those Asian nations on the Sino-Soviet periphery. U.S. military assistance to those countries directly involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict has been very low ($46.0 million to Iraq, mainly before 1958; $50.0 million to Jordan; $34.0 million to Saudi Arabia). If Viet Nam costs are omitted, the size of the overall Military Assistance Program has fallen consistently since Fiscal 1961. The FY 1970 program totals $434 million, of which over 75 percent is earmarked for Greece, Turkey, Taiwan and Korea; $21.4 million has been earmarked for all Latin American countries, and $20.5 million for Africa.[ii]

The figures for overall U.S. military sales were not high before 1960. However, since 1964 average sales ($1.2 billion) have consistently exceeded the value of aid. By far the largest sales have been made in the industrial countries, especially Britain, Germany, Italy, France, Australia and Japan, and the oil-rich countries. Looking at the general trends, the falling size of the Military Assistance Program has been offset by the growth of sales. Combined aid and sales during the 1960s has varied between $2.0 and $2.8 billion.

How do these totals compare with those of other arms suppliers? Estimates of the value of Soviet aid and sales to foreign countries are exceedingly difficult to make. However, if transfers to the Warsaw Pact powers and Communist China are included, there can be no doubt that the Soviet Union ranks second to the United States. In terms of items of equipment, it is probable that the Soviet Union has delivered more tanks and jet aircraft to its allies than has the United States. If totals for the Third World (excluding China) are considered, the value of Soviet aid and trade has probably not exceeded $10 billion since its first major program in 1955 with Egypt. The bulk of Soviet arms in the Third World has gone to a few major recipients-China, North Korea, North Viet Nam, Cuba, Indonesia, Egypt and Syria.

Britain and France rank next as suppliers, with average sales of $300-400 million. Most of Britain's recent sales have been to oil-rich Middle East countries. However, France has recently sold arms to Peru, Brazil, Lebanon, Pakistan and South Africa. West Germany, Canada, Belgium, Holland, Italy, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, Sweden, Israel and Australia have all developed the capability to manufacture certain types of arms and have shown little reluctance to sell their products abroad, although several, notably Sweden and Holland, have made a real effort not to sell to countries engaged in combat.

Since major supplier countries exercise very tight control over the export policies of their private arms companies, and since most arms transfers are government-to-government, the only "uncontrolled'' trade that occurs is that arranged by the private arms dealers. However, the most successful arms dealers have found that it is in their interests to coöperate with their host governments and avoid selling to countries on the black list. Thus, although the clandestine arms trade may make the headlines occasionally, its net effect on the world's arms market is negligible in monetary terms. Nevertheless, in certain circumstances-as, for example, Biafra-the clandestine arms trade can have a marked effect upon the ability of one side to sustain a conflict.

Have these arms transfers served American interests over the years? Have the original purposes of the specific military aid and sales programs been fulfilled? There is no simple answer, since the record is a mixed one. Rather than attempt a chronological and geographical survey of the entire program, it is more useful to focus on some of the more frequent policy dilemmas that have occurred over the past twenty years.

III

The dilemmas begin within the Executive Branch of government, where disagreements arise as to the wisdom of arms agreements, even with close allies. The success in selling arms to Western Europe illustrates the problem. Those responsible for U.S. economic interests have stressed the need to sell arms in the important European market to offset some of the foreign-exchange costs of stationing 300,000 American troops on the Continent; and the military lobby has argued that the original Military Assistance Program and now military sales can help to standardize the equipment of NATO forces, thereby improving their efficiency. Others, more concerned with political relationships within the Alliance and elsewhere, have emphasized that the hard-sell tactics of American companies, helped by the Pentagon, generate considerable ill will in countries such as Britain and France, and have forced them to sell their own arms to sensitive areas such as Latin America and the Middle East. Germany and Italy have also retransferred large quantities of obsolescent American equipment to pay for new arms. On other occasions, however, it has been considered politically wise to agree to sell arms to Britain and France, even when it was not perceived as being in the best military interests of the United States and the Alliance as a whole to do so. The sale of Polaris missiles to Britain and C-135 tanker aircraft to France, which provided essential elements for the British and French nuclear forces, were negotiated at the very time that great efforts were being made to deëmphasize small national nuclear forces. Since each of these arguments is strong in itself, the optimum policies are not self-evident

A different type of dilemma arises over the question of arms supplies to Israel. In this case, the issue is not how to share an arms market with allies, but how to balance the need to preserve Israel's security against the dangers of a U.S.-Soviet confrontation and continued bad relationships with Arab countries.

There are some compelling reasons why, in the short run, the most important U.S. policy objectives have been served by supplying certain weapons to Israel, and why it would be unwise to deny Israel further supplies in the hope that such restraint would enhance the prospects of a multilateral political settlement between the various parties to the conflict. For instance, a unilateral decision to delay or withhold aircraft and spare parts would stand the risk of tipping the crucial balance of air power, not necessarily in favor of Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Jordan, but at least away from the present clear superiority which Israel enjoys. It can be argued that as long as Israel remains the dominant local airpower in the Middle East, the likelihood of a full-scale resumption of war is lessened, though not, of course, completely removed. If Egypt became persuaded that it, rather than Israel, could gain mastery of the air in the event of an all- out war, the temptation to plan a major offensive campaign against Israel would grow. If Israel believed that this was a real probability, it would prepare for preëmptive action, and the stage would be set for the fourth war.

If Israel could no longer rely upon the United States for arms supplies, it would undoubtedly step up efforts to seek them elsewhere. What is more, assuming no political settlement, it would redouble its attempts to build up its own arms industry, and would almost certainly move further toward a nuclear option. The problem for the United States is, then, to provide Israel with an optimum military force that is not so large as to remove all constraints on Israel, but sufficient to deter yet another premature and highly destabilizing Arab offensive, and the inevitable Israeli response. What numbers of F-4s or A-4s or Hawk missiles or tanks should be supplied to Israel, and over what time period, depends upon Israel's day-to-day losses in the present war of attrition, and upon the level and quality of arms supplied to Egypt by the Soviet Union. Though Israel can easily hold its own against any combination of local Arab powers, success in battle must be measured by the speed with which it can overcome its enemies, while the Arab nations, because of their greater numbers of less highly trained manpower, can afford a prolonged war. As a consequence of these asymmetrical conditions, a simple "balance of power" based upon the principle of parity will never be acceptable to Israel. It is, therefore, extremely difficult to imagine a meaningful U.S.-Soviet arms moratorium that would be welcomed by either Israel or the Arab countries. The American dilemma is that it will probably have to continue to sell Israel arms as a price for not becoming involved in a war.

Another persistent problem that has bedeviled American policy, and given rise to much criticism, is that recipients of U.S. military hardware may use it for purposes for which it was not intended and which the United States opposes. There are many examples to draw upon: Pakistan's use of American arms against India in 1965 resulted in a joint Anglo-American arms embargo to both countries; the El Salvador-Honduras war of July 1969 prompted Senator Fulbright to call for an end to all U.S. military assistance programs to Latin America; Portugal's use of American NATO- supplied arms in Angola and Mozambique has aroused widespread criticism; Indonesia's use of American military transport aircraft during its confrontation with Commonwealth forces in North Borneo caused difficulties with Britain; threats by Turkey and Greece to use their NATO forces against one another over the Cyprus crisis in 1965 gravely weakened the reliability of the southern flank; the use of American-supplied tanks to quell riots in Latin America or oust governments, as in Greece, is understandably a cause for concern.

The dilemma is, of course, that these incidents in themselves may not provide sufficient grounds for abolishing aid programs or denying sales. For instance, a primary reason for providing Pakistan with arms in the early 1950s was to secure base rights at Peshawar which were then considered very important for U.S. strategic interests. Peshawar has since declined in importance and, in any case, the United States has been asked to leave. But problems arising out of the 1965 embargo, which infuriated India as much as Pakistan, remain. (India had been receiving limited quantities of American military assistance since the 1962 Chinese border war.) Though the decision to cut off supplies to these countries may well have been a contributing factor in modifying the hostilities between them at the time, one long-term result was that it convinced both Pakistan and India that the United States and Britain could not be relied upon to fulfill their contractual obligations with respect to arms supplies. Pakistan's military links with China were strengthened, to the tune of 100 jet combat aircraft and about 100 T-59 tanks; India improved its growing relationship with the Soviet Union, and, most important, accelerated the development of a much larger and more broadly based indigenous armaments industry in order to avoid the indignity of bowing to big-power pressure in the event of a future conflict. India's present intransigence on the issue of the Nonproliferation Treaty is, to some degree, related to the bitter legacy of 1965.

In each of the other cases, different problems are raised. Greece and Turkey are cornerstones of NATO: should they be denied arms because of their domestic policies or their dispute over Cyprus? At a time when Jugoslavia and Rumania are anxious about Soviet intentions, and the growth of the Soviet Mediterranean fleet continues, is it wise to put more pressure on the Greek colonels? This was tried before and failed; or, perhaps not enough pressure was applied.

IV

It is often argued that the United States should simply refuse to supply arms to certain, if not most, countries. But the record shows that, if the United States declines, the Soviet Union, France or China will simply take its place. There are two particularly notorious examples of this pattern. One was the Egyptian-Soviet agreement in 1955, which followed the West's refusal to lift the strict arms rationing imposed by the 1950 Tripartite Declaration by Britain, France and the United States. The other was Indonesia's decision to purchase vast quantities of Soviet arms in the early 1960s, after the United States had refused to meet President Sukarno's more flamboyant requests for military matériel. These are by no means isolated cases.

But should the United States be concerned? Undoubtedly, Soviet intervention in the Middle East was made easier as a result of Western efforts to restrain Arab armaments, and the next generation of revisionist historians may feel that every effort should have been made to keep the Soviet Union out of an area so vital to the West. In the case of Indonesia, however, it can be asked how much the Soviet Union benefited from the billions of dollars' worth of submarines, jet aircraft and missiles supplied to that country. Since President Sukarno's ouster in 1965, the West has established close relationships with the generals, and the Indonesian military forces are now used almost entirely for counterinsurgency operations against left- wing guerrilla groups and dissident West Irian tribesmen. The Soviet Union's investment has won it little popularity with the present régime.

Similar dilemmas are evident in American policy toward Latin America: indeed, attempts by both Congress and the Executive to deter Peru from first buying American supersonic jets, then British subsonic jets and then French Mirage V fighters point very clearly to some of the political costs of exerting pressure, even with the best of motives. The demand for new jet aircraft in several Latin American countries, including Peru, has not been based solely on the whims of prestige-conscious air force colonels. For purely technical reasons, old aircraft must usually be replaced by more advanced types, which tend to be more expensive. A relevant question is, therefore, which aircraft transfers the United States should encourage and which it should oppose. Peru's decision to purchase the French Mirage V can be termed wasteful if measured in terms of military utility. For a total cost of about $30 million, Peru has acquired one squadron of aircraft which can fly at twice the speed of sound. For the same investment, it could have bought four squadrons of helicopters or small armed jet trainers, or several heavy transport aircraft, or hundreds of trucks and jeeps. Since the main threat to Peru's security is internal, despite the polemics over Chile's intentions, the Mirages seem ill-suited to Peru's real security requirements. If U.S. economic aid is to be indirectly used to subsidize weapons procurement, then the weapons should, at least, be those that enhance the security of the country.

But once military rationality is introduced into the discussion, another set of problems needs to be weighed. Is it necessarily in the interests of the United States to encourage authoritarian Latin American régimes to manage their armed forces with maximum efficiency? For a minimal investment, the U.S. Army Mobile Training Team sent to Bolivia in 1967 to train the Bolivian Rangers demonstrated that well-planned counterin- surgency operations can pay handsome military dividends. The successful capture and destruction of Che Guevara's guerrillas was probably not a chance operation. But, for precisely this reason-namely that élite, well- trained ground forces can support but also can depose both constitutional and authoritarian governments, and can destroy but also can assist opposition groups that the United States may or may not approve of-the advantages of optimizing military skills in particular countries are not self-evident.

What would happen if the United States drastically reduced its program of military aid and sales in Latin America in the belief that the present policies work against long-term United States interests? There is little reason to suppose that this would reduce the level of Latin American defense expenditures. The evidence of the past few years suggests that the United States would lose such influence as it has in limiting transfers of expensive weapons to chauvinistic governments and leave the field open to France, Britain and even the Soviet Union. France, in particular, has shown that it is quite prepared to ignore U.S. or world opinion and sell arms wherever it can. Its arms sales to South Africa have effectively destroyed the United Nations arms embargo there; its policy of supplying arms to Biafra, yet denying Israel arms it has paid for, cannot be regarded as an expression of noble principle. Neither France nor Britain will provide arms to Latin America free; they require either hard currency or favorable trade agreements. The Soviet Union might provide "free" arms, but at a high political price. Even so, some will insist-especially after the El Salvador- Honduras war-that the United States should get out of the arms business. Though unnecessary defense expenditures in Latin America undoubtedly undermine the whole purpose of economic assistance, the political costs of abruptly ending military assistance programs would seem very high.

The lessons to be drawn from Southeast Asia pose the most difficult dilemma of all. A primary purpose of military assistance there has been to assist countries in defending themselves against internal or minor external attack, without the need to involve U.S. ground forces. Viet Nam suggests to some that precisely the reverse happens: military assistance is the catalyst for deeper military involvement. Quite naturally, critics see the same danger occurring in Thailand and Laos. Yet, if the United States cuts back on military assistance to these countries at a moment when it is trying to reduce its own military presence in the area, the repercussions in Canberra and New Delhi, as well as Djakarta, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, might be very serious. Though the case for cutting the overall U.S. defense budget is overwhelming, the financial costs of military assistance are tiny in comparison to outlays for the nation's general-purpose forces. The record of some military assistance programs in Asia, notably in South Korea, suggests that return on the investment, though a long time in coming, is not negligible.

V

A final, more general problem is how to control the international traffic in arms. What are the prospects for consensus among the major suppliers? So long as arms transfers are perceived, in general, to be a useful albeit sometimes unpredictable instrument of foreign policy, and often lucrative as well, the chances for general agreement seem very slender. It is doubtful whether the United States, the Soviet Union or China will be deterred by the experience of several bad investments from continuing this practice. The numerous countries which are now entering the field for commercial reasons are also going to be hard to persuade to give up a profitable business. It is not inconceivable that Japan will one day reënter the field on a large scale; already, several East European countries have engaged in arms sales to the Third World. If the demand for arms remains high, as seems probable, the supply is likely to continue, though cutbacks in U.S. and Soviet assistance programs would seriously affect the quantities of arms many of the poor countries could afford to buy.

Can demand be curbed, especially in the Third World? These countries do not look favorably on attempts by the industrial powers to restrict their military capabilities, and regard proposals for regional arms-control agreements as yet another example of great-power interference with their sovereignty. The assumption that small countries should be denied modern armaments is, in their view, directly contrary to Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which grants the right of members to defend themselves against aggression. Unless the nations of the Third World are themselves prepared to initiate proposals for restrictions on the supply of conventional weapons, it is doubtful whether any significant controls that would seem worth the political price can be instituted by the supplier nations.

Two modest efforts at the United Nations, one by Malta in 1965, and another by Denmark in 1968, failed to arouse much enthusiasm among members. And as things stand, the chances of regional initiatives are remote. There was a time when Black Africa was considered a possible area for such a move. However, the continued and increasing incidents of violence across the continent, and above all the ominous armed might of South Africa, have made disarmament a non-issue almost everywhere in Africa. Zambia has recently signed an agreement with Italy for helicopters and jet trainers, on the grounds that in the last resort Zambians will have to rely upon themselves for protection against their white-ruled neighbors.

There have no doubt been severe institutional weaknesses in the management of the military assistance programs, many of which have been criticized by Congress, and, hopefully, remedied. But the basic dilemmas remain. These suggest that there are costs as well as benefits incurred if arms are denied to friendly countries; that on occasion arms transfers can give the supplier influence over the recipient's behavior, but sometimes not; that moral or political gestures proscribing the sale of arms to certain countries will not necessarily be adhered to by all other suppliers; that arms transfers can be made both a substitute for American forces and a catalyst for greater American involvement in local conflict; that successful sales efforts in Europe force Europeans to sell arms to the Third World ; and that universal agreement on the need for arms control and disarmament is paralleled by a sustained demand for American armaments. At present there are no easy policy conclusions and no substitute for treating each request for arms on its own merits, bearing in mind that arms transfers have long-term implications going well beyond the effort to maintain a military balance or improve the balance of payments.

[i] I have not attempted to cover the many quantitative and qualitative aspects of the arms-transfer process that are required for a detailed analysis of the subject. I have also not mentioned any of the more detailed recommendations that can be suggested for improving the techniques for administering United States military aid and sales. However, in writing this paper I have found the work of three colleagues, Lincoln P. Bloomfield, John H. Hoagland and especially Amelia C. Leiss, an invaluable help. In particular, see Bloomfield and Leiss et al., "The Control of Local Conflict: A Design Study on Limited War and Arms Control in the Developing Areas," prepared for the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 1967), and John H. Hoagland, "Arms in the Developing World," Orbis, Spring 1969.

[ii] None of these figures includes costs incurred in Southeast Asia after 1966. Responsibility for funding military assistance to Viet Nam, Thailand and Laos has been transferred to the Department of Defense budget.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now