The frequency and intensity of armed conflict in the Third World have provoked a new theory of great-power impotence, the perceived inability of the superpowers to prevent an outbreak of violence or limit its intensity. Recent trends in the global arms trade seem to reinforce this view: the rising number of weapons suppliers, particularly among the Third World countries whose capabilities to produce and transfer arms have grown; the increasing diversity of procurement programs; and the decline of monopolistic military assistance relationships. According to this argument, fewer Third World countries depend on the United States or the Soviet Union for arms supplies; thus superpower leverage is reduced and the political and military independence of the Third World is increased, especially during periods of regional conflict.

Indeed, the relative decline in U.S. and Soviet military deliveries is clear from the statistics. From a high point in the 1960s of 85 percent of market share in world military equipment and services, the superpower share is now about 68 percent.

Economic factors are clearly changing procurement practices. The rising cost of weapons designed and manufactured in the industrialized world is inhibiting the purchases by the poorer countries. Many are opting merely to upgrade present inventories, or are buying older equipment that has been modernized by suppliers in industrial countries or in the Third World itself.

More states are now producing military consumables, such as ammunition and spare parts, to suit a wide variety of weapons systems, not just those in their own inventories. North Korea, for instance, supplies Iran with ammunition compatible with Iran’s U.S.-origin system; Bulgaria is reported to have supplied NATO-standard ammunition to Nicaragua. Converting production lines to manufacture small arms and artillery ammunition of varying caliber is not very difficult or expensive, and can be accomplished within a few weeks. As demand for military consumables has risen, so too have the facilities that produce them. Curiously, this trend suggests that the arms trade is becoming more, rather than less, homogenized even as it grows more diversified.

A careful examination of all the evidence, however, suggests that, despite the diversity in sources of supply and the clear relative decline in the dollar value of the superpowers’ military exports, the United States and the Soviet Union still dominate the international arms transfer system. Indeed, the dependence of less-industrialized states upon the superpowers appears to be on the rise. The evidence shows that various constraints on recipients, as well as on smaller suppliers, serve to reduce the options of states engaged in conflict. These constraints allow the superpowers to retain a significant measure of control over the patterns of military assistance and the conduct of recent wars.


External and internal factors alike work to create dependencies among the developing countries. For this analysis, I have singled out five:

Superpower restraint and arms transfer restrictions. Contrary to popular wisdom, neither superpower has been an eager arms "pusher" once war breaks out. Both the United States and the Soviet Union have proven to be inconstant resuppliers—slow to respond to combatants’ pleas for arms and reluctant to become involved—at least during the early stages of the conflict. In general their initial response to these requests has been limited to shipments of ammunition and less-advanced systems. The superpowers tend to wait until they are able to assess more clearly the impact a war will have on their competition with each other and better evaluate the political gains or losses associated with resupply. Soviet resupply of Syria after the 1982 Lebanon war, for example, provided the Soviets with the opportunity to place in Syria 3,000-5,000 military advisers and technicians, which they had previously been denied. In Vietnam, the Soviet Union gained access to strategically significant military bases, particularly the former U.S. naval and air base at Cam Ranh Bay, in return for furnishing approximately $2 billion per year in military aid after the Sino-Vietnamese 1979 border war. The increase in U.S. military assistance to Morocco in 1980 was exchanged for U.S. access to Morocco’s ports; similarly, U.S. aid to Somalia in 1982 brought with it permission to use Somali air fields and port facilities.

Even when a superpower decides to support a belligerent, it tends to exercise relative economy and caution in the quantity and quality of its military assistance. The dollar value of military support to the combatants in eight recent conflicts reflects this caution. The proportion of superpower security assistance drops sharply, from a prewar level of 77 percent to only 38 percent. The U.S. share of assistance in all eight conflicts fell from 32 percent before the outbreak of war to only three percent. Similarly, the U.S.S.R. provided 45 percent of the total prewar military assistance, and 35 percent after the onset of the conflict.

This self-imposed restraint on resupply has had important implications. First, it has determined the kind of weapons combatants use during conflict and has forced them to accept what is available rather than what they prefer to buy. Second, superpower arms transfer restrictions have limited from whom Third World countries can buy during periods of armed conflict. As a result many combatants have been forced to buy their weapons on the black (illegal) and gray (covert) markets, which can supply quantities of smaller, older, less-advanced military items, but not the large, modern, major systems many combatants seek.

In effect, superpower restraint and restrictions on arms transfers to warring parties have limited the sophistication of weapons available to combatants, and therefore the technological level at which wars have been fought. They have circumscribed not only the Third World combatants’ choice of weapons but ultimately their offensive capabilities as well.

Human factors. When more advanced systems have been available, human factors have often increased the dependency of the recipient upon the supplier. As some Third World combatants have learned in recent wars, high-technology items are not easily integrated into force structures, nor are they easily maintained in operational condition. Many found that the transfer of advanced weapons not only reduced their military capability, but also increased their dependence on foreign suppliers—usually a superpower—for training, help in building infrastructure, and assistance in tactics, logistics, operations, management and maintenance.

The Syrian experience with its air defense system during the Lebanon war is only one example of how a country dependent on advanced equipment but lacking adequately trained operators can see its war-fighting capability decreased. The Syrians did not learn to refrain from turning on their radars until under direct attack. They apparently operated them unnecessarily before and during the conflict, enabling the Israelis to identify, locate and destroy their antiaircraft emplacements. They also did not take advantage of the mobility of their SA-6 missile launchers, leaving them vulnerable to attack by keeping them stationary for long periods of time.

In some instances, even the transfer of relatively simple military equipment has required substantial support from one of the superpowers. The Afghan rebels experienced operational difficulties in handling Stinger missiles, which began arriving in the spring of 1986. The United States had to provide extensive and intensive training support in Pakistan before the rebels could use them effectively. Apparently the skill is now so highly prized by the trainees that those who have mastered it are reluctant to train others.

Economic constraints. Recent wars also demonstrate the extent to which economics can mold the capabilities of Third World countries—determining what and how much they can buy, and inevitably reinforcing their dependence upon the superpowers. Wars have become so expensive that few combatants can afford them. Although many countries have arms to sell, most Third World combatants are unable to pay for them, and small suppliers cannot afford to offer the generous long-term grant-aid or easy credit terms the combatants require.

In the past, some noncombatant Muslim countries have been able to assist their friends and neighbors. But they themselves are dependent upon one or the other superpower for military equipment and support and are, therefore, susceptible to pressures from them to initiate or reduce arms supplies to belligerents. It is unlikely that any of these countries would supply equipment against the wishes of its own major supplier.

Furthermore, as oil revenues have dwindled, the financial resources available to the Persian Gulf states and Libya for disbursement to combatants have declined. In Saudi Arabia alone, annual income from oil exports fell from more than $100 billion before 1982 to less than $20 billion in 1987. By 1987 Saudi foreign assets (estimated at $50-60 billion) were being drawn down by $1 billion a month to meet government spending, and many development projects were being canceled. The cost to the Saudis of aiding the Iraqi war effort alone (about $3-5 billion a year) had helped to create a serious budget deficit (which reached $17.4 billion in 1986) and forced the Saudis to reduce aid to Iraq and others.

Oil-producing combatants like Iran and Iraq have faced similar economic constraints. Initially both Iran and Iraq were able to finance their defense efforts. But as the war progressed this became more difficult. At the beginning of the Gulf war, for example, Iraq had approximately $35 billion in foreign exchange reserves. By 1986, the drop in oil revenues and the rising expense of conducting a war of attrition (for Iraq, approximately $15 billion per year in foreign exchange alone) were taking their toll, presenting Iraq with a yearly foreign exchange shortfall of $4-5 billion. That year its foreign debt reached $50 billion, $10 billion of which was owed to France, and $10 billion to the Soviet Union, for military transfers. Although Moscow and Paris have agreed to reschedule Iraq’s massive debt payments, they have reduced their deliveries of advanced aircraft to Iraq, and they are generally reluctant to offer more credit. The war is reportedly costing Iran $11 billion per year, and it too is now experiencing a yearly shortfall of about $4 billion in revenues.

Third World combatants without oil resources have felt the impact of war even more keenly than the oil rich. Faced not only with the expense of military preparedness and combat, but also with reduced credit and assistance from others and an overwhelming debt problem, resource-poor combatants have found themselves particularly dependent on the superpowers for the subsidization of their wars.

Nicaragua, for example, is heavily dependent upon the Soviet Union and its allies for military equipment and aid. In 1987 Soviet arms deliveries to Nicaragua alone totaled about $500 million, and some sources claimed that this figure was as high as $1 billion. The contras were equally dependent upon the United States. In 1986-87 they were allocated $100 million by the United States—not including the millions of dollars donated by Saudi Arabia, Brunei and private U.S. organizations, or the $3.5 million of profits from the secret sale of weapons to Iran.

The stakes have been even higher in the Middle East. The short war in Lebanon, for example, is said to have cost Israel $1 billion in direct expenses—a figure which does not include the indirect costs of calling up the reserves from the civilian economy. For Israel, the price of serial warfare has been its economic dependence on the United States.

For Syria, the economic consequences of war have not been different. Its debt to the Soviet bloc is said to be $15-19 billion. Syria’s annual government budget amounts to only $10 billion, half of which is already marked for defense and internal security. With Saudi economic support declining, Syria’s dependence upon the Soviet Union for military assistance is almost complete. And this when the Soviets are demanding that Syria pay hard cash for weapons.

Both the Soviet Union and the United States (with help from other countries) have absorbed the costs of war in Afghanistan. In 1987 it was reported that the Soviet Union had been spending an average of $3 billion per year. On the other hand, foreign military assistance to the Afghan rebels from 1979 to 1986 is said to have amounted to $3 billion, half of which came from Saudi Arabia. In 1986 alone, the CIA delivered at least $480-million worth of weapons, with a comparable supply donated by China and Saudi Arabia; by 1987 the United States had increased its allocation to $630 million.

In Africa economic factors have affected both the pace and conduct of war. U.S. financial and logistical support, along with French equipment, have helped the Chadians in their conflict with Libya. And in the Western Sahara, Morocco received $2.5 billion in military assistance from the United States, France, West Germany and Italy between 1979 and 1986 to help defray at least part of the estimated $1.7-billion annual cost of its ongoing war. Saudi Arabia and South Africa reportedly have also contributed to the Moroccan effort.

Among nonbelligerent Third World countries, dependency upon a superpower for military equipment is also the norm. Indian-Soviet relations provide a good example, demonstrating not only the degree to which the recipient’s choices are circumscribed by financial considerations, but also the concessions a superpower is ready to make when it believes there are political gains to be had. India, despite its preference for Western equipment, has been practically forced to buy from the Soviets. The concessional rates the Soviets offer, their willingness to accept payment in rupees, and their agreement to barter and offset arrangements to reduce procurement costs have left the Indian government little choice. Facing chronic hard-currency shortages and competing demands from its civilian sector, India has ordered some Western equipment, but remains heavily reliant upon the Soviet Union as a main source of supply.

These examples illustrate how dependent the Third World is upon the superpowers for affordable arms and services. What they can buy is circumscribed by who is willing to subsidize the purchase. Without the financial support of the United States or the Soviet Union or one of their allies, opportunities to procure advanced military technology are severely limited. As their debts continue to accumulate, more and more developing countries, particularly those fighting expensive wars, will be forced to turn to the superpowers for their military equipment and services. Given the Third World’s current economic straits, the reliance of developing countries, particularly those at war, on the superpowers for military equipment and financial assistance is not likely to diminish.

The demand for fast, large deliveries. Third World combatants often need fast, large deliveries of equipment in order to stave off defeat. But although there are many potential suppliers available, few other than the superpowers are able to produce enough surplus items or remove them from their stores in large enough numbers to satisfy the urgent request of a combatant without dangerously drawing down their own inventories.

Fewer still have the capability to transport rapidly major weapons over long distances, along with the men and equipment to support them. This is true for European as well as Third World suppliers, none of whom have sufficient long-range air transports in inventory to carry heavy, outsize cargo to the theater of conflict (such as the U.S. C-5A, C-141 and C-130, or the Soviet An-22, or the An-400 currently in production). France, for example, has frequently used U.S. transports in times of crisis in Zaïre and Chad. It is also claimed that France transports its daily airlift of military supplies to Iraq on Soviet-built An-22 cargo planes.

Much the same is true for communist-bloc states. It has been the U.S.S.R., for example, that has provided transport for the larger movements of Cuban troops and supplies. And during the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese border conflict, Soviet assistance to Vietnam included transportation of Vietnamese troops from Cambodia and southern Vietnam to the northern front and an airlift of military supplies.

In addition to these comparative advantages, few suppliers other than the superpowers have the global influence to request and receive permission for refueling or territorial overflight from countries on the route of access. The problems even the United States and U.S.S.R. have encountered in this regard suggest how difficult it would be for other, less-powerful states to get such permission. One need only recall how the United States was denied overflight permission by France for its British-based F-111 planes during the U.S. air attack on Libya in 1986. The Soviet Union experienced similar difficulties during the Ethiopian-Somalian war, when its airlift of supplies to Ethiopia had to be halted because of protests from Greece and Turkey regarding overflight of their territories. Curiously, this need among Third World countries for rapid resupply and the corresponding superpower capabilities are rarely mentioned in the literature as factors promoting dependency.

Demand for intelligence and satellite information. Finally, intelligence and satellite information that provides real-time knowledge about enemy movements and expands command and control capabilities has become increasingly important in recent years. Although the superpowers maintain a near monopoly on sophisticated information gathering systems (e.g., reconnaissance planes and satellites, radar installations, signal intelligence), analysts have paid as little attention to this type of Third World dependency as they have to that associated with transport services. The demand for intelligence support is now coming from all regions of the world, and at least one side in all recent wars has received it. Information about assistance of this kind is difficult to find (much of it is classified), but enough is available from open sources to document its character and frequency.

Both the United States and the Soviet Union have given diverse forms of intelligence assistance to their allies and friends, particularly in the Middle East. Israel, for example, is said to have used U.S. satellite pictures in order to bomb more accurately the French-built Iraqi nuclear reactor in June 1981—in exchange for help to the contras. And eight days after the Iran-Iraq War began in 1980, the United States sent the Saudis four E-3 A Sentry airborne early warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft, at Saudi request, to help them deal with a possible Iranian attack on their oil fields. The following year Saudi Arabia purchased five AWACS of their own, the last of which was delivered in April 1987, bringing to nine the number based in Saudi Arabia. Although Saudi crews were supposed to fly the five AWACS, reportedly only enough Saudis to crew one or two of the planes have been trained, so that U.S. crews are expected to fly all nine for the foreseeable future.

The U.S. AWACS have seen continual service in the region. The intelligence they collect has been relayed to ground facilities in Saudi Arabia—built and operated by the United States—where it has been analyzed and transmitted to U.S., Saudi and Kuwaiti commands. In 1986 the Gulf Cooperation Council asked the United States to extend AWACS coverage to all of its members.

In spite of its public neutrality the United States apparently has also supplied some intelligence to both sides of the Iran-Iraq War. Since 1984 the AWACS (supplemented since 1986 by U.S. satellite photographs) have provided Iraq with data about Iranian troop movements. Information from these sources may have helped the Iraqis defend Basra during the 1986 Iranian offensive. In addition, since 1985 the CIA has been providing data before and after Iraqi bombing raids on Iran’s oil terminals and power plants, to help the Iraqis hit their targets more accurately and better assess the damage afterward. On the other hand, according to the American press, Iran received information from the United States (some claim "disinformation") in 1986 regarding Soviet troop movements on its border.

Egypt has been another frequent beneficiary of U.S. intelligence assistance. After the assassination of President Anwar al-Sadat in 1981, the United States sent an AWACS to help the Egyptians cope with internal unrest, which both the United States and Egypt feared might occur after Sadat’s death. In early 1983, when Libya’s Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi was threatening Egypt and other states in the region, three AWACS were deployed to provide Egypt with information about Libyan troops dispersements. The aircraft were also ordered to help direct Egyptian fighters to Libyan planes should the need arise. By 1985 the command and control capabilities of E-2C Hawk-eye planes stationed aboard U.S. aircraft carriers were providing "technical support" to Egyptian commandos who rescued a hijacked Boeing 737 in Malta; since 1986 these planes have been ordered to stand by should the Egyptian government require their help.

The Soviet Union has also given intelligence support to its friends in the Middle East. Soviet intelligence gathering for its Mideast allies goes back at least to the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, when the U.S.S.R. launched a reconnaissance satellite every day to inform the Egyptians about Israeli troop dispositions. Soviet personnel are also reported to have provided various types of command and control assistance to Syria during that war. More recently, Soviet reconnaissance planes apparently took photos to aid Iraqi bombing raids, and Soviet satellites are known to have lingered over Tehran during November 1987—a time of increasing tension in the war—collecting intelligence presumably to be passed on to Iraq.

A similar pattern can be found in other regions of the world. In South America during the Falkland Islands war, Britain received extensive intelligence assistance from the United States. In Central America, the United States was able to provide the contras with the locations of the Sandinistas’ fleet of Hind helicopters—information gathered by U.S. tracking installations in Honduras and ground operators in the region—which has been credited with saving many contra lives.

The Soviet Union, on the other hand, is rumored to have passed on some intelligence data to Argentina during the Falkland Islands war, although exactly how much and what is not publicly known. And in Nicaragua, a Soviet spy plane apparently provided the Sandinistas with information about contra movements, although the Sandinistas claimed the aircraft was being used for mapping purposes.

Similar efforts have been expended by the Soviets in recent conflicts in Asia. In South Asia during the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war, the Soviets loaned a "Moss" AWACS to India which demonstrated its effectiveness in defensive and offensive operations. The plane repeatedly assisted Indian strike aircraft flying at night to locate and attack targets 160 kilometers into Pakistani airspace, while providing at the same time detection of enemy aircraft entering Indian airspace. During the Sino-Vietnamese border dispute the Soviets supported Vietnam with maritime reconnaissance and signals intelligence, although the impact of the latter was minimal because of tight Chinese communication security.

In Africa, intelligence support also has contributed significantly to the capabilities of the various combatants. For example, intelligence information was provided by the United States and France to the Chadian army to assist its defense against Libya. Information derived from satellite pictures of the battlefield and signals intelligence, which Chad used to intercept Libyan radio messages, helped Chad realize its stunning victories around Libya’s Wadi Doum stronghold in March 1987.

The Soviets, on the other hand, assisted the Libyans at a time of high tension between Libya and the United States in 1985 with information about the U.S. Sixth Fleet’s movements. But in March 1986, when Libyan forces and the U.S. Sixth Fleet actually clashed in the Gulf of Sidra, Libya was forced to operate without potentially helpful satellite material or other intelligence, because the Soviet ships in the Mediterranean declined to provide it to them. In this case, and undoubtedly in others not made public, the decision of a superpower to withhold information was as important a contribution to the outcome of hostilities as the decision to provide it.

From the perspective of the United States and Soviet Union, the services discussed above not only augment the military capabilities of their clients, but help them to maintain influence over regional political/military balances. From the clients’ perspective, their continuing need for these services, and the limited number of available sources for them, reemphasizes their dependency upon the superpowers, particularly during periods of crisis.


A subtle blend of Third World needs and the limited capabilities of other suppliers has enabled the United States and the Soviet Union to regulate the flow of major weapons and services to developing countries, particularly those fighting wars. As noted, some observers claim that a rise in the number of suppliers has reduced the ability of the superpowers to dominate the arms trade, particularly during periods of crisis. But what may have been overlooked in this assumption is the source of initiative for resupply during recent wars. Have the various suppliers responded independently to the combatants’ demand for resupply, or have they acted with the tacit approval or at the prompting of either the United States or the U.S.S.R.? During combat, is diversified procurement a product of market demand or superpower manipulation? Does the denial of a resupply request reflect the supplier’s or the superpower’s preference?

Although the evidence is circumstantial, it points to substantial superpower influence over major military transfers, regardless of source. It suggests that much of the assistance received by belligerents from small and medium-sized donors is "surrogate transfers"—that is, military assistance given with the implicit or explicit approval of a superpower. In other words, through a maze of indirect connections, the diversified patterns of military assistance observed during recent wars may be more a reflection of superpower political interests and influence than the independent political or commercial decisions of other states and their Third World customers. The same may be true for military transfers to the Third World in general.

A litmus test of superpower manipulation can be found in the patterns of military assistance associated with the Iran-Iraq War. The U.S. State Department’s "Operation Staunch"—a diplomatic effort under way since 1983 to impose a worldwide embargo on the sale of U.S. and other-origin war matériel to Iran—has been relatively successful in part because of the tacit cooperation of the United States and the Soviet Union. Both have successfully pressured their allies and friends to restrict their deliveries to weapons that will not tilt the war in Iran’s favor, and they have cooperated to limit the war’s effect on the regional balance of power.

Even the black market has not supplied Iran with the items it needs to change the military balance. Black market sales generally are limited to the so-called low end of the arms trade—articles that can be easily concealed and disguised as nonmilitary items. Generally, the size of these deliveries is limited by what can be conveniently shipped via commercial air freight companies or fit in the cargo bay of a light plane. What Iran has been able to buy is older, less-sophisticated ground forces equipment and ammunition, quartermaster goods and limited spare parts, for which it is forced to pay an enormous markup. Even at that price, equipment has been difficult to come by—as the secret negotiations between Iran and its avowed enemies, the United States and Israel, suggest.

Although the embargo on Iran has not been able to halt the flow of these articles through the black or gray markets, it has raised the economic cost to Iran and maintained a lid on the technological sophistication of what Iran can buy. As Vernon Walters, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, observed: "We may not prevent the sale of all weapons to Iran, but we may stop enough weapons to make a difference." The Soviets have followed the U.S. example, apparently calibrating the communist bloc’s military transfers with those of the West, but not exceeding them.

The result has been that Iran, despite its effort to do so, has not been able to acquire tanks, ships or any single modern, major Western military system, nor has it been able to purchase fighter aircraft or an effective air defense system with which to challenge Iraq’s control of the skies. The Iran-Iraq War, then, stands as a good example of the superpowers’ ability to manipulate other actors in the international system and of their influence over the progress of war in the Third World when they choose to exercise restraint and tacitly cooperate.


Why have the superpowers’ arms restrictions been honored by other arms suppliers? Why have they responded positively to U.S. and Soviet pressure even when it has been against their financial interests to do so? Since 1980, the Iran-Iraq War has been the most lucrative arms market in the Third World. It generates a large demand, and both combatants have oil with which to pay. Despite their declining fortunes, both Iran and Iraq are better able to pay for their military expenditures than other combatants, and most arms suppliers—in Europe as well as the Third World—badly need the revenues to keep their own arms industries going. And yet American and Soviet efforts to restrict sales to one side of that lucrative market have been relatively successful.

The hypothesis advanced here and implied above is that not just Third World combatants, but noncombatants in Europe and the developing world as well, all depend on the United States and the Soviet Union for a variety of transfers and services. These dependencies make it difficult to ignore the superpowers’ policy preferences. In some recent wars this has meant serving in the role of surrogate supplier, in others limiting military exports. The United States and the Soviet Union, because of their relative weight and wealth, can address many different kinds of needs, four of which appear to create particularly strong dependencies and yield a high level of influence for the superpowers.

The need for modern, major military systems. Most Third World and European suppliers purchase their own advanced aircraft from the superpowers, as well as other major items such as tanks, radar systems, advanced missiles, and a variety of components and subsystems. The retransfer of these items is strictly controlled, so that even if a country wishes to send them to third parties it is constrained from doing so without permission.

The transfer of military technology from Warsaw Pact countries and other Soviet friends and allies is highly coordinated and restricted by the U.S.S.R. through a system of third-country transfer prohibitions and surrogate deliveries. When the Soviet Union provides direct military assistance, for example, most East European sales become appendages to the larger Soviet program. In recent wars there appear to have been no known cases of East Europeans flouting Soviet transfer strictures.

Soviet restraints on the distribution of its advanced equipment are maintained through various mechanisms, the most potent of which is the Soviet disinclination to permit licensed production of its modern major systems. Nowhere is this more evident than in their relations with their East European neighbors, who might, the Soviets fear, point their weapons in the wrong direction or prove to be competitors in the arms market. Since 1961 no East European country has received new production licenses for any major Soviet weapons system, with the exception of tanks already in Soviet inventory for a number of years. The result has been an erosion of the East European countries’ military-industrial capabilities, an increase in their dependence upon the Soviet Union for their own major systems, a decline in the competitiveness of their products in the world market, and relatively tight Soviet control over the reexport of their most advanced offensive technologies.

Soviet policy has been equally restrictive regarding new coproduction and licensing agreements in the Third World. Only India has been allowed to produce modern Soviet systems under license. But India has not been in a position to thwart Soviet political interests in this area, even if it so desired. A combination of production problems and a high demand from India’s own military for defense and industrial products has kept Indian arms exports very low.

The relationships between the Soviet Union and North Korea and Libya, major purveyors of Soviet technologies, are less clear, although there is evidence that the Soviets exert considerable control here also. There have been reports that the size of North Korea’s exports to Iran concerned the Soviet Union and that in 1984 Moscow successfully pressured Pyongyang to moderate them. Some analysts contend that because of its economic and military dependence on the Soviet Union, North Korea enjoys little autonomy in these matters. The Soviets are thought to drive a hard bargain for even second-rate, outdated military equipment, and they have delayed and temporarily embargoed exports of contracted equipment, cutting off economic aid on occasion to express their displeasure with North Korean policies—with apparent success.

Similar methods have dissuaded Libya from sending major items to Iran. Reportedly the Libyan transfer of surface-to-surface missiles to Iran in 1985 during the "campaign against the cities" caused considerable friction between Qaddafi and the Soviets. The delay of Libya’s then pending military aid package may not have been related to this issue, but the Libyans apparently did bow to Soviet pressure.

Although the connections in the West are less clear, and U.S. friends are extremely sensitive to the charge of "surrogate" or "proxy," a similar hierarchical pattern of supply has emerged. Third-party transfer prohibitions have proved to be an equally effective weapon in the hands of the United States. The Carter Administration halted Israel’s military sales to Guatemala, and during the final stages of the Nicaraguan civil war it stopped Israel from arming the Somoza government. The Israeli sale of six Super Mystère fighter bombers with U.S. engines to Honduras was also stalled, and until recently the Israeli-manufactured Kfir fighter bomber could not be exported because it contained an American-built engine. Even after the armed hostilities over the Falkland Islands had ended, the United States blocked Israel’s sale of aging A-4 Skyhawk aircraft to Argentina based on its rights as original seller. The Swedes have experienced similar restraints. In 1978 the United States was able to veto the sale to India of Swedish Viggen jet fighters because of their American engines and other components.

The need for continued access to technical innovations. Another powerful lever for the superpowers is their dominance in military-related research and development. The high R&D costs associated with the production of advanced military systems and components—expenses only the United States and the Soviet Union have been willing and able to bear—have exacerbated the rest of the world’s dependency upon the superpowers for access to the latest military technologies. Although estimates of Soviet R&D expenditures are not readily available, one source suggests a range within one-third and two-fifths of the world total. In 1983, of the estimated $60-billion world expenditure on military R&D, the superpowers share was thought to be about four-fifths, or $45 billion.

The United States reportedly spends three to four times more than Western Europe on conventional military R&D. This has meant that individual West European countries have had to rely on U.S. R&D efforts not only for the advanced major systems they buy but also for the new technological innovations and advanced concepts they incorporate into the military items they produce. Soviet allies find themselves in a similar position.

The consequences for the rest of the world are that most of the major military systems they buy or make are either derived from the superpowers’ research and design efforts or are embedded with U.S.- or Soviet-origin subsystems such as engines and electronic and avionics packages. In the West, for example, 20-30 percent of each Tornado plane produced jointly by the United Kingdom, West Germany and Italy is said to consist of imported U.S. equipment. As a State Department official on the European desk told me: "The U.S. has controlling interest in the Tornado and the Leopard. Major radar systems on the Tornado are U.S., so that the U.S. has a say in third-party transfers." Israel, too, is very dependent on the United States for access to advanced technologies. No single modern major system manufactured in Israel is without some U.S. input, in the form of either design or subsystem. East European countries conduct no R&D on modern, major military items.

For most states, the desire for continued access to technological innovation has been an important incentive to comply with U.S. or Soviet policy preferences. The People’s Republic of China is a case in point. After denying that it had sold Silkworm missiles to Iran, Beijing pledged to prevent future deliveries. The pledge followed a U.S. State Department announcement that further liberalization of U.S.-Chinese high technology trade could not proceed until the Silkworm transfer stopped. Thus China’s need for access to American high technology serves as a tacit, if not overt, constraint on what it can sell, particularly to parties at war. Even China’s recent sale of CSS-2 surface-to-surface missiles to Saudi Arabia probably had the tacit consent of the Reagan Administration. It is unlikely, given the current climate in the Gulf and China’s military and civilian modernization efforts, that either China or Saudi Arabia would risk alienating the United States with a major sale of weapons such as the CSS-2s without presupposing its approval. If the sale was objectionable to the Reagan Administration, its public response was remarkably low key.

Brazil’s desire for U.S. high technology has also proved to be an effective lever for the United States in slowing its transfer of military technology, particularly to Iran. In June 1984 the Brazilians reportedly agreed to restrict their weapons sales abroad in return for access to U.S. defense technology.

The need for financial assistance. The superpowers also have been able to use economic assistance and the promise of future military sales to obtain cooperation from other states. Indeed, the promise of financial aid is perhaps the most powerful political instrument of all for the United States and the Soviet Union. In return, many states have been willing, even eager, to perform various military services when it has been politically imprudent for the superpowers to do so themselves. Thus Washington’s $3.2-billion aid package to Pakistan in 1981-86 was, in part, compensation for Pakistan’s support of the Afghan insurgency. Some observers believe that the United States’ enlarged economic and military assistance to Israel is related to Israeli activities in Central America.

In some instances a military sale to a third party by a U.S. ally may be used tacitly to offset its own U.S. procurements. This kind of relationship is difficult to document, and for obvious reasons is rarely discussed openly by either party. In the 1960s the British sold $266-million worth of Lightning aircraft, missiles, a radar system, and training services to Saudi Arabia, in spite of Saudi Arabia’s declared preference for a U.S. plane. They did so with the direct encouragement of the Kennedy Administration, "which understood that Britain would use the money from the sale to purchase U.S.-manufactured fighter aircraft." At issue were the British balance of payments problem and their prospective purchase of U.S. F-111 aircraft. According to one source, the Saudis "had been persuaded to buy British planes that they did not want, to allow Britain to pay for American planes it could not afford."

In a different context, Britain may again have served as a substitute supplier for the United States when it sold $4-billion worth of fighter planes (72 Tornado jet fighters, 30 Swiss PC-9 trainers that British Aerospace is modifying to Saudi requirements, and 30 Hawk trainers) to Saudi Arabia in lieu of two squadrons of U.S. F-15 aircraft. Unwilling or unable to pay the political price necessary to get the F-15 package through Congress, in mid-1985 the Reagan Administration sent a letter to the Saudis "that raised no objections to purchases of planes elsewhere." As one British informant observed, "We couldn’t say that Reagan steered the Saudis in Britain’s direction. We like to think, and Mrs. Thatcher likes to think, that we all have a close relationship. Certainly in a political sense, this government, Reagan and the Saudis are all very close."

Although no public documentation exists that establishes a direct connection between the political and military services provided by the superpowers’ allies and friends and offsets or kickbacks for their procurements, based on the few cases that have surfaced, and inferring from the more widely publicized relationship between increased economic aid and surrogate activities, it is not illogical to assume a linkage in the military sector as well.

The need for military and political support. In addition to financial assistance, many countries depend upon the weight and prestige of the superpowers to protect them from various political or military humiliations in international forums and on the battlefield. The promise of this type of support has also won for the superpowers the gratitude of many states which in return cooperate and willingly undertake various diplomatic and military tasks for them. Again, no public document affirms a relationship between U.S. and Soviet political or military support and the cooperation of recipients, but there is enough circumstantial evidence to suggest it.

In Central America, for example, it may not be coincidence that the list of contributors to both sides of the war effort includes states which have had remarkably little political or commercial interest in the area but are dependent upon the Soviet Union or the United States for political, military, technological or economic support, and sometimes all four. In fact, this link was made explicit by the Reagan Administration, which publicly discussed the role of substitute suppliers in the region. In the face of Congress’ reluctance to support the Nicaraguan insurgents and as a tactic to persuade it to do so, the Administration announced in March 1985 its intention to request that friendly Asian countries help channel aid to the contras. In August 1985 the Nicaraguan government claimed that South Korean military experts were advising the contras, and it was reported elsewhere that Taiwan was providing assistance.

Other countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Brunei, Britain and Israel (all of which have little political concern for Central America and with the exception of Israel few ties there), are also said to have aided the contras. According to published reports, Saudi Arabia has been secretly financing the contras as part of an informal arrangement for buying arms. Aid to the contras was tied to Saudi Arabia’s 1981 AWACS purchase from the United States, which intelligence sources termed a "kickback by the Saudis to get the AWACS." They claim it has been a common, long-standing practice to generate cash from foreign military sales for politically sensitive U.S. programs. The precedent had already been set in 1980 with the Saudi financial channel to the Afghan rebels. The 1981 AWACS agreement included Saudi aid to other anticommunist forces as well; by 1987 it was reported that Saudi Arabia had also provided aid to insurgents in Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia and Angola.

Since 1986 the U.S. Seventh Fleet has offered protection to Saudi and Kuwaiti oil vessels against Iranian attack, and in 1987 the United States increased its political commitment to permit 11 Kuwaiti tankers to fly the American flag. Again, the connections have never been directly established, but for the Saudis and Kuwaitis, helping the United States support the contras may have seemed a small price to pay in return.

During the Falkland Islands war, Britain depended upon the United States for substantial military support. The United States provided not only intelligence facilities and information, but Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, surface-to-air missiles, and a variety of ordnance for its planes. It may not have been mere happenstance that Britain later was reported to have offered military training to the contras. Israel’s role in Central America, on the other hand, has been referred to unambiguously as that of a "surrogate supplier." As one Israeli analyst observed about U.S.-Israeli relations: "It’s like Israel has become another federal agency, one that’s convenient to use when you want something done quietly." Honduras too, with more immediate regional interests, agreed to assist the contras but not without U.S. compensation. It successfully lobbied for more military and economic funding in exchange for allowing U.S. contra aid to pass through its territory.

El Salvador has received similar support from an assortment of U.S. friends and allies. Britain, Belgium and Israel have each volunteered to train members of the Salvadoran army in their own country, and West Germany lifted a five-year ban on aid to El Salvador in 1984 by providing technical and financial assistance. Even Japan has expanded its economic aid program to help a number of U.S. friends, particularly in Central America.

U.S. efforts to limit Nicaragua’s access to Western equipment also have been quite effective, despite the disinclination of U.S. friends to honor them. France, however reluctantly, acquiesced in the Reagan Administration’s request that it "slow down" delivery of an arms package it had sold to the Sandinista regime. The French also agreed to "delay" delivery of the two Alouette III helicopters the United States found most objectionable. U.S. officials later said they thought any new French arms deals with Nicaragua "most unlikely." Other European and Latin American countries have followed suit, so that Nicaragua, once the recipient of military assistance from multiple Western suppliers, now finds itself almost completely dependent on the communist bloc for its military aid.

The Soviet aid program to Nicaragua has followed a similar pattern. Although the Soviet Union now provides 90 percent of Nicaragua’s oil, in addition to other economic and military assistance, Soviet allies and friends have also pitched in. East Europeans serve in a variety of support roles alongside Cubans, and Libya reportedly has given a $100-million loan to the Sandinistas.


Surrogate support activities have characterized most recent wars, at least those that have lasted long enough for the superpowers to organize supplementary channels of assistance. Afghanistan, the Western Sahara, Angola, Iran-Iraq: each of these wars features different actors, but the relationships between those supplying and servicing them and the superpowers is the same. The dependence of most states, European as well as Third World, upon one or the other of the superpowers for sophisticated military technologies, subsystems, advanced R&D, and other forms of economic, political and military support have been powerful incentives for cooperation and compliance. Hence, through a delicate system of tacit rewards for restraint and punishment for infractions, both superpowers have been able to staunch or raise the flow of aid and regulate the level of armed hostilities in various regions of the world.

This does not suggest that superpower control has been or can be total. Power is a relative concept. Clearly the participating countries have reasons of their own for cooperating and often pursue their own political and economic interests even when they promote those of one of the superpowers. And when the vital interests of a superpower’s allies or friends are at stake, they may not be compliant. Still, the United States and the Soviet Union retain the option of withdrawing support and wreaking economic punishment if sufficiently displeased—a price most smaller or less-affluent states are frequently unwilling to bear.

In sum, a constellation of factors has served to foster the dependency of most of the world’s states on the economic and technological capabilities of the superpowers. As a result, the intensity of combat in the Third World has been determined not only by the regional interests of the combatants, but by the national interests of the United States and the U.S.S.R. as well.

Judging from recent conflicts in the Third World, neither warfare nor the rising number of weapon suppliers has destabilized the international system or reduced the influence of the United States and U.S.S.R. in it. To date, the superpowers have not clashed with each other on the battlefield, and their military competition has been relegated to direct and indirect support of combatants in local wars. Both have continued to dominate the arms trade, using military assistance to enhance their position in the world and to limit each other’s expansion.

Although diversification and indirect sources of supply have permitted Third World combatants to continue fighting, often at tremendous cost in lives, the type of weapons and training available to them has remained limited. In effect, the superpowers have retained control over the quality if not the quantity of the arms trade, and ultimately, therefore, over the level of technological sophistication at which wars have been fought in the Third World.


If the above analysis is correct, the implication for U.S. policy toward the Third World is not insignificant. It suggests that the United States, because of its economic and technological strength, enjoys a comparative advantage in relation to other suppliers of military aid—including the Soviet Union. It also suggests that despite the conventional wisdom that such instruments have little utility, security assistance programs have served the interests of the United States well.

If the outcomes of recent wars in which American troops have actively participated have been disappointing (U.S. marines in Beirut and the Vietnam experience), the outcomes of recent wars in which the United States has delivered security assistance, or denied it, have been less so. By providing U.S. policymakers with alternative options, military aid has enabled the United States to demonstrate resolve on the one hand and restraint on the other.

In an era when mutual assured destruction in an all-out nuclear war remains a reality, such policy tools are few in number but are critical to the task of defending perceived U.S. strategic interests while avoiding direct confrontation with the U.S.S.R. In this respect, U.S. security assistance has proven to be a potent foreign policy instrument during recent wars. Used in conjunction with a coherent set of foreign policy goals and creative diplomatic initiatives, it will continue to serve as an important alternative to military intervention and as a moderating influence on the level, if not the frequency, of conventional conflict.

Finally, the data presented here suggest that the conventional wisdom regarding the decline of U.S. influence and the dispersal of power in the world cannot be unquestioningly accepted. If power rests with the state whose resources dwarf those of other states, then the United States possesses the greatest reservoir of potential influence in the international system.

In this respect, even the Soviet Union is at a relative disadvantage. Economic slowdowns beginning in the late 1970s, combined with low oil prices, declining production beginning in 1984, and a trade deficit beginning in 1985 have compounded the Soviet Union’s difficulties. In response to these problems the U.S.S.R. has come to rely more heavily on its arms export earnings and to demand hard-currency payment for its weapon transfers. Whereas its 1950s agreements with developing countries were concessional, with discounts ranging from 40-50 percent and easy financing terms, by 1981 an estimated 85 percent of the Soviet Union’s arms sales were paid for in hard currency, and these sales were contributing about 20 percent to the U.S.S.R.’s hard-currency export earnings. However, in recent years depressed world economic conditions have adversely affected Soviet foreign exchange earnings. As the ability of Third World countries to buy weapons with hard currency declines in tandem with the Soviet Union’s decreasing ability to provide extensive economic and military support to them, the relative influence of the Soviet Union over its Third World friends and allies can be expected to fall.

From the perspective of the arms trade, U.S. influence remains paramount. If this is so then it is important for American leaders to recognize and constructively use it. Myths of declining power, if repeated often enough, become the accepted truth, depriving decision-makers of their confidence and will to lead. In that event, the self-fulfilling prophecy of increasing impotence will become true, and U.S. foreign policy will become less an exercise in influence over events than an attempt to block their most negative effects.

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  • Stephanie G. Neuman teaches Third World security issues at Columbia University and is Senior Research Scholar and Director of its Comparative Defense Studies Program. This article is adapted from the author’s book, Military Assistance in Recent Wars.
  • More By Stephanie G. Newman