Crunch Time for Control of Advanced Arms Exports

By Nolan, Janne E. | Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Crunch Time for Control of Advanced Arms Exports


Nolan, Janne E., Issues in Science and Technology


In the wake of the Cold War, the proliferation of conventional weapons is emerging as a critical international issue. New economic pressures - the result of shrinking international arms sales combined with cutbacks in domestic defense procurement in many countries - are forcing arms producers at home and abroad to jostle for position in an overcrowded market. This fierce competition is matched by buyers' growing interest in the high-end weapons whose effectiveness was demonstrated so dramatically in the Gulf War. Meanwhile, the demise of the Coordinating Committee on Multilateral Exports (CoCom) has left a major gap in the international coordination of national arms export policies.

In February 1995, the Clinton administration established the Presidential Advisory Board on Arms Proliferation Policy to study the factors that contribute to the proliferation of strategic and advanced conventional military weapons and technologies and to identify policy options for restraining that proliferation. Members of the panel (whose views are reflected in this article) included Edward Randolph Jayne II, Ronald F. Lehman, David E. McGiffert, and Paul C. Warnke. Together, we spent more than a year hearing presentations by representatives of government agencies, industry, and nongovernmental organizations. Our conclusion, released in a formal report in July 1996: If the United States' overall nonproliferation goals are to succeed, the control of conventional arms exports must become a significantly more important and more integral element of U.S. foreign and defense policy. Right now, however, we have neither the international nor the domestic mechanisms we need to deal effectively with this problem.

New dangers, new pressures

The control of conventional arms has always been a lower priority than the control of weapons considered more dangerous or repugnant, such as nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. Yet the line between conventional and unconventional weapons is growing ever finer. Some so-called conventional weapons - those with destructive mechanisms that are not nuclear, chemical, or biological - have achieved degrees of military effectiveness previously associated only with nuclear weapons. In addition, certain advanced systems can be used to deliver weapons of mass destruction. In fact, the principal formal international arrangement for restraint of the transfer of conventional arms, the Missile Technology Control Regime, restricts the sale of ballistic and cruise missiles largely because they are capable of delivering nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

Unregulated proliferation of conventional arms and technologies, particularly in their more advanced forms, can drastically undermine regional stability, posing a threat to U.S. security and interests. By putting ever more powerful weapons in the hands of potential problem states, questionable arms exports could ultimately cost American lives. And the threat of facing more sophisticated weapons abroad could compel exporting states to develop even more advanced weapons, setting in motion a vicious circle.

The pressure to sell advanced conventional weapons is accelerating in the depressed arms market of the post-Cold War era. Since 1989, the constant dollar value of conventional weapons exported by the six leading suppliers has dropped by more than half, mostly because of a sharp decline in exports from the former Soviet Union. Accompanying this overall decline in exports, domestic arms procurement in supplier countries also has dropped precipitously as governments downsize their military forces.

In the United States, military procurement dropped more than 50 percent between 1987 and 1995, from $104 billion to $47 billion. U.S. exports of conventional arms have remained steady over this period, averaging about $10 billion per year, though they now account for a much larger share of the international market - nearly three-fifths, as compared with about one-quarter in 1987. …

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Crunch Time for Control of Advanced Arms Exports
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