No Letup in the Arms Race

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The Cold War may be over, but at least one vestige of it remains. The two nations that lead the world in arms sales are still the United States and Russia.

The Arms Control Association, a private think tank in Washington, has just compiled totals for the 2005 major weapons exports that 28 nations have been reporting to the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms since May. The U.S. was the leader last year with 1,724 tanks, armored combat vehicles, heavy artillery, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles and missile launchers sent to 22 countries. Russia, which had been in and out of second place for several years, ran a close second with almost 1,000 major conventional weapons systems exported.

Washington's biggest customers in 2005 included Israel (which received 22 F-16D jet fighters), Afghanistan (173 armored combat vehicles) and Egypt (100 M-1A1 tanks). Two-thirds of Russia's arms shipments went to China and India. Among the other busiest arms suppliers: Ukraine (which reported 649 weapons exports last year, almost double its 2004 count), Israel and Turkey.

The U.N.'s arms registry isn't comprehensive. Some countries don't report their exports to the international body, and U.S. experts believe some that do deliberately under-report what they actually sell. Even so, the arms registry, whose numbers were last updated Oct. 16, reveals that the worldwide weapons trade is booming. The U.S. total, for example, was about 9% higher than the previous year. Overall, the volume of conventional arms exports last year was the highest it's been in over a dozen years, at just under 12,000 major weapons delivered.

The upward trend understandably worries arms control advocates. Says Wade Boese, research director for the Arms Control Association, "Every country sees its exports as justified and legitimate and the exports of others as potentially provocative or threatening." But ultimately every arms export can pose a danger, even for the exporter. Before the Shah was toppled in Iran, for example, the U.S. was due to ship four destroyers to the country. Fortunately, Washington held up delivering the warships after the overthrow. Imagine what kind of problems four Iranian destroyers would pose for the U.S. Navy if Tehran wanted to bottle up Persian Gulf shipping over its nuclear standoff with the West.

What happened to those four vessels due for Iran? Like any good salesman, Washington simply found a different customer. It spruced them up and, years later, has begun delivering them to a new buyer: Taiwan.