U.S. Still Top Arms Supplier to South as Record Sale to Saudis Pends

The report, the latest in an annual series produced by CRS on conventional arms sales, was released Monday as the Wall Street Journal reported that the Pentagon will ask Congress as early as next week to approve a record 60-billion-dollar sale of jet fighters and helicopters to Saudi Arabia.

The proposed sale, which could be supplemented by an additional 30-billion-dollar deal to upgrade the Saudi kingdom’s naval forces and yet another for new missile- defense systems, would not only consolidate Washington’s position as the world’s dominant arms provider.

It would also by itself exceed the value of all conventional arms transfers agreements signed worldwide by developing and developed countries alike in 2009 – 57.5 billion dollars, according to the CRS report – and would easily restore Saudi Arabia’s status as the developing world’s biggest arms consumer, a position from which it was dethroned in 2009 by new arms agreements signed by Brazil and Venezuela.

“Sixty billion dollars is about half of what the Pentagon spends on weapons every year,” said William Hartung, a veteran arms-sales analyst at the New America Foundation. “It’s a huge bail-out for the military contractors who are facing a period when Pentagon spending is leveling off.”

The report, which is prepared each year by CRS’s top arms expert, Richard Grimmett, is widely considered to be one of the most authoritative on the conventional arms trade because it is based on classified information, as well as public data, and its methodology has remained consistent for nearly three decades. Its statistics include both military sales and assistance.

As in previous reports, the latest distinguishes between arms agreements that were signed during the previous year and actual arms deliveries that took place during the same year. Actual deliveries often fall short of what agreements originally called for.

This year’s report, ‘Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 2002-2009,’ found that arms transfers to developing countries made up nearly 80 percent of the 57.5 billion dollars in all arms transfer orders signed worldwide during 2009.

The 45.1 billion dollars in new deals in 2009 was down from 48.8 billion dollars in contracts for 2008, consistent with a more general decline in global arms sales of about 8.5 percent.

“…(T)he clear decline in all arms orders collectively in 2009 reflects, in part, the effect of the international recession” that broke out in late 2008, the study said.

The impact of the recession on arms sales was particularly evident with respect to actual arms deliveries last year, the report noted. The value of all arms deliveries to developing nations fell just short of 17 billion dollars, it found. That was the lowest total since the early 1990s and down from 20 billion dollars in 2008.

In both new arms agreements and in actual deliveries, the U.S. served as the top supplier to developing countries in 2009, as it has overall since 2002, according to the report.

It signed new arms agreements worth 17.4 dollars – or 38.5 percent of all such deals – in 2009; ahead of Russia, Washington’s chief arms-sales rival for the past two decades, which landed 10.4 billion dollars worth of new deals; and third-place finisher France, which signed 7.1 billion dollars in new contracts, according to the report.

Despite claiming the top spot, Washington’s percentage of new deals fell sharply from 2008, when it accounted for some 60 percent – or 29.5 billion dollars – of all transfers to the developing world.

In actual arms deliveries to developing nations, Washington accounted for 7.4 billion dollars, or 43.6 percent of all such deliveries.

Russia ranked second with 3.5 billion dollars’ worth of deliveries, or 20.6 percent, while China ranked third at 1.8 billion dollars, or just over 10 percent. They were followed by Germany (1 billion dollars), Britain (800 million dollars), and Israel (700 million dollars), which has emerged over the past eight years as the world’s seventh biggest supplier of weapons to developing countries, according to the report.

Among the recipients of new arms transfers, Latin America beat out both the Near East and Asia – which have traditionally dominated the consumer list – to top the rankings in 2009.

With 7.2 billion dollars in purchases, primarily of warplanes, Brazil ranked number one among the leading recipients last year, followed by Venezuela, with 6.4 billion dollars’ worth of new arms deals.

With 4.3 billion dollars in new agreements, Saudi Arabia took third place. It was followed by Taiwan (3.8 billion dollars), the United Arab Emirates (3.6 billion dollars), Iraq (3.3 billion dollars, Egypt (3.0 billion dollars), Vietnam (2.4 billion dollars), India (2.4 billion dollars), and Kuwait (1.6 billion dollars).

For the entire period 2002-2009, Saudi Arabia ranked first with 39.9 billion dollars in signing new arms deals, followed by India (32.4 billion dollars), the UAE (17.3 billion dollars), Egypt (13.9 billion dollars), and Venezuela (12.7 billion dollars).

As for actual deliveries in 2009, Saudi Arabia also ranked first, with 2.7 billion dollars; China, second at 1.5 billion dollars; South Korea, third (1.4 billion dollars); and Egypt, fourth (1.3 billion dollars). They were followed by India and Israel (1.2 billion dollars); Pakistan (1.0 billion dollars), Venezuela and Algeria (900 million dollars), and Iraq (800 million dollars).

For the period 2002-2009, Saudi Arabia dominated the market, with 31.5 billion dollars in actual arms deliveries – or a little over half of what the Pentagon is now proposing to sell in new aircraft.

China and India each received around 14.3 billion dollars in weapons (much of it Russian-made) over the same eight years, while U.S.-supplied Egypt (12.2 billion dollars) and Israel (10.1 billion dollars) have claimed the fourth and fifth spots, followed by UAE, Taiwan, South Korea, and Pakistan, according to the report.

Despite its massive arms purchases – including the pending deal that, if it goes through, will dwarf its predecessors – Saudi Arabia has not had much occasion to demonstrate its military prowess. Late last year, it suffered unexpectedly high losses in battles against Houthi rebels along its border with Yemen.

“From a practical point of view, these kinds of purchases have never been very effective,” said Hartung, who noted that the sales to the Saudis appear to be aimed “more at buying a relationship with the U.S.”

Congress is not expected to oppose the proposed aircraft sale, which would save or create some 75,000 jobs across the country.

Israel has also reportedly gone along with the deal after receiving assurances that the aircraft involved, notably the F-15, will not be equipped with long-range missile systems. In addition, the administration is supporting Israel’s bid to buy top-of-the-line F-35 fighter jets, which are one generation beyond the F-15.

“It’s almost like we’re running this little arms race between Israel and Saudi Arabia,” noted Hartung, who added that sale’s sheer size will also likely increase tensions with Iran which may in turn be tempted to buy warplanes from Russia. “This deal is good for the companies, even if isn’t good for the region.”

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.