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DISARMAMENT: Despite Recession, Global Arms Race Spirals

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 15 2010 (IPS) - The global financial crisis has not deterred some of the world’s developed and developing nations from bolstering their military arsenals with expensive new weapons systems, including sophisticated fighter planes, combat helicopters, submarines, armoured vehicles and air defence systems.

The five largest arms purchasers during 2005-2009 were China, India, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Greece, according to the latest figures released Monday by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

The extended list of prolific arms buyers also includes Turkey, Singapore, Pakistan, Malaysia, Israel, Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Egypt, Iran, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Sudan, Chile and Venezuela.

“I think one should stress that political leaders in different regions of the world have expressed concerns their region is on the verge of an arms race,” Dr. Paul Holtom, director of SIPRI’s arms transfer programme, told IPS.

SIPRI data on deliveries and orders shows signs that these concerns may have grounds as in several regions of tension there is evidence of reactive acquisitions – for example, it is reasonable to assume that the Moroccan order for U.S.-made F-16 combat aircraft is related to the orders and deliveries of Russian-made Su-30MK to neighbouring Algeria, he added.

Fighter aircraft accounted for 27 percent of international arms transfers during 2005-2009.

These include 72 F-16E fighter planes to UAE, 52 F-16I to Israel and 40 F-15K to South Korea, collectively costing billions of dollars.

Russian exports of fighter planes include 82 Su-30s to India, 28 to Algeria, and 18 to Malaysia.

The Russians are also hoping to clinch a massive Indian contract for 126 combat aircraft, ahead of European and U.S. suppliers, in 2010.

And orders and deliveries of these “potentially destabilising weapons systems have led to arms race concerns in the following regions of tensions: the Middle East, North Africa, South America, South Asia and South-east Asia,” according to SIPRI, one of the world’s leading research institutes on arms control and disarmament.

Since the volume of arms deliveries can fluctuate significantly from one year to the next, SIPRI uses a five-year moving average, with arms transfers for 2005-2009 being 22 percent higher than in 2000-2004.

Dr. Holtom said that SIPRI data show that resource-rich states have purchased a considerable quantity of expensive combat aircraft.

“Neighbouring rivals have reacted to these acquisitions with orders of their own. One can question whether this is an appropriate allocation of resources in regions with high levels of poverty,” he added.

According to SIPRI, the five largest arms suppliers during 2005-2009 were the United States, Russia, Germany, France and Britain accounting for more than 75 percent of all exports of major conventional weapons,

The United States and Russia remained by far the largest exporters, accounting for 30 percent and 24 percent of all exports, respectively.

Dan Darling, Europe & Middle East Military Markets Analyst at the U.S.-based Forecast International Inc., told IPS it might be rash to predict a continuing upward trend in military spending worldwide with so many lingering economic uncertainties.

But as the SIPRI figures show, he said, there has been a consistent rise in defence spending and arms acquisitions in the past five years.

There are myriad reasons for this, including regional rivalries (Colombia-Venezuela, India-Pakistan, Turkey-Greece, China-Taiwan, etc); surplus state revenues; the need for militaries to replace ageing equipment, etc.

Whatever the reasons, arms suppliers such as the U.S., Russia, Western Europe (France, Germany, Italy, Britain) and China will position themselves to reap the benefits of this upward trend, Darling said.

Certainly defence expenditure is not going to rise significantly in Europe anytime soon, largely due to the budget deficit and public debt troubles weighing on many of the countries there, but also because of the lack of a direct strategic threat facing the continent.

Selling the public on greater defence expenditure isn’t a winning political formula in many European countries, he argued.

“Swimming in its own tide of debt, the U.S., too, may soon be forced to restrain baseline Pentagon budgets to just above the rate of inflation in the coming years,” he noted.

The regional breakdown of arms deliveries has remained relatively stable over the past 10 years, according to SIPRI.

The major recipient region during 2005-2009 remained Asia and Oceania (41 percent), followed by Europe (24 percent), the Middle East 17 percent), the Americas (11 percent) and Africa (seven percent).

Asked how best one could interpret the growing arms race in a recession-struck world, Dr. Holtom told IPS that acquisitions by regional rivals and states “perceived to be” potential threats obviously influences procurement decisions and can unfortunately lead to dangerous spirals, as states seek to keep up with their neighbours’ acquisitions.

However, at present, and despite tense relationships, it has proven difficult to conclude that sizable arms acquisitions alone lead to conflict – although this factor can certainly influence decision-making and make the option of using military force to resolve a political conflict more attractive if your armed forces at the time appear to be significantly stronger than those of a rival/opponent.

For example, he said, Azerbaijan has been sabre-rattling regarding the frozen conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia, following a period in which it has sought to outspend Armenia with regard to military spending and acquire more weapons.

Darling of Forecast International Inc pointed out that Latin America is a defence-spending region that continues to grow.

Led by Brazil, many of the countries in the region are undertaking broad military modernisation programmes aimed at upgrading ageing arsenals.

The countries of northern Africa (Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Tunisia) are also continuing to put more and more money into defence investment.

But it is in Asia that major defence growth will take place, and which will serve as the leading market for arms sales, thanks to internal security concerns and – like Latin America – a region-wide military re-equipment cycle, he noted.

So while the defence investment of members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) may be held in relative check (at, or slightly above, inflation rates) over the next few years, other regions across the globe should continue to experience growing military expenditures resulting in more arms purchases, Darling predicted.

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