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November 1991

The Arms Trade: The Real Lesson of the Gulf War

The industrial states must find a way to protect themselves from their own avarice: selling weapons to the Third World must stop

by James Adams

In the 1980s the Reagan Administration fastened on the term "the truly needy" to blunt public concern about cuts it had made in programs to help the merely needy. The Bush Administration has lately devised a foreign-policy equivalent: "weapons of mass destruction." In the wake of the Gulf War the Administration is against the proliferation of these weapons. It is much less resolutely against the proliferation of weapons of mere destruction, however. Indeed, even before the dust of the war had settled in the desert, teams of arms salesmen not only from the United States but also from Britain, France, West Germany, and other countries were flocking to the Middle East to tout their wares. They found plenty of willing buyers.

Egypt has made clear that it would like to buy Hawk missiles, M-60 tank upgrades, and F-16 fighters. Israel wants portable battlefield-navigation systems, upgrades for the F-15 fighter and the M-109 artillery piece, and more Patriot missiles. The United Arab Emirates would like Abrams M1A1 tanks and Patriot missiles, and so would Bahrain and Turkey.

By far the biggest buyer will be Saudi Arabia, which is already in line to receive a $15 billion arms package including F-15 fighters, Apache helicopters, Abrams M1A1 tanks, AWACS radar planes, Patriot missiles, multiple-launch rocket systems, Seahawk helicopters, and Bradley fighting vehicles. This is on top of a $30 billion deal signed with Great Britain in 1988 for fighter aircraft, missiles, radars, airfields, and ships.

Implicit in this brisk trade in arms is the idea that conventional warfare using weapons of mere destruction is in some way acceptable, whereas forms of warfare that use "weapons of mass destruction" are morally unacceptable. But with modern weapons the distinction between conventional and unconventional warfare has become blurred. The firepower of many modern conventional systems is so terrible that they, too, can be accurately described as weapons of mass destruction.

The Western combatants, meanwhile, will now need to replenish the stocks that were expended in the war. When the procurement decisions are made, those weapons that performed well--lasers, microcomputers, standoff systems, Stealth technology--will be ordered. The production of these new weapons means that large numbers of the most modern weapons will come on the market and be sold to developing countries while manufacturers also seek rich customers who can afford the new systems, thus reducing unit cost and increasing profits. The replacement of old weapons by new in the arsenals of the West and the drive by arms manufacturers to hold down unit cost by finding more customers--this is the dynamic that has propelled the arms race for so long.

Within that cycle an additional impetus drives the proliferation of conventional arms after the Gulf War. Defense contractors who supplied the allied forces believe that they have a new opportunity to market weapons that have been tested and proved in battle. At a time of shrinking defense budgets and contracts, exports could make up the shortfall for contractors who would otherwise be forced to shut down production lines and lay off workers. These manufacturers will have little interest in arguments about the morality of the arms business.

And the West won't be the only seller in the postwar arms bazaar. As the Eastern bloc countries reorganize their military forces and seek new sources of foreign exchange, they will try to produce more weapons for export and also to sell weapons from existing inventories. For example, Czechoslovakia last May announced plans to export 5,500 weapons, including tanks, artillery systems, and armored personnel carriers, which have to be removed from the Czech armed forces under the conventional-arms treaty. Rather than destroy these weapons, the Czechs are discussing selling the T-72 tanks to Syria and Iran and are looking for customers for the other weapons.

The real challenge facing the world in the aftermath of the Gulf War and the Cold War is how to break out of the arms cycle that puts ever more advanced weapons into the hands of what the columnist Charles Krauthammer has called "weapons states." While the exact terms of President George Bush's new world order have never been articulated, the major Western allies have understood the phrase to mean that the United States will lead the way in breaking out of the arms race that has dominated so much of international trade since the end of the Second World War.

Yet already the focus of the struggle in the arms race is once again on the competition for sales and not on the fight to reduce the traffic. If much more time is allowed to pass, it will be clear that national-security policy in the Bush Administration is still being dictated by the traditional unholy trinity of defense industry lobbyists, die-hards in the Pentagon, and State Department policy-makers who see arms as a tool of foreign policy.




The exact number of countries with a chemical-weapons capability is not known. What IS known is that the number of countries possessing such a capability or having ambitions to acquire one is growing. Twelve developing countries--Burma, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Libya, North Korea, Syria, Taiwan, and Vietnam--are now believed to have chemical-weapons programs. Nineteen other countries--Afghanistan, Angola, Argentina, Chad, Chile, Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Laos, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Peru, the Philippines, South Africa, South Korea, and Thailand--have been trying to obtain chemical weapons and may have succeeded. The developing countries have in general had to acquire their chemical-weapons capability on their own, usually illegally but frequently with the complicity of Western companies and governments who turn a blind eye because they have found a useful source of export earnings.

In 1985 plans for a chemical-weapons plant at Rabta, in Libya, were drawn up by the West German firm Imhausen-Chemie, which was in financial difficulties at the time and needed the cash from the Libyan contract. Imhausen commissioned plans for the plant from the Salzgitter steel company, which is owned by the German government, telling Salzgitter that the work was for a pharmaceutical plant in Hong Kong. The Japan Steel Works did much of the construction at Rabta, employing Thai workers. By 1988 the plant was producing nerve-gas casings, using steel supplied by other West German companies.

British and American intelligence had been watching the project closely and by the summer of 1988 were convinced that once it was fully operational, the Libyans would be able to produce from 22,000 to 84,000 pounds of nerve agents every day, making Rabta the largest chemical-weapons plant in the Third World. When confronted with the evidence, the Japanese government claimed that the Rabta complex was in fact a desalination plant--though it is fifty miles from the sea. No action of any kind was taken against the Japanese; and yet, earlier this year, the Bush Administration was prepared to impose sanctions against Japan in order to protect a rare turtle, whose shell the Japanese use to make ornaments.

By the beginning of this year U.S. intelligence officials were saying that the Rabta complex was producing chemical weapons and that construction had begun on a massive underground storage facility nearby. Exactly who is building the underground facility is not known.

To try and curb such blatant abuses, Australia took the initiative in 1985 and invited representatives of a number of industrialized nations to a meeting at the Australian embassy in Paris the following June. The first meeting was attended by representatives of Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, the United States, and the ten member nations of the European Community. The Australia Group, as it became known, meets every six months and has by now expanded to include Norway, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, and representatives of the European Commission, the European Community's executive arm. Having drawn up a list of chemicals that are commonly used in the manufacture of chemical weapons, the group designated eleven of them to require export licenses from member states, and the export of a further thirty-nine will be controlled by all members by December. This watch list will give early warning of a country's intention to go into the chemical-weapons business.

For the Australia Group's initiative to succeed, its members must effectively monitor the transfer of chemicals and prosecute violators. But there is no standard of enforcement to which every member is required to adhere, nor is there any way of penalizing either group members that ignore the agreement or other nations that simply export the raw materials.




In the middle of the military buildup in the Gulf last November, when President Bush had already decided to go to war the following January if necessary, the President vetoed a bipartisan congressional bill that would have imposed automatic sanctions on foreign companies that produce chemical weapons and on nations using such weapons. The Administration said that the bill was unsatisfactory because it did not allow the President to waive the terms in the interests of national security.

After the veto the Administration announced its own measure, called the Enhanced Proliferation Control Initiative, which greatly increased the number of chemicals that would be subject to export controls and included criminal penalties for American citizens who violated the regulations. However, many of the chemicals on the list are used in making a wide range of products, such as plastics, pharmaceuticals, and fertilizers. Business interests argued that the initiative unfairly penalized American companies and opened the door to foreign competitors who did not suffer similar restrictions. For example, one of the chemicals on the list can be used to remove hair from hides before tanning, but with some modifications it can also be used to make nerve gas. Lobbyists argued that by restricting the export of such dual-use chemicals, the United States was unfairly restricting American industry.

Then, last February, the Senate passed new legislation, the Omnibus Export Amendments Act, which required the President to impose sanctions on countries and companies developing or using chemical weapons. It is similar to the measure vetoed by the President the previous November, but this time the President is not expected to use his veto if the House passes the legislation.

Any new arms-control measures must have a common theme: behind the moral principles must lie tough sanctions that make transgressors responsible for their acts. Even if such sanctions are imposed, addressing the spread of conventional and chemical capabilities without dealing with other layers of proliferation is of little value.




The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed in 1968 and came into force in 1970. The NPT was designed to keep the number of states with nuclear weapons stable at five--the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France, and China. The treaty calls for those who have nuclear weapons not to ship the equipment or transfer the technology necessary for other countries to develop nuclear weapons. To encourage support for the agreement, those countries that have signed the NPT have been helped to develop peaceful nuclear programs.

One hundred forty-three countries have ratified the NPT, but some of the most important have not done so. Only recently France, China, and South Africa have indicated that they plan to abide by the terms of the NPT, while Israel, India, Pakistan, Brazil, and Argentina refuse to do so. But just who has or has not signed seems in fact to have made little difference in the spread of nuclear weapons. An early signatory of the NPT, Iraq pursued an aggressive twenty-year program to obtain nuclear weapons, with much Western help, notably from Germany. India developed a nuclear capability in the early 1970s and has actually tested a nuclear device. Pakistan, after more than fifteen years of trying to develop nuclear weapons, has either succeeded or is on the brink. According to unconfirmed reports, Pakistan has agreed to share nuclear technology with Libya, North Korea, Taiwan, and Brazil.

In the face of such proliferation the Western nations have been unwilling to address the failure of the NPT. At the fourth five-year review conference of the NPT, in Geneva in August and September of last year, some progress was made. Suppliers of nuclear materials, such as Germany and Japan, agreed to sell them only to states observing internationally determined safeguards, and new measures were agreed on to improve the inspection capacity of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Iraq, as a signatory to the NPT, had its nuclear plant regularly inspected by the IAEA. Not inspected, however, were the centrifuge plant for enriching uranium and the factories spread around the country where materials to be used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons were being designed and made.

If countries have been able to ignore the institutions meant to govern the spread of chemical and nuclear weapons, they have often lacked the equipment to deliver the weapons to their target. This has brought about a whole new aspect of the arms race over the past ten years--the attempt by developing nations to acquire ballistic missiles. In testimony before Congress, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney has warned that by the end of this decade at least fifteen developing countries will be able to build and deploy ballistic missiles, and that eight of those fifteen either already have or will soon have a nuclear capability. Scud missiles are currently in service in Syria, Egypt, Iran, Libya, and Yemen, and Iraq still has a significant number of launchers and missiles.

In April of 1987 the United States, Canada, France, Britain, Italy, Japan, and West Germany agreed to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), intended to curb exports of missiles able to deliver nuclear weapons and of equipment that might be used to develop such missiles. (Since 1987 Spain, Australia, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands have agreed to participate.) The participants agreed not to export rocket systems, unmanned air-vehicle systems, or their components.

A number of Western intelligence agencies agreed to share information on any countries that appeared to be trying to acquire ballistic-missile technology. Even countries not participating in the MTCR have provided useful intelligence, but such actions are on a voluntary basis and rely on the good will of the volunteers.




In the areas of nuclear and chemical weapons and ballistic missiles some international controls exist, even if not all of them work as they should. But there is a new, far more frightening generation of weapons on the way.

Genetic engineering holds both hopeful and terrifying potential for humanity. It offers the real possibility of reducing famine, infant mortality, and poverty, but it also allows the production of weapons that could radically alter the nature of war.

The purpose of warfare is to conquer the enemy, by destroying his ability to wage war or by actually taking territory or both. In the Gulf War there was considerable praise for the precision weapons employed by the allies, which hit their targets with pinpoint accuracy. Yet the allied coalition killed from 100,000 to 200,000 Iraqis, and not only destroyed the country's ability to wage war but also eliminated much of its industrial infrastructure. The war would have been less costly in money, lives, and economic potential if the allies had had a weapon that was REALLY precise.

No commander WANTS to kill his enemy; he simply wants to make sure that his enemy does not kill him and that his own side wins. In the same way that the products of genetic engineering can control sickness or the performance of wheat, they can produce illness or destroy crops. Genetic engineering makes it possible to tailor toxins more precisely than ever before, and to generate them in nearly limitless quantities. For example, designer agents could be used in artillery shells intended to explode over an advancing force of infantry. Each load of agent could cause acute vomiting in the soldiers, making them unable to advance, or it could cause such instant and severe depression that none of them would be prepared to fight. Alternatively, a cruise missile could dispense an agent over a port or an industrial center to make all the civilians unconscious for twenty-four hours, disrupting reinforcements at the front and allowing an aggressor to capture vital territory virtually unopposed. For the past ten years Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union have been studying the possibilities of designer agents as weapons of war.

It is a tradition in the arms business that what the superpowers develop one year, other countries begin to look at the next. Developing nations have recognized that chemical weapons combined with ballistic missiles can be a cheap, powerful, and accessible alternative to nuclear weapons. Genetic engineering affords an even cheaper alternative.

Before the Gulf War, Iraq had established the Al-Kindi Company for serum and vaccine production in Baghdad, had started a joint venture with Jordan and Saudi Arabia to establish the Arab company for Antibiotic Industries, had created a State Company for Drug Industries, and had announced that Iraqi biotechnologists were building a biological-research station in the southern marshes that would include a genetics-research laboratory.

Currently no conventions, treaties, or other agreements effectively address the threat posed by genetically engineered weapons. In part this is because the science has emerged too recently for governments fully to understand the need for controls on the transfer of genetic technology. Also, difficulties encountered in trying to reduce the proliferation of chemical and nuclear weapons have discouraged the major powers from attempting to limit other weapons.




It seems clear from the failures of the past that new systems are needed for policing the arms business at every level. In instances where governments have relied on the morality of their own companies to obey the lava or on other countries to behave decently, they have been disappointed. The carrot has been tried--for example, access to peaceful nuclear technology in return for signing the NPT. But it has failed. For almost every arms-control agreement there are countries and companies that have ignored it, either for reasons of political expediency or because they needed the money.

It is no longer enough to expect governments or companies to behave reasonably. What is needed is a new regime to deal with arms proliferation at all levels. Effective sanctions that make both countries and companies pay for breaching the terms of any agreement are required.

As a first step, the United States should be able to persuade close allies such as the United Kingdom and Germany to restrict exports of all kinds of weapons to developing nations, and to prosecute companies that break the rules. The United Nations could be enlisted to keep a comprehensive register of arms transfers, so that any violations of agreements could be exposed.

At a meeting of the seven leading industrialized nations, the so-called G7, in London last July, it was agreed that such a register should be set up. This was a useful step forward, but it appears that the register will be little different from the ones already kept by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. The G7 agreed that the rich nations will cut aid to those poorer nations deemed to be spending too much on arms. But this statement is virtually meaningless, since no definitions of rich and poor have been agreed on and no sanctions for persistent violators determined.

In the Middle East it is already clear that the United States, the architect of the new UN policy, is confused about how it should be implemented. Last May, President Bush announced a new initiative that called for the elimination of weapons of mass destruction from the region, a freeze on the acquisition, production, and vesting of surface-to-surface missiles, and a policy of minimum deterrence that would restrict the amount of conventional weapons bought by any country. Less than twenty-four hours later Defense Secretary Chancy pledged additional military aid to Israel, including $200 million for a new anti-missile system. Perhaps such arms sales are necessary to encourage moves toward a wider Middle East peace. But if the peace does not come, this aid package will hardly have encouraged Arab nations--Syria, for example--to show restraint in the future.

The growing competition in the arms market means that if the major powers step aside and agree to curbs on the weapons trade, other, less scrupulous countries will be eager to fill the orders. Indeed, the relative significance of the major powers as weapons suppliers is steadily being reduced in the face of this competition. For example, the U.S. share of the Middle East arms market, though lately on the upswing, fell in the late 1980s, with much of the difference being made up by suppliers in Europe, Latin America, South Africa, and China.

Clearly the arms-control net needs to be widened. Arms producers among the developing nations, such as South Africa and Brazil, could be asked to join a voluntary agreement; if they refused to do so, and continued to sell arms without regard to the consequences, then sanctions could be applied. Such an ambitious policy has little prospect of surviving the elastic morality of day-to-day political decision-making. But it would be a useful start along what will undoubtedly be a long and difficult road.


Copyright © 1991 by Douglas Adams. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1991; The Arms Trade: The Real Lesson of the Gulf War; Volume 268, No. 5; pages 36-8; 47-50.

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