Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

European armsmakers aim for third world

By Gary YerkeySpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 12, 1981


The troubled third world has become the market for mounting arms exports from Western Europe, led by France and West Germany. "Weaponsmaking is one of the few 'take-off' industries left in Europe, and the European merchants have only begun to sell," an American industry analyst based here explained.

Skip to next paragraph

Backed by obvious, if not official, government support, factories turning out tanks, airplanes, rifles and ammunition have stepped up production to pump millions of dollars in military machinery a year into countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America.

According to a report released recently by the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, countries in the developing world imported 81 percent of all arms traded in 1978, buying about $16 billion of the $20 billion in military equipment sold worldwide. The United Nations has said that third- world countries spend six times on military hardware what they invest in public health.

West European countries, however, still account for less than 25 percent of the weapons shipped to the third world, with the US and the Soviet Union together sharing about equally 70 percent of the trade -- $5.8 billion and $4 billion worth respectively in 1978, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The CIA estimates the Soviet Union's 1978 sales to developing countries at $2.8 billion and 1979 sales at $8.4 billion. "The Arab states accounted for nearly 90 percent of Soviet arms sales," the CIA has reported.

Western European countries -- from France, which ranks third in the world in arms exports, to tiny Belgium, which sold $500 million worth of tanks and small arms last year -- are making inroads into the arms export business, which used to be almost exclusively the province of Soviet and US manufacturers.

West Germany, a net exporter of arms for nearly three years now (although its armaments industry was completely dismantled after World War II), already accounts for more than 2 percent of the international weapons trade. Last year 71 of its 80 customers were in developing countries.

Similarly, French arms exports, mainly to the third world, rose by 370 percent between 1968 and 1977. This compares with 50 percent and 91 percent increases, respectively, for the US and the Soviet Union. Up to three-quarters of those exports were to countries in Africa, whose arms import bill during the period rose form $200 million to $4.9 billion; in the Middle East ($1.3 billion to $7.1 billion); and in Latin America ($300 million to $7.1 billion). Countries which bought more than $1 billion in military hardware in 1978 were Iran, Libya, Iraq, Ethiopia, and Saudi Arabia.

Even great Britain -- the world's fourth largest weapons vendor, accounting for 8 percent of trade worldwide -- has shown a readiness recently to push its military wares harder in the third world despite popular pressure to ease off. The latest temptation is a reported Saudi Arabian proposal to buy 70 to 100 Tornado combat aircraft worth about $3.5 billion, including spare parts.

Criticism, however, of an expanded European role in arms sales to developing countries has become intense in some countries, notably West Germany.

According to government statistics, from 1969 to 1979 arms ties between West German firms and 71 developing countries -- mainly Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia -- were established despite 1971 federal guidelines prohibiting weapons exports to "areas of tension."