Brussels — 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.
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."
Domestic critics, ranging from politicians to trade unionists, say that the West German government, which was watched the country become the world's fifth largest arms exporter, has been blatantly hypocritical. In 1970, Helmut Schmidt -- then Defense Minister and now Chancellor -- said that "the federal government is not interested in private arms deals or private arms exports." And in 1980, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Schmidt's foreign minister, said, "We cannot afford to look on idly while arms are pumped into developing countries that need not guns but schools and hospitals, tractors, and lathes."
A leading West German newspaper columnist recently replied to Mr. Genscher's remarks, saying, "In point of fact we are not looking on idly; we are in there pumping away with the others." He noted that the price of two submarines sold to Colombia by West German firms almost equaled the amount West Germany gave that country in development aid.
French weapons exports, meanwhile, have skyrocketed in the past decade, from government-backed export credits, French companies, led by Dassault, which makes the Mirage jet fighter, have hit the booming Arab arms bazaar especially hard, angering US giants like Grumman, Rockwell, Lockheed, and General Dynamics.Typical was the recent French sale to Saudi Arabia of an "instant navy" -- ships, helicopters, missiles -- worth $3.4 billion, a contract several American firms had been eager to land.
France, unlike West Germany, has had to endure little internal criticism of its aggressive arms export policy. "The public yawns," a recent newspaper headline said describing popular opinion.
And even in West Germany, what in other times may have led to public outrage has been tempered by reality today. More arms sales abroad mean more jobs at home, and unemployment is now at record levels.
Defenders in West Germany of increasing arms exports -- even to the third world -- argue that while 200,000 workers earn their living from the arms business, only 36,000 are directly dependent on the export of weapons. Of a total labor force of 22 million, that is not much, they argue. Building two submarines for the Pinochet regime in Chile provided employment for 1,000 German shipyard workers, union leaders are quick to point out.
An added incentive to boost what its opponents call "West Germany's death trade" is the country's rising current account deficit, up from 10 billion deutsche marks (over $5 billion) in 1979 to 28 billion DM in 1980. Arms exports would help to offset that burden.
Still, broad sections of the ruling Social Democratic Party (SPD), from the left to the center, have begun to show a determination to oppose further increases in arms exports, beginning with the reported request by Saudi Arabia to buy 300 Leopard II tanks. The sale would be worth about $2.55 billion -- and thousands of jobs.
A crucial test of West Germany's willingness to slow shipments of arms to the third world will come when the Bonn Cabinet, which opened discussions on the issue recently, defines anew the government's policy. There are already indications that it will relax the country's strict arms exports position, opening the way for a veritable European arms-exports war.
Immediately at issue are export permits for four corvette warships to be delivered to Colombia and some 100 armored cars and 500 other military vehicles for Malaysia.
But the most important test will be the response West Germany gives when Saudi Arabia makes a formal request for the Leopard 2 mainline battle tanks. If the government refuses the request, Saudi Arabia probably will turn either to France (which has already expressed an interest in the contract) or to the US or Britain. If it approves the sale, public concern over the question, now simmering, would rise to the boiling point.