Arms sales: top growth industry

As Argentina and Great Britain edge closer to war, the growth in military expenditures and arms sales around the world continues to accelerate at a rapid rate.

''Large and small countries on every continent have been scouring the world for arms . . . in a desperate and often futile effort to guarantee their security,'' states a just-released report by the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA). ''As a result, the arms industry has become the leading growth industry in the world.''

In this, its annual report on defense spending and weapons transfers around the world, the ACDA is emphasizing that the Soviet Union in recent years has become ''the world's largest arms exporter,'' with sales agreements to the third world ''more than double those of the US.''

The Reagan administration is using this to justify its own increase in arms sales, a move the President himself says is ''an essential element of . . . global defense and an indispensable component of . . . foreign policy.''

Administration figures in the new ACDA report (which covers the 10-year period from 1970 through 1979) are sure to be challenged.

Drawing on government figures, the Center for Defense Information (a private group headed by two retired US admirals) recently concluded that ''the United States continues to be the world's No. 1 supplier of weapons to other nations. The US and its allies supply far more weapons to the third world than does the Soviet Union and its allies.''

Differences of opinion are based on several factors: translating Warsaw Pact sales into Western currency, adding NATO and Eastern bloc sales to those of the US and the USSR, including military aid as well as arms sales, and looking at the most recent arms-transfer efforts of both sides.

Recent studies on the worldwide spread of weaponry also enliven the debate over whether such activity by the superpowers and their allies stabilizes regional balances of power or in fact increases instability and greater belligerence between geographical neighbors, as critics of the Reagan administration contend.

What is not disputed is that the spread of increasingly sophisticated arms worldwide has become ''most disturbing,'' as ACDA director Eugene Rostow puts it; that ''the pervasive sense of war (has become) a brooding presence in our lives.''

Highlights of the recent findings include:

* World military expenditures increased 23 percent (not counting inflation) during the 1970s to $521 billion, according to the ACDA. NATO and the Warsaw Pact each account for 37 percent of such expenditures, but Eastern bloc countries spent more than twice as much of their GNP as the West on defense.

* Over the same period, the international arms trade jumped 124 percent to more than $23 billion in 1979, with developing countries accounting for 81 percent of arms imports. According to the Reagan administration, the Warsaw Pact provided 49 percent of arms exports in 1979 (the latest year the ACDA report covers), compared with 44 percent from the US and its allies.

* Others look at more recent figures and conclude that the US is rushing to meet and possibly exceed its major rival in arms transfers abroad. The Center for Defense Information notes that (according to the Defense Department) US foreign military sales in 1982 will total $25 billion, considerably higher than the previous record of $18 billion (in 1975). It is also noted that the administration has asked for a 44 percent increase in military aid for 1983.

What is also undisputed is the sharp difference between the Reagan and Carter administrations on arms sales. The current administration has deemphasized human rights and nuclear nonproliferation issues as a factor in such sales.

It no longer prohibits the development of new weapons solely for export, and allows US officials overseas to help private American arms salesmen. It has pushed the repeal of prohibitions on US military aid to Pakistan, Chile, and Argentina.

In its current confrontation with Britain, Argentina is using submarines from Germany, aircraft from the US, France, and Israel, and (ironically) an aircraft carrier purchased from England.

In recent years, Congress has given itself greater power to control arms sales. Several major sales have been withdrawn or modified since the mid-1970s because of congressional pressure. Congress came very close to vetoing the sale of AWACS aircraft and other military items to Saudi Arabia last year.

A House subcommittee last week rejected an administration-sought increase of controlling foreign arms sales as the expanding Reagan program takes hold remains to be seen.

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