The Other Arms Control

Arms control has typically involved calculations about multiply-targeted warheads and the throw weights of ballistic missiles. But nuclear arsenals aren't the only arms in need of control. Conventional weaponry, from jet fighters to tanks, may pose a more immediate threat.

The proliferation of these arms is not, however, something that governments rush to rein in. More often, they vigorously promote it.

The chief sales agent for advanced conventional weapons in recent years has been the US government. The US share of the world arms market has doubled over the past decade to 52 percent. Behind that figure lies the sudden collapse of Soviet competition. But that's not all. The end of the cold war also meant a sharp decline in the domestic market for American arms producers.

Washington has been responsive to those industries, actively helping them develop overseas sales. Billions of dollars (well over $7 billion in 1995) are spent on export subsidies to boost profits for armsmakers. This is a big chunk of the "corporate welfare" doled out by the federal government.

The rationale for this policy is twofold: (1) preservation of the industrial base for defense production should the need to gear up arise, and (2) preservation of American jobs in these industries. But that rationale has to be weighed against other concerns.

What about the instability caused by building up the warmaking capabilities of other nations, particularly in the developing world? What about the irony of US soldiers on peacekeeping missions facing weapons their own government helped supply?

An unwillingness to control conventional arms could easily backfire. A panel appointed by President Clinton, the Presidential Advisory Board on Arms Proliferation Policy, recently recommended steps to temper the traffic in guns, missiles, tanks, and planes. Among them:

*The US should take the lead in curbing the flow of conventional weapons. This means building on the relatively toothless international agreements now in place.

*Subsidized financing for arms exports should be eliminated.

*The five federal agencies and nine programs involved in marketing US armaments abroad should be subject to greater coordination and oversight.

What the advisory board suggests is a hard look at current policy and a broad reorientation - ultimately toward a safer world, instead of one bristling with weaponry.

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