It's back: the global arms race

A global arms race has picked up speed. Leading the pack is the United States, whose military spending exceeds that of every other nation on earth combined.

"It's not a spiraling thing," says Siemon Wezeman, an arms trade expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in Sweden.

Nonetheless, the "peace dividend" resulting from the end of the cold war has disappeared. World military expenditures slightly exceeded $1 trillion in 1990, a year before the collapse of the Soviet Union, figures SIPRI. They again topped $1 trillion in 2005 (in inflation-adjusted 2003 dollars).

SIPRI won't finish its compilation of last year's national defense spending around the world until June. But with the cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars rising, and with more spending on arms by China, Russia, the Middle East, and elsewhere, it is likely that global spending will easily beat $1 trillion again.

"That's a tragedy," says John Siebert, executive director of Project Ploughshares, an antiwar program of the Canadian Council of Churches, in Waterloo, Ontario. Though not opposed to absolutely necessary levels of defense expenditures, spending on education, health, and other social programs should have a higher priority, Mr. Siebert holds.

Mr. Wezeman warns that arms build-ups are "a dangerous game." There's always a risk that some nation will use its weapons, not just parade them.

Revived military spending has caught the attention of Wall Street. Merrill Lynch several months ago issued a 20-page report for investors on the global arms race, ending with a list of technology areas likely to receive more funding from the US government.

The report notes world military spending consumes 2.5 percent of the world's gross domestic product. It costs $173 per person. This spending has surged by 25 percent over the past five years. And "all indications suggest that spending will continue to grow," the investment banking firm finds.

The new arms race also is causing concern in other nations. Speaking of American plans to erect a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier last week said it was important not to let the US project spark a new arms race in Europe.

Also last week, China's Prime Minister Wen Jiabao tried to reassure the world that its rapid buildup in defense spending was not threatening. China's official military budget for 2007 has increased 18 percent, to $45.3 billion. This continues a decade-long run of double-digit rises. In real terms, the Pentagon says, China's defense spending is getting close to that of Britain and France, two major powers.

Mr. Wen told a news conference that China's military spending is less than that of many wealthy countries – and of some developing countries as well.

China has long had a huge army, says Wezeman. It was armed, though, with "rubbish equipment." Now it has been buying more Russian weapons and setting up a defense industry with the help of Russian technology.

China, he adds, now sees itself as "a major power," and "not just a regional power."

Some other East Asian nations, especially Taiwan, wonder what China wants with its weapons. "It changes the balance [of power] in Asia," Wezeman says.

Most Russian arms technologies are at least "10 or 15 years" behind those of the US defense industry, the SIPRI expert notes. That means Russian exports of arms, now second only to those of the US, "are probably drying up in a couple of years" as their competitiveness fades.

Russian leaders talk of making major arms purchases for their own armed forces – such as 1,000 combat aircraft over 10 years. But Wezeman doubts that Russia will be able to fulfill such ambitions, despite greater revenues from major oil and gas exports. Russia has bought only three or four new fighters in the past five years – compared with US purchases of 300 or so.

US dominance in military expenditures is huge. The global war on terror, in monetary terms, has cost the US $502 billion in seven years, calculates Steven Kosiak, an expert with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. The Bush administration expects to spend at least another $93 billion in fiscal 2007 and $142 billion in fiscal 2008 for the Iraq/Afghanistan conflicts and other war-on-terror spending. Also, President Bush has requested $483 billion for the Department of Defense (DoD) base budget in 2008.

That puts DoD spending, in inflation-adjusted terms, at its highest level since 1946, indicates Mr. Kosiak. That's above the historical high of US peacetime defense spending in the 1980s. If the Bush plan to increase the permanent size of the Army and Marine Corps is implemented, it would add another $100 billion over the next six years, he estimates.

Some 34 armed conflicts (each involving at least 1,000 deaths) are raging in the world today, says Siebert. These aren't best resolved by arms spending, he argues, but by tackling the poverty, ethnic, and religious issues that often lie behind them.

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