American firms dominate a global market worth more than $70 billion a
year, you’d expect to hear about it. Not so with the global arms trade.
It’s good for one or two stories a year in the mainstream media, usually
when the annual statistics on the state of the business come out.
It’s not that no one writes about aspects of the arms trade. There
are occasional pieces that, for example, take note of the impact of US
weapons transfers, including cluster bombs, to Saudi Arabia, or of the
disastrous dispensation of weaponry to US allies in Syria, or of foreign
sales of the costly, controversial F-35 combat aircraft. And once in a
while, if a foreign leader meets with the president, US arms sales to
his or her country might generate an article or two. But the sheer size
of the American arms trade, the politics that drive it, the companies
that profit from it, and its devastating global impacts are rarely
discussed, much less analyzed in any depth.
So here’s a question that’s puzzled me for years (and I’m
something of an arms wonk): Why do other major US exports—from Hollywood
movies to Midwestern grain shipments to Boeing airliners—garner regular
coverage while trends in weapons exports remain in relative obscurity?
Are we ashamed of standing essentially alone as the world’s number one
arms dealer, or is our Weapons “R” Us role such a commonplace that we
take it for granted, like death or taxes?
The numbers should stagger anyone. According to the latest
figures available from the Congressional Research Service, the United
States was credited with more than half the value of all global arms
transfer agreements in 2014, the most recent year for which full
statistics are available. At 14 percent, the world’s second largest
supplier, Russia, lagged far behind. Washington’s “leadership” in this
field has never truly been challenged. The US share has fluctuated
between one-third and one-half of the global market for the past two
decades, peaking at an almost monopolistic 70 percent of all weapons
sold in 2011. And the gold rush continues. Vice Admiral Joe Rixey, who
heads the Pentagon’s arms sales agency, euphemistically known as the
Defense Security Cooperation Agency, estimates that arms deals
facilitated by the Pentagon topped $46 billion in 2015, and are on track
to hit $40 billion in 2016.