When 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.
To be completely accurate, there is one group of people who pay remarkably close attention to these trends—executives of the defense contractors that are cashing in on this growth market. With the Pentagon and related agencies taking in “only” about $600 billion a year—high by historical standards but tens of billions of dollars less than hoped for by the defense industry—companies like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and General Dynamics have been looking to global markets as their major source of new revenue.