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ARMS BUYERS' NEW MOTTO: VIVE LA FRANCE

France surpassed the United States as the leading arms dealer to Third World countries last year, probably signaling the end of American dominance in the $25-billion-a-year weapons market to developing nations, a government study reported on Monday.

Sales from the United States to developing countries fell to their lowest levels in eight years, to $6.1 billion last year from $15.4 billion in 1993, while sales from France jumped to $11.4 billion from $3.8 billion, the Congressional Research Service said.France had a banner year selling jet aircraft, ships and submarines to Pakistan and Middle Eastern countries, while the United States had only one large deal, the sale of up to 25 F-15s to Israel.

The American share of sales to Third World countries fell to 24 percent last year from 61 percent in 1993, while France's share increased to 45 percent from 15 percent. More than 70 percent of the arms sold worldwide go to the Third World, mainly to the Middle East and Asia.

Arms control advocates expressed surprise at the figures but cautioned that they might show only a brief hiatus in larger American weapons sales. "The French are catching the U.S. in a year where some of its major purchasers are just catching their breath," said Caleb Rossiter, director of The Project on Demilitarization and Democracy, an arms control group in Washington.

U.S. military contractors also cited the boom-bust trend of big deals in the international arms bazaar but also seized on the figures as evidence that the Clinton administration should increase assistance to American companies competing with government-subsidized European competitors.

"We're not asking for a lot," said Joel L. Johnson, international vice president for the Aerospace Industries Association, who noted that American industry has been seeking an export credit mechanism.

Overall, arms sales to Third World countries dropped slightly to $25.4 billion last year from $25.5 billion in 1993, continuing a steady decline since the end of the Cold War in 1990.

Richard F. Grimmett, a senior analyst who prepares the report each year, said that since 1990 and the stunning success of American high technology in the Persian Gulf War, the United States had established itself as the world's preeminent arms merchant. France, Britain and Russia formed a second tier of arms dealers to the Third World.

But Grimmett said that pecking order was up for grabs.

"As competition over a shrinking international arms market intensifies, it is likely that suppliers in these two tiers will regularly shift in their rankings relative to one another," the report concluded.