Security Studies Program Seminar

The "Other" Proliferation Problem: Conventional Weapons and Technologies

Dr. Jo Husbands

November 30, 2005


This talk offers two main arguments about conventional weapons technology. First, we should pay more attention in policy and academic terms to international arms "transfers" --- a term that includes both sales and assistance programs. Second, we should treat these matters comprehensively.

Since the end of the Cold War, arms transfers have largely fallen off the policy and academic radar screen. Ballistic and, to a lesser extent, cruise missiles, are an exception because because they are tied to weapons of mass destruction. Small arms and light weapons also receive considerable attention, driven primarily by NGOs and smaller governments. MANPADs, shoulder fired anti-aircraft weapons, have also been getting a lot of attention lately due to terrorism and concern about aircraft security.

But we tend not to pay much attention to broader issues of diffusion of conventional weapons and weapons technologies. That is dangerous for U.S. and international security. Before explaining why I believe this is so, I want to offer a brief snapshot of the current conventional arms trade situation.

The size of the international market today is about 50 to 60% of the peak it reached in the mid to late 1980s, driven by the Cold War and the Iran-Iraq war. The best estimate we have for the size of the market, from a recent Congressional Research Service report, puts 2004 worldwide arms transfer agreements at $37 billion, which is down from 2003, but still up from 2000. Small arms and light weapons make up as much as 15% of the total market. These estimates are based on sanitized US intelligence data. Good data on this subject are hard to get, especially given the demise of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and its annual World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers.

The United States accounts for about a third of the $37 billion total. Russia was next with just over 15% of worldwide exports, which is up substantially from the mid-1990s, largely due to purchases from China and India . These two states are looking to switch to western technologies, however, which means Russia 's share may fall. The United States is the leading exporter for developing nations, which receive sixty percent of the total conventional arms market. U.S. and other exports go principally to Asia and the Near East .

The current market is highly concentrated. The top ten importers account for 60-75% of developing country imports. Latin American and African nations are not significant in dollar terms. The key point here is that this is a very competitive buyer's market. Buyers can demand more advanced technology as part of the conditions of sale.

There are six reasons I believe we should pay more attention to these issues, from the perspective of U.S. foreign and security policy.

1. These are the weapons that kill people. They drive issues in peace and security across the world; they are the ones that matter for day-to-day security. To me it takes nothing away from the importance of WMD to acknowledge and address the impact of conventional weapons and technologies.

2. Right now these are the weapons most closely tied to terrorism rather than WMD, as the current concern with MANPADS shows. Yet these are also the weapons we use as diplomatic levers in the war on terrorism through security assistance programs. Since 9/11 we have, as a nation, come back to security assistance as a way to obtain things like basing rights, for instance in Central Asia.

3. The illicit arms market is a growing concern, and very much linked to terrorism and transnational crime. The black market in weapons is intimately tied into the trade in drugs, conflict diamonds, and other illicit commodities. We do not know the size of the black arms market; expert "best guesses" range from $2 to $10 billion a year.

4. These weapons could be a source of vulnerability for the United States and our friends and allies. We tend to emphasize WMD as our primary vulnerability and regard the conventional arms balance as something that does not concern us very much given our massive advantage. But as a Defense Science Board report from 1999 argued, you may not need WMD or to fight us head on to threaten us. The United States may be the 800 pound gorilla, but conventional weapons or technologies could make a difference in asymmetric conflicts or in particular settings.

5. These weapons and technologies are intimately connected to the future of the defense industrial base in this country, in Europe, and in the former Soviet Union . Post Cold War, arms exports have been seen as a way to preserve domestic industry in a time of reduced military budgets and decreased international demand. The Clinton administration, for example, made the impact on domestic industry an explicit part of the decision on whether to make a foreign arms sale.

Technology transfer agreements, like those associated with the Joint Strike Fighter, are also a way to promote interoperability and build closer ties with allies. The Clinton administration took several steps to lower barriers for exports to allies. The Bush administration has also tried to make collaboration easier.

6. Arms transfers issues also reflect the impact of globalization and the increasing importance of private sector research and development to defense. The share of R&D funded by the federal government has declined in the last 10-15 years. The technologies considered most critical to defense transformation — communications and information technologies in particular — come increasingly from the private sector and often from companies with large global markets. Since the United States relies heavily on keeping a technological edge, this means greater reliance on private companies and more complicated problems in deciding what technologies to try to control. Dual use technologies are now a much larger part of the problem.

Another complication is caused by the current U.S. focus on less technologically advanced adversaries - terrorists and "rogue" states. Because the Soviet Union was already technologically advanced, the United States could largely concentrate its efforts on preventing access to the limited range of technologies that would make a real difference in Soviet capabilities.  With less sophisticated adversaries - and with China relying on technological advances as a cornerstone of its military development - there is an understandable temptation to try to control access to a much wider range of technologies because so many more of them are potentially useful. 

This issue is fundamentally tied to the current conflicts over policies taken in the name of security versus those that promote economic competitiveness. A major issue now for places like MIT is "deemed exports," in which some communications of technical information and some access to equipment involving a foreign national are legally considered to be exports that require a license. Universities and businesses worry that proposals to increase these kinds of restrictions to reduce the risk of losing technology will hurt U.S. capabilities to do cutting edge research.

If indeed we ought to pay more attention to these issues, then what? There is no single approach. Nor is there a lack of ideas. There are probably hundreds of substantive policy ideas kicking around, especially if you include those that address small arms and light weapons. This is a particularly complex issue area in the United States , governed by a mix of existing federal laws and regulation, along with international agreements, including treaties, and with responsibility and authority divided among different parts of the government.

If there is a single key barrier to progress on this issue it is probably the lack of consensus within the United States and internationally on the scope of problem and the priority it should receive. These are deep divisions on these issues within various parts of our government and certainly between governments. The European Union's proposal to drop its ban on arms exports to China provoked a storm within the U.S. and revealed divisions within Europe as well. In the U.S. , Congress has not been able to agree on the reauthorization of the Export Administration Act since 1994 so that it is currently operating under emergency presidential power. Recently Congress, led by Rep. Henry Hyde, blocked the Bush Administration's attempts to get a waiver of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations ( ITAR ) for the United Kingdom and Australia — which would have made transferring defense equipment and technology to those two states much easier. Hyde's concern is that letting these technologies go to other nations will speed their eventual proliferation to possible adversaries like China . Conflicts like these are reportedly the reason the Bush Administration has never released its review of defense trade export policy.

Today, we have a policy system on the conventional arms trade that is generally agreed to be somewhere between fundamentally flawed and completely broken. It is too restrictive for industry, but not restrictive enough for many concerned about proliferation. Fixing the system is daunting because of the number of laws, regulations, and agencies involved. Complex and arcane areas like export controls have a hard time getting high level policy makers, like the Secretary of State, to pay attention and then to stay engaged long enough to make meaningful changes.

Recognizing this challenge, a number of discussions are beginning in Washington among people interested in these matters. The National Academies are involved in a number of them. The goal is to begin building consensus and generating ideas for reforms that could be part of the agenda for the new administration and Congress that will take office in 2009.

Dr. Husbands is a Senior Project Director at the U.S. National Academies, where for many years she directed its standing Committee on International Security and Arms Control. Before joining the Academies, Dr. Husbands was Deputy Director of the Committee for National Security, a Washington, DC-based nongovernmental organization. Dr. Husbands has published widely on the topics of arms control, arms transfers, weapons proliferation, and international negotiations. She is also an Adjunct Professor at the Georgetown University Security Studies Programs.


Rapporteur: Ben Friedman

back to seminar schedule, Fall 2005