The Arms Sale Economy

The trumpet’s loud clangor
Excites us to arms.

John Dryden, “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day”

It is time for an update on arms sales and the economy and happily, the news in 2010 could not be better. Not about the economy but about arms sales of which the economy is an incidental beneficiary. It has been distressing for observers of such things to see how badly both the economy and arms sales have gone in the last couple of years.

According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, 2009 was not a good year for the United States and other countries that pride themselves on being arms suppliers. Although a decline in arms sales might be considered a harbinger of peace and thus be welcome by the few who count that as a laudable goal, it is in fact nothing more than an indication of a lousy economy since developing nations like buying arms and when they’re not buying, it’s not because they have become pacific but because of the economy.

To understand the hard times that hit the arms industry in 2009 a few numbers tell the tale. In 2009 the U.S. signed arms deals worth a dismal $22.6 billion compared with the much cheerier amount of $38.1 billion in 2008. According to the Congressional Research report, the value of all arms deliveries in 2009 was the lowest total for the entire 2002-2009 period measured in constant 2009 dollars. Although the report offers good news in that the United States continued to outstrip all other countries when it came to arms sales (Russia was in second place) it went from having a 60.4% market share in arms transfer agreements with developing nations in 2008 to a 38.5% market share in 2009. (Arms transfer agreements are not the same as deliveries but are one way of measuring how the business in the world of transferring arms from one country to another is measured. More detail on the two types of measurement is found in the Congressional Report.) The foregoing statistics demonstrate why September’s news was welcomed. It showed that in at least one sector of the economy, things are improving dramatically-the arms business.

On September 14 we learned that the Obama administration was hoping to sell our good friends in Saudi Arabia a large number of weapons for $60 billion. Under the hoped-for agreement the Saudis would get 84 new F-15 fighter jets, 70 upgraded F-15s, 70 Apache helicopters, 75 Black Hawks and 36 Little Birds. (A Little Bird is formally known as an AH-6J Little Bird and is a light attack helicopter.) The great news for the economy is that not only is this reportedly the biggest arms sales in U.S. history but the purchase will have a positive direct and indirect effect on 77,000 jobs in 44 states, some, but not all of them, new jobs. That is wonderful news for those in the affected industries and the economy, if less good for those hoping for world peace. Since the Saudis are our good friends, however, the sale does not affect world peace one way or the other since they would surely not use the weapons in any way detrimental to our best interests. (Selling $60 billion to our Saudi friends is not the same as selling stinger missiles in 1988 to our then friends, Osama bin Laden and his followers, who were fighting the Russians in Afghanistan who were there fighting the Afghans, in more or less the same kind of a battle in which we are now engaged. The Russians stayed in Afghanistan almost 10 years before deciding it was a hopeless task and went home. We have a few months to go before we match their record.)

The good news (confirmed by the Pentagon on October 20, 2010) is not limited to this particular deal that will take place over several years. The senior Defense Department Official who anonymously described the sales outlined above (because details had not yet been finalized and if a name had been attached to the announcement it would have seemed more final than it was when he made the announcement) said the Saudis might be getting naval and ballistic missile-defense weapons systems that could be worth tens of billions of dollars more. (Since the Defense Department formally notified Congress of its desire to make the sale on October 20, 2010, as noted above, the spokesperson would no longer require anonymity.)

Happy though this news, it’s not done until it’s done. The sales of all these systems will be stretched out over 5 to 10 years and there will be many renegotiations before all the arms have been delivered. That does not, however, take away from the fact that this is the best news arms sellers and the U.S. economy have had in a long time. It’s too bad the news is not nearly as good for world peace. One can’t have everything.

CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI can be e-mailed at

Christopher Brauchli can be e-mailed at For political commentary see his web page at