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Bombs for sale

By Renae Merle
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — When the war in Iraq winds down, the U.S. defense industry is likely to launch a major offensive to sell its battlefield-tested weapons to countries around the world.

If the weapons systems perform in Iraq as Pentagon officials envision — and by all accounts they have been, with power and precision — then significant commercial benefits probably would follow, industry analysts say. Overseas buyers are expected to have their sights primarily on inexpensive, satellite-guided weapons rather than high-priced tanks and jets, because they’ve already bought about as many of those systems as they can afford.

The new weapons are being featured in nonstop television coverage, providing the kind of publicity that helped fuel a surge in international arms sales after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

“It’s the best possible marketing tool — CNN,” said Tamar Gabelnick, director of the arms sales monitoring project at the Federation of American Scientists.

After years of development and testing, a weapon proves its value only during “cold, hard combat,” said Joel L. Johnson, vice president of international affairs at the Aerospace Industries Association. “You don’t know how it’s going to perform in large numbers until you put it in the hands of those 19- and 20-year-old” soldiers, he said.

Adds defense industry consultant James McAleese: “You should be able to sell (at least) three times more of any weapon system that has been proven in combat than if you haven’t seen it in combat.”

Foreign sales raise a sensitive issue, according to some observers. The Pentagon runs the risk of arming unstable regimes or nations sharing tense borders, opening itself up to charges that it is increasing volatility in an already insecure world. The United States also puts itself in the position of supplying sophisticated weaponry to a potential future enemy. In the 1980s, for example, the United States authorized the sale of several products to Iraq that could be used in weapons, including poisonous chemicals and deadly viruses, such as anthrax and bubonic plague.

“It’s not clear what a postwar Middle East will look like in terms of who our allies are in the long term. Once you export the weapon you have no control of its use,” Gabelnick said. “Maybe we’re overly pessimistic, but the risk is still there.”

If an ally government is overthrown, “you might be faced with a hostile regime outfitted with the best in U.S. military equipment,” she added.

While the defense companies largely refuse to comment on their sales ambitions — saying it would be inappropriate to discuss such possibilities during wartime — they do acknowledge that exports have a significant impact on their bottom lines.

Boeing spokesman Walt Rice would not specifically address postwar marketing, saying only that “foreign military sales are important to our long-term success.”

The State Department or the Defense Department, or both, must scrutinize every potential sale. When certain major defense systems such as fighter jets are being sold, notification of Congress is required.

In 1993, after the Persian Gulf War, U.S. firms signed contracts to sell an estimated $20 billion worth of arms abroad, up sharply from about $10 billion in 1992 and $11 billion in 1991, according to the Congressional Research Service.

U.S. allies in the region are likely to buy arms. The White House’s proposed supplemental spending package unveiled late last month sets aside $2.1 billion for foreign military financing and another $1 billion for Israel to “enhance security in light of threats posed by the war with Iraq,” according to a White House statement.

“I would find it very strange if Jordan and Pakistan aren’t buying U.S. weapons,” McAleese said.

But the Pentagon remains skeptical about sharing some technology. Even though the Joint Strike Fighter was designed to be shared with several allies, including Britain, the Pentagon probably will not share how it designed the planes’ stealth capabilities, he said. “There will be parts that no one will be able to make but us,” Johnson said.

“Stealth capabilities are currently one of our silver bullets,” he added, and the Pentagon is reluctant to share them.