Even a sub-regional battle or skirmish today has an undeniable global character. Ukrainian tanks rolled over fields, to be intercepted by Chinese landmines, while soldiers with Russian Kalashnikovs advanced over enemy lines, carefully avoiding Swedish rocket launchers and, after tracking sentry movements using American night vision devices, swooped down on the enemy's headquarters. Almost feels like an excerpt out of a teenage video wargame. Only it isn't. It's a true event, real life action from Africa, which has overtaken imagination, funding, fueling and preserving the business and economics of warfighting. The conflict in South Sudan is an example of the weapons industry making its presence felt in a receptive playing field where warring factions continue to use imported tanks, rockets and mortars on military and civilian targets alike. Despite the existence of a peace agreement between Sudan and South Sudan's ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), and an EU embargo on Sudan, tanks have been delivered to the South Sudanese army by Ukrainian, German and UK firms, according to an Amnesty report quoted by the BBC. The cost of military conflicts for Africa is at least $20 billion a year.
At the time of the Cold War, the line of conflicts was clearly demarcated between those on the American side and those who received support from the Soviets. In the past two decades, these lines of alignment have turned blurry, and are almost gone. As the war in Sudan exemplifies, global weapons sales have been dovetailed into commercial topline rather than be situated in ideological frameworks. No surprise, then, that the global trade in heavy weapons systems is at its highest now, after the end of the Cold War in 1991. Despite sanctions against countries such as North Korea and Iran, more than US $2billion worth of arms and ammunition travel to countries in the banned list. All United Nations and regional arms embargos are flouted with regular impunity, according to the UN's own reports. In a world where countries posture and posit arguments on the muscularity of their weapons infrastructure, the flow of weapons from arms manufacturers to importing states has risen the fastest in the past decade. SIPRI, the Stockholm research institute, pegs the growth of the arms trade at a phenomenal 14 per cent in the five-year periods of 2006-10 and 2011-15.
In a seller's market, the global arms sales architecture is monopolised by a clutch of nations. Together, the USA, Russia, Germany, France and China account for 74 per cent of global arms exports and sales, with American companies such as Lockheed Martin and BAE Systems making up a whopping 57.9 per cent in the SIPRI top 100 arms producing and military services companies list in 2016, according to Andrew Vodianyi and others, Outside the pale of this supplier-user number lie non-state actors and mercenaries, which procure weapons through alternative and underground channels. Cutting-edge technologies have changed sales practices, with countries shifting from annual purchases to more economic multi-year deals that lower costs of each tank or jet. For instance, Lockheed Martin would be supplying F-35 fighters in three tranches between 2018 and 2020 to 11 nations, with an average price of for 440 jets pegged at $85 million, reports Reuters.
Geostrategic needs, economic growth and state of indigenous weapons systems have guided the growth of weapons markets. Continued tensions and increased fighting in the Middle East saw weapons purchases soar by 86 per cent between 2012 and 2016. In this period, Saudi Arabia emerged as a top arms importer, moving from the eleventh position to being among the largest arms importers. Security dynamics in Asia are traditionally deep rooted in nationalist, cultural or religious form and therefore likely to remain permanent. Weapons firms are canny enough to bet their commercial hopes on assumption of continued political hostilities between South and North Korea. For instance, German firm Taurus Systems set up an office in Seoul in 2014. In 2016, Taurus delivered 177 cruise missiles to their client nation.
Given increased insecurities in the region, the South China Sea is likely to be a vital hub of the weapons race in Asia. Japan, and Vietnam, and others in the region have been increasing their defence budgets substantially, with the result that American weapons manufacturers now have more orders from Asia Pacific than in the past. Vietnam, for instance, jumped from being the 43rd largest importer in 2006-10, to the eighth largest in 2011-15, a half-decade period. The Chinese strategy of supplying cheaper weapons and submarines to countries along the Indian Ocean coastline has raised alarms in India about its ambitions in the region. Bangladesh has been operating the Ming class submarine said to be one-tenth the cost of a European submarine. Experts believe that sales of submarines have spillover post-sale effects, such as getting to have more technicians on board, opportunity to create harbours, repair facilities and therefore obtaining a permanent strategic influence in the client country.
China is exploring an ecosystem of importers that are economically less privileged countries that do not have the defence outlay to purchase from US and European firms. The weapons race feeds into a security dilemma where nations alarmed by a rise in weapons imports and arms trade in the neighbourhood, have gone on a shopping spree. India is an example of a country driven by a combination of geopolitical position in a hostile neighborhood, its internecine insurgencies, and its ambition to play a leading role in the region. What particularly forces India to import heavily is lack of adequate indigenous capability. In fact, despite a need to acquire weapons, most countries in Asia have not been able to build world-class indigenous weapon systems.
Estimates say that defence budgets of nations in the Asia-Pacific could rise to over $600 billion by 2020, which would mean a third of global military spending. The rapidly growing circle of acquisitions amongst the developing countries could divide the world like an apparel market: those countries that can afford the Lockheed Martins and those that cannot, and will thus rely on cheaper Chinese weapons, which could see a growing market in a separate cluster. This endless cycle will continue to fuel a complex geopolitical orbit defined by the brand and budget of weapons one possesses.
Probal Dasgupta, who writes extensively on geopolitical affairs, has served in the Indian armed forces for a decade, and has studied international affairs at Columbia University, USA. He is currently working on his first book about the historical turn of events in the Indo-China region in the 1960s, to be published next year.