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World View : Shifting Battle Lines in Arms Race : A shortage of cash has cut into global weapons purchases. But some individual nations and regions are surging ahead.


WASHINGTON — Four years after the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled the onset of global change, the race to acquire the world's deadliest and most destructive weapons is far from over.

Rather than open an era in which the world can convert swords into plowshares, the end of the Cold War instead finds nations devising ever more ingenious ways to improve their arsenals by upgrading arms rather than buying anew, to expand arsenals by tapping into a postwar weapons glut and to disguise big-buck spending on national security by playing financial shell games.

Even tangible progress heralded in a spate of new reports--a 15% cut in defense spending globally and a 20% decline in arms sales to the Third World last year (see box)--is so grossly uneven that it tends to obscure the military preparedness of several states and their potential threat.

Only a handful of countries, for example, now account for more than 75% of the world's major weapons sales.

"Man's quest for bigger and better weapons is not over," said Eva Marie Loofe, an expert on military spending at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). "For several reasons, the new (disarmament) trends do not look permanent. Many can and probably will be reversed."

Basic military doctrine and attitudes about the utility of nuclear weapons have undergone little fundamental change. And the progress so far does not herald any general commitment to a "new world order" in which countries proactively or altruistically disarm.

The biggest single cause of defense cutbacks is instead simple economics. Because of foreign debt and deep recessions, many Third World countries now lack sufficient cash reserves in hard currency to buy big guns, tanks and warplanes. Even some First World nations are financially strapped.

Meanwhile, former Soviet proxy states no longer have access to the grants and large discounts from Moscow that once gave them easy and relatively cheap access to sophisticated weaponry.

"No one's cutting willingly. If economies improve, arms sales will go up again," Loofe said.

Also, while the Cold War's end may have slowed the production and sale of new arms, it hasn't decreased the flow of older weapons. Indeed, it may even have facilitated arms transfers.

"Massive quantities of very lethal equipment have been released for practically nothing over the past four years," according to Edward J. Laurance, an arms specialist at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and a U.N. consultant.

"If you're a state or a sub-state, there's literally tons of materiel being offered on street corners, in catalogues and at bazaars. A lot of people are particularly taking advantage of the fact that new states don't have export-control laws in place yet," he added, referring to the 15 former Soviet republics and other nations undergoing major political transformations.

Five worrisome trends are running counter to the good news about post-Cold War arms cutbacks, according to European and U.S. experts.

* Cascading. The first is described by a key new buzzword within the trade: "Cascading," or the flow of arms from larger to smaller powers at minimal or no cost as a result of new arms pacts or the breakup of nations.

The 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty among the 53 members of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, for example, put limits on the number of tanks, warplanes and other war materiel the signers could keep in their arsenals.

But rather than destroy equipment--an expensive process in itself--several countries transferred some of their surplus to smaller or poorer allies. Among the thousands of transfers: Germany gave 11 tanks and 105 armored personnel carriers (APCs) to Turkey as aid, while the Netherlands transferred 100 tanks and 53 APCs to Greece.

And after the Soviet breakup, Moscow gave weapons from arsenals in Russia to other republics. Moldova, which didn't have its own army two years ago, is now receiving equipment that was in the hands of Soviet troops based there.

The ominous side of cascading is that arms are often transferred to hot spots--thus contributing to the prospect of conflict.

"The good news is that the levels of arms among the world's two major antagonists are down. The bad news is that there's lots more equipment in the hands of countries that didn't have them before. It's taking weapons out of the hands of people who are not fighting and giving them to people who are often in or near hot spots," Laurance said.

Once combatants over Cyprus, Turkey and Greece remain rivals, for example. Yet last year, Greece received 592 tanks and 206 APCs, while Turkey got 588 tanks and 335 APCs, all courtesy of cascading from Germany, the Netherlands and the United States.

And cascading among former Soviet republics has contributed to the increasingly bloody civil war in Tajikistan, fighting between Georgia and its Ossetian and Abkhazian minorities and the war between Azerbaijanis and Armenians.

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