European nations that are busily destroying Libyan weapon systems on the ground these days were lining up to sell the authoritarian state major weapons systems a few months earlier, notes the latest survey on international arms sales from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Four European nations — France, Italy, Russia and the United Kingdom — had been competing for expected orders from Libya for combat aircraft, tanks, air defense systems and other weapons before the United Nations imposed an embargo on arms sales to Libya last month, SIPRI said.
The report was released amid the Libya uprising against the 41-year dictatorship of Moammar Gadhafi. Condemning his crackdown, France and the U.K., together with the United States, are now launching warplane and missile strikes against Gadhafi's forces. Italy has joined the shaky alliance that is enforcing a no-fly zone in Libya that backers argue is designed specifically to protect civilians from assault.
Russia, the largest arms supplier to Libya, voted with the rest of the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 26 to impose an arms embargo against Libya. But Russia abstained on the council's Mar. 17 vote declaring a no-fly zone in Libyan airspace and authorizing military action to enforce it. Without specifying what weaponry Libya had ordered, Sergei V. Chemezov, the director of the Russian state company in charge of weapons exports, said on Friday that Russia would lose $4 billion because of the unrest in Libya and the subsequent United Nations embargo. SIPRI reported that these arms included warplanes and coastal defense boats.
(The armed intervention, which is supported by President Dmitry Medvedev and opposed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, has provoked one of the few public disagreements between Russia's leaders.)
According to the report from Stockholm, sales of major conventional arms to Libya were "very low" between September 2003, when the U.N. lifted an earlier arms embargo, and February of this year, when the embargo was reinstated.
But a January report from the European Union on EU arms sales licenses to Libya in 2009 suggests that European defense companies in France, Italy and Germany nonetheless had "steadily been increasing their business ties with Libya," according to a nice bit of reporting by Germany's Deutsche Welle.
Blogger Dan O'Huiginn put the average sales at about a half billion U.S. dollars at the time. As he wrote, "€343m per year buys you a lot of weapons. This isn't fiddling around the edges, it's a major contribution to keeping Gaddafi in power."
In 2009, Deutsche Welle reported, Italy approved licenses to export $158 million in military aircraft, Malta authorized the sale of $113 million in small arms, and Germany approved licenses to export $75 million in electronic jamming equipment to Libya. (The Maltese government denied the report, saying the island nation did not produce or export weapons and had been used only for transporting Italian-made arms by sea.)
The U.S. made overtures to ramp up arms sales to Libya, The Associated Press reported, but Congress scotched the latest deal to sell Gadhafi $77 million in used armored personnel carriers.
The U.N. lifted its arms embargo against Libya in 2003 after Gadhafi promised to renounce terrorism, destroy his arsenals of weapons of mass destruction and accept responsibility for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
"Libya at the time had a huge amount of old, out of date military equipment dating back to the Soviet era and was looking to modernize its armed force," Deutsche Welle quoted Mark Bromley of the Stockholm institute as saying. "It was the perfect opportunity for western arms companies to get a foothold in this lucrative market and incredibly oil-rich country."
Presumably, whoever wins in Libya's civil conflict will be in the market to replace much of the material now being destroyed.
The Stockholm institute conducts research on conflict, armaments, arms control and disarmament. It is one of the world's leading think tanks. Its Arms Transfers Database contains information on the sales, gifts and transfers of major conventional weapons to states, international organizations and armed non-state groups.
From 2006 to 2010, the institute said, the volume of international transfers of major conventional weapons was 24 percent higher than between 2001 and 2005. India was the No. 1 importer of major conventional weapons during the past five years, followed by China, South Korea, Pakistan and Greece. The U.S. remained the No. 1 arms exporter in the world, followed by Russia, Germany, France and the U.K.