Surplus arms will come to the market when armed forces are shrinking because of budget limitations or are restructuring due to major strategic changes. This happened for example in the nineties after the Cold War, when NATO armies shifted their focus towards intervention forces. It is also happening now; Cold War 2.0 comes with new generations of ships, vehicles and fighter planes making arms already in use obsolete and for sale.
In 2013, during the aftermath of the economic crisis, Europe was even called world leader on surplus arms trade. Although surplus trade in small arms and light weapons and ammunition attracted the attention of governments, less vigilance was devoted to surplus major conventional weapons, although they “can be used in human rights violations or in build-ups to regional conflicts breakouts. Surplus conventional weapons raise similar issues as newly exported weapons.”
In surplus or second hand arms sales governments adopt the role of arms exporters while at the same time they are tasked with export control. For that reason in the Netherlands this kind of trade is more transparent and better controlled than commercial arms sales. In 2017 Dutch F-16 spare parts were sold to ILN Technologies in Los Angeles. ILN stores F-16 items, acquired from the US Government, Israel, the UK, the Netherlands and Belgium and sells them to customers. It is involved in repair and overhaul. In this case – and not for the first time – the company sold them to the Indonesian air force for the F-16 fleet. Those fighter jets play a major role in the build up of the archipelago’s growing defence force. The deal is an example of the detailed Dutch surplus arms exports facts in the annual report on the arms exports (see for a complete overview Table showing surplus defence equipment disposals 2003-2017).
Since the first annual arms export report in 1997: “Netherlands exports of complete weapons systems in recent years can be virtually entirely accounted for by disposals of surplus Netherlands defence equipment.” Governmental exports run from small spare parts to major and complex weapon systems like tanks, helicopters, fighter jets and naval vessels. Hundreds of millions may be involved in such transactions. The Dutch Government declared, already in 1997, that: “the regular licence procedure has to be completed for the export of surplus matériel as well.”
Sometimes the Dutch government uses flexible arguments to defend its own arms exports. The Hague asked the King of Jordan for a promise not to use Dutch delivered F-16 fighter jets in Yemen (the Kingdom is involved with F-16’s in the Saudi led operations). According to the Dutch government the king has given his promise on paper, but this paper remains secret. However the parliament’s concerns about Jordan and the Yemen war were eliminated. If Jordan does not keep its promise the issue can only be addressed in Jordan, the Dutch Minister or Foreign Affairs said during the latest arms export policy debate, but “that is all we have.” Not any sanction is part of the deal.
Nowadays EU-members France, Germany and the UK also provide specific information on deliveries of surplus arms in their export reports. And the SIPRI trade register database contains many second hand arms and equipment deals from many EU member states. See table Transfers of major second hand weapons: Deals with deliveries or orders made for 2013-2017 for recent sales and donations of surplus arms from a selection of Western European countries (Austria, Belgium, Czech rep. Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, UK). Only Austria and Finland had no second hand exports.
Photo: Leopard 2A4 tank on Turkish-Syrian border, type as delivered from surplus by Germany
Belgium transferred military vehicles to Bahrain and the Philippines;
Azerbaijan got a multiple rocket launcher from the Czech Republic after it was refurbished in Israel;
Denmark shipped a patrol craft to Lithuania;
Fokker transport aircraft were exported by the Netherlands to Peru and Myanmar;
Nigeria got helicopters from France;
Germany sold second hand submarines to Colombia and lots of equipment to Iraq;
Italy delivered armoured personnel vehicles to Libya;
Spain sold transport aircraft to Pakistan;
Sweden delivered radar planes to Saudi Arabia; and
the Ukraine got UK armoured personnel carriers.
Political affiliations, historical ties and previously established arms trade relationships play a major role in the transit of surplus arms. Sales and donations of second hand equipment smooth ties between Ministries of Defence in the European capitals and in the customer countries. There are no (or only minimal) private business considerations, thus the Government can not hide behind industry interests. Maybe there is refurbishment involved, providing some jobs and some private profits, but that is not a major argument to defend these sales. So one can wonder how the Saudi’s and Bahrain became customers for surplus arms; how European second hand arms ended in the Caucasus and the Congo. Foreign policy (or just sales) arguments seem to weight more heavy than arms control.
Control to be strengthened
In Germany, the Budgetary and Foreign Affairs committees of the Bundestag are notified in advance of transfers of surplus equipment and military assistance. In the Netherlands, Parliament is informed on large sales of surplus arms, including information on how the sale is considered against the EU arms export control criteria. And contrary to information on sale of new equipment, surplus equipment is reported in advance of providing an export license. This is not only make the sales more transparent but gives parliament also the possibility to react. However only a handful of EU member states report and debate surplus arms sales. In most EU member states, transparency and control of surplus or second hand arms export certainly needs to be strengthened.