Unfriendly Fire


Wherever they go to stamp out trouble, America’s fighting men and women are placed in harm’s way—not by our myriad enemies, but by our own energetic arms manufacturers and their compatriots in so-called allied nations, who help our foes arm themselves against us.

That lesson was underscored this month in the China spy plane incident. U.S. officials now say Chinese F-8 jets, like the one that collided with our lumbering EP-3E, are armed with an Israeli-made air-to-air missile. The Python-3 missile was produced by the Israeli Armaments Development Authority.

Jane’s Defense Review reports that the Python-3 missile traces its origins back through several generations of weapons to the American Sidewinder, an air-to-air missile created in the late 1960s and purchased by Israel. The Israelis souped up the weapon and tested it in the Bekáa Valley of Lebanon during 1982, then sold it to China. There are reports of export orders from Israel to Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Romania, South Africa, and Thailand. Israel is believed to have licensed the new design to China, which now manufactures its own line of air-to-air missiles.

“We don’t have any comment on sales from Israel to foreign countries,” said Rafael Barak, deputy chief of mission at the Israeli embassy in Washington. “We’re surrounded by enemies that don’t hide the intention that they want to kill us.”

As everyone knows, the U.S. leaps at every chance to build up the might of our ally Israel. But this was a bit much, having a virtual surrogate in the Middle East selling missiles to China that might very well be used to kill our own troops. Said one Pentagon official, who spoke to CNN on the condition that he not be named, “Here we are bending over backward to give Israel a qualitative edge, and they are selling hardware to our adversaries.”

This is part of the price the U.S. pays for being the world’s largest arms dealer. Last year, we sold more than $8 billion in weapons, with licenses for outstanding sales totaling another $26.4 billion. In 1998 the U.S. armed or trained the military of 168 nations.

The overall effects of this business are increasingly dangerous to civilians—as when an American-made plane in Peru downed an aircraft carrying Baptist missionaries last week—and in certain instances pose great risk to American troops as well. The U.S. provided ammo and small arms to Indonesia while that country was putting down the East Timor rebellion. We gave weapons to Colombia that, according human rights groups, were used to kill civilians. The most celebrated case was the refusal of President Bill Clinton to ban outright the manufacture of land mines, which kill civilians around the world at alarming rates. A deal to let the Israelis sell U.S. enhanced-radar technology to China was blocked last year under pressure from the Clinton administration. Yet American arms continue to provide the springboard for modernizing the world’s armies. Currently, the United Arab Emirates is purchasing advanced models of U.S. fighters that exceed anything we now have in operation.

Israel gets $3 billion in arms aid from the U.S. every year. In 2000, there was a move in Congress to shave $250 million from the package because Israel was then in the midst of negotiations to sell Phalcon missiles to the Chinese. The Phalcons, according to the Pentagon, were actually U.S. weapons that had been enhanced by the Israelis, who then claimed them as their own invention.

James Ridgeway’s complete Mondo Washington column this week.