War in the Multipolar World: Customers One Day, Targets the Next

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An interesting Reuters ‘special report‘ brings into relief some of the ironies of the current air war over Libya: the French strike craft pummeling Libyan targets over the past month were allegedly on offer to the Gaddafi regime not long ago. At an air show outside Tripoli in 2009, according to photographs taken by Dutch military aviation photographers, France’s Dassault Rafale jets — now deployed over the no-fly zone — were on sale. In 2007, Paris and Tripoli reportedly inked a number of “memorandums of understanding” related to arms purchases, though no proof of actual sales followed.

For Europe’s cash-strapped governments, says the report, the campaign in Libya has proved a handy showcase for the continent’s latest technologies:

The Libyan operation also marks the combat debut for the Eurofighter Typhoon, a competitor to the Dassault Rafale built by Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain. An Italian Air Force version of that plane was snapped at the 2009 show hosted by Libyan generals. Two weeks ago, that base – to which arms firms including Dassault returned last November – was attacked by western bombs….

“This is turning into the best shop window for competing aircraft for years. More even than in Iraq in 2003,” says Francis Tusa, editor of UK-based Defense Analysis. “You are seeing for the first time on an operation the Typhoon and the Rafale up against each other, and both countries want to place an emphasis on exports. France is particularly desperate to sell the Rafale.”

Of course, while Gaddafi may no longer be allowed in the queue for such purchases, a host of other governments are, not least Asia’s rapidly modernizing militaries. Russia — which signed a $1.8 billion (possibly larger) arms deal with Gaddafi’s regime in 2009 — has stepped up its own exports to India, Indonesia, Vietnam and a host of other nations, while in Washington, according to a recent Fortune cover story, “the Department of Defense last year told Congress of plans to sell up to $103 billion in weapons to overseas buyers.”

These sales are a fillip to western economies that are otherwise hemorrhaging jobs and losing their competitive edge to the rising powers in the global South. Yet now, more than ever before, in a moment when the geo-political order is getting a rapid makeover, the arms you sell may be the arms you have to destroy.