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Arms exports

Alexander Richter / ag
January 30, 2013

Critics says the government's report on arms exports lacks transparency: exporting companies are not named, and government sales are merely summarized. Yet the government claims it's in-depth and detailed.

Leopard 2 A4 tank on an exercise
Image: imago

How is it that time and again military equipment "made in Germany" shows up in war zones, despite German government claims that it handles its weapon exports "restrictively" and that it maintains a broad ban on exports to countries with questionable track records for human rights or a high potential for conflicts?

The fact is, in Germany, every single weapons export requires approval. But it's also a fact that in 2011, Libyan rebels used modern German attack rifles in their fight against Moammar Gadhafi. So how did this equipment make its way to Libya? It's safe to assume that the G36 rifles did not come via the Bundeswehr; the German military, which, according to its own rules, destroys any small arms it doesn't use itself. And Heckler & Koch, the German manufacturer of the gun, also denies that it ever shipped these weapons to Libya.

A German soldier with a G36 Photo: Arno Burgi
Nobody knows who supplied Libyan rebels with combat riflesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Information is filtered

Anyone who expects that the government's report on military equipment exports for 2011 will answer such questions is destined to be disappointed. "The government report on military equipment exports contains absolutely no information as to which company has delivered what, when or to which country," says Jan Grebe of the Bonn International Center for Conversion.

The report is rather a summary of approved exports; most of it is a list of those countries to which exports have been allowed.

But whether the shipment actually did go out as ordered, or whether in the end maybe no military equipment was exported at all - all this the report doesn't say.

Besides that, the items approved are only described in categories: vehicles, spare parts, electronic equipment, weapons, ammunition and other military items are listed under only 20 broad headings.

A map of global exports of German military equipment in 2011

Government thinks the report is detailed

The German government, however, describes it as an in-depth, detailed report: "The federal government, in its report on military equipment exports, offers detailed information about the export approvals for weapons and other military items," according to a statement by the economics ministry in answer to a question from Deutsche Welle.

According to the ministry, the report doesn't list the companies involved because "any naming of the exporting companies is excluded from the report for legal reasons in order to protect business confidentiality."

It's not only German companies that sell their military equipment around the globe. The German government itself, too, is busy trading - with material from the German armed forces. And here, too, the report fails to offer transparent information: the government's business is summarized in a few sentences, giving just a few examples.

Getting rid of old equipment

More detailed information about German army sales does exist: confidential government records show that in 2011, the armed forces arranged the sale of tools, ammunition and tanks worth almost 11 million euros ($15 million) to Brazil, Chile, Denmark, Canada and Sweden.

In 2010, Germany approved a 13-million-euro ($17.6-million) sale of 56 Leopard 2A4 battle tanks to Turkey, again from the stocks of the German military.

The list of military exports from the German armed forces in recent years is long: trucks, planes, boats, tanks, medical equipment and ammunition have all ended up abroad.

According to the list, too, rifles that were surplus to requirements were shipped to one European and one South American state.

Chart of top 10 recipients of German military exports in 2011

Any profits made through these deals go directly into the federal budget.

One oddity is that the ministry of defense is allowed to approve its own weapons exports. While private companies have to obtain permission from a government department and fill in numerous forms, the ministry of defense has its own in-house department that approves any sales from army stocks.

Approval mechanism all but transparent

According to Grebe, it's hard to ascertain if applications for army exports are given the same scrutiny as those decided on by the economic ministry.

"The government has told parliament that that any equipment sales through the German military are intended to generate as much money as possible for the federal budget.," he notes. "That could make one think that these cases are considered very generously."

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