* Arms sales from world's no. 3 exporter soar to non-allied
* German small arms exports hit record levels in 2013
* Economy minister toughens controls as public backlash
* Maker of famed G36 assault rifle could be hard hit
By Alexandra Hudson and Sabine Siebold
BERLIN, July 23 For lawmaker Jan van Aken,
little symbolizes more potently all that he finds indefensible
about Germany's arms exports than the German and French-made
anti-tank missile that he was shown in northern Syria.
From its serial number, he believes the 1970s MILAN rocket
was sold legitimately by France to then Syrian leader Hafez
al-Assad. After decades in a depot, it fell into the hands of al
Qaeda-linked militants in the uprising against Assad's son
Earlier this year, the German politician examined the
waist-high green tube left after the missile was fired at the
Van Aken fears the arms that Germany exports today may one
day share the same fate. Arms exports rose 24 percent to 5.85
billion euros in 2013 from 2012 and are increasingly heading to
states in volatile ares, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and
These exports have started to stir public distaste. Economy
Minister Sigmar Gabriel pledged last month to restrict them,
even if that means sacrificing some of the estimated 80,000
German jobs in arms manufacturing.
"It's a disgrace that Germany is among the world's largest
weapons exporters," Gabriel has said.
The debate within Germany mirrors a broader international
debate over arms exports that has gained urgency since the
downing of a Malaysian passenger aircraft over eastern Ukraine
last week. Washington believes the aircraft was brought down by
a surface-to-air missile fired from territory held by
In March Germany suspended the transfer of 5 million euros
worth of defence equipment to Russia because of Moscow's
annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region. It also stopped the
delivery of a combat simultation kit made by Rheinmetall
, worth about 100 million euros.
Germany's freezing of defence contracts contrasts with
France, which for now is pressing ahead with a 1.2 billion euro
($1.6 billion) contract to supply Russia with its Mistral
CARS NOT GUNS
Weapons makers say Germany risks losing jobs and technical
know-how and buyers will simply buy elsewhere, leaving the world
no safer. They want to know what Gabriel's "more restrictive"
export policy means in practice.
It is an industry, however, with few public friends and
supporters, even among the wider business lobby.
"Our total exports are 1,100 billion euros and weapons
exports make up only a very small proportion," said Anton
Boerner, head of the German exporters' association (BGA). "If
people stopped buying German cars then we would be worried, but
the issue of arms exports doesn't concern us."
Since Angela Merkel took office in 2005, Germany has
overtaken France to become the world's third largest arms
exporter behind the United States and Russia. This is a
surprising rise for a country that has traditionally taken a
back-seat on global security affairs and where a pacifist ethos
is ingrained in many after the horrors of Nazism.
Almost two thirds of Germans oppose arms exports, according
to a 2012 poll. Yet just as the cars that Germany produces are
coveted the world over for their quality engineering and
reliability, so too are German tanks and guns.
Buyers outside of traditional NATO partners have lined up to
make purchases, and Germany has increasingly said yes to deals
that helped offset dwindling orders from allies.
In early 2013, Berlin raised eyebrows by authorising
Krauss-Maffei Wegmann's (KMW) 2 billion euro order from Qatar -
62 tanks for a country of 2 million people which is criticised
in the region for backing Islamist rebels in Syria and
Interest from abroad comes at a time when Germany's own
military has scaled back, reducing its arsenal of 4,600 tanks
from the Cold War era to just 225 today.
The SIPRI security think-tank in Stockholm says selling arms
to 'partner' countries in the Middle East or North Africa has
been part of Germany's response to the Islamist terror threat
since 2001. Control over the delivery of spare parts also allows
Berlin to wield some soft influence later.
Gabriel, whose Social Democrats (SPD) share power with
Merkel's conservatives, blames the surge in sales on Merkel's
previous coalition with the Free Democrats (FDP).
While 38 percent of arms went to EU and NATO countries or
other close allies such as Australia in 2013, 62 percent went to
other states - up from 55 percent in 2012.
Furthermore, total exports of small arms and light weapons
(SALW) - portable arms such as guns, grenade launchers and
anti-aircraft guns blamed for 60-90 percent of deaths in the
world's conflicts - hit a record 135.1 million euros, a rise of
43 percent, with 40.5 million worth heading to Gulf states.
"There are no countries to which you can safely export
weapons, particularly small arms and light weapons," said van
Aken. "You can never be sure into whose hands they will fall,
even if you are selling to friends."
Van Aken's Left party, which polled 9 percent in 2013's
federal election, is an outlier on foreign policy, wanting NATO
disbanded and Germany to give up its armed forces. However, its
opposition to arms exports has found wider public resonance.
As arms are often only produced to order, applications are
made years in advance. The most contentious must secure approval
from Germany's nine-member security council, consisting of the
chancellor, her chief of staff and the foreign, defence,
finance, economy, development, interior and justice ministers.
The council meets in secret and the government says
decisions are taken on a case-by-case basis.
Arms industry insiders say Gabriel's economy ministry, which
considers straightforward cases and passes on more complex ones
to the security council, is sitting on around 2,000 applications
as it begins its new approach. A spokesman declined to comment.
Exports of components such as sights or target locks for
weapons systems assembled abroad must undergo the same stringent
checks if they are to be sold on to non-NATO or non-EU states.
Airbus is waiting for news on its application to
export target-locking devices for armoured patrol vehicles to
Belgium. From Belgium they are due to go to Canada, where they
will be built into vehicles for U.S. firm General Dynamics and
then sent to Saudi Arabia. Germany's approval process takes
account of the final destination.
An Airbus executive, speaking on condition of anonymity,
said the problem is not that applications are being refused, but
that hardly any decisions are being taken at all. The ministry
declined to comment.
Georg Wilhelm Adamowitsch, head of Germany's Security and
Defence Industry association, complained that Berlin had no idea
of the consequences its new approach would have on foreign
manufacturers that use German parts. The government should at
least make sure there is a common Europe-wide stance, he said.
A German arms industry executive, speaking on condition of
anonymity, said European customers kept waiting for German
components would eventually take their business elsewhere.
Gabriel has advised German arms manufacturers to focus on
civilian products instead. That may be difficult for firms like
Heckler & Koch, which makes the G36 assault rifle and employs
700 people in the small southern town of Oberndorf.
Developed for the German army, the G36 is standard issue for
infantry and special forces worldwide and used in 30 countries.
Heckler & Koch guns have appeared in Libya and Mexico, in
circumstances clearly beyond legal German export channels.
In 2008 Germany allowed Saudi Arabia a licence to produce
Heckler & Koch's G36, although it would still depend on some
parts from Oberndorf. German magazine Der Spiegel has reported
that Gabriel will now forbid the export of these parts.
A source at Heckler & Koch said they were waiting to hear.
Gabriel's ministry has said they never comment on individual
arms export applications.
Some of Merkel's conservative lawmakers accuse Gabriel of
jumping on a populist cause to boost his profile with voters and
nurture his ambitions of becoming chancellor in 2017.
"Defence projects are already being planned without German
components," said Joachim Pfeiffer from Merkel's Christian
Democrats (CDU), lamenting the damage to German industry.
Earlier this month Krauss-Maffei Wegmann said it had entered
merger talks with French tankmaker Nexter as both seek ways to
cope with military budget cuts. Arms industry insiders say the
move was accelerated by Gabriel's intention to curb exports.
Rheinmetall has just hired Merkel's former development
minister Dirk Niebel, from the FDP, as chief lobbyist. The move
to the arms industry by someone who used to sit on the national
security council has enraged anti-lobby groups.
Van Aken believes that, as few details are ever released by
the council about which exports it has refused and why, Gabriel
will be under pressure to make a grand gesture to prove he has
been effective - for example by banning the export of SALWs.
He takes heart from the way the production and export of
land mines was all but stopped in 1999 as outrage grew.
"Imagine a country like Germany banning small weapons
exports - and how it would stigmatize those that still do
export," he said. "Germany has the chance to set an example."
(Writing by Alexandra Hudson; Edited by Stephen Brown and Janet