U.S. weapons sales in Europe are booming as Russia's war in Ukraine continues to rage

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Thanks to Russia’s prolonged war in Ukraine, sales of United States military weaponry in Europe are skyrocketing.

Since late February, when Russian forces invaded Ukraine, countries in the European Union have pledged to beef up their arsenals by some $230 billion, with Germany alone planning to modernize its military to the tune of $100 billion this year. And the United States arms industry, which produces and exports more weapons than any other country — selling over 39% of the estimated $210 billion annual global arms sales from 2017 to 2021 — has been the biggest beneficiary.

In many European countries over half of recent military expenditures went to American arms manufacturers, with Norway devoting 83% to U.S. purchases, the U.K. 77%, Italy 72% and the Netherlands spending 95% on American-made weapons in the period from 2017 to 2021, according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), with total European arms imports jumping 19 percent during that time frame from the previous five years. And that was before Europe’s recent arms-buying spree.

“This is certainly the biggest increase in defense spending in Europe since the end of the Cold War,” Ian Bond, director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform, told Yahoo News.

British soldiers in front of a Multiple Launch Rocket System
British soldiers in front of a Multiple Launch Rocket System (M270 MLRS). (Christof Stache/AFP via Getty Images)

Russia’s war in Ukraine has shaken countries and “people who got used to peace for a generation,” said Bond. Many Europeans, he said, “had basically convinced themselves that war on the continent had become an impossibility. They’re waking up to the fact that not only is it very possible, but it is happening, and it's happening not that many miles away from them.”

When the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, defense spending in many countries across Europe plummeted, he said. But that’s quickly changing.

“Many European countries have plans to increase their military spending very significantly, and to increase their purchases of arms as part of that,” said Pieter Wezeman, senior researcher with the SIPRI Arms and Military Expenditure Programme. “And in some countries they’re accelerating” purchases originally slated for later this decade.

According to William Hartung, a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, since President Biden took office, European countries account for some $33 billion of arms “offers,” as the initial stage of arms negotiations is called, with $21 billion in deals on the table since February. Although some sales have not yet been officially contracted, Hartung told Yahoo News that the $21 billion estimate is assuredly low as it represents only government-to-government deals, not direct commercial sales, which are more difficult to track.

Joe Biden
President Biden speaking about the economy in Carlsbad, Calif., on Friday. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Even before the war, according to SIPRI, European arms imports from 2017 through 2021 were up 19%. “They’re growing at a rapid clip,” said Hartung. The amount of European arms deals being negotiated since February, he said, “has almost doubled from last year. And we've still got a few months left.”

Thanks to Putin, Europe is now considered a hotspot for U.S. arms dealers.

“This is all very much driven by Russia's attack on Ukraine and the realization in Europe that defense stocks had been run down quite considerably over the last 30 years,” said Bond. He added that one reason so many countries turn to U.S. arms manufacturers is the American defense industry is so large, countries don’t have to wait for cutting-edge arms to be developed. Another reason, countries in East and Central Europe “want to keep the U.S. on their side and show that they attach value to the Transatlantic alliance,” including to NATO. “And supporting American defense manufacturers is one way in which you can do that.”

By far, the most popular high-end item from the U.S. in Europe is the American F-35 combat airplane — with Finland putting in an order for 54 of them in 2020, while Poland ordered 32. Another 71 planes were ordered by Norway, the Netherlands and the U.K., and even neutral Switzerland ordered three dozen of the fighter planes in September, for over $6 billion.

Those kinds of big-money sales “cause a lot of tension” with European arms manufacturers, said Hartung, since across Europe, the American F-35 often outsells European-made fighter jets.

A British Royal Air Force F-35 Lightning
A British Royal Air Force F-35 Lightning. (Ministry of Defence via Getty Images)

Based on what arms buyers have told him, Wezeman said the F-35 has more bells and whistles than domestic models such as the Eurofighter Typhoon or Saab JAS 39 Gripen.

“It’s more stealthy, it makes more use of advanced electronics, advanced communication systems, and network systems,” he said. “Maybe you pay a bit more, but overall, you get something that is often considered better than European alternatives. I cannot judge if that's true, but that's the message we generally hear.”

The U.S., however, doesn’t lead every arms sector in Europe, where countries tend to buy tanks from Germany and artillery from France and submarines from Germany, France or the U.K. But because of their high price, F-35s often take a large part of a country’s defense budget pie.

With a sticker price of around $79 million per plane, it often outcompetes other fighter aircraft, including French Dassault Rafale fighter jets. “The French are not wildly enthusiastic about other European countries buying [F-35s] from the Americans,” said Bond, and were especially unhappy when Germany announced in late July that it wanted to order 35 of the F-35 fighter planes in a deal worth $8.4 billion.

Analysts in Europe are relieved to see Germany building up its military might again, despite its dark history of sparking World War II. West Germany, noted Bond, had one of NATO’s biggest most powerful armies during the Cold War. Had the Soviet Union attacked Western Europe, “the Bundeswehr would have been very much on the frontline,” he said.

Two Leopard 2 A6 heavy battle tanks and a Puma infantry fighting vehicle of the Bundeswehr's 9th Panzer Training Brigade
Two Leopard 2 A6 heavy battle tanks and a Puma infantry fighting vehicle of the Bundeswehr's 9th Panzer Training Brigade. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Over the past 30 years, however, Germany largely neglected its military — failing to meet NATO’s requirement to put 2% of its GDP towards defense, a loud complaint of former President Donald Trump that was echoed by plenty of Europeans.

“Most of us have been trying to persuade the Germans to spend more on defense for quite a long time,” said Bond. Germany should hit the 2% mark soon, he added, perhaps even exceed it.

Devoting 2% of GDP on defense spending, he said, “is no longer seen as a ceiling. In countries that are feeling particularly vulnerable, it’s seen more as the floor, the starting point.”

Poland, regarded as a satellite state of the Soviet Union after World War II, may soon be devoting 3%-5% of it GDP to defense — it spent $6 billion this year on U.S. arms alone, according to Security Assistance Monitor, which tracks U.S. arms sales worldwide. Bond said that other countries, from the U.K. to Lithuania, from Finland to Greece, are boosting their arms budgets too.

“U.S. presidents,” said Hartung, “always talk about burden sharing, saying that European countries aren’t spending a big enough share of their economies, and the U.S. is paying disproportionately for the defense of Europe. But that doesn’t take into account all the money that’s flowing back from the U.S. arms sales to Europe. I think it’s a closer balance than U.S. politicians would want to admit.”

A fleet of helicopters are part of a large military transport operation between the United States and Germany
A fleet of helicopters are part of a large military transport operation between the United States and Germany. (Bas Czerwinski/ANP/AFP via Getty Images)

Hartung and Wezeman are two arms analysts who believe that Europe’s skyrocketing purchases are just part of a growing global arms race. On the one hand, Hartung notes, if European arms purchases are coordinated, “there could be less reliance on the United States, and perhaps more of a balance of power.” On the other hand, countries appear to be buying without an integrated approach to European security. “So it’s possible that this new surge of sales might not increase Europe’s defense capability in an effective way,” Hartung said.

“How do you decide what is enough to deter Russia?” Wezeman asked.