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How America supplies the world with weapons

The United States is by far the world's largest dealer of arms, which often fall into the wrong hands.

US President Donald Trump (R) holds a defense sales chart with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House on March 20, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

It's not groundbreaking to propose that war, unfortunately, means business. While it was devastating, World War 2 also reduced the unemployment rate in the United States, still recovering from the Great Depression, from 25% to 10% almost immediately. People were put to work making weapons and supplies for the war effort, and the phenomenal economic boom of the postwar economy brought prosperity back to the country.


But how much business is war now for the United States? The country and the world at large have been experiencing a rather long period of relative peace, with armed conflicts more regional than global in nature. While the overall transfer of major weapons has not hit the highs of the 1980s, it has overall been growing in the past two decades. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the size of the global arms market is at about $100 billion. And it's dominated by the United States.

"Quite frankly," says Danny Sjursen, US Army strategist and historian, "the war—selling arms—is one of the last American industries that's left. It's one of the last things the United States does well, that we're still number one at—number one at dealing arms in the world."

Research by SIPRI shows that exports by the U.S. accounted for 34% of the major arms exports from 2013 to 2017. Russia was second at 22%.

Writing in The American Conservative, William D. Hartung notes that “the U.S. share has fluctuated between one-third and one-half of the global market for the past two decades, peaking at an almost monopolistic 70 percent of all weapons sold in 2011." Hartung also points out that “arms deals are a way of life in Washington" and that significant part of the government, starting with the president, “are intent on ensuring that American arms will flood the global market."

If you're wondering, most of the sales go to what are called “developing nations," which is a pretty broad category that includes all countries except the United States, Russia, European nations, Canada, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. According to the SIPRI report, America supplied arms to 98 countries, with most of them (49%) going to the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia buys the largest amount of arms sold by the U.S.—about 18% of the total. The next closest is the United Arab Emirates at 7.4%.

Here's where the largest arms sales by the U.S. go:

Arms in the wrong hands

With all the arms it's outputting into the world, there have been some alarming recent examples where America's weapons ended up in the wrong hands. As the U.S. combated the spread of ISIS since 2014, it has increasingly found itself fighting against its own weapons, reported Task and Purpose.

How did that happen? Lack of oversight of foreign-made weapons by the U.S. and its allies ended up causing a great influx of arms and ammo into Iraq and Syria. Once the weapons were in that region, “distributed like candy to battlefield partners," as writes Jared Keller, they often found their way into the hands of ISIS.

A 2015 Amnesty report showed that the majority of ISIS's weapons arsenal “comes from stockpiles captured from the U.S.-allied Iraqi military and Syrian rebels."

A three-year study published in late 2017 by the arms control group Conflict Armament Research (CAR) saw a clear connection between the weapons of international players and the strength of ISIS:

“International weapon supplies to factions in the Syrian conflict have significantly augmented the quantity and quality of weapons available to IS forces—in numbers far beyond those that would have been available to the group through battlefield capture alone," stated the report. “These findings are a stark reminder of the contradictions inherent in supplying weapons into armed conflicts in which multiple competing and overlapping non-state armed groups operate."

In what is a crazy loop demonstrating the intermingling of the international weapons trade, the report found that 90% of the 40,000 firearms and ammo caches CAR could document originated in Russia, China, and other countries that produced Warsaw Pact-era weapons, which were purchased by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and EU nations but eventually acquired by ISIS through unauthorized transfers.


An ISIS fighter with an American rifle. Credit: YouTube/VICE News.

ISIS, which also repurposed U.S. weapons to make new ones, like IEDs, is not the only unintended beneficiary of American arms. In Afghanistan, a similar scenario exists with U.S.-made weapons ending up in Taliban hands. According to a 2016 Department of Defense audit, bad record-keeping and regulations were responsible for letting up to half of the 1.5 million firearms supplied to Iraqi and Afghan security forces after 2002 go missing.

Where do we go from here in the arms trade? American arms exports are growing, expanding by 25% in 2013-17 compared to the previous four years, according to the SIPRI study. Russia's exports, on the other hand, fell by 7.1% over the same period. President Trump has made selling more weapons to allies a priority that he reiterates in calls to international leaders. It's hard to imagine this industry contracting right now but it's possible to call for much stricter oversight of where the arms are going and a broader discussion of how America makes its money. You know what happens when you live by the sword.

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  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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