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US companies find a lucrative market for arms exports

While Washington frets about competition in the world economy, United States firms are doing fine in at least one global business: arms. The top three US arms exporting companies all have broken the $1 billion mark in annual foreign sales, according to a just-released report by the Investor Responsibility Research Center, a private group that monitors business activities.

With $1.6 billion in overseas receipts, McDonnell Douglas Corporation was the number one American weapons exporter in 1985, the last year for which complete figures are available. Its big sellers were F/A-18 and F-15 combat jets and the Harpoon, an antiship missile made famous last year when it was fired against Libyan targets by the US Navy.

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Boeing Co. was in second place, at $1.2 billion. Its most lucrative product was the E-3A Airborne Warning and Control System, popularly known as the AWACS radar plane. Boeing is also the prime contractor on Saudi Arabia's Peace Shield, a large ground-based air-defense command, control, and communications system.

Barely behind at number three is up and coming General Dynamics, a firm that of late has been known for ``aggressive international marketing techniques,'' according to the report. Fourteen countries have placed orders for General Dynamics' lightweight F-16 fighter. The company's land-systems division produces custom tanks for Taiwan and South Korea, and its Pomona missile division has sold the shoulder-fired Stinger to 10 nations.

The Investor Responsibility Research Center compiled the report by analyzing contracts let through the Pentagon's foreign military-sales program. Some US arms, principally munitions and basic items, are sold directly to foreign governments and are not reflected in IRRC figures.

The top three American arms exporters got to their positions mostly by selling expensive, complicated airplanes. But in number of contracts, the bulk of US arms sales overseas are lower-tech weapons, as the IRRC report reveals.

Beech and Cessna, companies known in the US as makers of propeller-driven civilian planes, sell their products overseas as combat planes, for instance. The Cessna A-37 Dragonfly attack plane is particularly popular in Latin America, having been sold to El Salvador, Chile, and Honduras, among other nations.

Low-tech fighting vehicles are a popular item. Ex-Cell-O (a Textron subsidiary) has had much success with its Commando armored car. Harsco Corporation has sold self-propelled howitzers to nations from Austria to South Korea.

The number one best-selling US export weapon, though, may well be the venerable Sidewinder air-to-air missile, a product of Ford Aerospace. Over the years at least 40,000 Sidewinders have been shipped overseas, according to the IRRC.

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Weapons made infamous by the Iran-contra affair are also top sellers. Hughes Co. TOW antitank missiles have been overtly shipped to Greece, Italy, and Turkey, among others. Raytheon has exported more than 7,000 Hawk air-defense missiles.

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