Arms Around the World

What would the global flow of weapons look like without Viktor Bout? Dozens of traffickers wait in the wings.

If Viktor Bout's empire were put out of business, the flow of weapons to the world's trouble spots would not grind to a halt. But it is unlikely that a similar network -- a large, vertically structured organization capable of door-to-door delivery of advanced weapons and hardware -- would emerge in its place.

If Viktor Bout’s empire were put out of business, the flow of weapons to the world’s trouble spots would not grind to a halt. But it is unlikely that a similar network — a large, vertically structured organization capable of door-to-door delivery of advanced weapons and hardware — would emerge in its place.

Instead, the world of arms trafficking would return to the way it was during the Cold War. No single weapons broker could offer the full range of services that Bout does. There are several reasons why. For starters, the world is more aware of transnational threats today, and a new Bout would likely be spotted and stopped earlier in his career. Although Russia is still awash in weapons and aircraft, it is no longer the Wild West it was when Bout staked his claim in the early 1990s. Many areas of Africa are now so saturated with weapons (many of which were provided by Bout) that their value has dropped markedly. For example, the price of an AK-47 in the Niger Delta region has dropped from $250 to $75 in the past 18 months.

Future operators will likely have to create business models with more middlemen and fewer profits. The more steps there are between acquiring weapons and transporting them, the more opportunities there are for law enforcement or intelligence agencies to break up international weapons cartels. If the profitability of the weapons trade diminishes — in part because of the success of traffickers such as Bout in meeting the market demand — transporting weapons will be just one of several portfolios for illicit air merchants.

Like Bout, future gunrunners will probably have to rely on both legal and illegal cargoes. There is a severe airlift capacity deficit across the world, making ownership of aircraft as valuable as the weapons they carry. That means legitimate business should be economically viable and more competitive with illegal cargoes, though it will not do away with illicit transport networks. The transportation of valuable commodities such as diamonds, coltan, and timber will likely remain lucrative. Nowhere will that prove more true than in Africa, where corruption is endemic, the need to skirt the law for personal profit remains high, and the viability of truly legitimate operations is precarious.

That is not to say the weapons business will disappear; there are already people positioned to keep the arms pipeline moving. The leading arms smugglers of the future are likely to include some of Bout’s former business partners. One such person is Sanjivan Ruprah, who allegedly helped Bout broker several major weapons deals for Liberia’s former dictator Charles Taylor and arms for Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front. The 40-year-old Kenyan national is on the United Nations’ asset freeze list and travel ban for those deals. He was arrested twice (once in Belgium in February 2002 and then in Italy that August), but he skipped bail both times. Ruprah is currently at large (and back in business) in Africa.

He is only one of the many arms traffickers who would try to pick up where Bout left off. Dozens more are waiting in the wings. But none will have the clout or reach of Viktor Bout. "On their best days, [other arms dealers] couldn’t influence a war either way. They were peanuts," says one U.S. official who asked not to be identified because of ongoing investigations of Bout. "Bout could make or break a country." It may be some time before we see the likes of him again. 

Douglas Farah is a senior visiting fellow at the National Defense University's Center for Complex Operations. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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