Italy became one of the major exporters of arms by the early 1980s,
behind only the United States, the Soviet Union, and France.
Although its position was later overtaken, it remained one of Europe's
main producers and suppliers, without the presence of pronounced
military and foreign policy ambitions at the state level. The military
industries grew as a result of Italy's close association with other
Western and in particular the American defence establishment
beginning in the late 1940s. The Italians had access to some of the most
advanced military technology through co-production and licence
arrangements with its senior allies. By the 1970s, the defence area
became the fastest growing sector of the Italian economy when markets
were exploited mainly in the Third World.
Although about two-thirds of the industry was state-owned,
Italian businessmen acted independently in selling arms through
Italian trade networks which thrived with very little government
direction or intervention. The absence of government assistance
actually appeared to favour the export of Italian weapons, because the
lack of interest in the sector also meant that Italy maintained perhaps
the most lenient export legislation in the West. As the industry
expanded, manufacturers availed themselves increasingly of
representatives of the foreign trade ministry, the secret services and
military attaches abroad in the promotion of Italian war equipment.
And as Italy came into the circle of the world's major economic
powers, its politicians attempted for a time to adopt the defence
industry a's a tool of international prestige. However supporters of the
industry did not resolve the contradiction between the low priority
Italy continued to give to defence and foreign policy, and the success of
the country's industrialists in supplying arms to areas of tension. As
business began to decline sharply in the late 1980s for Italy's defence
firms, industrialists turned to the possibility of reconversion programs.