War is not easily waged without the necessary hardware: no country could maintain and employ its armed forces without military equipment, weapons and ammunition. Many states purchase these products from national arms producers. But what if there are no arms manufacturers in the country or if they do not have the necessary capacities to produce particularly sophisticated, modern weapons systems? In such a case, military goods have to be exported from abroad, i,e, have to be purchased on the international defense market.
According to an estimate by the Swedish peace research institute SIPRI, global arms trade in 2009 amounted to approx. US $51.1 trillion (see Holtom & Bromley 2010). After a slight drop in the volume of international weapons deals after the end of the Cold War, which reached a low in the mid-1990s, there has been a rapid expansion in the last few years. Spurred on by a global increase in military expenditures, the arms trade today stands at nearly the same high level as it did during the time of the East West antagonism.
Statistics show that the largest arms exporters are generally wealthy countries or countries with a large and technically advanced arms industry. According to SIPRI, between 2005 and 2009, these were the United States, Russia, Germany, France, and Great Britain—all members of the G-8, i.e. the largest industrial nations in the world. More than 50 percent of all weapons traded worldwide are exported from the United States and Russia. Looking at the largest importers of defense equipment, a different picture emerges. The so-called threshold countries, that is, comparatively less wealthy countries with rapidly growing economies, were the most important countries in terms of the total volume of imported weapons. The leading countries are China and India that, according to SIPRI, were the largest importers of defense equipment in the world between 2005 and 2009. In parallel to the purchase of weapons, these two countries had also massively increased their military budgets in the past few years.
A 2009 study by the US Congessional Research Service (CRS) identified that between 2001 and 2008, 65 percent of all international weapons deliveries went to developing countries. This, too, shows that the general trend in the global defense market is for rich industrial nations to export weapons and defense equipment to poorer countries.
Very poor countries, such as in Sub Saharan Africa cannot be found in the first ranks of the GMI as they cannot afford any particularly expensive or sophisticated weapons. However, these countries that generally do not have a national arms industry are most dependent on arms imports. This also holds true of so-called non-state actors who have played an increasingly important role in the wars of the past two decades. Especially in the poorer regions of the world, many wars are only made possible by the international defense market.
Some efforts are made to contain the potentially destabilising effects of the international trade in weapons. Indeed, the most direct measures are sanctions that prohibit recipient countries to import defense equipment. Since the end of the Cold War, the UN Security Council, for instance has imposed an embargo on a number of countries, such as Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Liberia, Libya, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Sudan.
A rather more indirect way of controlling the trade in weapons is the attempt to exclude possible customers from such business cycles that enable them to purchase weapons on the international market. Poor states and non-state groups in particular can often only obtain weapons by exchanging them for natural resources. ‘Blood diamonds’, whose extraction and sale has financed many civil wars in the African region, are a prominent example. Sanctions can take effect here, too, like a UN embargo imposed in 2003 on Liberia, which forbade the export of diamonds. Since 2003, an international certification scheme for diamonds has been in place, the Kimberley Process. This system is to ensure that the precious stones traded on the international markets do not originate from areas of (civil) war.
The international trade in weapons can also be controlled from the export-side. In 1996, the largest arms exporting countries, amongst them the United States and Russia, met in a suburb of The Hague and agreed on the Wassenaar Arrangement, which comprised a comprehensive list of all military goods that were to be subject to strict export controls, and a joint declaration of the now 40 Member States affirming their commitment to not export weapons should their delivery endanger “international security and stability.”
In 1998, a more concrete Code of Conduct on Arms Exports within the European Union was adopted, which became even more important in 2008 when it was expanded into a Common Position. It lists eight criteria that are to be taken into account when granting arms export licenses. One of the criteria is the adherence to human rights and the internal political situation in a recipient country (see http://ruestungsexport.info).
The latest initiative on an improved control of the cross-border trade in military equipment goes back to a decision of the UN General Assembly of 2006 to establish an international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). After long discussions in the international community on the exact and final terms of this treaty, it was finally adopted on 2 April 2013. Since then, 130 states have signed the treaty and 69 states have ratified it (state June 2015), and the Treaty entered into force on 24 December 2014. The Treaty will apply to battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, large-caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopter, warships, missiles and missile launchers, and small arms and light weapons (SALW).
In view of the currently valid regulation efforts it is finally possible to distinguish between legal and illegal international weapons trade. While legal trade has to adhere to national and international control regimes, the illegal trade tries to circumvent or subvert them. This differentiation however is not intended to detract from the fact that as a matter of course ‘legal’ sales of weapons also enable and fuel wars. As non-governmental organisations have repeatedly pointed out, there are gaps in existing regulatory mechanisms. A ‘legal’ export can easily end up in black or ‘grey’ markets.