Conventional weapons are the mainstay of all modern military forces. To make sense of the great variety and differences within this category, we need to distinguish between platforms and munitions. Platforms are means by which munitions — explosives, projectiles or sensors — are brought to an effective use. Platforms may be ships, planes, trucks, armoured vehicles or people.
Conventional weapons today rely almost wholly on chemical explosions to attain their effect, whether as a propellant or an explosive producing blast and shrapnel.
Tanks and armoured vehicles: There are two basic types of armoured platforms: a) Tanks, invented in World War I and still used extensively today, are composed of a vehicle (tracked or wheeled) with very thick steel or composite armour (600mm thick in some tanks) that carries a number of guns ranging from heavy 120mm munitions fired by a single main gun, to several lighter machine guns and b) armoured personnel carriers (APCs) with less armour and no main gun, intended to carry infantry into and through the battlefield. All armoured vehicles are very large to accommodate a powerful engine, a heavy gun, and all the armour. They are, as a consequence also very heavy (around 60 tonnes for tanks, about half that for APCs) which limits transportability and driving range. They are also very expensive (between 500,000 and three million euros, depending on type and make). Their ability to move through a battlefield under fire and to use powerful munitions also makes them very destructive and difficult to stop.
Artillery consists of large calibre weapons intended for long range effect. To do this, they project a munition to lesser (2–3 km) or greater (150 km and up) distances. Artillery also comes in various calibres ranging from 2.75-inch (approx.. 70mm) rockets to massive 600mm rockets. There are two fundamentally different types of artillery: tube artillery and rocket artillery.
Tube artillery consists of a steel tube, through which is propelled a shell: an aerodynamic case containing explosives, chemicals producing smoke or light, or submunitions. Modern tube artillery ranges in calibre from 52mm infantry mortars to 210mm field artillery. Heavier tube artillery is often self-propelled: The tube is mounted on a platform like a tank.
Rockets and missiles are more expensive per projectile, but they are often easier to transport and can be fired from lighter platforms. Rocket artillery is becoming more common as cheaper and smaller electronic guidance mechanisms have become available. Missiles consist of an integrated warhead, a motor and a guidance system. Both rockets and missiles can be fired in ripples—several rockets fired almost simultaneously from the same platform.
Small arms and light weapons (SALW)
Small arms and light weapons are the most common weapons in all armies. The infantry uses them to defend guns, tanks, etc. They are relatively cheap, easy to transport and—in close combat or urban warfare—in short distances highly effective.
Autonomous or remote controlled robotic systems, such as unmanned aerial vehicles, so-called drones, unmanned naval surface vessels or unmanned ground vehicles are relative newcomers to the battlefield. Robots are entering modern military and police arsenals in growing numbers for tasks ranging from bomb disposal through observation and intelligence at all levels, and, more recently, as weapon platforms used to attack enemies using small missiles or even ‘suicide’ tactics, crashing the robot onto an enemy.
Mines and cluster munitions
The term landmine refers to anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines. Anti-personnel mines kill or injure enemy fighters while anti-vehicle mines are intended to stop vehicles and their passengers from driving on or to destroy them. Landmines are made of plastic, metal or other materials and contain explosives or, at times, splinters. They are buried just beneath the surface so that they are not detected. In general, they are triggered by the victims themselves. The perfidious idea behind the use of these mines is that they are intended to badly wound the enemy soldiers rather than killing them. They are cheap and easy to produce; production costs of one anti-personnel landmine is one estimated US dollar. It costs more than US $1,000, however, to find and destroy a mine that has been laid.
A cluster bomb is a metal container that holds hundreds of small explosive charges (bomblets) Cluster bombs are dropped from an aircraft or fired from rocket launchers from the ground. When they have opened in the air, they release their small charges that spread over an area of multiple football pitches (several hundred hectares) and explode upon impact on the ground. They are highly effective weapons against tanks and the infantry. As an offensive weapon, they are intended to kill directly. Yet, what is particularly insidious is the fact that about five to 30 per cent of the bomblets fail to explode on impact but litter the ground, creating an effect of a large minefield. This may have technical reasons or be due to the nature of the ground, as surfaces that are too soft (snow, mud, water or vegetation) prevent the fuse from being activated. In this case, cluster bombs have the same effect as landmines that explode at the slightest touch and also are a great danger to civilians.
Conventional weapons are manufactured by virtually all industrialized, and many less-developed states throughout the world. In terms of mass volume, SALW are manufactured in larger numbers than any other type. In terms of cash, however, larger items such as tanks, artillery, and logistics systems which supply them, are far more profitable. Larger items are also more difficult to manufacture, and fewer countries are able to produce them. Tanks are manufactured, for example, by no more than 25 countries (many of whom merely assemble tank components made in other countries). Rockets and missiles, as well as robots, which require very accurate manufacturing and advanced technology, are only manufactured by small numbers of states. As a consequence of the high price of manufacturing, states who manufacture conventional weapons often try to sell their products abroad, to defray the costs of development and manufacture.
Traders and brokers
Weapons are traded all over the world. To a great extent, the flow of trade is from industrialized countries—Europe, North America, Ukraine, Russia, China, Israel, Brazil, South Africa—to less industrialized countries. The largest arms exporters worldwide are the United States, Russia, Germany, France, China, Israel and Great Britain. However, notably where it comes to SALW, less developed countries have also gotten into the act: North Korea, Iran, Colombia, and Burma all export significant amounts of weapons through public, open channels, or clandestinely. Trade volumes are unknown in detail (most countries refuse to publish accurate arms export statistics) but are estimated at several tens of billions US dollars per year, and growing.
In addition to the official (and sometimes published) arms trade between states, there are so-called grey and black markets. These are generally the trading places of shadowy weapons brokers. These individuals or firms purchase arms from one country on behalf of another or to supply one or both sides in a conflict. Even though transactions on the grey market are clandestine, they are not illegal. Black market transactions, on the other hand, are transactions in weapon types that are forbidden (e.g. anti-personnel mines or anti-aircraft missiles) or to nations under an international embargo (e.g. to Zimbabwe, Iran). No one knows the precise volume of the black or grey market, though occasional trades, such as tanks to South Sudan, or brokers, such as the infamous Russian broker Viktor Bout, come to light in the press.