Global trade in weapons - Overview and current dynamics

The global trade in weapons has an estimated volume of between US $40 and 50 billion per year. According to figures of the Swedish peace research institute SIPRI, the international market for arms grew by 24 per cent between 2007 and 2011 compared to the period 2002 and 2006.

The largest exporters

The United States, Russia, Germany, France and Great Britain have been the five largest weapons exporting countries of the past years. According to SIPRI, about 75 per cent of all exports of weapons were achieved by these five states between 2007 and 2011. Two countries were responsible for more than 50 per cent of global weapon exports, with the United States accounting for 30 and Russia for 24 per cent.

A 20111 study by the US American Congressional Research Service (CRS) came to a similar result. According to this study, the US weapons industry entered into international weapons deals in 2010 that amounted to US $21.3 billion—globally the highest financial volume. Russia's weapons industry followed with some distance, with business transactions amounting to over US $7.8 billion. The United States and Russia are also the largest exporters of weapons to poorer countries and regions. According to the CRS study, between 2007 and 2010, 60.8 per cent of US and Russian arms deals were closed with customers in development countries (amounting to US $109.1 billion).

A remarkable development of the past few years is the rise of China as important exporting country on the international arms market. While Chinese arms imports dropped slightly, exports from 2007 to 2011 rose compared to between 2002 and 2006 by 95 per cent.

The largest importers

SIPRI earmarks India, South Korea, Pakistan, China and Singapore as the five largest arms importers between 2007 and 2011. While India alone is responsible for 10 per cent, the top five together are responsible for 30 per cent of all global weapons purchases.

With 13 per cent, the growth rate of weapons purchases in Europe between 2002 and 2006 as well as between 2007 and 2011 are below the global average. Greece has been the largest European arms importer of the past years (globally on position 10 or recipients), purchasing mostly high-speed boats from Great Britain, military helicopters from France and submarines from Germany.

Developing countries are the largest and most important group of buyers for arms. According to the CRS study, between 2003 and 2010, an average of three of four arms deliveries went to a developing country (72.9 per cent to be more exact). The most relevant recipient countries in absolute figures are often so-called threshold countries with quickly growing economies. BRIC-countries (China, Russia, India, Brazil and South Africa) are particularly prominent. Brazil only just agreed on larger arms deals with France and Italy, and it is expected that its arms imports will markedly increase in the coming years. South Africa is the largest arms importer in Sub-Saharan Africa. More than half of South Africa's imports of the past few years originated in Germany (two submarines and two frigates).

It is noticeable that many of the largest arms buyers are parties to interstate wars or conflicts. Data from SIPRI confirm the arms race between India (position one of the largest arms importers between 2007 and 2011) and Pakistan (position three). The armament of South Korea (position two) is due, amongst others, to ongoing tensions with its neighbour in the north.

The Middle East is another important region for arms imports . The average share of military expenditures in a country's gross domestic product is the highest of all regions in the world. According to SIPRI, in Syria alone, weapons imports rose between 2002 and 2006 and between 2007 and 2011 by 580 per cent. Country of origin for 78 per cent of these imports was Russia. Saudi Arabia has also been extensively increasing its armaments for many years. From the year 2000 to 2010, military expenditures in the country rose by 63 per cent; most recently by US $1.6 billion between 2009 and 2010. In 2011, Saudi Arabia and US companies agreed on an arms deal worth about US $60 billion. The deal included the supply with 84 new and the modernization of 70 existing combat aircraft type F-15. It has been the largest arms deal for decades in terms of the contract volume.

Data on the global arms trade

The most important official source on global arms transfers is the weapons register of the United Nations. Since 1991, many countries have provided information on some of the weapons systems that they have im- or exported. The United Nations publishes the data collected there on the Internet and in other sources (see link below). But not all arms are recorded in the register. Information on small arms and light weapons is incomplete. Besides, certainly not all countries participate in the reporting. Less than half report to the United Nations on a regular basis.

In 1998, EU member countries agreed that they would publish an arms exports report on an annual basis that provides detailed information on arms exports granted according to financial value, armament and recipient country. These reports are much more detailed and comprehensive than data in the UN weapons register. A compilation of all national reports is published on a regular basis by the EU Council working party on conventional arms exports (COARM)—see link below.

Research institutes also publish data on the global arms trade on a regular basis. The two most important sources of information are the SIPRI weapons database that systematically evaluates official reports and information from the press and journals and the CRS study on conventional weapons transfers to developing countries.

Sources and further information:

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