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Government support

The UK arms trade would not be possible without the unwavering support of the UK Government. It does not just oversee the arms trade. It is an active participant, working to promote and secure arms deals around the world, with little regard for the impact of these sales.

Last updated 11 March 2022

The UK arms trade would not be possible without the unwavering support of the UK Government. The government does not just oversee the arms trade; it is an active participant.

The government is supposed to ‘control’ the export of military equipment from the UK, but there is a fundamental conflict between this role, and its focus on promoting the sale of weaponry.

There are lots of ways in which the government supports the arms trade

  • The UK has an entire arms sales unit within government, dedicated to promoting weapons purchase to whoever will buy.
  • The UK government helps organise arms fairs, events which facilitate international arms deals
  • The UK government provides insurance for companies making arms deals, in case the buyer doesn’t pay
  • The arms industry has special access to government, and people often move between government positions and roles in arms companies.

Every year the UK Government authorises the sale of arms to well over 100 countries across the globe.

Arms ‘control’

The government is responsible for ‘controlling’ the export of military equipment from the UK. Companies must apply to the government for permission to export military equipment and the government should assess applications against its export guidelines.

These rules say that sales should not be allowed when there is a clear risk that the items might be used for internal repression or in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law, or where they would provoke or prolong armed conflicts.

The government continues to insist that the UK has one of the most rigorous arms export control regimes in the world. Yet UK-made arms are supplied to countries in conflict, often to both sides, and to countries engaged in internal repression. The government has licensed the sale of billions of pounds of weaponry to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, despite overwhelming evidence of repeated breaches of international humanitarian law.

Unfortunately, the government’s focus is on securing further business, not controlling arms sales.

Government arms sales unit

The Government’s Department of International Trade’s UK Defence and Security Exports unit is a vital part of the UK’s arms industry. It exists solely to help the arms and security industries sell their products around the world.

It employs over 100 civil servants and military staff to work with arms companies to boost exports. Civil servants and government ministers work hand-in-hand with arms companies to maximise sales.

As Bob Keen, the Head of Government Relations at BAE Systems, explained:

It simply is not possible to do a major defence deal without fundamental government support.

stated to the House of Commons Defence Committee, 2016

Arms Fairs

One way that the Government promotes the arms trade is by supporting arms fairs. These give arms dealers the chance to meet and greet military delegations, government officials, other arms companies and a host of individual visitors.

Unsurprisingly, the guest lists for arms fairs frequently include regimes who abuse human rights, and countries actively involved in armed conflicts. The biggest of these is the Defence & Security Equipment International (DSEI) arms fair that happens every two years in London.

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Warning arms trade at work this is not OK tape in front of an office door near Westminster

Government arms promotion unit

The UK government has its own export promotion unit. UK Defence & Security exports is a government body that uses public money to help the arms and security industries sell their products around the world.

A Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jet being viewed by arms dealers with a BAE Systems logo in the background

Arms fairs

Arms fairs are major events that are crucial to the smooth-running of the arms trade. They promote weapons sales by giving arms dealers the chance to meet and greet military delegations, government officials, other arms companies and a host of individual visitors.

Eurofighter Typhoon large outdoor poster captioned Effective, proven, trusted. Flats behind include German, Spain, Italy UK

Export Credits

One important way in which the government supports the arms trade is by providing insurance for arms deals. UK Export Finance (UKEF) guarantees that companies and banks involved in an export deal will not lose out if the overseas buyer does not pay, or makes late payments.

Arms industry within government

Arms companies have long enjoyed a close relationship with the Government, giving them immense influence over government decision-making.

There are many opportunities for arms companies to gain access to and influence the Government:

  • from the thousands of hours of meetings,
  • to the revolving door between companies, military and government,
  • to the industry bodies within government itself

This means there is unquestioning governmental support for arms exports.

Special Treatment

The political influence of arms companies and the military has also committed the UK to heavy expenditure on large items of military equipment, including aircraft carriers, fighter aircraft and Trident. This is another area where arms companies also get special treatment from government.

Although arms companies are privately owned, multinational businesses, the government provides funding for the Research & Development of weapons systems and absorbs most of the risk of cost overruns on major programmes. Many key arms purchases are shielded from foreign competition.

Key statistics


Government employees of DSE are dedicated to supporting arms exports

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"Revolvers" have moved from top government positions to the arms industry

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Percentage of BAE’s contracts with the Ministry of Defence, by value, awarded without competition, 2010/11-2014/15

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