How big is the arms trade – and where can I find out more?
The arms trade is notoriously secretive and opaque. Some countries, such as China, give no arms exports information at all. Others provide the bare minimum – maybe disclosing total figure for annual sales, but not what is sold or to whom. The US, the UK and members of the EU generally provide the most, but also leave serious gaps.
One of the best information sources on the trade is the SIPRI Arms Transfers Database, compiled by our friends at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). It provides records of all international “major conventional weapons” transfers worldwide, plus measures of transfer volumes globally and between individual countries. However, since the price agreed often remains hidden, these are necessarily based on SIPRI’s own measure of the value of equipment transferred.
SIPRI makes a separate estimate of the financial value of the global arms trade, which was at least $95 billion in 2017. A 2018 paper by CAAT Researcher Sam Perlo-Freeman gave a similar estimate, with a range of $88-$105 billion as the average annual total from 2012 to 2016. His paper also explains the gaps in the data for different countries and why there is so much uncertainty in the true figure.
What about the UK?
The best information source on UK arms exports is CAAT’s UK Arms Export Licence database, which draws info from the Government’s own database, but makes it much more user-friendly. It details the licences the UK government grants to companies to export military and dual-use equipment abroad.
According to this data, the UK granted licences to a value of £47 billion between 2008-2019. However, this only includes standard, or “single individual” export licences, allowing for one delivery of a fixed quantity and value to a specific customer. There are also, however, opaque “open” licences – some also covered by the database – allowing for multiple unlimited deliveries over 3-5 years, with no financial value specified. Thus, much of the value of UK arms exports is not disclosed.
The Government’s UK Defence and Security Exports (UKDSE), a branch of the Department for International Trade dedicated to promoting UK arms exports, provides separate figures for the value of UK companies’ arms exports. This includes equipment and services sold using open licences, so gives a better picture of the total. However, it provides very little detail: no information on how much is sold to each country or types of equipment sold, as can be found in the export licence data.
According to UKDSE’s most recent figures, the value of UK arms export contracts from 2009-2018 was £82 billion, meaning the £47 billion figure for 2008-2019 may be only around half the true value. This compares to just £40 billion for all other standard UK export licences, covering both goods and services, over the same period.
Based on the UKDSE figures, the Government usually claims the UK is the world’s second biggest arms exporter after the US. In fact, there is a lot of data uncertainty, making it hard to assess whether the UK or Russia is second at any given time.
The best source of information on arms exports from the United States, as well as military aid and training, is the Security Assistance Monitor, produced by the Center for International Policy.
SIPRI keeps a database of official reports on arms exports produced by different countries and organisations. The amount and quality of information provided by different countries varies enormously.