Royal Saudi fighter jet, picture of pilot under canopy. Decals on jet say God Bless You and Royal Sau in Arabic and English

The UK’s Hidden Arms Sales

CAAT's new report reveals the likely true scale of the UK's arms exports, permitted under the secretive 'Open License' system

Last updated 14 July 2021

Open Licenses: Hiding the true scale of UK arms sales

What is the total value of the UK arms trade? How much profit does the UK make selling weapons around the world each year to different countries? The UK government claims to have the most ‘rigorous and robust’ arms export controls in the world, but the truth is, it doesn’t record enough information on arms sales to answer even these basic questions.

When media reports quote UK arms sales, they usually refer to arms licensed through a ‘Single’ Licence, which allows a company to export a fixed amount of specific equipment to one country, for two years. However, companies that register and fulfil certain conditions can qualify for exports under the ‘Open Licence’ system, which gives prior approval to export an unlimited amount of equipment from a range of categories, often to a long list of countries, and the license is valid indefinitely. With no information on the specific quantity or cost of equipment exported, or on the companies involved, Open Licenses obscure the reality of UK arms sales, and prevent any meaningful scrutiny of the UK’s involvement in arming violence around the world.

In fact, CAAT estimates that the majority of arms exports licensed by the UK government are likely supplied via these secretive licences, which means official figures on UK arms exports only tell part of the story.

For example, since the bombing of Yemen began in March 2015, the UK has approved £6.8 billion of “single” licences to the Saudi regime, including licenses for aircraft, bombs and missiles. However, CAAT estimates that total UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia over that period amounted to well over £20 billion. In total, from 2010-19, the UK approved £40.7 billion in single licences for permanent arms exports; yet, over the same period, arms export contracts worth £85.9 billion were signed by UK companies, according to the very limited information provided by UK Defence & Security Exports.

Aside from this yawning gap in transparency, the Open Licence system has other harmful consequences in the way it facilitates the arms trade. For example, it allows the government to create the illusion of control when it comes under public pressure, by halting new licences (for example to a country in conflict) while allowing the majority of sales to continue to flow, through existing Open Licences.

What is CAAT calling for?

CAAT and its supporters want to see a world without arms sales, where the UK does not profit from the sale of weapons that fuel conflict and repression. As we work towards an end to the open license system for exports of military equipment, we need:

  • Clear and transparent reporting of arms exports across all types of licences, single and open.
  • No open licenses for the export of military equipment to countries in conflict or with poor human rights records, to ensure effective scrutiny of the UK’s role in arming abuses.
  • All existing licences – especially open licenses – to be suspended or revoked if conflict or human rights abuses occur, not just stopping new licences.

The UK government may claim to be a global leader on transparency in arms exports, but as long as the widespread use of Open Licences continues, the true nature of the UK arms trade will remain hidden from scrutiny.

Read the full report

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