The independent resource on global security

12. International arms transfers



I. Introduction

II. The suppliers and recipients

III. The impact of the Iraq war on future arms transfers

IV. Arms transfer reporting and transparency

V. Conclusions


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The downward trend in major arms transfers as measured by the SIPRI trend-indicator value appears to have been reversed. In both 2001 and 2003 there were clear increases in the volumes of major weapons delivered. Russia and the USA remain the major suppliers. Their main recipients were China and India (in the case of Russia) and Taiwan, Egypt, the UK, Greece, Turkey and Japan (in the case of the USA). A continued increase in US arms transfers will influence the global trend. However, domestic factors indicate that the level of Russian arms transfers is unlikely to remain high for very much longer. The future is uncertain for the other major suppliers because of international competition and remaining uncertainty about the future potential of European development and production. The relatively small suppliers of today could achieve short-term importance, as illustrated by Canada and Uzbekistan.


Events in Iraq in 2003 do not seem to have had a strong immediate impact on orders for or deliveries of major weapons. They seem instead to have supported decisions already made as a result of the war in Afghanistan. The operation in Iraq may have been carried out at a technical level beyond what most countries regard as relevant to their own defence policy or military strategy. That said, there are likely to be orders for new weapons such as precision-guided ‘beyond visual range’ missiles, ABM defence systems, UAVs and man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS). Since the war in Afghanistan MANPADS have been high on the international control agenda, but they may be in demand because they were among the more effective weapons in Afghanistan and Iraq.



Appendix 12A. The volume of transfers of major conventional weapons: by recipients and suppliers, 1999–2003




Appendix 12B. Register of the trade in and licensed production of major conventional weapons, 2003




Appendix 12C. Sources and methods for arms transfers data


Full text Appendix 12A, 12B, 12C [PDF].



Appendix 12D. Suppliers of ballistic missile technology


Full text Appendix 12D [PDF].



The proliferation of ballistic missiles has been viewed by Western countries as a problem for over 20 years. Several of the major and most problematic suppliers and recipients, such as China, Iran, North Korea and Syria, are among the most secretive countries in the world. Most reports of their activities are based on Israeli, United States or other Western intelligence sources and are virtually impossible to verify.


North Korean export-related income is very limited and arms sales provide an important part of it. Most North Korean weapons are outdated and uncompetitive, but the country has found a niche-market for its ballistic missiles. Giving up such exports, which are not illegal, would be a large economic sacrifice. Companies and persons from former Soviet republics are trading their products and knowledge for commercial reasons, but generally without state involvement or permission. Other exporters’ reasons may be more political. Chinese technology exports to Pakistan are more related to supporting an ally, as are US exports to the United Kingdom.


There may be steps in the direction of the development of very accurate ballistic missiles that could use conventional warheads more effectively. New navigation systems may dramatically improve accuracy without adding exceptional additional costs. GPS technology is widespread and other systems not dependent on signals from foreign satellites are also possible. However, the main urgency in the debate about missile proliferation arises from those missiles intended to deliver warheads armed with biological, chemical or nuclear payloads, especially nuclear warheads.


There has been some success in limiting the number of suppliers of ballistic missiles and related technology. This is partly linked to the fact that ballistic missiles—especially when they have ranges of over 1500 km, when problems of multiple stages and warhead re-entry are encountered—are fairly complicated systems which often require foreign help. That many of the key technologies required for ballistic missiles (e.g., fuel, warhead re-entry vehicles and engines) are quite distinct has also helped to control proliferation.


Importantly, some of the uncertainty about ballistic missile programmes, transfers and links between countries may soon be reduced. The ‘war on terrorism’ has increased controls on financial transactions and on the transfer and transportation of weapons and related materials. Revelations about and Western access to the Libyan and Iraqi ballistic missile programmes will increase understanding of the sources and mechanisms of ballistic missile proliferation. This may lead to improved controls and regulations, further limiting proliferation.



Dr Björn Hagelin (Sweden) is the Leader of the SIPRI Arms Transfers Project. Before joining SIPRI in 1998, he was a researcher and Associate Professor at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, for 10 years. Previously, he was a security analyst at the Swedish National Defence Research Institute. His publications include books, chapters and articles about security policy, the military industry, arms transfers and related topics. His recent publications include ‘Sweden's defence industry: from independence to uncertainty’ (in Russian), Eksport Vooruzheniy, vol. 37, no. 3 (May/June 2003). He contributed to Armament and Disarmament in the Caucasus and Central Asia, SIPRI Policy Paper No. 3 (July 2003), and to Arms Trade and Economic Development: Theory and Policy in Offsets (Routledge, 2004), edited by J. Brauer and J. P. Dunne.


Mark Bromley (United Kingdom) is a Research Associate on the SIPRI Arms Transfers Project. Previously, he worked for the British American Security Information Council (BASIC) in London.


Siemon T. Wezeman (Netherlands) is a Researcher on the SIPRI Arms Transfers Project. He has contributed to the SIPRI Yearbook since 1993. Among his publications are several relating to international transparency on arms transfers. His most recent publication is The Future of the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms, SIPRI Policy Paper No. 4 (August 2003).

Dr Mark Bromley and Siemon T. Wezeman