The independent resource on global security

10. International arms transfers



I. Introduction

II. International arms transfers

III. International arms embargoes

IV. Reporting and transparency in arms transfers

V. Conclusions


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The global downward trend in international transfers of major weapons was reversed in 2003. Since then there has been an increase in the volume of major arms transfers as reflected in the SIPRI trend-indicator value. The change is also reflected in the financial values of global arms exports according to national reporting, which is estimated at $44–53 billion, or 0.5–0.6 per cent of world trade, in 2004, the most recent year for which data are available.


The five largest suppliers in the period 2001–2005 were Russia, the USA, France, Germany and the UK, in order according to the SIPRI trend-indicator value. The combined exports from EU member states made it the third largest exporter of major conventional weapons. Russia and the USA each accounted for roughly 30 per cent of global deliveries of major weapons. In 2005 the five largest suppliers accounted for over 80 per cent of total deliveries.


In the period 2001–2005, 43 per cent of Russia’s deliveries went to China and 25 per cent to India. China and India have become important to arms exporters because both are in a position to become economic powers and leaders in technology applications. The USA’s relations with India are today labelled ‘strategic’, and the US policy is to keep India and Japan strong in order to offset China’s rising regional influence. While the present volume of US transfers of major weapons to India is low, the USA seems prepared to offer the country advanced weaponry, including technology transfers and co-development of weapons. The four largest recipients of US exports in 2001–2005 were Greece, Israel, the UK and Egypt, in that order.


The search for new markets and the drive to maintain existing markets sharpen international competition. In some cases this supports commercial pragmatism in national implementations of export policy; that is, markets that are not subject to international embargoes are regarded as open markets. In parallel, there is evidence of political fatigue in some governments with regard to their commitment to transparency and the UN arms export reporting mechanism, the UNROCA. The UNROCA showed large discrepancies in reported data between exports and imports, and the criteria that different countries used to decide which weapons to report and how a ‘transfer’ is defined remain at variance. Transparency will suffer if a tendency for commercial pragmatism in national arms export policy spreads and reduces political willingness to report on national arms exports. At the same time, it remains difficult to interpret the data that are actually being reported.



Dr Björn Hagelin (Sweden) is the Leader of the SIPRI Arms Transfers Project.


Mark Bromley (UK) is a Research Associate with the SIPRI Arms Transfers Project.


Siemon T. Wezeman (Netherlands) is a Researcher with the SIPRI Arms Transfers Project.

Dr Mark Bromley and Siemon T. Wezeman