The independent resource on global security

7. International arms transfers


I. Introduction

II. Major trends in international arms transfers

III. Major supplier developments, 2007

IV. Arms transfers to South America

V. International arms transfers to conflict zones: Afghanistan and Sudan

VI. Conclusions


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Approximately 80 per cent of the volume of exports of major conventional weapons for the period 2003–2007 were accounted for by the five largest suppliers—the USA, Russia, Germany, France and the UK. Although these five suppliers are likely to continue to account for an overwhelmingly large share of international arms transfers, concerns were expressed in 2007 regarding the export prospects for French and Russian major conventional weapons.


Asia, Europe and the Middle East continued to be the largest recipient regions for the period 2003–2007. The largest recipient countries were China, India, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Greece and South Korea. However, 2007 gave the first signs of a potentially significant change among the largest recipients, with decreased deliveries to and orders by China. The largest suppliers to Asia and the Middle East will continue to engage in intense competition for export orders, with Libya and Saudi Arabia likely to become large recipients once again.


SIPRI data show the volume of international arms transfers to South America in the period 2003–2007 to be 47 per cent higher than in 1998–2002. Despite attention-grabbing headlines and some evidence of competitive behaviour (e.g. the nature and timing of acquisitions by Brazil, Columbia and Venezuela), it seems unlikely that South America is in the midst of a classically defined arms race. Acquisitions have been primarily motivated by efforts to replace or upgrade military inventories in order to maintain existing capabilities; to respond to predominantly domestic security threats; to strengthen ties with supplier governments; to enhance domestic arms industry capability; or to bolster regional or international profile.


Arms suppliers meet the demand for weapons that a conflict creates for a number of reasons: to gain political and economic influence, to substitute for an interested external party’s direct military presence and to meet the powerful economic pressures to sell arms. The international transfer of arms to conflict zones in Afghanistan and Sudan illustrates a number of related tendencies. First, UN arms embargoes imposed on armed non-state actors have thus far failed to stop their arms acquisitions. Second, major arms suppliers have been willing to show their support for the government in a conflict zone by directly supplying it with arms. Third, internationally sanctioned peacekeeping operations often struggle to obtain suitable arms and military equipment.



Dr Paul Holtom (United Kingdom) is a Researcher with the SIPRI Arms Transfers Project.


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


Pieter D. Wezeman (Netherlands) is a Researcher with the SIPRI Arms Transfers Project.

Paul Holtom, Dr Mark Bromley and Pieter D. Wezeman