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7. International arms transfers


I. Overview

II. Major trends in international arms transfers

III. Arms transfers and war: Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers

IV. Conclusions

Figure 7.1. The trend in international transfers of major conventional weapons, 1999–2008


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Since 2005 there has been an upward trend in deliveries of major conventional arms. The annual average for 2004–2008 was 21 per cent higher than for 2000–2004.


The United States and Russia remained by far the largest exporters, followed by Germany, France and the United Kingdom. Together these five countries accounted for 79 per cent of the volume of exports for 2004–2008. They have been the top five suppliers since the end of the cold war and have accounted for at least three-quarters of all exports annually.


East Asia, Europe and the Middle East continued to be the largest recipient regions for 2004–2008, each accounting for about 20 per cent of all imports. China remained the single largest recipient for the period 2004–2008, followed by India, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), South Korea and Greece.


China has been a major recipient of weapons since the early 1990s and has been the largest importer for several years. Most Chinese arms imports originate from Russia. However, Russian deliveries to China dropped significantly in 2007 and 2008. China has used its access to Russian technology to develop indigenous weapons, in some cases using illegally copied Russian components. Both countries agreed in 2008 to abide by intellectual property laws specifically for military equipment.


India is seen as probably the most important single country market for weapons in the near future. A large part of Indian arms imports also originates from Russia. Based on current orders Russia will remain India’s most important supplier. However, Russian demands for increased payments for weapons on order and quality problems with delivered weapons have soured relations. Unlike China, India has the option of using other suppliers, such as France, Israel or the UK. Recently, relations with the USA have improved and two large orders for high-tech US weapons were signed in 2008.


The war between the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers) demonstrates how even small deliveries of weapons and ammunition can have a major negative impact. Acquisition of a few maritime systems gave the government the ability to stop arms smuggling by the LTTE. Together with imports of stocks of ammunition this changed the military balance in favour of the government to the extent that it could decide to aim for a military solution, leading to one of the bloodiest conflicts of 2008.



Siemon T. Wezeman (Netherlands) is a Senior Fellow with the SIPRI Arms Transfers Programme.


Mark Bromley (United Kingdom) is a Researcher with the SIPRI Arms Transfers Programme.


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


Siemon T. Wezeman, Dr Mark Bromley and Pieter D. Wezeman