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International arms transfers level off after years of sharp growth

On March 15, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SPRI) issued a new report on global arms transfers. It shows that international transfers of major arms stayed at the same level between 2011–15 and 2016–20. Substantial increases in transfers by three of the top five arms exporters—the USA, France and Germany—were largely offset by declining Russian and Chinese arms exports. Middle Eastern arms imports grew by 25 percent in the period, driven chiefly by Saudi Arabia (+61 percent), Egypt (+136 percent) and Qatar (+361 percent).
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The trend in international transfers of major arms, 1981–2020 (Table source: SIPRI)

For the first time since 2001–2005, the volume of deliveries of major arms between countries did not increase between 2011–15 and 2016–20. However, international arms transfers remain close to the highest level since the end of the cold war. ‘It is too early to say whether the period of rapid growth in arms transfers of the past two decades is over,’ said Pieter D. Wezeman, Senior Researcher with the SIPRI Arms and Military Expenditure Programme. ‘For example, the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic could see some countries reassessing their arms imports in the coming years. However, at the same time, even at the height of the pandemic in 2020, several countries signed large contracts for major arms.’

US, French and German exports rise, Russian and Chinese exports fall

The United States remains the largest arms exporter, increasing its global share of arms exports from 32 to 37 percent between 2011–15 and 2016–20. The USA supplied major arms to 96 states in 2016–20, far more than any other supplier. Almost half (47 percent) of US arms transfers went to the Middle East. Saudi Arabia alone accounted for 24 percent of total US arms exports. The 15 percent increase in US arms exports between 2011–15 and 2016–20 further widened the gap between the USA and the second-largest arms exporter Russia.

The third and fourth largest exporters also experienced substantial growth between 2011–15 and 2016–20. France increased its exports of major arms by 44 percent and accounted for 8.2 percent of global arms exports in 2016–20. India, Egypt and Qatar together received 59 percent of French arms exports.

Germany increased its exports of major arms by 21 percent between 2011–15 and 2016–20 and accounted for 5.5 percent of the global total. The top markets for German arms exports were South Korea, Algeria and Egypt.

Russia and China both saw their arms exports falling. Arms exports by Russia, which accounted for 20 percent of all exports of major arms in 2016–20, dropped by 22 percent (to roughly the same level as in 2006–10). The bulk—around 90 percent—of this decrease was attributable to a 53 percent fall in its arms exports to India.

‘Russia substantially increased its arms transfers to China, Algeria and Egypt between 2011–15 and 2016–20, but this did not offset the large drop in its arms exports to India,’ said Alexandra Kuimova, Researcher with the SIPRI Arms and Military Expenditure Programme. ‘Although Russia has recently signed new large arms deals with several states and its exports will probably gradually increase again in the coming years, it faces strong competition from the USA in most regions.’

Exports by China, the world’s fifth-largest arms exporter in 2016–20, decreased by 7.8 percent between 2011–15 and 2016–20. Chinese arms exports accounted for 5.2 percent of total arms exports in 2016–20. Pakistan, Bangladesh and Algeria were the largest recipients of Chinese arms.

Growing demand in the Middle East

The biggest growth in arms imports was seen in the Middle East. Middle Eastern states imported 25 percent more major arms in 2016–20 than they did in 2011–15. This reflected regional strategic competition among several states in the Gulf region. Saudi Arabia—the world’s largest arms importer—increased its arms imports by 61 percent and Qatar by 361 percent. Arms imports by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) fell by 37 percent, but several planned deliveries of major arms—including of 50 F-35 combat aircraft from the USA agreed in 2020—suggest that the UAE will continue to import large volumes of arms.

Egypt’s arms imports increased by 136 percent between 2011–15 and 2016–20. Egypt, which is involved in disputes with Turkey over hydrocarbon resources in the eastern Mediterranean, has invested heavily in its naval forces.

Turkey’s arms imports fell by 59 percent between 2011–15 and 2016–20. A major factor was the USA halting deliveries of F-35 combat aircraft to the country in 2019 after Turkey imported Russian air defense systems. Turkey is also increasing domestic production of major arms, to reduce its reliance on imports.

Imports by states in Asia and Oceania remain high

Asia and Oceania was the largest importing region for major arms, receiving 42 percent of global arms transfers in 2016–20. India, Australia, China, South Korea and Pakistan were the biggest importers in the region.

Japan’s arms imports increased by 124 percent between 2011–15 and 2016–20. Although Taiwan’s arms imports in 2016–20 were lower than in 2011–15, it placed several large arms procurement orders with the USA in 2019, including for combat aircraft.

‘For many states in Asia and Oceania, a growing perception of China as a threat is the main driver for arms imports,’ said Siemon T. Wezeman, Senior Researcher at SIPRI. ‘More large imports are planned, and several states in the region are also aiming to produce their own major arms.’

Arms imports by India decreased by 33 percent between 2011–15 and 2016–20. Russia was the most affected supplier, although India’s imports of US arms also fell, by 46 percent. The drop in Indian arms imports seems to have been mainly due to its complex procurement processes, combined with an attempt to reduce its dependence on Russian arms. India is planning large-scale arms imports in the coming years from several suppliers.

Other notable developments

* Arms exports by the United Kingdom dropped by 27 percent between 2011–15 and 2016–20. The UK accounted for 3.3 percent of total arms exports in 2016–20.
* Israeli arms exports represented 3.0 percent of the global total in 2016–20 and were 59 percent higher than in 2011–15.
* Arms exports by South Korea were 210 percent higher in 2016–20 than in 2011–15, giving it a 2.7 percent share of global arms exports.
* Between 2011–15 and 2016–20 there were overall decreases in arms imports by states in Africa (–13 percent), the Americas (–43 percent) and Asia and Oceania (–8.3 percent).
* Algeria increased its arms imports by 64 percent compared with 2011–15, while arms imports by Morocco were 60 percent lower.
* In 2016–20 Russia supplied 30 percent of arms imports by countries in sub-Saharan Africa, China 20 percent, France 9.5 percent and the USA 5.4 percent.
* China was the largest arms importer in East Asia, receiving 4.7 percent of global arms imports in 2016–20.
* Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have been building up their military capabilities through major arms imports in recent years. In 2016–20 Russia accounted for 94 percent of Armenian arms imports while Israel accounted for 69 percent of Azerbaijan’s arms imports.


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