The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) has just released its annual analysis of global arms sales, and the top exporter, for the 23rd time in the past 25 years, is the United States, with 40 percent of the total trade for the five year period from 2018 to 2022. In all, the United States supplied weapons to 103 countries, more than half the nations on the planet.
In order to understand the importance of the SIPRI figures, it is important to know what they include and exclude. SIPRI rankings measure the volume of deliveries of major weapons systems, including aircraft, armored vehicles, artillery systems, combat ships, missiles (air-defense, anti-aircraft, and anti-tank), and bombs. They do not cover small arms and light weapons like firearms and smaller artillery systems, which are often weapons of choice in civil wars and among insurgent groups.
The top five suppliers — the United States (40%), Russia (16%), France (11%), China (5.2%), and Germany (4.2%) — accounted for over three-quarters of deliveries of major arms worldwide from 2018 to 2022. To the extent that there was any “great power competition” in arms deliveries, it was an extremely lopsided contest, with the U.S. exporting 2 and a half times as much as Russia and nearly eight times as much as China. Russian exports, which dropped by 31 percent from 2013-2017 to 2018 to 2022, are likely to fall further as the bulk of its arms production goes to the war in Ukraine and it loses clients due to sanctions tied to the conflict. Russian transfers are already highly concentrated, with nearly two-thirds going to just three countries: India (31%), China (23%), and Egypt (9.3%).
The total global trade decreased by over 5 percent from the prior five-year period, but sales to Europe (47%) and East Asia (21%) increased sharply. U.S. suppliers were the greatest beneficiaries of these regional trends. The U.S. was the top supplier to NATO states, at 65 percent for the period covered by the SIPRI report, followed far behind by France (8.6%) and South Korea (4.9%). The greatest increases in arms exports to East Asia were experienced by Japan (171%), South Korea (61%), and Australia (23%). The U.S. was the top supplier to each of these nations, at 97% to Japan, 71% to South Korea, and 73% to Australia.
Imports to other key regions fell significantly, ranging from a 8.8 percent drop to the Middle East to decreases of 21 percent, 40 percent, and 42 percent to South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia, respectively.
There were significant differences among recipients within each region. For example, in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia (-8.7%) and the United Arab Emirates (-38%) saw decreases while Qatar (+311%) and Kuwait (+146%) saw enormous increases, largely on the strength of imports of combat aircraft. According to SIPRI, Iran’s imports of major weapons systems were “close to zero.” Tehran has relied almost entirely on its domestic industry to equip its armed forces, and has been notable for its supply of drones to Russia for use in the war in Ukraine.
In South America, Brazil (44%) and Chile (24%) alone accounted for over two-thirds of all imports.
Africa is the only region where Russia was the top supplier, accounting for 40 percent of deliveries versus 16 percent for the United States. The most significant impact of Russia on the continent was not via arms sales per se but through the activities of the Russian-backed Wagner Group, which has backed repressive regimes and engaged in horrific human rights abuses.
While the bulk of the SIPRI report is about deliveries that have already occurred, it also made an effort to predict which nations would be top exporters and importers going forward, while acknowledging the uncertainties involved in such projections. For example, while Ukraine was the 14th largest arms importer for 2018 to 2022, accounting for 2 percent of the total global trade, for calendar year 2022 it ranked third, on the strength of deliveries made since the February 2022 Russian invasion of that country. Top suppliers to Ukraine in 2022 were the United States (35%), Poland (17%), Germany (11%), and the United Kingdom (10%).
As for the global picture over the next few years, the United States is poised to dominate once again, and perhaps increase its lead in arms deliveries. SIPRI estimates that the United States has 1,371 combat aircraft currently on order, compared with 210 for France, 94 for Russia, and 84 for China. For tanks and other armored vehicles, the U.S. has 3,059 orders yet to be delivered, followed by Italy at 1,703, and Germany at 1,526. China and Russia have orders for tanks and armored vehicles of 128 and 55, respectively.
Of course, the impacts of the global arms trade aren’t just about the volume of weapons delivered. The question is how those weapons are likely to be used, and the extent to which they promote stability versus fueling conflict or propping up repressive regimes with abysmal human rights records.
On this score the United States has much room for improvement. Transfers to Saudi Arabia and the UAE for use at the peak of their brutal war in Yemen, and sales to major human rights violators from the Philippines, Egypt, and Nigeria are a few examples of how U.S. arms deliveries can make the world a more dangerous place. There are a number of promising steps that Congress can take — as articulated by a new coalition, the Arms Sales Accountability Project — that would mandate closer scrutiny of U.S. sales.
There is also some useful language in the Biden administration’s new arms transfer policy directive, that, if implemented, would significantly rein in the most egregious sales. Only time will tell if U.S. policy can be moved towards one based on arms sales restraint rather than arms sales promotion.