US led global arms exports last year, study says

The United States was the biggest exporter of weapons last year, followed by Russia, but China is on the rise. Weapons imports in the Middle East are also showing an increase, fueled by regional conflicts. 

Khaled Abdullah/Reuters/File
An arms dealer holds a pistol in his shop at an arms market in Arhab, about 25 miles north of the Yemeni capital Sanaa (February 28, 2013).

The world shows no sign of letting up on a love affair with guns.

That’s one takeaway from a report released Monday by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which looks at data on the global arms trade from the past five years.

The US continues to be the world’s major arms supplier, contributing 33 percent of the share of total weapons exports. The number of weapons exported from the US between 2011 and 2015 also rose up by 27 percent from 2006 to 2010.

“As regional conflicts and tensions continue to mount, the USA remains the leading global arms supplier by a significant margin,” Dr. Aude Fleurant, Director of the SIPRI Arms and Military Expenditure Program, said in a press release.

The worldwide arms trade is highly lucrative, totaling more than $70 billion per year. The United Nations reports that the trade of small arms and light weapons has both an economic and a human cost; it is a major factor in many of the world’s large and small conflicts.  

While the United States continues to dominate global weapons sales, Russia comes up as a close second, holding 25 percent of global exports. Russia’s exports in the five-year period between 2011 and 2015 also increased by 28 percent from between 2006 to 2010.  

China’s arms trade has also exploded as it continues to shift its role from importer to exporter. The country’s arms exports between 2011 and 2015 grew 88 percent since between 2006 and 2010.

Edward Clifford, of the Brown Political Review, has written that China uses weapons as one tool of exchange for raw resources when it builds up infrastructure in other countries. China has also focused on building out its own military capabilities as it flexes its muscles in the South China Sea.

Siemon Wezeman, Senior Researcher with the SIPRI Arms and Military Expenditure Program, told Reuters, "The Chinese until ten years ago were only able to offer low tech equipment. That has changed. The equipment that they produce is much more highly advanced than ten years ago, and attracts interest from some of the bigger markets."  

The biggest recipients of Chinese weaponry are countries in Asia and Oceania, with Pakistan, one of China’s key allies in the region, receiving 35 percent of the share.

But the Middle East is quickly becoming the world’s largest importer of weapons. Saudi Arabia is the second-largest weapons importer globally, and the region as a whole saw imports increase by 61 percent in 2011-15 versus the prior five years. SIPRI analysts project that that trend is likely to continue.

“A coalition of Arab states is putting mainly US- and European-sourced advanced arms into use in Yemen,” Pieter Wezeman, Senior Researcher with the SIPRI Arms and Military Expenditure Program, said in the news release. “Despite low oil prices, large deliveries of arms to the Middle East are scheduled to continue as part of contracts signed in the past five years.”

The SIPRI report draws upon a database of information regarding international weapons transfers between states, to international organizations, and between armed non-state groups dating back to the 1950s. The data collected, which is presented in five-year bundles to reflect more stability among trends, follows the volume of arms deliveries and not their financial value.   

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