A world awash in weapons

By Tara Sonenshine, Professor of Practice of Public Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University

Weapons and war go together, so it is not surprising that Russia is scouring the world for its own re-supply effort as the war in Ukraine drags on. But what’s surprising is just how many arms are being traded, sold, smuggled and supplied in every corner of the globe today.

We live in a world that’s awash in weapons. In 2021 alone, 32 armed conflicts raged around the globe.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which has been tracking arms and security for over 50 years, arms sales and military services by the defense industry’s 100 largest companies totaled $531 billion in 2020 — an increase of 1.3 percent in real terms from the previous year. For some companies, profits are 17 percent higher this year than in 2015, marking the sixth consecutive year of growth in arms sales by the top manufacturers.

One large defense company, Northrop Grumman, has seen its stock go up by as much as 20 percent since the war in Ukraine began. Others like BAE Systems have seen shares rise by as much as 32 percent. Lockheed Martin has seen an increase of 14 percent.

And whereas the United States and NATO are doing much of the heavy lifting in terms of moving sophisticated weapons systems to the battlefield in Ukraine, other countries are also doing banner business.

Israel, for example, is seeing record-breaking demand for its weapons systems, with exports last year of $11.3 billion, up from $8.3 billion in 2021. That includes missiles, rockets and air-defense systems as well as unmanned aerial vehicles, drones and high-end electronic warfare equipment.

The British government has given Ukraine over $132 million-worth of weapons and other equipment to help Ukrainian forces fend off the Russians.

What has been changing is not just the volume of weapons but the speed with which they are in flight. In the case of Ukraine, the United States has been ramping up delivery even faster than Ukrainians can be trained. One recent arms package made it to the battlefield in five days.

Another major shift involves Russia, which accounts for about one-fifth of global arms sales. With Moscow bogged down in Ukraine, Russian weapons exports to places like Africa are down. According to SIPRI, Russia accounts for nearly half of major arms exports to countries like Algeria, Egypt, Sudan and Angola.

So, what’s the downside of robust weapon sales especially if they help Ukraine win its conflict?

First, it difficult to monitor who has weapons. Beyond legitimate defense companies lies a vast network of illegal arms traffickers benefitting from the volume in global arms trading. That can include large drug cartels and small criminals.

Second, when arms deals are done fast, rules can be broken. Government control is critical to avoiding the misuse of weapons that contain chemicals or biological agents. Countries have spent decades building a non-proliferation regime that could be undermined.

Third is the fundamental question of who is selling arms to whom. According to the 2021 SIRPI report, 10 countries monopolize 90 percent of the world’s arms trade. Of these, China, France, Germany, Russia and the U.S. accounted for 76 percent of it during 2016-2020, while Israel, Italy, South Korea, Spain and the United Kingdom offered some types of equipment amounting to 14.4 percent of overall global military sales. (The rest of the world, including India – whose share was 0.2 percent – provided the remaining 9.7 percent, much of it including sub-components that are supplied to larger firms.)

Every country has its own national security needs as well as international obligations and interests. Defense spending is already high in America. The proposed Defense budget is approaching $800 billion, and the war in Ukraine will add to the bill especially as our NATO commitments expand to include Finland and Sweden.

At a time of high inflation, that means we may end up with guns-versus-butter arguments. In the meantime, the weapons will stay on the move.

This piece was republished from The Hill.

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