Business as Usual: How major weapons exporters arm the world’s conflicts

REPORT by Sam Perlo-Freeman (Campaign Against the Arms Trade) published on March 3, 2021.

This report is part of the WPF research programDefense industries, Foreign Policies and Armed Conflict, funded in part by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and carried out in partnership with the OpenSecrets. It asks: why, despite robust regulation mechanisms in key exporting countries and international monitoring efforts, has the global arms trade proven remarkably resistant to effective controls – with direct enabling consequences on conflict situations?

Available for Download:

Who Arms War?: Interactive graphics

Launching March 3, 2022: Explore interactive graphics on our special website, based on research for the report, “Business As Usual: How Major Weapons Exporters Arms the World’s Conflicts,” by Sam Perlo-Freeman (World Peace Foundation, 2022).

Graphs present information by conflict and by producing country.

The global arms trade has proven remarkably resistant to effective controls – with direct enabling consequences on conflict situations.

Overview | Key Findings| Data Sources | Who armed which conflicts?

Report Overview

The harmful impact of arms transfers on conflict has been well-documented by campaigners, humanitarian NGOs, and the United Nations. Further, researchers have found evidence that arms transfers to a state increase the likelihood of conflict breaking out; and, once begun, render conflicts longer and more deadly.

Recognizing these detrimental impacts, in recent decades, policymakers committed to a range of measures designed to control arms exports. These controls were especially focused on limiting sales when conflicts involve patterns of human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law.  In subsequent years, there have been heated debates about whether sales should proceed in a number of particular instances, but there is no comprehensive assessment of the overall impact of policies designed to limit arms sales to countries involved in conflicts.

This research provides the first global analysis of how conflict in, or involving, a recipient state, impacts exporters’ willingness to supply arms. It analyses the top eleven global arms suppliers over the ten-year period 2009-18. Listed in order by the volume of major conventional weapons transfers, these global sales leaders are: The United States, Russia, Germany, France, China, The United Kingdom, Spain, Israel, Italy, The Netherlands, and Ukraine. These countries assert widely varying formal policies regarding arms exports, but the empirical record is, for the most part, remarkably similar.

Key Findings


There is very little evidence that war or armed conflict leads to restraint in arms transfers by major exporters, regardless of whether their stated policies suggest they should. All major arms exporters supplied substantial volumes of arms to at least some of the wars of the current century.


There are no clear cases where the outbreak of war was accompanied by a halt in arms sales by a major exporter. In cases where exporters did not supply arms to war, the recipient(s) tended to be smaller, poorer countries where demand for arms is lower (‘low stakes’ cases), even in wartime. Clearly, political factors also prevail in some cases, for example where the supplier and recipient had a hostile relationship, or where the recipient had been regarded by (western) suppliers as a ‘pariah’ long before the outbreak of war (e.g. Iran and Syria).


There are some differences among the eleven top arms exporters covered in this report: Russia supplied arms to the greatest number of wars; and Ukraine, the smallest of the exporters, was a significant conflict supplier in relation to its overall level of exports. Even so, the difference between these countries and the US and western European suppliers, was relatively minor.


For some exporters (Russia, France, Israel, Spain, and the Netherlands), conflict appears to be associated with a higher probability of transfers. For the other seven, it made no significant difference either way.


Rather than conflict, demand factors – levels of GDP and military spending, and the overall level of arms acquisitions by a particular country – were key determinants of whether a given exporter would supply arms to that country.


US and European exporters sometimes displayed a pattern of selective, ‘low stakes’ restraint, including cases where they imposed arms embargoes in direct response to conflict or repression. These tended to be cases where opportunities for sales were in any case limited.


An established arms supply relationship was one of the most powerful determinants of whether arms transfers would occur in the future between a supplier and recipient, regardless of the recipient’s conflict status at any particular moment in time.

Table 1.1 Who Armed Which Conflicts?

The following table, also shown in the Report, presents summary information on the involvement of each of the 11 exporters in each of the 30 conflicts that reached the status of War since 2000. It shows whether each exporter was:

  • participant in the armed conflict;
  • major supplier of arms to the War;
  • minor supplier of arms to the War;
  • A supplier of arms to the conflict during years of Minor Armed Conflict only, but not during “War” years: or
  • Did not supply arms to any conflict party during the conflict

“Substantial” arms supplies is defined as either:

  1. A SIPRI Trend Indicator Value (TIV) of deliveries of Major Conventional Weapons of at least 50 to conflict participants during years of War between 2000-2018; or
  2. A TIV of at least 100 including also years of War from 1990 onwards, providing the War years before 2000 are assessed to form part of a continuous conflict that also includes that which occurred since 2000; or
  3. At least 10% of the total TIV transferred to conflict parties during War years from 2000-2018, provided this TIV is at least 10; or
  4. Arms transfers to conflict parties worth a financial value of at least €100 million (based on national data) during War years for which data is available.

The minimum threshold for counting an exporter as supplying “minor” quantities of arms were either a TIV greater than 0 during a War year, orders agreed for MCW during a War year, recorded in the SIPRI database (but not necessarily delivered), and/or at least €1 million of licenses/deliveries according to national data during a War year.

Video: Report Launch Event

March 3, 2021

The event was hosted by the Forum on the Arms Trade and sponsored by the World Peace Foundation, Center for Responsive Politics, and Program on Civil-Military Relations in Arab States at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center. The panelists were:

Sam Perlo-Freeman, Research Coordinator, Campaign Against Arms Trade and Fellow, World Peace Foundation

Dan Mahanty, Director, US Program, Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC)

Molly Mulready, Lawyer, formerly of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Emma Soubrier, Visiting Scholar, Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington

Nathan Toronto, Commissioning Editor, Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center (moderator)

Photo: Airstrike in Sana’a 11-5-2015, Ibrahem Qasim/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)