How Big is the International Arms Trade?

Sam Perlo-Freeman’s, How big is the International Arms Trade? (Originally posted in October 2017) has been revised and updated as of July 2018.  This paper emerged out of research from our program on Corruption and the Global Arms Trade.

From the Introduction:

The international trade in arms is an issue of major concern for many reasons: unrestrained trade in arms can lead to destabilizing arms build-ups, threatening regional stability; it fuels civil wars and external military interventions leading to massive civilian death and suffering, caused by both government forces, rebel groups and external interveners; props up dictatorships and human rights-abusing regimes; it also diverts enormous resources from potential civilian uses, including through the vast corruption often associated with the trade. On the other hand, many states view the export of arms as a key tool of foreign policy and a means of strengthening allies. Almost all significant arms exporters maintain a rigorous system of export controls—which generally do not stop the sale of arms to questionable recipients, but which do ensure that transfers (usually) only occur with the permission of the government—and an Arms Trade Treaty was recently signed by most UN member states as a first attempt to bring some form of international regulation to the trade.

In the light of this, it is perhaps surprising, and certainly unfortunate, that the data on the international arms trade is so poor. For a phenomenon so significant in international relations, access to clear and reliable data is of enormous value for both citizens and policy-makers. But, as this article will discuss, even estimating a figure for the total value of the legal world trade in arms is fraught with difficulties, and breaking this down in more detail, in terms of buyers and sellers, is even more problematic. This article will attempt to produce such a global estimate, or rather a range of estimates, while explaining the problems with the data, including for some of the largest western arms exporters, from whom one might expect a greater level of transparency: most notably, the USA.

Section 1 examines the available sources of data on the international arms trade, and the availability of data for different countries, including through international transparency mechanisms, and their limitations. Section 2 attempts to build an estimate of the global arms trade, going through the key arms exporters country by country, explaining the problems with the data and attempting to derive reasonable estimates on the basis of the available information. Section 3  reflects on the issues and problems revealed by this exercise, and concludes.

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