Global arms trade reaching Cold War levels

Driven by demand for weapons in Asia and the Middle East...

Global arms trade reaching Cold War levels

Picture by Julie Jacobson AP/Press Association Images

The global arms trade is experiencing its biggest boom period since the Cold War drew to a close in the early '90s. 

The US remains the biggest exporter, with half of its arms going to the Middle East. In terms of buying weapons, India is now the largest importer.

The volume of international major weapons transfers has been growing continuously since 2004, according to new data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

The number of weapons being traded has increased by 8.4% between 2007–11 and 2012–16, with the most recent period seeing arms trade hit its highest peak in any five-year period since the end of the Cold War.

Activity was chiefly driven by demand in Asia, Oceania and the Middle East. Meanwhile, there has been a decrease in the flow of arms to Europe, the Americas and Africa.

The five biggest exporters – the United States, Russia, China, France and Germany – together accounted for 74% of the total volume of arms exports.

Countries amassing arms

India has been the largest importer of major arms over the past five years, accounting for 13% of the global total. Between 2007–11 and 2012–16, it increased its arms imports by 43%, and it now far outstrips the intake of regional rivals China and Pakistan. 

Arms imports by states in Asia and Oceania increased by 7.7% between 2007–11 and 2012–16 and accounted for 43% of global imports in 2012–16.

Siemon Wezeman, senior researcher with the SIPRI Arms and Military Expenditure Programme, said:

"With no regional arms control instruments in place, states in Asia continue to expand their arsenals. 

"While China is increasingly able to substitute arms imports with indigenous products, India remains dependent on weapons technology from many willing suppliers, including Russia, the USA, European states, Israel and South Korea.

In the Middle East, arms imports almost doubled between the two five-year periods. Middle Eastern states have imported 86% more arms in the last five years than in the '07 – '11 period. It now accounts for 29% of global imports when it comes to the latest data.

Saudi Arabia became the world's second largest arms importer, with an increase of 212%. Arms imports by Qatar went up by 245 per cent. Although at lower rates, the majority of other states in the region also increased arms imports.

Wezeman said of this trend:

"Over the past five years, most states in the Middle East have turned primarily to the USA and Europe in their accelerated pursuit of advanced military capabilities. Despite low oil prices, countries in the region continued to order more weapons in 2016, perceiving them as crucial tools for dealing with conflicts and regional tensions."

Protesters outside offices of defense firm BAE Systems during an anti-arms trade demonstration ahead of the forthcoming G8 summit, in central London, June 2013 (AP Photo/Matt Dunham) 

The nations making the weapons

The US was the top arms exporter for 2012 – 16, selling 21% more than in the previous five-year period. It accounts for one-third of total global arms exports. Almost half of its arms went to the Middle East.

Dr Aude Fleurant, director of the SIPRI Arms and Military Expenditure Programme, said:

"The USA supplies major arms to at least 100 countries around the world – significantly more than any other supplier state. Both advanced strike aircraft with cruise missiles and other precision-guided munitions and the latest generation air and missile defence systems account for a significant share of US arms exports."

Russia accounts for a 23% share of global exports, while China's share rose from 3.8% to 6.2%.