The register, designed to promote transparency in armaments, publishes information voluntarily submitted by states on their imports and exports in seven categories of conventional weapons—battle tanks, armored combat vehicles (ACVs), large caliber artillery, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, and missiles and missile launchers. States are also invited to provide additional data on their military holdings and their procurement through national production, but less than one third (largely European countries) of the 90 reporting states volunteered information beyond the seven categories.
The 26 members of the GGE, selected by the UN Center for Disarmament Affairs to review the register's operation and explore its future development, met for three 1997 sessions (March 3 7, June 16 27 and August 4 15), but failure to achieve consensus on substantive changes to the register limited it to reporting its observations.
Participation in the register declined to 90 states from 96 in 1995. The GGE noted that at least 90 countries have participated each year and during the first five years of the register's operation 138 states have submitted at least one report, while 49 countries have never participated. As in past years, the leading exporters submitted reports while key importing states of the Middle East did not; only Israel and Iran participated from the Middle East. Exporting states claimed that 2,568 weapons were delivered to non participating states in the region in 1996, of which the overwhelming amount went to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
The United States retained the distinction of being the top exporter, although its 1996 exports amounted to only 48 percent of 1995's. U.S. exports in 1996 totaled 2,342 pieces of equipment as opposed to the previous year's total of 4,843. (See table below. [Not available in web form at this time, please contact ACA for more information]) A 1995 transfer of 2,208 missiles and missile launchers to Greece accounted for much of the discrepancy between the two years.
Russia and Germany, the second and third leading exporters, respectively, in 1995, also reported fewer exports in 1996. Russia's total exports declined from 708 total items in 1995 to 544 in 1996, while Germany's total exports dropped 50 percent to 187. The United Kingdom surpassed Germany, more than doubling exports to 509 in 1996. China and France also increased their exports from 1995, but their reported exports were still relatively low at 137 and 136 items, respectively, in 1996. Other notable changes from 1995 involved an increase of 614 items exported from the Netherlands, of which 590 were ACVs to Egypt, and Turkmenistan's transfer of 1,271 pieces of equipment (mostly tanks and ACVs) to Russia, which Russian data did not confirm.
A total of 26 countries noted exports of 6,489 weapons, while 38 countries claimed imports totaling 3,720 weapons in the 1996 register. A mere 32 percent of the transactions were reported by both parties involved. For example, Hungary reported receiving 520 missiles and missile launchers from Russia, and Pakistan noted accepting 526 from the United States, but neither exporter declared these transactions. The GGE attributed such inconsistencies to the lack of a common definition of a transfer and differing national practices in reporting and processing transfers. In order to diminish inconsistencies between national submissions, the GGE recommended that each nation establish a point of contact to clarify and facilitate reporting and that the deadline for reporting be moved back from April 30 to May 31 to allow states more time to submit information.
Resolving the major discrepancies will require greater participation, a goal the GGE characterized as of "paramount importance." However, the League of Arab States contends the register does not "adequately meet their security needs" and is "neither balanced nor comprehensive" in its present form. Arab states demand an expansion of the register's categories to include weapons of mass destruction and "high technology with military applications" to provide a more accurate portrayal of world military forces. Other developing states have lobbied for including small arms categories or at least an expansion of the existing categories, such as lowering the caliber of artillery systems from 100 millimeter to 75 millimeter to capture lighter weapons, which they consider more relevant to their security concerns. The GGE explored these proposals, but disagreed over whether to recommend such changes as feasible or useful.
Egypt later presented, on October 27, a resolution to the UN First Committee calling for an expansion of the register to include weapons of mass destruction.