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– Amb. Thomas Hajnoczi
Chair, MTCR
May 19, 2021
U.S. Still Reigns As Top Global Arms Seller
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Wade Boese

Last year, the United States sold more arms than any other country, continuing a post-Cold War pattern, according to an authoritative Congressional Research Service (CRS) report published Sept. 22.

The report by CRS analyst Richard Grimmett states that Washington accounted for more than 40 percent of all global arms sales agreements and deliveries in 2002. The United States also ranked as the top weapons supplier to the developing world, which the report classifies as all countries outside of Europe, Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, and the United States. In the eight-year span 1995-2002 covered by the report, the developing world accounted for approximately two-thirds of worldwide arms buys.

In 2002 the United States agreed to export roughly $13 billion in arms and delivered weapons worth more than $10 billion. (All figures in constant 2002 dollars.) There is often a substantial delay, which can sometimes be measured in years, between when a weapon is sold and when it is actually exported.

Both of last year’s sums marked a slight increase from 2001 U.S. totals of $12 billion in agreements and $9.9 billion in deliveries.

Still, the United States is managing to claim a higher share of a shrinking global market for arms. Last year’s $29 billion in arms sales agreements was the lowest mark since 1997 when new deals totaled $24 billion. Likewise, global arms deliveries steadily decreased to $25 billion in 2002 after peaking five years ago at nearly $49 billion.

Several factors account for the shrinking arms market, wrote Grimmett, who has authored the report annually since 1982. Many countries do not have the money for weapons because of lingering economic troubles caused by erratic oil prices or the late-1990s Asian financial crisis. Several governments also went on arms buying binges after the 1991 Persian Gulf War and are still absorbing those purchases into their militaries.

As a result, many arms purchasers are focusing on maintaining or updating previously acquired weapons rather than seeking to buy new armaments. The sale of munitions, spare parts, services, and upgrades for weapons systems makes up a “very substantial portion” of the U.S. arms trade, Grimmett stated.

Even though Western-made weapons dominate the global arms bazaar, Russia has emerged in recent years as the leading, though distant, challenger to U.S. primacy in new arms sales. Moscow, whose ascendancy is largely a result of arms sales to China and India, tallied $5.7 billion in deals last year.

In addition to selling weapons to China and India, Russia has also set up major projects to co-produce advanced arms, such as fighter aircraft and tanks, in the two countries.

Russia’s favorite clients ranked first and third among all developing world arms buyers last year. China signed $3.6 billion in weapons contracts and India inked agreements valued at $1.4 billion. South Korea, which typically buys U.S. arms, negotiated $1.9 billion in new purchases.

Neither China nor India, however, rivals Saudi Arabia for the sheer accumulation of arms in recent years. Between 1995 and 2002, Saudi Arabia has imported $64.5 billion in weaponry, far surpassing the second-largest importer, Taiwan, which acquired $20.2 billion in arms during the same period. China had a comparatively paltry $9.3 billion in arms imports.

Saudi Arabia, along with many other developing world countries, had embarked on a weapons-buying spree following the 1991 Gulf War, leading to a huge spike in the arms market for two to three years. Grimmett does not foresee a similar rise in the wake of the latest conflict. Instead, he predicts that arms sales to the developing world will likely stay level or fall further in the near term because of the “tenuous state of the international economy.”