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Right after I graduated, I interned with the Arms Control Association. It was terrific.

– George Stephanopolous
Host of ABC's This Week
January 1, 2005
U.S. Tops Global Arms Exports

Wade Boese

Despite a minimal drop in the total number of conventional weapons exported worldwide in 2003, the United States and other top arms exporters, except for Russia, reported increased weapons deliveries for the year, according to submissions to the UN Register of Conventional Arms.

Established in 1992, the register calls on all countries to volunteer annual reports on their previous year’s imports and exports of seven types of conventional arms: battle tanks, armored combat vehicles (ACVs), large-caliber artillery, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, and missiles and missile launchers. Governments established the register to hold exporters more accountable for their arms deals and to expose attempts by any country, such as Iraq during the 1980s, to accumulate excessive weapons stockpiles that could be indicative of aggressive or expansionistic intentions.

Participation in the register has grown from some 90 countries since its inception to roughly 120 annually, including 113 so far this year. Because most key arms exporters regularly submit reports, the register provides a clear picture of major global weapons sales. China, which ceased making register submissions in 1998 to protest U.S. reports on its arms exports to Taiwan, is one notable exception.

Of the two dozen countries reporting exports for 2003, the United States accounted for nearly half of the 4,150 arms shipments. Washington’s nearest challenger, Russia, managed only 433 exports after totaling 1,626 the preceding year. The Kremlin’s 2002 total was bolstered by deliveries of hundreds of missiles to Kuwait and China. (See ACT, November 2003.)

Cumulative export totals under the register can be misleading because the delivery of a single missile is counted the same as that of one warship, battle tank, or attack helicopter. Missiles, for example, made up 1,077 of the 1,867 U.S. weapons sent abroad.

Another method for assessing the global arms market is by the monetary value of the weapons exported, which is the approach of an annual report by the Congressional Research Service. (See ACT, October 2004.) Both measures, counting weapons individually or summing up their value, reveal that U.S. arms deliveries last year far surpassed those of all other arms exporters.

Aside from the United States and Russia, other top exporters included Germany, Ukraine, France, and South Africa, all of which delivered more weapons in 2003 than 2002. Germany more than tripled its delivery total to 371 exports, while Ukraine and France showed more modest increases of roughly 20 weapons apiece to 272 and 214, respectively. South Africa made a larger leap from 61 to 212 exports, mostly ACVs.

Europe emerged as the region that received the most arms. Countries in the Asia/Pacific region cumulatively ranked second in imports, and the Near East and North Africa was the third leading destination. Exporters identified 28 European countries as receiving nearly 1,400 arms. Ten Asian states together with Australia and New Zealand imported 921 weapons, while a dozen countries in the Near East and North Africa took delivery of 884 pieces of military hardware. Greece, China, and the United Arab Emirates stood out as the top national recipients in these three regions.

In Africa and Latin America, countries generally lack the resources to buy the weaponry covered by the register. Their purchases are instead primarily small arms and light weapons, but there are exceptions. For instance, Sudan, which is under international scrutiny for the widespread killing and forcible dislocation of black Africans in its Darfur region, acquired 48 ACVs, 32 large-caliber artillery pieces, and three combat aircraft in 2003. Belarus provided the ground equipment, while Russia delivered the planes.

Some former Soviet states appeared a little less discriminating than Western exporters about which regimes they provide with firepower. Almost all Belarusian exports went to two states afflicted with internal strife: Sudan and Côte d’Ivoire. Ukraine also transferred arms to the latter and to other countries beset with or emerging from conflicts as well as those led by repressive regimes, including Angola, Yemen, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Burma. Moscow counted some of these same states as clients and sent a few combat aircraft to Algeria and Iran.

Yet, the United States and its European allies also did not shy away completely from delivering arms to tension-filled regions or governments with poor human rights records. Washington delivered loads of armaments to the Middle East, both to Arab governments and Israel. It shipped 85 arms to Israel and 404 weapons to Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

France and the United Kingdom also supplied arms to nondemocratic Arab regimes. With the exception of sending some warships to Egypt and South Africa, Germany confined its exports to other European countries.

To view the 2003 UN register in its entirety click here