Global Arms Exports Continued Upswing in 2005

Wade Boese

Government reports volunteered to the United Nations reveal that 2005 marked the highest volume of major conventional weapons exports in more than a dozen years. Yet, the figures, like those in previous years, do not take into account some arms transfers, a shortcoming that a UN-commissioned group of experts has proposed to rectify.

Beginning in 1992, the UN has urged all countries to provide annually to its Register of Conventional Arms data on their previous year’s exports and imports of tanks, armored combat vehicles (ACVs), large-caliber artillery, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, and missiles and missile launchers. The purpose of such voluntary reporting is to help identify when countries are making weapons purchases that might pose threats to their neighbors or regional stability.

In a foreword to this year’s experts report to the General Assembly, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan praised the register as playing a “valuable role” in discouraging “excessive and destabilizing” arms accumulations. Argentine Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Roberto García Moritán, who chaired the 20-member experts group, extolled the register Aug. 23 as “an effective instrument to promote understanding between states and prevent surprises.”

Still, register submissions for 2005 reveal a robust global arms market. Indeed, the 28 countries claiming exports last year reported 11,987 cumulative weapons deliveries, one of the highest totals in the register’s history.

Atypically large exports by Turkey and Israel contributed to the abnormally high tally. Turkey reported exporting 3,040 122-millimeter rocket systems to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Israel shipped 2,422 81-millimeter mortars to Brazil.

Even if the Turkish and Israeli exports, as well as a Bulgarian transfer of 547 man-portable missile launchers to the United States for destruction, are excluded, the 2005 weapons export total stands as the highest mark in five years.

This wholly quantitative assessment of exports, however, offers an imperfect measure of the character and scale of worldwide arms deliveries by counting one mortar or missile the same as one tank, combat aircraft, or warship. In addition, such summations cannot provide insight into possible transactions rejected by arms suppliers. Nevertheless, raw numbers remain useful indicators of arms market trends and the most active weapons exporters and importers.

Foremost among the world’s arms suppliers, the United States carried out 160 more weapons exports than it did in 2004. All told, Washington sent 1,724 arms exports to 21 countries and Taiwan. Almost half of the U.S. deliveries (850 exports) were missiles and missile launchers. Washington also did brisk business in ACVs (511) and combat aircraft (98), including supplying the UAE with three dozen F-16E/Fs and Israel with 22 F-16Ds.

Russia, the chief competitor to the United States in arms deliveries, trailed by nearly 1,000 exports last year. Moscow shipped 744 weapons to 13 customers, including 12 attack helicopters to Sudan. Recent reports, including a Sept. 9 article in The Washington Post, have described a fresh round of Sudanese government helicopter attacks against villages in the war-torn Darfur region.

Moscow’s primary customers remain China and India, which together accounted for nearly two-thirds of Russia’s 2005 arms exports. India obtained two Russian combat aircraft and 273 missiles, while China acquired 196 Russian-made missiles. The United States is attempting to court India with new fighter jet sales and other military hardware.

Ukraine has emerged as a rising weapons supplier with 649 exports in 2005, up from 349 in 2004. Ukraine appears to be making some headway in challenging Russia for the arms business of former Soviet states and clients. Kiev transferred 192 weapons to countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc in comparison to 45 deliveries by Russia. Ukraine also made inroads into the traditionally Russian market of China with shipments of 363 air-to-air missiles to Beijing.

China halted its register participation in 1998 to protest the U.S. practice of reporting on U.S. arms transfers to Taiwan. Chinese officials contended the U.S. reporting helped burnish the international stature of Taiwan, which Beijing views as a renegade island that should be under the mainland’s control.

Aiming to facilitate China’s return to the register, the 2006 experts group, which included Department of State official William Malzahn, recommended that register reports should only include data on arms trade between UN member states, which Taiwan is not. This recommendation, as well as others made by the group, was reached by consensus and therefore has the endorsement of the United States. It must be approved by the UN General Assembly to take effect. Washington still plans to report publicly on its arms exports to Taiwan separate from the register.

The experts group, the sixth to assess the register’s operation, made other proposals aimed at augmenting reporting. Seeking to capture more naval arms trade, the experts called for lowering the warship reporting threshold from 750 metric tons to 500 metric tons. Most experts supported cutting the threshold further, but the Chinese government expert objected.

Consensus also could not be reached on expanding reporting to cover some other military systems, such as bridge-laying vehicles and troop transport and aerial-refueling planes.

The experts did agree on a standard reporting form for countries to volunteer information on their trade in small arms and light weapons, which are not covered by the register. Although a 2003 group of experts encouraged countries to report on such trade, France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, and the United Kingdom were the only ones to do so for 2005.

By adopting a standard reporting form on small arms and light weapons, the experts hope to entice greater participation by countries, particularly in Africa, that have shunned the register because of charges that it neglects the predominant arms affecting their security. Small arms and light weapons range from pistols to machine guns to anti-tank missiles.

Even if governments do not carry out weapons transactions within the register’s categories, the UN urges capitals to make reports. As of mid-September, 68 of the 112 governments that have filed 2005 reports noted they had no exports or imports.

Although between 60 and 90 governments, including many prolific arms buyers in the Middle East, do not participate in the register in any given year, most key arms exporters submit annual reports. Malzahn asserted in an Aug. 23 speech that the register “has captured the vast majority” of the global weapons trade covered by its reporting categories. “By any measure, the register has been a resounding success, establishing a global norm of transparency and accountability in military matters and reinforcing civilian control of the military,” Malzahn stated.