Arms Trade Dips But Still Brisk in 2006

Wade Boese

Despite reporting to the United Nations a collective decline in their global arms transfers in 2006, arms suppliers posted the third-highest tally for major conventional weapons exports in 15 years. Arms buyers and sellers also volunteered more information than in past years on their small arms and light weapons trade.

Seeking to shed greater light on worldwide weapons transactions with the goal of curbing dangerous arms acquisitions and buildups, governments in 1991 approved creation of a voluntary UN Register of Conventional Arms. The measure calls on countries to account annually by May 31 for their previous year’s exports and imports of battle tanks, armored combat vehicles (ACVs), large-caliber artillery, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, and missiles and missile systems. Governments may also detail their complete holdings and domestic procurement of those weapons.

The annual reports tend to trickle in, and by mid-August, 93 countries had filed submissions on their 2006 arms trade. Typically, about 120 countries will report each year. A significant portion of these states do not actually export or import listed arms but instead file “nil” reports indicating no transactions. Fifty-two governments have made such reports covering last year.

Most major arms exporters regularly participate in the register, providing a general accounting of the global arms market, and this year is no different. Thirty countries have reported exports totaling almost 10,500 weapons. This sum is shy of the 2005 mark of nearly 12,000 exports but exceeds all other previous years’ totals except for that of 1992.

Two key arms exporters, China and France, have yet to report. China has not participated since 1997 to protest the U.S. reporting on its arms deliveries to Taiwan. But Beijing is expected to submit a report this year after Washington agreed last summer to exclude from future submissions its arms shipments to Taipei. (See ACT, October 2006. ) China perceived the past reporting as conveying legitimacy to Taiwan, which Beijing insists should be under its rule.

Among the countries that have filed reports, Turkey topped all exporters in volume by delivering 3,040 122-millimeter rockets to the United Arab Emirates. Istanbul’s other shipments comprised 453 ACVs to Iraq and one ACV to the United States.

Assessing the arms trade by individual weapons transfers, in which one rocket counts the same as one tank or one warship, can distort the scale, complexity, and nature of the business. Although Turkey’s total deliveries of 3,494 weapons easily surpassed that amassed by other countries, its actual stature in and influence on the global arms market remains less than that of the major powers, such as France, Russia, and the United States, as well as growing suppliers such as South Africa and Ukraine.

Since the Soviet Union’s collapse, the United States has been the world’s pre-eminent arms seller, but Russia and a few others are giving Washington greater competition. In fact, Moscow reported the second-highest amount of arms transfers last year, at 1,374.

The Kremlin actually sent China more weapons—944 missiles and missile systems and two warships—than the United States delivered to all of its buyers. The U.S. export total of 934 weapons also trailed Ukraine’s sum of 1,118 exports, 590 of which were missiles and missile systems to China.

All told, the U.S. tally for 2006 was 970 weapons less than what it shipped in 2005 and ranked as the smallest U.S. tally ever. Yet, it is unlikely the start of a downward trend. Arms deals sometimes take years to be implemented, and the Pentagon notified Congress of nearly $37 billion in potential contracts with foreign buyers last year (in contrast to $12 billion in 2005), suggesting U.S. exports are likely to grow over the coming years.

In addition, the U.S. stable of 29 clients in 2006, not including Taiwan, was far larger than that of other leading suppliers. Ukraine had the second-most customers at 19, while South Africa named 12 countries as buyers and the United Kingdom identified 10.

Russia also has a much smaller client base than the United States. Aside from China, Russia shipped weapons to 10 states. This group included a few purchasers from which Western suppliers have recently shied away: Myanmar (100 artillery pieces), Sudan (four attack helicopters), and Venezuela (four combat aircraft and 14 attack helicopters).

India also has been a top Russian customer, and Moscow reported sending 149 missiles and missile systems last year to New Delhi. But there is rising competition for the Indian market. Poland supplied 156 ACVs to India in 2006, and the United States is currently offering India advanced fighter aircraft.

Russia reported no arms transfers to Iran even though there are rumors of increased arms dealings between the two states. Moscow has recently provided Tehran with Tor-M1 air defense weapons, but the register does not call for reporting on ground-to-air missiles unless they are of the shoulder-fired anti-aircraft variety known as man-portable air defense systems, or MANPADS. Russia’s last register reference to Iran was three combat aircraft that Moscow exported to Tehran in 2003.

Similar to most states in the Middle East, Iran does not participate regularly in the register and has not filed a report since 1999. Arab states, except Jordan and Lebanon, generally boycott the instrument, claiming it provides a distorted view of regional security because Israel is not obligated to report on its widely acknowledged nuclear weapons stockpile.

Israel consistently reports to the register, claiming 130 exports and 23 imports in 2006. In a statement attached to its June submission, Israel recommended that the “first priority” in improving the register should be encouraging greater participation in “problematic regions such as the Middle East.”

Until this objective is achieved, Israel indicated it would not supply additional information on its military holdings and domestic procurement as some countries do. The statement further noted that Israel would not back existing proposals to increase reporting on additional types of weapons, such as bridge-laying vehicles, aerial refueling planes, and other “power projection capabilities and force multipliers.”

Israel also opted not to volunteer information on its small arms and light weapons trade as called for by a 2003 UN group of government experts. Israel is not in the minority in this case, however, as only about a half dozen governments actually reported on such transfers for 2005.

But another group of experts last year approved a standard reporting form for such arms, which include pistols, rifles, and machine guns, and reports dramatically increased this year. Twenty-seven states, ranging from Trinidad and Tobago to the United Kingdom, reported on their exports and imports of those types of weapons for 2006. Russia and the United States remained among the majority that did not.

Corrected online August 29, 2008. See explanation.