Global Arms Exports Soar in 2007

Wade Boese

After dipping in 2006, global conventional arms exports last year rose because of increased weapons transfers by Russia, the United States, and other top suppliers, as well as the shipment of thousands of rockets by Slovakia and Turkey. All told, arms deliveries in 2007 were the largest for any year since governments started providing an annual accounting of their weapons transactions to the United Nations in 1993.

By May 31 of each year, states are asked to volunteer data to the UN Register of Conventional Arms on their previous year’s imports and exports of tanks, armored combat vehicles (ACVs), large-caliber artillery, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, and missiles and missile launchers. Countries also may report on their arms stockpiles and small arms and light weapons transactions (see page 45). The register’s intended purpose is to help arms suppliers avoid unwittingly contributing to excessive and destabilizing arms accumulations.

More than 100 countries have participated in the register in each of the past several years, but near the end of September, the UN had received only 85 country submissions covering 2007. Still, the 32 states reporting exports included most prominent global arms suppliers, aside from Israel. Those 32 states’ cumulative 28,577 weapons exports more than doubled the 2006 exporter total of some 11,100 arms.

Summing up reported exports, however, is an imperfect measure of the global arms market because a rocket is counted the same as a warship or a fighter plane, even though the military utility and potential lethality of those systems are vastly different. Hence, comparing tallies from different years or the deliveries of one country to those of another can distort the relative value or significance of particular sales or the role of certain states.

The abnormally high 2007 tally, for example, stemmed in large part from the export of 16,576 122-millimeter rockets to Bulgaria by Slovakia, which also shipped 764 rockets to Indonesia and another 380 rockets to Turkey. Meanwhile, Turkey, for the third straight year, delivered 3,000 122-millimeter rockets to the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Half of the rockets transferred to the UAE were armed with cluster munitions. More than 100 countries recently negotiated a treaty to ban most of those types of arms because their use was seen as too indiscriminate and inhumane. (See ACT, July/August 2008.) Neither Turkey nor the UAE subscribed to that effort, but Turkey is a member of the Geneva-based Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons that is considering other limits on the transfer and use of cluster munitions.

Russia and the United States, traditionally the top arms suppliers, both shipped some 400 weapons more in 2007 than in 2006. Russia last year transferred 1,807 major weapons to a dozen states, while the United States delivered 1,403 arms to 23 countries, not including Taiwan. Last year marked the second consecutive year that Russian exports exceeded U.S. shipments.

Accounting for more than half of Russia’s delivery total were 984 missiles sent to China, a long-standing Russian arms buyer. Other key Russian arms recipients were Algeria, with 296 imports, and India, with 231 imports. The Bush administration hopes that one of the benefits of spearheading the process to make India eligible for international nuclear trade will be to convince India to leave Russia’s stable of arms clients. In particular, U.S. arms companies are seeking to fill an Indian contract for 126 fighter jets, even though the United States is a key arms supplier to India’s rival, Pakistan, delivering 115 howitzers and 40 missiles to that country last year.

Moscow’s list of arms customers continued to include states with which Washington and other Western capitals will not do business. Russia transferred a dozen fighter jets and 86 missiles to the oil-rich Venezuelan regime of Hugo Chavez, which the United States accuses of fomenting instability across Latin America, particularly in neighboring Colombia. Russia also delivered four attack helicopters to the government of war-torn Sudan. Belarus was the only other state to report exports to Sudan, shipping it two ACVs.

No other suppliers in 2007 reported transferring more than 1,000 weapons, but France, the Netherlands, South Africa, and Ukraine claimed more than 500 exports apiece. The Netherlands totaled 790 exports, including shipments of 217 ACVs to Egypt and 522 U.S.-origin missiles to Finland. South Africa’s reported exports consisted of 692 ACVs, 427 of which were identified as going to the U.S. Army. Ukraine, one of the few top suppliers to experience an export decrease over the past two years, reported distributing 672 exports to 16 states, stretching from Chad and Kenya in Africa to Burma and China in Asia. France compiled 514 exports, the largest portion of which was 264 missiles sent to the UAE.

According to the exporter data, the UAE was the second-largest importer in 2007 behind Bulgaria. It appears that the UAE may remain among the future ranks of top importers. The Pentagon in September notified Congress that it might sell the UAE as much as $9 billion worth of arms, including the first proposed export of the short- to intermediate-range Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system.

After a nine-year hiatus, China late last year resumed its register participation. China’s submission for 2007 revealed a drop to 120 arms exports from the previous year’s mark of 387. Five of the nine importers of Chinese arms were African states (Chad, Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda, and Tanzania), reflecting China’s expanding efforts to obtain greater access to that continent’s markets and natural resources.

No exports to Jordan appeared in the Chinese report, although Jordan claimed in its register submission to have received 1,650 mortars from China. Jordan also reported importing 2,200 anti-tank missiles and launchers and 182 shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile launchers from Russia, which lacked corroborating information in its register submission. Other notable disparities in register submissions included Bulgaria not claiming the reported delivery of 16,576 Slovakian rockets, while Georgia asserted it imported 10,000 rockets from Bulgaria, despite no mention of such transfers in that country’s register report.

Whether the discrepancies reflect deliberate deceptions are uncertain. Data submitted to the register by exporters and importers often do not match, in part, because governments classify their transactions differently. Some countries, like the United States, define a transfer as completed when the ownership title is exchanged whereas another government might say a deal is not final until weapons physically arrive in or leave its territory.

Another complicating factor in verifying the accuracy of the register reports is that many states do not participate in the UN instrument. Most Arab states boycott the register, arguing they will not report on their conventional arms until Israel publicizes details on its suspected nuclear forces. Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon are the few states from the Middle East that typically participate in the register even though the region is heavily engaged in the arms market.

In their latest reports, exporters identified states in the Middle East and North Africa as importing 4,863 weapons. That amount was much less than the reported 19,599 arms sent to Europe, but exceeded the claimed transfers to other regions: 2,128 to Asia and the Pacific, 611 to South Asia, 554 to North America, 425 to Africa, and 388 to Latin America.