Arms Exports Fell in 2008, UN Data Say

Jeff Abramson

After increasing to record levels in 2007, transfers of major weapons systems as well as small arms and light weapons dropped in 2008, according to voluntary reports submitted to the United Nations’ conventional arms registry.

Based on a 1991 agreement, the UN Register of Conventional Arms collects voluntary information on imports, exports, domestic production, and holdings of seven categories of major weapons systems: tanks, armored combat vehicles, large-caliber artillery, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, and missiles and missile launchers. In 2003, countries agreed to request data on small arms and light weapons but did not create an official category for the weapons. (See ACT, September 2009.)

A comparison of reports submitted to the UN by or near the end of September for each reporting year indicates that exports of major weapons systems dropped from 28,577 to 7,913 between 2007 and 2008. Small arms and light weapons exports declined from 2,089,986 to 1,480,790, according to the data in the reports (see table 1).

The register’s data do not provide a complete picture of the global arms trade. Some countries do not submit reports; all countries do not define transfers in the same way; and there is no verification provision. Nonetheless, the register is the primary international mechanism for states to detail their arms trade, and the 2008 decline aligns with findings reported by other sources. A recent report from the Congressional Research Service said the conventional arms market shrank in 2008. (See ACT, October 2009.) The 2009 yearbook produced by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) calculated a drop of approximately 10 percent in major conventional weapons trade between 2007 and 2008.

The number of countries submitting data to the register declined. At least 100 countries submitted records each year from 1999 to 2006, but that number fell to 91 for 2007. By September 30 of this year, only 75 countries had reported calendar year 2008 transfers. Some of that decrease can be attributed to a reduction in the number of countries filing “nil” reports. For 2006, 63 countries filed such reports, claiming no transfers in any of the seven categories of major weapons. Only 39 did so for 2007 and 32 for 2008. Such reports, which affirmatively state that there were no transfers, are seen as statements of support for the register. The recent failure of a group of government experts to recommend adding small arms and light weapons as an official eighth category may further erode participation in the register.

Missiles Lead Decline in Major Weapons

Five of the seven major weapons categories saw a drop in deliveries, led by a dramatic decline in claimed missile and missile launcher exports. Because a missile and a warship are each counted as one unit in the register despite the difference in size and capability, comparing overall numbers can be misleading.

Slovakia, which reported the export of 17,740 missiles in 2007, said it had no missile exports in 2008, accounting for the biggest single difference.

Within the missiles category, Turkey delivered 1,480 122 mm rockets to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), marking the fourth year in a row that Ankara claimed at least 1,000 missiles exported to Abu Dhabi. As in 2007, one-half of the rockets delivered contained submunitions, which are smaller bombs that often fail to explode as originally intended. The Convention on Cluster Munitions, which would ban such weapons, has 23 ratifying parties, seven short of the number required for entry into force, but neither Turkey nor the UAE has signed the treaty (see page 5).

Russia led the missile category in 2008, noting a total of 1,683 missiles and launching mechanisms exported. Most went to Algeria, Egypt, and Venezuela. These weapons accounted for the vast majority of Russia’s 1,884 claimed exports across all seven categories.

Among Russia’s exports were 12 attack helicopters and eight combat aircraft sent to Venezuela. The strengthening relationship between the two countries drew statements of concern from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton when additional arms deals were announced in September.

Russia continued its long-standing arms relationship with India, sending the country 24 tanks, 12 large-caliber artillery systems, four combat aircraft, and 29 missiles, according to the Russian report. India claimed that all its imported weapons came from Russia in 2008, but future sales to the country are a possible source of Russian-U.S. rivalry as Washington seeks to expand its conventional arms trade with New Delhi. U.S. firms are currently competing for a combat fighter contract estimated at more than $10 billion. (See ACT, September 2009.)

As with Russia, missiles accounted for the majority of U.S. exports, with 298 of a total of 463 weapons exported falling into the missile category. According to the U.S. report, Turkey received 114 missiles from the United States. Washington also noted the transfer of 89 missiles to Pakistan, an ally in U.S. anti-terrorism efforts and a traditional rival of India.

In the combat aircraft category, the United States led all other states, claiming the transfer of 50 such weapons in 2008. Israel received 17 F-16D aircraft, the most sophisticated combat planes exported by the United States. Pakistan received 10 F-16Bs. Belarus was second in total claimed exports of combat aircraft, sending 33 Russian-origin MiG-23s to Syria and 11 Russian-origin Su-25s to Sudan.

China, a traditional supplier of less-sophisticated arms, especially to Africa, claimed very few transfers in 2008. Beijing delivered 20 armored combat vehicles to Rwanda and six fighter aircraft to Pakistan, a marked decrease from its reports of 120 exported weapons in 2007 and 387 in 2006.

Paul Holtom, an arms expert at SIPRI, highlighted China’s low number as one of several filings in 2008 in which national interpretations of what constitutes a transfer could lead to an underreporting of exports of conventional arms. In an Oct. 19 interview, he also noted the relative absence of data directly from African countries.

The group of governmental experts examining the register earlier this year concluded that the register “continues to be an important confidence-building measure.” Although the overall number of countries participating in the register declined, most major weapons suppliers, with the exception of Israel, did submit reports on their major weapons exports.

Those reports indicate that some African countries were major importers in certain weapons categories. The United States reported sending 55 battle tanks to Egypt, Russia reported the transfer of 53 tanks to Algeria, and Ukraine sent 33 tanks to Kenya. According to exporter’s claims, Nigeria received 153 armored combat vehicles, 149 from Turkey and four from Canada, while Chad received 113 armored combat vehicles, 88 from Ukraine and 25 from France.

Overall, 27 countries filed non-nil export reports for major weapons in 2008, providing data on 74 recipient states.

U.S. Is Dominant Small-Arms Customer

Although not filing a report on its small arms and light weapons transfers, the United States remained the dominant destination for exports of those weapons in a shrinking market. (See ACT, November 2007; October 2008.)

Eighteen of 22 countries reporting nonzero and nonclassified exports of small arms and light weapons for 2008 indicated the United States was a recipient. Together, these states transferred 936,036 weapons to the United States, 63 percent of all claimed exports. In 2007 the United States received approximately 75 percent of the 2.1 million small arms and light weapons exported.

Italy, the largest exporter in 2008, reported transferring 472,991 small arms, 301,957 of which went to the United States. Turkey received 28,989 small arms from Italy; Russia received 23,978. Mexico and South Africa each imported more than 10,000 weapons from Italy, according to Rome’s report.

All of Italy’s exports came from the first two of six categories of small arms, consisting of revolvers and self-loading pistols, and rifles and carbines. The four additional small arms categories are assault rifles, submachine guns, light machine guns, and others. Light weapons, which accounted for slightly more than 2 percent of total exports claimed in 2008 by all countries, are defined in seven categories as heavy machine guns, hand-held under-barrel and mounted grenade launchers, portable anti-tank guns, recoilless rifles, portable anti-tank missile launchers and rocket systems, mortars of calibers less than 75 millimeters, and others.

Italy replaced Croatia as the top exporter in 2008. Croatia claimed the export of more than 650,000 weapons in 2007, but reported only the transfer of 10,000 AK-47s to Iraq in 2008.

After not filing for 2007, the Philippines reported transferring 299,739 small arms in 2008 to become the second-largest exporter. The United States received 220,316 small arms from the Philippines, Thailand received 50,538, and Australia 15,290. As with Italy, two categories, revolvers and self-loading pistols and rifles and carbines, comprised the entirety of Philippine exports.

The United Kingdom remained the third-largest exporter of small arms and light weapons, claiming the transfer of 283,450 weapons, 266,906 of which went to the United States. Both numbers were approximately 30,000 higher than in 2007. Unlike Italy and the Philippines, the majority of the United Kingdom’s exports consisted of assault rifles.

Submissions to the register did capture some small arms and light weapons transfers to Afghanistan and Iraq in 2008, although neither country submitted a report. Four countries claimed sending 18,852 weapons in total to Iraq. Five countries transferred a total of 16,838 weapons to Afghanistan. In each instance, the number of weapons declined significantly from 2007, when nearly 100,000 weapons went to Iraq and 30,000 to Afghanistan. The ongoing lack of a U.S. small arms and light weapons report, even though the United States is a known major supplier of weapons to Iraq, indicates that the register only captures a small portion of the transfers to that country. (See ACT, September 2007.)

In total, exporting states claimed to transfer weapons to 131 countries in 2008.

Table 1: International Arms Exports Reported to the UN Register of Conventional Arms

2007 2008
Major Weapons Systems
Warships 16 14
Attack Helicopters 81 70
Combat Aircraft 219 222
Large-Caliber Artillery Systems 630 874
Battle Tanks 954 510
Armored Combat Vehicles 2,254 1,385
Missiles and Missile Launchers 24,423 4,838
TOTAL 28,577 7,913
Small Arms and Light Weapons 2,089,986 1,480,790

Source: Data derived from claimed exports in voluntary submissions to the UN Register of Conventional Arms by or near the end of September of each reporting year. See for specific country reports. See for more details on data calculations.
















Notes on Data Source

Major weapons data is derived from voluntary reports of major weapons exports submitted to the annual UN Register of Conventional Arms. Data for 2007 was compiled near the end of September 2008 from 32 arms suppliers: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, China, the CzechRepublic, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Montenegro, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States). Data for 2008 was submitted by Sept. 30, 2009 from 27 arms suppliers: Austria, Belarus, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russian Federation, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States,

Small arms and light weapons data is derived from voluntary reports of small arms and light weapons exports to the annual UN Register of Conventional Arms. Data for 2007 was submitted by Sept. 24, 2008 from 25 arms suppliers: Albania, Australia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, Colombia, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Norway, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, South Korea, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the Ukraine. Data for 2008 was submitted by Sept. 30, 2009 from 22 arms suppliers: Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, CzechRepublic, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Philippines, Poland, Republic of Korea, Romania, Slovakia, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdoom. Sweden also submitted details, but stated that numbers of items transferred were classified. Additional countries filed reports indicating no exports or that the number of exports is classified.

Data files for 2008 import and exports reports are attached, as well as country and weapons codes associated with that data. Not all notes associated with each transfer are captured in these files, which were created by the Arms Control Association based on records available online at In some cases, there was a discrepancy between the reports available online and those published as a pdf document (A/64/135). These discrepancies are highlighted in red in the files. The United Nations is not responsible for any transcription errors made in the creation of these files.