UN Arms Data Mixed As Participation Falls

Jeff Abramson

The number of countries submitting reports to the UN conventional arms registry declined for the third year in a row, according to data based on reports received by late September on transfers made in 2009.

In part because of that trend, it is difficult to determine whether trade in conventional weapons also declined in 2009. After increasing to record levels in 2007 and dropping precipitously in 2008, the number of exports reported in one category, small arms and light weapons, fell modestly in 2009. Major weapons exports rose as a total number, but the figures are complicated by a large transfer of missiles designated for destruction. If those missiles are removed from the total, data compiled from the register would show a net decline for the year.

A modest 2009 decline aligns with findings reported by other sources. A recent report from the Congressional Research Service said the conventional arms market shrank in 2009, and the 2010 yearbook produced by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) found the market to be relatively flat last year. (See ACT, October 2009.)

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. 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.)

At least 100 countries submitted records for arms transfers each year from 1999 to 2006, but that number fell to 91 for 2007 and 80 in 2008. By Sept. 30 of this year, only 65 countries had reported calendar year 2009 transfers. States are invited to report to the register by May 31. Some reports come in after that, but most are in by the end of September.

Some of the decrease over the past three years can be attributed to a reduction in the number of countries filing “nil” reports. For 2006, more than 60 countries filed such reports, which claim no transfers in any of the seven categories of major weapons. Nearly 40 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.

Some experts predicted that the 2009 failure of a group of governmental experts to recommend adding small arms and light weapons as an official eighth category would further erode participation in the register, especially among states that typically filed nil reports. Thus far, however, 30 states have filed such reports, only a small decrease compared to 2008. A larger decrease occurred in the number of states filing reports on imports of major weapons systems, from more than 40 in 2008 to 29 through September for 2009.

Participation declined in all regions, including in the United Nations’ “Western European and Other” and “Eastern European” regional groups. The members of those groups are typically reliable participants in the register and are some of the world’s leading exporting states. Reduced participation by these countries may be particularly important because their reports often offer insight into trade with countries that do not report to the register.

Canada, Cyprus, France, and Turkey, which have been regular participants in past years, have not submitted information to the register this year. Among eastern European states, which at times trade in large volumes of Soviet-era or Soviet-design weapons, Croatia  and the Czech Republic were absent after having filed reports in 2009. The Philippines, which ranked second last year for total claimed small arms and light weapons exports, also did not submit a report.

The register’s data do not provide a complete picture of global arms trade. Some countries do not submit reports; different countries have different criteria for reporting transfers; and there is no verification provision. Nonetheless, the register is the primary international mechanism for states to detail their arms trade and is frequently discussed as a starting point for the scope of an international arms trade treaty (ATT) that may be negotiated as early as 2012. (See ACT, September 2010.)

Whether to account for small arms and light weapons is also a key topic in the ATT debate and one with which register participants have grappled for years. Following a call made last year for views on whether the absence of small arms and light weapons as a main category of the register affects participation in and the relevance of the register, six states have submitted opinions thus far. Colombia, Japan, Mauritius, Mexico, and Switzerland supported inclusion of the weapons as a main category or said its absence as a main category hurts the register. Singapore did not favor any changes to the status of the weapons. The topic is expected to be taken up again at the next meeting on the register by a group of governmental experts, tentatively scheduled for 2012.

Trends Mixed for Major Weapons

A comparison of reports submitted to the UN by late September for each reporting year indicates that exports of major weapons systems dropped from 28,577 in 2007 to 7,913 in 2008. In 2009, exports of these weapons rose to 12,351, but 5,357 of that total were missiles the United Kingdom reported as transferred to Sweden for destruction. Removing those weapons from the total would show a net decline in 2009 for major weapons systems exports (see table 1).

Most of the register’s seven major weapons categories saw a drop. 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. The seven major weapons categories in the register are tanks, armored combat vehicles, large-caliber artillery, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, and missiles and missile launchers.

Because missile and missile launcher exports are most numerous, fluctuations in that category drive changes in the overall total of major weapons numbers. For example, Slovakia reported the export of 17,740 missiles in 2007, but said it had no missile exports in 2008 or 2009, accounting for the biggest single difference in the three-year period.

Turkey, which did not file a report for 2009, had claimed the delivery of at least 1,000 missiles per year to the United Arab Emirates in the four previous years.

Of those countries claiming missile exports, the United Kingdom’s transfer to Sweden for destruction accounted for more than half of the category’s total.

Russia, which led the missile category in 2008 but fell to second behind the United Kingdom last year, claimed the export of 2,510 missiles. Most of those were man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), 1,800 of which Russia exported to Venezuela, with an additional 98 to Egypt. The United States has led an effort to control and recover MANPADS because of the acute threat they pose to civilian and military aircraft.

Matt Schroeder, an arms and MANPADS expert at the Federation of American Scientists, highlighted the Russia-to-Venezuela export as significant because of the size and proliferation potential of the transfer. But he also praised Russia for taking its reporting obligations seriously.

In recent years, the United States has expressed concern about Russian military ties with Venezuela. In 2009, Moscow claimed the transfer of 18 attack helicopters to Caracas, and Beijing reported sending six combat aircraft. Venezuela last filed a report for transfers in 2002, claiming nil.

In 2009, Russia continued its ongoing relationship with India, claiming the export of 80 tanks, 14 large-caliber artillery systems, six combat aircraft, and 282 missiles to New Delhi. The United States is seeking defense trade with India as well, which President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit this month.

As with Russia, missiles led all categories for the United States, comprising 823 of 1,080 total major weapons exported. Washington noted the transfer of 214 missiles to Pakistan, an ally in U.S. anti-terrorism efforts and a traditional rival of India. Additional U.S. missiles and launchers were sent to Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Japan, Poland, Singapore, and Turkey.

The United States was second in overall exports of large-caliber artillery systems, a category of weapons trending upward over the past three years. In addition to exporting 115 such systems to Pakistan, Washington transferred 25 to Israel and 41 to Lebanon in 2009.

Serbia led all countries with claimed exports of large-caliber artillery systems, sending 758 to Iraq last year. The only other country claiming exports to Iraq was Ukraine, delivering 26 armored combat vehicles. No countries claimed major weapons exports to Afghanistan. Neither Afghanistan nor Iraq, both countries with major ongoing conflicts, participates in the register.

China, a traditional supplier of less-sophisticated arms, especially to Africa, claimed more transfers for 2009 than it did for 2008. Beijing reported the export of 140 major weapons, comprised of 48 armored combat vehicles to Ghana, 21 to Namibia, and nine to the Republic of Congo; 15 combat aircraft to Nigeria, 11 to Pakistan, six to Venezuela, and two to Tanzania; and 16 missiles to Malaysia and 12 to Thailand. For 2008, China claimed the export of 20 armored combat vehicles to Rwanda and six fighter aircraft to Pakistan, numbers lower than its reports of 120 exported weapons in 2007 and 387 in 2006.

Overall, 27 countries have filed non-nil export reports for major weapons thus far in 2009, providing data on more than 70 recipient states. Those numbers are very similar to the ones at the same time last year for transfers made in 2008.

U.S. Still Top Small-Arms Buyer

Although again not filing a report on its small arms and light weapons transfers, the United States retained its position as the top recipient of exports of the weapons in a somewhat smaller global market in 2009. Overall, exports of small arms and light weapons declined, falling from 2,089,986 in 2007 to 1,480,790 in 2008 and 1,242,411 in 2009, according to the data in the reports. (See ACT, November 2007; October 2008.)

Fifteen of 19 countries reporting nonzero and nonclassified exports of small arms and light weapons for 2009 indicated the United States as a recipient. Together, these states transferred 616,994 of the weapons, approximately 50 percent of the annual global total. In 2008 the United States received 63 percent of approximately 1.5 million small arms and light weapons exported and approximately 75 percent of 2.1 million in 2007.

Italy, the largest exporter of such weapons for the second year in a row, reported transferring 473,518 small arms. Of that total, 310,618 went to the United States, and the remainder went to more than 75 other countries. Russia, the next highest Italian recipient by volume, received 19,078 small arms. Chile, Libya, Mexico, Thailand, and Venezuela each imported more than 10,000 weapons from Italy, according to Rome’s report.

All of Italy’s exports of such weapons came from the first two of six categories of small arms, consisting of revolvers and self-loading pistols, and rifles and carbines. Italy led all countries in exports of these two categories of small arms.

The four additional small arms categories are assault rifles, submachine guns, light machine guns, and others. Light weapons, which accounted for slightly more than 3 percent of total exports claimed in 2009 by all countries, are defined in seven categories as heavy machine guns, handheld underbarrel 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.

Eastern European countries ranked second through fourth in total claimed exports of small arms and light weapons in 2009. Serbia, ranked second, reported a total of 270,052 weapons transferred to more than 35 different countries. Serbia dominated exports in the light machine gun and heavy machine gun categories, with 146,730 of 158,328 and 18,504 of 20,555 total exports within each respective category. Belgrade reported transferring 92,263 weapons to Algeria and 35,000 light machine guns to Libya.

Ukraine claimed the export of 175,718 small arms and light weapons. Romania, fourth with 119,753 total exports, was the leader in assault weapons transfers, accounting for 31,009 of 94,130 weapons in the category.

The United Kingdom, which had been third the previous two years with 250,000 or more weapons exported, claimed only 60,703 small arms and light weapons exports in 2009, the fifth-highest total. Washington remained London’s primary recipient, accounting for 36,636 of the weapons.

As in past years, submissions to the register did capture some small arms and light weapons transfers to Afghanistan and Iraq. Six countries together claimed the export of 31,687 such weapons to Afghanistan, with some designated for NATO and the International Security Assistance Force. That total is nearly twice the number reported in 2008 and comparable to the 2007 totals. Four countries claimed the transfer of 7,149 weapons to Iraq, a steep decline from nearly 19,000 in 2008 and 100,000 in 2007, possibly reflecting the general international drawdown of forces in the country.

Croatia, the top exporter of small arms and light weapons in 2007 with more than 650,000 exported weapons claimed, did not file for 2009. The Philippines, ranked second in 2008 with nearly 300,000 small arms transferred, also did not report for 2009. Their absence may have contributed to the decline in 2009 totals.

Although ammunition is not included in the register’s scope, Albania reported the export of 60 million rounds in 2009 under the small arms “other” category. Whether to account for ammunition in a future ATT remains an area of disagreement. Because of their scale and the lack of information on such exports in the submittals from other countries, Albania’s ammunition exports are not included in the data analyzed here.

Overall, exporting states claimed to transfer weapons to more than 140 countries in 2009, a slight increase over 2008.

Table 1: International Arms Exports Reported to the UN Register of Conventional Arms 2007-2009

Major Weapons Systems 2007 2008 2009
Warships 16 14 4
Attack Helicopters 81 70 64
Combat Aircraft 219 222 223
Large-Caliber Artillery Systems 630 874 1,282
Battle Tanks 954 510 462
Armored Combat Vehicles 2,254 1,385 768
Missiles and Missile Launchers 24,423 4,838 9,548
TOTAL 28,577 7,913 12,351
Small Arms and Light Weapons 2,089,986 1,480,790 1,242,411
Source: Data derived from claimed exports in voluntary submissions to the UN Register of Conventional Arms by late September of each reporting year.