America And The Booming Global Arms Trade

Like every other industry in the 21st century, weapons manufacturing has become increasingly globalized, especially in a world of rising powers and subsequent anxieties about security, rivalry, and terrorism. Al Jazeera reports on the latest study by the well respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which found that the arms trade has never been stronger:

SIPRI researchers Pieter D. Wezeman and Siemon T. Wezeman found that the “volume of international transfers of major weapons” between 2010 and 2014 was 16 percent higher than it had been in the prior four years.

The United States was the biggest exporter during that period, ahead of Russia and China. American weaponry accounted for 31 percent of all exports between 2010 and 2014, the study states.

“It is by far the largest exporter, and its exports are definitely increasing,” Siemon Wezeman told Al Jazeera. “It’s gaining on the main competitors. There are a number of reasons for that, of course. A very important one is that a number of markets where the U.S. is normally quite strong are gaining again, especially the Middle East.”

Perhaps it is unsurprising that the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation would play a major role in the global weapons trade. Having far and above the largest and most technologically advanced military has helped cultivate and sustain a well-developed domestic sector for researching and producing all sorts of weapons of war, which can then seek more markets and profits abroad (especially as the U.S. has an interest in propping up particular states for geopolitical reasons).

Courtesy of SIPRI

Sure enough, the world’s former superpower — and some would say re-emerging global power — is not that far behind in supplying the world with weapons. Most of the remaining exporters are also major powers, although a few (namely Italy, Spain, and Ukraine) reflect the presence of one or two companies, rather than any international power projection.

As for the main drivers of this industry:

Middle Eastern states such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel accounted for about one-third of American exports. But American weapons manufacturers also shipped a significant chunk of their output to Asia and Oceania, in particular Korea and Australia. Wezeman also cited India as a “new market for the U.S.,” and a source of growth.

India, in fact, has dramatically increased importation of foreign arms, bringing in 140 percent more weaponry between 2010 and 2014 than it had between 2005 and 2009. The country now leads in arms imports, followed by Saudi Arabia, China, and the United Arab Emirates.

And if you think Americans’ declining interest in propping up an ever-more expensive and bloated military will help things, on the contrary: private sector manufacturers are only more likely to make up the difference for fewer domestic purchases abroad:

“The USA has long seen arms exports as a major foreign policy and security tool, but in recent years exports are increasingly needed to help the U.S. arms industry maintain production levels at a time of decreasing U.S. military expenditure,” said Fleurant in a statement accompanying the SIPRI report.

According to Wezeman, the United States government has an interest in maintaining those production levels because some of the revenue from exports goes into research and development.

“Without exports, the U.S. arms industry would survive,” he said. “It’s just that for the U.S. government, R&D would become more expensive because nobody’s sharing the burden with them.”

The export market for American arms manufacturers will likely grow “from 5 to 10 percent of their total output to 25 or 30 percent, maybe more,” he said.

Below is a graph showing the 65-year trend in major weapons transfers internationally.

SIPRI
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