SIPRI: US arms exports skyrocket, while China's nosedive

The invasion of Ukraine has benefited the US and led to a major increase in arms imports to Europe. In other parts of the world, however, the movement of weapons between nations is declining.

SIPRI: US arms exports skyrocket, while China's nosedive


While the rest of the world is slowly disarming, Europe is quickly doing the opposite, according to the latest report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). The institute examines and compares the global arms trade in four-year periods, the better to reflect overall trends than looking at the weapons business over only twelve months.

Among the two most important trends in the most recent report, SIPRI researcher Pieter Wezeman told DW, are that arms transfers to European states have significantly increased" and that "the role of the US as an arms supplier in the world has increased significantly, too."

In the most recent period examined, 2018-22, the international arms trade declined by just over 5% compared to 2013-17. In contrast, arms imports by European countries — the vast majority of which came from the United States — increased by 47%, and those by European NATO countries by as much as 65%. The reason behind that is, unsurprisingly, the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

US exports to Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, and Japan

In the past, Ukraine was not a major player in the international arms trade. It made much of its defense equipment on home soil, and the rest was left over from the Soviet era. In SIPRI's latest report, however, it ranks 14th on the list of worldwide weapons importers and if you consider 2022 alone, Ukraine comes third.

SIPRI usually refers to "arms transfers" in its report, meaning both the arms trade and (free) military assistance, the latter of which is Ukraine's main supply of weapons. This kind of military aid usually consists of older equipment or surplus stock from donor nations.

The report shows how, because of this, what has been delivered to Ukraine pales in a value comparison to sales of new weapons. For example, despite massive US arms deliveries to Ukraine in 2022, Washington still sent goods worth greater value to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Japan. Those four countries bought particularly new and sophisticated equipment such as fighter jets, something Ukraine has been urgently requesting from Western allies.

France gains, Germany loses

The five biggest arms exporters are, in order: the US, Russia, France, China and Germany. While this ranking hasn't changed since the last report, there have been significant changes with regard to the individual countries.

For example, the US, already top of the list, increased exports by another 14% and now accounts for 40% of global arms transfers.

A much bigger increase of 44% was recorded by France, which was able to expand its position as number three. Such sharp changes are not unusual, however, according to SIPRI, because there can be particularly large and lucrative orders within a given timeframe.

This is also how Pieter Wezeman explains the sharp drop in the German defense business at 35% less than in the previous report. But, said Wezeman, this time, "the change in the arms exports by France is maybe more structural in nature. France has put a lot of emphasis on trying to support its arms industry and has clearly succeeded in doing so in the past decade."

This was clearly on the mind of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz during a recent visit to India. Western powers are trying to encourage New Delhi to rely less on Russia for arms. And while France has spent years establishing itself as India's second biggest supplier after Moscow, Germany does not play a role in Indian arms imports at all.

China surprisingly weak

Also striking is the 23% dip in Chinese arms exports and, in general, China's low importance as a global arms exporter compared to its economy as a whole. Wezeman explained it this way: " China has not succeeded to break into some of the major markets for arms, sometimes for clearly political reasons." As a result, he says, China does not sell arms to its rival, India, for example.

"Surprisingly enough," he added, China also "hasn't really succeeded in competing against European and US arms suppliers to most of the Middle Eastern states, especially the Arab states."

Russia strong in Africa

As Europe began importing more weapons, its share of international arms transfers likewise increased, from 11% in 2013-17 to 16% in 2018-22. At the same time, arms transfers declined in all other regions of the world.

One of the most extreme cases was in Africa, where transfers went back by 40%. But that hasn't made the continent more peaceful, said Wezeman.

There are still numerous armed conflicts in Africa. However, he added, these "countries are not able to really afford large numbers of advanced arms, and therefore in that sense, total arms transfer value to the region is not as high as the number of conflicts would maybe suggest."

In sub-Saharan Africa, Russia has now surpassed China as the biggest arms supplier. One example of Russia's push into Africa is Mali. The Sahel nation used to purchase arms from a host of countries, including France and the United States. However, after the coups in Mali in 2020 and 2021, these two Western countries began to shrink their business in the country significantly, while Russia expanded its sales.

Another example of the consequences of political upsets for arms cooperation — in a different region — is Turkey. The NATO member was the seventh largest buyer of US defense equipment in 2013-17. But as the relationship between Ankara and Washington has become more strained, Turkey now only ranks 27th.

Future orders serve as a forecast

Who will be leading the international arms business in the future? To find out, SIPRI looked at the order books of manufacturers in the most important arms-exporting countries. Particular attention was paid to orders for combat aircraft and helicopters, as well as for larger warships such as aircraft carriers, destroyers, frigates, and submarines. These are weapons systems of particularly high value.

The US will therefore remain by far the world's biggest arms supplier. This is clear from the fact that around 60% of all combat airplanes and helicopters ordered worldwide are US products. In 2022 alone, 13 countries ordered a total of 376 combat airplanes and helicopters from US-based manufacturers.

France has both many aircraft and many ship orders and is thus likely to further increase its position as an arms exporter. The outlook for Germany is mixed. There are no existing orders for German aircraft, but there have been a large number of naval vessels currently being made in German shipyards. Many German weapons that may have been exported are likely to end up being sent to Ukraine.

This article was originally written in German.

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