Inside Story

The shift in global arms trade

As a study shows a fall in the international arms trade, we ask how it will affect the armed conflicts across the world.

The Middle East’s biggest arms show opened at the International Defence Exhibition (IDEX), in Abu Dhabi, where 80 companies from 15 countries are displaying their products.

The main reasons were the slowdown in the economy in most of the world, the fact that China is excluded from the figures which is one of the largest emerging arms sellers, and the fact that there has been some sudden end of recent conflicts drawing down … Afghan war, the end of the Iraq war and some of these conflicts have seen a leakage of weapons out into the black markets [so] they’re not going to be picked up in the figures SIPRI is recording in the formal state-to-state transfers.”

– Richard Weitz, a senior fellow and director of Hudson Institute’s Center for Political-Military Analysis

Organisers say that the show has doubled in size since it was last held two years ago but it comes at a time of uncertainty for the global arms industry.

Arms dealing has been described as the most recession-proof industry in the world, but the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reports that 2011 was not the best year for arms dealing.

It says that this is because of austerity measures being taken internationally. It also reports arms manufacturers are now turning to the cyber security sector to make up for the loss.

According to SIPRI’s report, sales among the world’s top 100 weapons producers fell by five percent in 2011.

This reversed a trend in which sales had risen by almost 25 percent in the previous four-year period. The major increase was in sales to developing rather than the highly industrialised nations.

Some of the arms are purchased and stockpiled, but others are used in armed conflicts, two of which are underway in Mali and in Syria.

In Mali, the government has been fighting armed groups in the north of the country that are seeking autonomy from the central government. And France recently deployed troops to help the government take back control from the rebels.

In Syria, a bloody civil war between supporters and opponents of President Bashar al-Assad continues unabated.

The arms industry flourishes on war and when war is actually happening, it ups its game and produces more but it’s still enormous even when wars aren’t happening because countries prepare for wars. Arms industry is to some extent a national industry, it’s promoted by national governments and you see that countries do actually like to upgrade their weaponry. We see this in India now which is one of the world’s biggest arms buyers … “

– Kaye Stearman, the spokesperson for the Campaign Against Arms Trade

This has taken on a multi-regional dimension, with foreign powers like Russia Iran, Qatar and Turkey accused of interfering in or fuelling the conflict.

The bulk of arms companies are in the US or western Europe.

A look at the world’s top arms makers and the huge sales they generate shows that the US arms giant Lockheed Martin tops the list, selling $35.7bn worth of arms in 2010.

The second biggest is the British company BAE Systems – it sold $32.9bn of arms, which is around 95 percent of the company’s total revenue that year.

Boeing is third with $31.4bn, which is around half of its total sales for the company most famous for its commercial airliners. Northrop Grumman, the world’s largest builder of naval vessels, is fourth with $28.2bn. And General Dynamics is fifth with $23.9bn.

So, what would be the impact of a shrinking arms trade on the armed conflicts around the globe? And what about the unofficial arms market?

Inside Story, with presenter Mike Hanna, discusses with guests: Peter Felstead, the editor of IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly; Kaye Stearman, the spokesperson for the Campaign Against Arms Trade; and Richard Weitz, a senior fellow and director of Hudson Institute’s Center for Political-Military Analysis.

“When we talk about modern weapon systems, we are really talking about very sophisticated systems so these days it’s not the platform itself, whether it’s a tank or a ship or an aircraft but the systems that actually go on to that and those are forever being upgraded because it’s a case of developing counter systems to the ones that are deployed … so in that sense it is a continuous market.”

Peter Felstead, the editor of IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly


  • Sales of weapons and military services were $410bn in 2011  
  • SIPRI, a Swedish reserach group’s report shows five percent fall in arms sales compared to last year  
  • The report does not include Chinese companies due to lack of data  
  • Military drawdowns, sanctions and austerity policies cause sales drop  
  • Weapons sales by top 100 arms makers was up 51 percent since 2002  
  • 44 US-based arms producers accounted for 60 percent of top 100 sales  
  • World military expenditure in 2011 is estimated at $1.7tn  
  • Most rapid increase has been in North Africa with a 109 percent expenditure growth since 2001  
  • The US military spending accounted for 41 percent of world total in 2011