Global Policy Forum

International Arms Sales

Progressive Policy Institute
April 21, 2004

The Numbers:
Total world exports, 2002: $6410 billion
Total world arms exports, 2002: $25 billion

What They Mean:

Military sales, though controversial, are a perhaps surprisingly small fraction of total trade. In 2002, world exports of all goods totaled about $6.4 trillion. The most recent report by the Congressional Research Service, meanwhile, finds global weapons deliveries in 2002 at $25.4 billion. This figure is limited to public military sales and so in some ways is a low estimate. Along with these governmental sales are about $2-$4 billion in open-market small arms sales, perhaps $1 billion in commercial sales of military ordinance, and an undeterminable amount of secret sales and black-market transactions by rogue states. (State Department data, less up-to-date, claims $52 billion in total military sales in 1999 -- this is about 30 percent higher than the $38 billion reported for 1999 by CRS.) Even a broad figure, however, leaves weapons exports well below major civilian exports: in 2002, clothing exports totaled $200 billion, farm products $470 billion, energy $615 billion and information technology goods over $800 billion.

By country, the United States has been the top supplier of weapons since the end of the Cold War. CRS finds America's ordinance deliveries in 2002 at $10.5 billion, or over 40 percent of the world total (but down from $18 billion in 1999). In practical terms, it includes deliveries of 271 tanks and armored personnel carriers valued at $600 million, with top buyer Egypt taking 177; 119 hulls for naval vessels, plus one complete boat somewhat mysteriously reported as sold to the Cayman Islands; and $1.3 billion worth of bullets, missiles, and other explosives. To these goods could be added a reported $350 million in commercial sales (again possibly understated) and about $700 million in open-market sales of small arms. At $12 billion, the total would roughly equal America's exports of auto engines or textile yarn and fabric; and would fall slightly below the value of our imports of shoes or pearls. Excluding small arms, the United Kingdom was the second largest exporter of weapons at $4.7 billion in 2002; Russia followed at $3.1 billion; France at $1.8 billion; and China at $800 million rounded out the top five.

The biggest buyers are in the Middle East, which purchased about $10 billion worth of weapons in 2002, or 40 percent of the world total. In second were industrialized countries which together bought about $8 billion worth of weapons; Latin American and African countries spent the least on imported ordinance, at about $600 million and $200 million respectively. By country, Saudi Arabia was the top buyer, purchasing $5.2 billion worth of weapons, or a fifth of the $25.4 billion world total. Egypt came second with $2.1 billion in purchases, followed by Kuwait, China, Taiwan, and the United Arab Emirates.

Further Reading:

The Congressional Research Service reports on military sales to developing countries:

The Small Arms Survey, based in Geneva:

The United Nations has data (by product, but not value) on military sales, purchases and stockpiles for 115 members:

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