Where Weapons Go

A new analysis finds that the United States, Russia, and China are selling more weapons than ever, while India, China, and Saudi Arabia are top buyers.
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Illustration of a combat drone flying over barren mountains. (Illustration: Paul Fleet/Shutterstock)

Illustration of a combat drone flying over barren mountains. (Illustration: Paul Fleet/Shutterstock)

After falling throughout the 1990s, international arms trade seems to be picking up again, with countries exporting 16 percent more arms between 2010 and 2014 than they did from 2005 to 2009. That's according to a new analysis by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which counts aircraft, tanks, anti-missile systems, and much more as "arms."

The rise in arms trade means that even countries that haven't yet been able to engineer and produce their own highly technical weapons, such as India, have been able to stock up. Tracking arms trade also lets researchers and governments see which countries are ramping up their ability to make drones, fighter jets, and other coveted weapons. Although China still exports small amounts of arms, compared to top exporters United States and Russia, it has increased its exports by the largest fraction of any country since 2005.

China's weapons-making ability is of enduring interest to U.S. intelligence, although the New York Times reported yesterday that that country's weapons expertise isn't quite developed enough for buyers. "Analysts say the J-31, China's stealth fighter jet, may not find widespread interest among foreign buyers because of concerns over its stealthiness," the Times wrote.

"The U.S.A. 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."

Meanwhile, the U.S. upped exports by 23 percent between the two most recent time periods the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute analyzed, 2005 to 2009 and 2010 to 2014. (The institute uses five-year periods to help it see trends more easily in data that go up and down yearly.)

America's motivation was partly plain business, argued Aude Fleurant, the director of the Stockholm Institute's Arms and Military Expenditure Programme. "The U.S.A. 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," Fleurant said in a statement. Not surprisingly, congress is now strongly divided about whether the country should spend more in defense, or cut spending overall, the New York Times reported this past weekend.

Other highlights from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute report:

  • Together, the U.S. and Russia produce 58 percent of the arms sold across country borders.
  • Europe's arms exports fell by 36 percent between 2005 to 2009 and 2010 to 2014.
  • The Gulf Cooperation Council, a political alliance of six Middle Eastern countries, upped its arms imports by 71 percent between 2005 to 2009 and 2010 to 2014.

Tracking where weapons go can be a powerful window into relations between countries and the ambitions countries have for themselves. Just check out some of the other stories that have come out of arms-trade data, such as ones about Germany's new arms-export rules, Israel's desires to sell weapons to India, and the ambitions of Persian Gulf countries.

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