How big is the International Arms Trade?

The international trade in arms is an issue of major concern for many reasons: unrestrained trade in arms can lead to destabilizing arms build-ups, threatening regional stability; it fuels civil wars and external military interventions leading to massive civilian death and suffering, caused by both government forces, rebel groups and external interveners; props up dictatorships and human rights-abusing regimes; it also diverts enormous resources from potential civilian uses, including through the vast corruption often associated with the trade. On the other hand, many states view the export of arms as a key tool of foreign policy and a means of strengthening allies.

Almost all significant arms exporters maintain a rigorous system of export controls—which generally do not stop the sale of arms to questionable recipients, but which do ensure that transfers (usually) only occur with the permission of the government—and an Arms Trade Treaty was recently signed by most UN member states as a first attempt to bring some form of international regulation to the trade.

In the light of this, it is perhaps surprising, and certainly unfortunate, that the data on the international arms trade is so poor. For a phenomenon so significant in international relations, access to clear and reliable data is of enormous valuefor both citizens and policy-makers. But, as this article will discuss, even estimating a figure for the total value of the legal world trade in arms is fraught with difficulties, and breaking this down in more detail, in terms of buyers and sellers, is even more problematic.

This paper attempts to produce a global estimate, or rather a range of estimates of the financial size of the international arms trade. It also explains problems with the data, including for some of the largest western arms exporters, from whom one might expect a greater level of transparency: most notably, the USA.

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