European weapon imports surge as US dominates the global arms trade

Ukrainian serviceman fires an NLAW anti-tank weapon during an exercise in the Joint Forces Operation

The United States dominated the global arms trade as imports of major arms by European states increased by 47 percent between 2013–17 and 2018–22, but the global level of international arms transfers decreased by 5.1 percent.

Arms imports fell overall in Africa (–40 percent), the Americas (–21 percent), Asia and Oceania (–7.5 percent) and the Middle East (–8.8 percent)—but imports to East Asia and certain states in other areas of high geopolitical tension rose sharply.

The United States’ share of global arms exports increased from 33 to 40 percent while Russia’s fell from 22 to 16 percent, according to new data on global arms transfers published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

‘Even as arms transfers have declined globally, those to Europe have risen sharply due to the tensions between Russia and most other European states,’ said Pieter D. Wezeman, Senior Researcher with the SIPRI Arms Transfers Programme. ‘Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, European states want to import more arms, faster. Strategic competition also continues elsewhere: arms imports to East Asia have increased and those to the Middle East remain at a high level.’

US and French arms exports increase as Russian exports decline

Global arms exports have long been dominated by the USA and Russia (consistently the largest and second largest arms exporters for the past three decades). However, the gap between the two has been widening significantly, while that between Russia and the third largest supplier, France, has narrowed. US arms exports increased by 14 percent between 2013–17 and 2018–22, and the USA accounted for 40 percent of global arms exports in 2018–22. Russia’s arms exports fell by 31 percent between 2013–17 and 2018–22, and its share of global arms exports decreased from 22 percent to 16 percent, while France’s share increased from 7.1 percent to 11 percent.

Russian arms exports decreased to 8 of its 10 biggest recipients between 2013–17 and 2018–22. Exports to India, the largest recipient of Russian arms, fell by 37 percent, while exports to the other 7 decreased by an average of 59 percent. However, Russian arms exports increased to China (+39 percent) and Egypt (+44 percent), and they became Russia’s second and third largest recipients.

U.S. Air Force Reaper drone
U.S. Air Force Reaper drone

‘It is likely that the invasion of Ukraine will further limit Russia’s arms exports. This is because Russia will prioritize supplying its armed forces and demand from other states will remain low due to trade sanctions on Russia and increasing pressure from the USA and its allies not to buy Russian arms,’ said Siemon T. Wezeman, Senior Researcher with the SIPRI Arms Transfers Programme.

France’s arms exports increased by 44 percent between 2013–17 and 2018–22. Most of these exports were to states in Asia and Oceania and the Middle East. India received 30 percent of France’s arms exports in 2018–22, and France displaced the USA as the second largest supplier of arms to India after Russia.

‘France is gaining a bigger share of the global arms market as Russian arms exports decline, as seen in India, for example,’ said Pieter D. Wezeman, Senior Researcher with the SIPRI Arms Transfers Programme. ‘This seems likely to continue, as by the end of 2022, France had far more outstanding orders for arms exports than Russia.’

Ukraine becomes world’s third largest arms importer in 2022

From 1991 until the end of 2021, Ukraine imported few major arms. As a result of military aid from the USA and many European states following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Ukraine became the 3rd biggest importer of major arms during 2022 (after Qatar and India) and the 14th biggest for 2018–22. Ukraine accounted for 2.0 percent of global arms imports in the five-year period.

A Ukrainian artilleryman trains on an M109 self-propelled howitzer at Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany, May 11, 2022. Soldiers from the U.S. and Norway trained Armed Forces of Ukraine artillerymen on the howitzers as part of security assistance packages from their respective countries.
Ukrainian artillerymen load an M109 self-propelled howitzer, during training at Grafenwoehr Training Area. Soldiers from the U.S. and Norway trained Armed Forces of Ukraine artillerymen on the howitzers as part of security assistance packages from their respective countries. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Spencer Rhodes, 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team)

‘Due to concerns about how the supply of combat aircraft and long-range missiles could further escalate the war in Ukraine, NATO states declined Ukraine’s requests for them in 2022. At the same time, they supplied such arms to other states involved in conflict, particularly in the Middle East and South Asia,’ said Pieter D. Wezeman, Senior Researcher with the SIPRI Arms Transfers Programme.

Asia and Oceania still the top importing region

Asia and Oceania received 41 percent of major arms transfers in 2018–22, a slightly smaller share than in 2013–17. Despite the overall decline in transfers to the region, there were marked increases in some states, and marked decreases in others. Six states in the region were among the 10 largest importers globally in 2018–22: India, Australia, China, South Korea, Pakistan and Japan.

Arms imports by East Asian states increased by 21 percent between 2013–17 and 2018–22. Arms imports by China rose by 4.1 percent, with most coming from Russia. However, the biggest increases in East Asia were by US treaty allies South Korea (+61 percent) and Japan (+171 percent). Australia, the largest arms importer in Oceania, increased its imports by 23 percent.

‘Growing perceptions of threats from China and North Korea have driven rising demand for arms imports by Japan, South Korea and Australia, notably including for long-range strike weapons,’ said Siemon T. Wezeman, Senior Researcher with the SIPRI Arms Transfers Programme. ‘The main supplier for all three is the USA.’

India remains the world’s top arms importer, but its arms imports declined by 11 percent between 2013–17 and 2018–22. This decline was linked to a complex procurement process, efforts to diversify arms suppliers and attempts to replace imports with local designs. Imports by Pakistan, the world’s eighth largest arms importer in 2018–22, increased by 14 percent, with China as its main supplier.

Middle East receives high-end US and European arms

Three of the top 10 importers in 2018–22 were in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt. Saudi Arabia was the world’s second largest arms importer in 2018–22 and received 9.6 percent of all arms imports in the period. Qatar’s arms imports increased by 311 percent between 2013–17 and 2018–22, making it the world’s third biggest arms importer in 2018–22.

The great majority of arms imports to the Middle East came from the USA (54 percent), followed by France (12 percent), Russia (8.6 percent) and Italy (8.4 percent). They included more than 260 advanced combat aircraft, 516 new tanks and 13 frigates. Arab states in the Gulf region alone have placed orders for another more than 180 combat aircraft, while 24 have been ordered from Russia by Iran (which received virtually no major arms during 2018–22).

  • Other notable developments:
  • Arms imports to South East Asia decreased by 42 percent between 2013–17 and 2018–22. This decrease was at least partly because states are still absorbing equipment delivered before 2018. The Philippines bucked this trend, with an increase in arms imports of 64 percent.
  • European NATO states increased their arms imports by 65 percent as they sought to strengthen their arsenals in response to a perceived heightened threat from Russia.
  • The USA’s arms exports to Türkiye decreased dramatically between 2013–17 and 2018–22 due to bilateral tensions. Türkiye fell from 7th to 27th largest recipient of US arms.
  • Arms imports by states in sub-Saharan Africa fell by 23 percent, with Angola, Nigeria and Mali the biggest recipients. Russia overtook China as the largest arms supplier to the subregion.
  • Arms imports by three states in the Americas rose significantly: the USA (+31 percent), Brazil (+48 percent) and Chile (+56 percent).
  • Among the top seven arms exporters after the USA, Russia and France, five countries saw falling arms exports—China (–23 percent), Germany (–35 percent), the United Kingdom (–35 percent), Spain (–4.4 percent) and Israel (–15 percent)—while two saw large increases—Italy (+45 percent) and South Korea (+74 percent).

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