Stockholm International Peace Research Institute [SIPRI] through press release on March 13 outlined trends in Global Arms Transfers from 2018- 2022 as a follow up of the annual reports.
The SIPRI release titled, “Surge in arms imports to Europe, while US dominance of the global arms trade increases,” indicates a decline in transfers globally by 5.1 percent but some key regions including Europe and Indo Pacific have seen a spike for reasons that are related to the war in Ukraine and Europe’s measures to mitigate a horizontal spread and fears over China in the Indo Pacific.
Not surprisingly in 2018–22 India, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Australia and China remained the major arms importers due to a combination of factors of lack of sufficiently developed indigenous arms industry, in the case of China technology and perceived requirements for deterrence nee war waging.
Here is a review of the other areas which are anticipating high risks[i] in the year ahead based on their arms transfer profile identified by SIPRI.
Europe is caught in a spiraling spike in threat from Russia’s insecurity arising from perceived NATO expansion to arrest which Moscow launched a war in Ukraine naming the same as Special Military Operation [SMO] on February 24, 2022.
The situation remains contrite with conflict as military attitudes are hardened on both sides. Arms acquisitions by Europe are expected to continue with countries such as South Korea benefiting from orders for guns, tanks and missiles by Poland and Romania – confirmed or prospective customers.
As a consequence, there is an increase in defence budgets in Europe as well as increase in imports. Thus, as SIPRI report notes imports of major arms by European states increased by 47 per cent between 2013–17 and 2018–22 even as global level of international arms transfers decreased by 5.1 per cent.
Africa and Americas
The decline of 5.1 percent in global arms transfers geographically is due to reductions in Africa (–40 per cent), the Americas (–21 per cent), Asia and Oceania (–7.5 per cent) and the Middle East (–8.8 per cent) between the two periods.
While Africa and Americas are traditionally not very high defence spenders given capacity as well as threats faced, some countries find arms as a symbol of a power to join the elite club so to say with Brazil being a prominent country in this category.
The fall of arms imports in the Middle East is seen as a function not as much of reduction in tensions in the region despite Iran and Saudi Arabia rapprochement which is happening in March 2023 after the SIPRI report has been released but essentially due to cyclical factors of spending and absorption of weapons acquired vis a vis plans for procurement.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt the three top arms importers are expected to continue pursuit of acquisitions as the overall threat perception has not declined.
SIPRI Report identifies Saudi Arabia the world’s second largest arms importer in 2018–22 with 9.6 per cent of all arms imports.
The major exporter to Riyadh is the USA providing 78 per cent of Saudi Arabian arms imports which included the delivery 91 combat aircraft, land-attack missiles and 20 000 guided bombs.
With rapprochement with Iran the level of weapons to be acquired for the Yemen contingency by Saudi Arabia may decline but investments in air, missile and drone defence systems can be expected to continue in the days ahead.
Coming on to Asia and Oceania which received 41 per cent of major arms transfers in 2018–22, a slightly smaller share than in 2013–17.
SIPRI marks six states in the region were among the 10 largest importers globally in 2018–22: India, Australia, China, South Korea, Pakistan and Japan a factor of mutual hostilities which are expected to continue.
In the case of Pakistan despite the economic downturn faced over the past few years the quest for weapons acquisitions continues.
South East Asia
In the Asia Oceania region. South East Asia remains an outlier in that there is a decrease by 42 per cent between 2013–17 and 2018–22. This may be surprising as there is a perception of need for consistent arming given challenges posed by China in the South China Sea disputed zone.
This is essentially attributed to cyclical factor of nations “in the process of incorporating equipment delivered before 2018 into their armed forces”.
Notable nations which increased the arms imports have been Philippines at the front line of facing a threat from China and Singapore which is traditionally a major arms spender.
Indonesia has orders for 42 combat aircraft from France, doubling its current inventory, as well as for 3 submarines from South Korea and for 6 frigates from Italy and 2 from the UK indicating that in the years ahead it may even join the Worlds largest arms importers unless these have been spread over a number of years.
India’s continued top spot in the global arms trade-in even though overall imports have declined by 11 per cent between 2013–17 and 2018–22.
While Indian government is attempting to give a push to the indigenous defence industry, the success appears to be limited by, “complex procurement process,” amongst other factors.
India may also be looking as switching from Russian sources due to Western sanctions and inability of Moscow to provide arms at the same level as in the past due to production for domestic consumption dictated by the War in Ukraine.
In turn this may imply increase in the offtake for imports as sourcing from Russia, France and other western sources will be far more expensive than from Russia.
India is also trying to make a mark in defence exports, will it be in the first 25 arms exporters in the World in Arms Transfer report by SIPRI in the follow up years remains to be seen?
Russia’s Arms Export Profile Ahead
Given extensive deployment of major resources in the land spectrum from tanks, IFVs and artillery guns, missiles and munition in the War in Ukraine, Russia’s arms export profile could see a drop in the years ahead. Western sanctions can act as a dampener with countries as Egypt and Indonesia making alternate choices recently.
India may also be looking at alternatives but the flow of imports from Russia is expected to continue with major platforms such as two frigates for the Indian Navy and at least two squadrons of S 400 air and missile defence system awaited.
The slack of Russia may be taken by China and European majors as France and Germany. China may be another beneficiary with countries opting for cheaper weapon systems without necessarily high technology given the adversarial balance that they face.
Thus the SIPRI report identifies that Russia’s arms exports dropped by “31 per cent between 2013–17 and 2018–22, and share of global arms exports decreased from 22 per cent to 16 per cent, while France’s share increased from 7.1 per cent to 11 per cent”.
Clearly geopolitical situation impacts arms transfers as is clearly derived from an examination of the SIPRI Report. 2022 may have been an exception, hopefully given and outbreak of war in Europe which led to sustained build up of weapons in the Continent which has been enjoying a peace dividend for some time.
Given continued geopolitical contestations and emergence of blocks – the West versus Russia/China spending on arms acquisitions will remain high in the years ahead despite the drop by 5.1 percent from 2018-2022 as compared to the previous five years.
The author thanks SIPRI and Siemon Wezeman, Senior Researcher with the SIPRI Arms Transfers Programme for providing an opportunity to discuss the Report.
[i] High risk evaluation is based on the existing threat panorama faced due to ongoing or legacy disputes, conflict resolution opportunities, role of weapons arms as a symbol of state power, legacy of expenditure and so on. This has been linked with the data provided by SIPRI independently.