Government reports volunteered to the United Nations reveal that 2005 marked the highest volume of major conventional weapons exports in more than a dozen years. Yet, the figures, like those in previous years, do not take into account some arms transfers, a shortcoming that a UN-commissioned group of experts has proposed to rectify.
Beginning in 1992, the UN has urged all countries to provide annually to its Register of Conventional Arms data on their previous year's exports and imports of tanks, armored combat vehicles (ACVs), large-caliber artillery, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, and missiles and missile launchers. The purpose of such voluntary reporting is to help identify when countries are making weapons purchases that might pose threats to their neighbors or regional stability.
In a foreword to this year's experts report to the General Assembly, UN secretary-General Kofi Annan praised the register as playing a "valuable role" in discouraging "excessive and destabilizing" arms accumulations. Argentine Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Roberto Garcia Moritán, who chaired the 20-member experts group, extolled the register Aug. 23 as "an effective instrument to promote understanding between states and prevent surprises."
Still, register submissions for 2005 reveal a robust global arms market. Indeed, the 28 countries claiming exports last year reported 11,987 cumulative weapons deliveries, one of the highest totals in the register's history.
Atypically large exports by Turkey and Israel contributed to the abnormally high tally. Turkey reported exporting 3,040 122-millimeter rocket systems to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Israel shipped 2,422 81-millimeter mortars to Brazil.
Even if the TUrkish and Israeli exports, as well as a Bulgarian transfer of 547 man-portable missile launchers to the United States for destruction, are excluded, the 2005 weapons export total stands as the highest mark in five years.
This wholly quantitative assessment of exports, however, offers an imperfect measure of the character and scale of worldwide arms deliveries by counting one mortar or missile the same as one tank, combat aircraft, or warship. In addition, such summations cannot provide insight into possible transactions rejected by arms suppliers. Nevertheless, raw numbers remain useful indicators of arms market trends and the most active weapons exporters and importers.
Foremost among the world's arms suppliers, the United States carried out 160 more weapons exports than it did in 2004. All told, Washington sent 1,724 arms exports to 21 countries and Taiwan. Almost half of the U.S. deliveries (850 exports) were missiles and missile launchers. Washington also did brisk business in ACVs (511) and combat aircraft (98), including supplying the UAE with three dozen F-16E/Fs and Israel with 22 F-16Ds.
Russia, the chief competitor to the United States in arms deliveries, trailed by nearly 1,000 exports last year. Moscow shipped 744 weapons to 13 customers, including 12 attack helicopters to Sudan. Recent reports, including a Sept. 9 article in The Washington Post, have described a fresh round of Sudanese government helicopter attacks against villages in the war-torn Darfur region.
Moscow's primary customers remain China and India, which together accounted for nearly two-thirds of Russia's 2005 arms exports. India obtained two Russian combat aircraft and 273 missiles, while China acquired 196 Russian-made missiles. The United States is attempting to court India with new fighter jet sales and other military hardware.
Ukraine has emerged as a rising weapons supplier with 649 exports in 2005, up from 349 in 2004. …