SIPRI: European arms imports nearly double, Russian exports fall

Line of Defence Magazine - Autumn 2024

US soldiers fire a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) during a joint live-fire exercise. Image: US Army

Ukraine conflict and perceptions in Asia over China’s ambitions impact on materiel imports internationally with Ukraine the largest European arms importer and Asia having largest share of transfers.

States in Europe almost doubled their imports of major arms (+94 percent) between 2014–18 and 2019–23, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) data Around 55 percent of these were supplied by the USA, up from 35 percent in 2014–18.

“More than half of arms imports by European states come from the USA,” noted SIPRI Director Dan Smith, “while at the same time, Europe is responsible for about a third of global arms exports, including large volumes going outside the region, reflecting Europe’s strong military–industrial capacity.

“Many factors shape European NATO states’ decisions to import from the USA, including the goal of maintaining trans-Atlantic relations alongside the more technical, military and cost-related issues. If trans-Atlantic relations change in the coming years, European states’ arms procurement policies may also be modified.”

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US and French arms exports climb, while Russian arms exports plummet

The USA’s arms exports grew by 17 percent between 2014–18 and 2019–23, and its share of total global arms exports rose from 34 percent to 42 percent. The USA delivered major arms to 107 states in 2019–23, more than it has in any previous five-year period and far more than any other arms exporter.

The USA and states in Western Europe together accounted for 72 percent of all arms exports in 2019–23, compared with 62 percent in 2014–18.

“The USA has increased its global role as an arms supplier—an important aspect of its foreign policy—exporting more arms to more countries than it has ever done in the past,” said Mathew George, Director of the SIPRI Arms Transfers Programme. “This comes at a time when the USA’s economic and geopolitical dominance is being challenged by emerging powers.”

France’s arms exports increased by 47 percent between 2014–18 and 2019–23, and for the first time it was the second biggest arms exporter, just ahead of Russia.

The largest share of France’s arms exports (42 percent) went to states in Asia and Oceania, and another 34 percent went to the Middle East. The largest single recipient of French arms exports was India, which accounted for nearly 30 percent. The increase in French arms exports was largely due to deliveries of combat aircraft to India, Qatar and Egypt. 

“France is using the opportunity of strong global demand to boost its arms industry through exports,” said Katarina Djokic, researcher at SIPRI. “France has been particularly successful in selling its combat aircraft outside Europe.”

Russian arms exports fell by 53 percent between 2014–18 and 2019–23. The decline has been rapid over the course of the past five years, and while Russia exported major arms to 31 states in 2019, it exported to only 12 in 2023.

States in Asia and Oceania received 68 per ent of total Russian arms exports in 2019–23, with India accounting for 34 percent and China for 21 percent.

Looking at the other top 10 arms exporters after the USA, France and Russia, two saw increases in exports: Italy (+86 percent) and South Korea (+12 percent); while five saw decreases: China (–5.3 percent), Germany (–14 percent), the United Kingdom (–14 percent), Spain (–3.3 percent) and Israel (–25 percent).

Steep rise in arms imports to Europe

Arms imports by European states were 94 percent higher in 2019–23 than in 2014–18. Ukraine emerged as the largest European arms importer in 2019–23 and the fourth largest in the world, after at least 30 states supplied major arms as military aid to Ukraine from February 2022.

The 55 percent of arms imports by European states that were supplied by the USA in 2019–23 was a substantial increase from 35 percent in 2014–18. The next largest suppliers to the region were Germany and France, which accounted for 6.4 percent and 4.6 percent respectively.

“With many high-value arms on order—including nearly 800 combat aircraft and combat helicopters—European arms imports are likely to remain at a high level,” said Pieter Wezeman, Senior Researcher with the SIPRI Arms Transfers Programme. “In the past two years we have also seen much greater demand for air defence systems in Europe, spurred on by Russia’s missile campaign against Ukraine.”

Largest share of arms transfers goes to Asia

37 percent of transfers of major arms in 2019–23 went to states in Asia and Oceania, the largest share of any region but a slight decrease from 41 percent in 2014–18. Despite an overall 12 percent decline in arms imports for the region, imports by several states increased markedly.

For the first time in 25 years, the USA was the largest arms supplier to Asia and Oceania. The USA accounted for 34 percent of arms imports by states in the region, compared with Russia’s 19 percent and China’s 13 percent.

India was the world’s top arms importer. Its arms imports increased by 4.7 percent between 2014–18 and 2019–23. Although Russia remained India’s main arms supplier (accounting for 36 percent of its arms imports), this was the first five-year period since 1960–64 when deliveries from Russia (or the Soviet Union prior to 1991) made up less than half of India’s arms imports.

Pakistan also significantly increased its arms imports (+43 percent). Pakistan was the fifth largest arms importer in 2019–23 and China became even more dominant as its main supplier, providing 82 percent of its arms imports.

Arms imports by two of China’s East Asian neighbours increased, Japan’s by 155 percent and South Korea’s by 6.5 percent. China’s own arms imports shrank by 44 percent, mainly as a result of substituting imported arms—most of which came from Russia—with locally produced systems.

“There is little doubt that the sustained high levels of arms imports by Japan and other US allies and partners in Asia and Oceania are largely driven by one key factor: concern over China’s ambitions,” said Siemon Wezeman, Senior Researcher with the SIPRI Arms Transfers Programme. “The USA, which shares their perception of a Chinese threat, is a growing supplier to the region.”

Middle East imports high volumes of arms

Thirty percent of international arms transfers went to the Middle East in 2019–23, and three Middle Eastern states were among the top 10 importers in 2019–23: Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt.

Saudi Arabia was the world’s second largest arms importer in 2019–23, receiving 8.4 percent of global arms imports in the period. Saudi Arabian arms imports fell by 28 percent in 2019–23, but this was from a record level in 2014–18. Qatar increased its arms imports almost fourfold (+396 percent) between 2014–18 and 2019–23, making it the world’s third biggest arms importer in 2019–23.

Egypt was the world’s seventh largest arms importer in 2019–23 (ahead of Australia in eighth place). Its imports included more than 20 combat aircraft and a total of 10 major warships aimed at increasing its military reach.

The majority of arms imports by Middle Eastern states were supplied by the USA (52 percent), followed by France (12 percent), Italy (10 percent) and Germany (7.1 percent). The USA accounted for 69 percent and Germany for 30 percent of arms imports by Israel.

“Despite an overall drop in arms imports to the Middle East, they remain high in some states, driven largely by regional conflicts and tensions,” said Zain Hussain, researcher at SIPRI.

“Major arms imported in the past 10 years have been used widely in conflicts in the region, including in Gaza, Lebanon and Yemen. Some states in the Gulf region have imported large volumes of arms to use against the Houthis in Yemen and to counter Iranian influence.”

Africa imports less

Imports of major arms by states in Africa fell by 52 percent between 2014–18 and 2019–23. This was mainly due to large decreases for two North African importers: Algeria (–77 percent) and Morocco (–46 percent).

Arms imports by states in sub-Saharan Africa decreased by 9.0 percent. China, which accounted for 19 percent of deliveries to sub-Saharan Africa, overtook Russia as the region’s main supplier of major arms.

The SIPRI Arms Transfers Database has provided consistent information on all international transfers of major arms (including sales, gifts and production under licence) between states, international organisations and non-state groups since 1950. Its reflects the volume of deliveries of arms, not their financial value. As the volume of deliveries can fluctuate significantly year-on-year, SIPRI presents data for five-year periods, giving a more stable measure of trends.