Introduction to the Arms Trade

The arms trade is a deadly, corrupt business. It supports conflict and human rights abusing regimes while squandering valuable resources. It does this with the full support of governments around the world.

A UK-made Saudi-Arabian Tactica armoured vehicle driving into Bahrain
Still from video footage of British-made Saudi armoured vehicles entering Bahrain to help crush pro-democracy protests.

The arms trade is dominated by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council: China, France, Russia, UK and the US, along with Germany and, increasingly, Israel. The permanent members alone account for around three quarters of exported arms.[1]

While relatively few countries sell large volumes of weaponry, the buyers are spread across the world. Some of the largest purchasers are in the Middle East and South and East Asia.

The arms themselves range from fighter aircraft, helicopters and warships with guided missiles, radar and electronic warfare systems, to tanks, armoured vehicles, machine guns and rifles.

There is often confusion about the legality of the arms trade, with the impression given that it is the illegal trade that is damaging while the legal trade is tightly controlled and acceptable. However, the vast majority of arms sold around the world, including those to human rights abusing governments or into conflict areas, are legal and actively supported by governments. [2]

This 'Introduction to the Arms Trade' focuses on this legal trade. It relates primarily to the UK, as one of the world’s largest arms exporters and the arms exporter that is most relevant to CAAT and its supporters.


  1. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's arms transfer database provides a figure of 72% for the supply of major conventional weapons by the US, Russia, China, UK and France during 2010.
  2. Rachel Stohl and Suzette Grillot, The International Arms Trade, Polity Press, 2009, p.187: “In 2007, the value of legal arms sales around the world amounted to approximate $60 billion. Black and grey market sales most likely account for another $5 billion.” Beyond this, many of the weapons on black and grey markets start as legal arms. The book identifies a number of routes by which weapons shift from legal to illegal (pp.100-107).
Page created 2 August 2011
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