ONLY a few months ago, Canadians were earnestly debating whether or not the country’s Liberal administration was right to go ahead with executing a $12bn contract to deliver armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia. The government said it would, but acknowledged its critics’ concerns by agreeing to adopt a version of an international treaty that limits arms sales to rogues .
However, things took a different turn. It was the Saudis who plunged the deal into uncertainty. After Canada’s foreign minister urged the release of some political prisoners on Twitter, the Saudi government declared that all new business with Canada was suspended. This left Canadians unsure if the kingdom still wants the arms deal. And if the Saudis do walk away, plenty of other countries will be happy to supply armoured cars. “They could get their combat vehicles from Turkey, South Korea or Brazil,” says Pieter Wezeman, a researcher at SIPRI, a Stockholm-based think-tank.
In the United States, meanwhile, Congress has been pressing the administration to implement the letter of a law that would force countries to make a hard, instant choice between buying American or Russian weapons. But the Pentagon is hinting that America’s huge diplomatic power does not quite stretch that far. Defence officials argue it would be better to accept that some countries will go on buying Russian weapons for a while, in the hope they will gradually kick the habit.
Both these developments reflect the volatile (and from a Western viewpoint, barely controllable) state of the global arms market. Total demand is growing, the number of sellers is rising and the Western countries that have dominated the business are less confident of shaping the playing field. Above all, buyers are becoming more insistent on their right to shop around. For the likes of India, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, “this is a buyer’s market,” says Lucie Béraud-Sudreau of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think-tank.
Speak softly and sell a big stick
The numbers show that the global commerce in conventional weapons is still dominated by the United States. But America feels strangely nervous about maintaining that role, and this year it has adopted a more aggressive sales posture. Under a policy proclaimed in April and mapped out in more detail last month, American diplomats have been told to promote weapons sales more actively and speed up procedures for approving them.
At first sight, American apprehensions seem puzzling. There are several ways to measure the arms market, but America comes out on top of all of them. SIPRI has studied the volume of cross-border weapon transfers over the five years to December and compared them with the previous five years (see chart).
The size of the world market rose by 10% between the two periods. In the more recent one, America’s slice of this expanding pie was 34%, up from 30% in the previous five years. America and its five nearest rivals (in descending order Russia, France, Germany, China and Britain), account for nearly 80% of total transfers.
Britain, meanwhile, claims that last year it jumped to third place among global arms exporters, as measured by the value of their sales. According to the Defence and Security Organisation, a government body, America bagged 53% of the global business, its “highest-ever market share”. This left 16% for Russia and 12% for Britain, double the share taken by France.
In part, the jumpiness in Washington, DC, stems from the entry to the market of new competitors, especially China. In part it reflects new products and technologies where America will struggle to keep its lead. Both these challenges were highlighted by the appearance at last year’s Paris Air Show of a Chinese military drone that looked very like the American unmanned aircraft that have been used for assassinations, for example in Pakistan. Hitherto, America has been willing to share these powerful drones only with close European allies. A new policy will broaden the range of customers and thus lessen the risk that China will dominate a market that could soon be worth $50bn a year.
China has long been better known as a buyer of arms, mainly from Russia, than as a seller. A big share of its arms deliveries have gone to close allies such as Pakistan. But it has enormously increased its capacity to make and sell its own weapons, including ships and submarines.
Meanwhile, American arms-export policy has been a delicate balance between, on the one hand, seizing economic and geopolitical opportunity and, on the other, being careful not to share technologies which could destabilise war zones or be used against the United States.
But such caution can be counter-productive. At a panel discussion in Washington this month, a defence-industry advocate lamented that, because of America’s technology-transfer curbs, France had won from it a contract to sell airborne radar to India. “I like the French, but I like American industry even more,” he grumbled.
In another Franco-American contest over technology, France is finding it hard to sell more Rafale combat aircraft to its prize arms customer, Egypt, because the accompanying Scalp cruise missile incorporates American know-how, the transfer of which to third parties is barred. France has promised to develop its own technology, but Egypt may not have the patience to wait. Egypt’s government has also been a keen purchaser of Russian equipment, including aircraft and attack helicopters.
For defence-equipment manufacturers such as Britain and France, export sales matter ever more as a way to maintain their own industries. Britain’s edge in military aviation may depend on its sales to Saudi Arabia. And the Royal Navy’s ambitious building programme got a boost when Australia said it would buy British for a new range of frigates. France wants to develop a new air-to-air missile, but only, as Florence Parly, the defence minister, put it, if it can get foreign customers.
Such desperation adds to the frenzy of market competition. So does the utter indifference Russia and China display towards their customers’ human-rights policies. So too does the growth in the number of countries that have graduated from being mainly buyers of weapons and knowhow to sellers—Turkey, the Emirates and South Korea, for example.
Japan, which boasts a huge defence industry, is entirely new to the market. It plunged in when the government lifted restrictions on arms exports in 2014. It competes, albeit from a fairly weak position, with China for Asia-Pacific customers.
As for Russia, SIPRI calculates that its share of the global market has slipped (to about 22% in 2013-17). But it offers a blend of tried-and-tested hardware and, to a few customers, superb know-how, especially in air defence.
That creates a dilemma for America, which hopes soon to sell weapons worth $6bn to India, but is dismayed by that country’s determination to acquire S-400 air-defence systems from Russia: missiles that could ward off potential threats from China or Pakistan. Other countries intent on continuing to buy Russian include Indonesia and Vietnam.
Jim Mattis, America’s defence secretary, has implored Congress not to be too harsh with Russia’s customers, so long as they pledge gradually to reduce their reliance. In a letter leaked in July to Breaking Defense, a specialist news service, he told a congressman: “We are faced with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to decrease Russia’s dominance in key regions.” But that could only happen if America were free to sell its own weapons. For customers, that means that for the foreseeable future they can keep both American and Russian weapons in their arsenals.
It is telling that India has recently been admitted to the Missile Technology Control Regime, a group of countries which promises not to help pariah states obtain ballistic missiles. That will make it easier for both America and Russia to sell long-range rockets to India. The two arms-sales giants, who do not agree on much else, have welcomed India into the club.