The Arms Trade

Yesterday iconoclastic commentator on technology, politics and culture, Stilgherrian, shared an interesting discovery on twitter. He had come across the website of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and their Arms Transfer Database. SIPRI has been monitoring international arms trades since 1968 and in the process have assembled an extraordinary database with details of all international transfers of major conventional weapons since 1950. Since March 2007 this database has been available online.

The business of international arms trading is certainly not within my area of expertise, but a rich data-set like this presents a perfect opportunity for a type of data visualization that has not yet appear on the blog: maps. The SIPRI database provides “Trend Indicator Value (TIV)” tables which aggregate trade values between countries. Values are inflation-adjusted, expressed in 1990 US dollars.

Starting with Australia, the data shows that the total value of arms imported by Australia from 1980 onwards exceed exports by a factor of almost 30 times. Imports are largely sourced from North America and Europe, while exports are spread more broadly and include a range of Asian and Pacific countries. Click on the charts to see larger images.

From Australia (Small 2)

Arms transfers from Australia (1980-2008)

To Australia  (Small 2)

Arms transfers to Australia (1980-2008)

Needless to say, the distribution of arms transfers in and out of the USA looks very different. Over the last 30 years, the USA has exported arms to well over 100 countries across every continent other than Antarctica.

From USA (Small 2)

Arms transfers from the USA (1980-2008)

To USA (Small 2)Arms transfers to the USA (1980-2008)

Another big exporter of arms to a wide range of countries is the United Kingdom.

From UK (Small 2)

Arms transfers from the UK (1980-2008)

To UK (Small 2)Arms transfers to the UK (1980-2008)

Russia offers a rather different distribution of arms transfers. Russia has exported arms to almost 100 counties, most notably China, but since 1980 has only imported from Germany, Poland and the Ukraine.


Arms transfers from Russia (1980-2008)

To Russia (Small 2)Arms transfers to Russia (1980-2008)

I will not offer any further comment on this data, but will leave the maps to speak for themselves. If you would like to see a map for any other countries, feel free to contact me on twitter, @seancarmody. I will add them to this flickr image set.

UPDATE: As Mark Lauer correctly pointed out, these maps were originally inaccurate when it came to countries which were formerly part of the Soviet Union. This has now been corrected in the maps above.

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9 thoughts on “The Arms Trade

  1. Mark L

    Hmmm, all the maps seem to treat the former USSR as one country. The SIPRI data shows that Russia has exported arms to other former soviet states, such as Belarus, since 1992, so there should be at least some yellow inside the former USSR borders. Plus, you even mention that Ukraine exported arms to Russia, but only Germany and Poland are yellow on the map. And how did you treat the pre-1992 data for the USSR?

    Another concern is the change in scales across the maps, which could easily be taken to suggest comparable volumes across the chosen countries. The UK exports chart looks more active than the Russia exports chart, but volume from the latter was almost four times higher in the period 1992-2008 (the only period with separate data for Russia). And Australia is certainly a minnow among whales here. How about a chart colour-coded with total export volumes to make the relative contributions clear?

  2. Stilgherrian

    A wonderful beginning to the investigations, Sir!

    Only one question from me at this stage: How would Australia’s arms exports to places like the Pacific islands show up? They’d be very tiny dots on this scale of map, and perhaps invisible? Or is my memory faulty about them even existing?

    For an amusing introduction to how the arms trade works (if one that’s biased against its very existence), try Mark Thomas’ As Used on the Famous Nelson Mandala: underground adventures in the arms & torture trade. He explains how you can set yourself up as an arms trader — something he’s done as a class exercise with groups of teenage schoolgirls.

  3. stubbornmule Post author

    @Mark: you are right about the former USSR. Although the SIPRI data refects the post Soviet borders, the map generating tool is stuck in the past. I’ve been digging around to find out how to update the border data, bit with little progress so far.

    You are also right that the colour scales cannot be used to make comparisons from one map to another. I played around with a few colouring schemes and found it tricky to use a common scale across maps. Most countries would end up with very little differentiation because they are swamped by the size of imports and exports of the largest countries. Maybe I need to think about some kind of logarithmic scale…

    @Stilgherrian: It is certainly a bit tricky to see what’s going on in the Pacific, so here is the list (total exports from Australia from 1980-2008 in 1990 US dollars):

    Papua New Guinea $38m
    Fiji $18m
    Micronesia $18m
    Tonga $18m
    Solomon Islands $12m
    Kiribati $6m
    Marshall Islands $6m
    Palau $6m
    Samoa $6m
    Tuvalu $6m
    Vanuatu $6m

    Thanks for the pointer to the Mark Thomas book. Looks like it’s worth a read.

  4. Stilgherrian

    After reading this post, one of my “former military” contacts says:

    I’d agree Australian military exports to the SWPac may be significant in a regional sense but may not register on a world map based on SIPRI data. But there are qualitative as well as quantitative reasons.

    (Assumption: NZ is excluded from this discussion.)

    It’s true that the SWPac nations’ requirements are modest in a quantitative sense. They don’t maintain large standing armies; in fact, many have no military forces at all. But a quick look at SIPRI’s terms of reference suggests that most of our exports to the SWPac simply fall outside their dataset. Our SWPac customers don’t use, nor do we export, many ‘major conventional weapons’ as defined by SIPRI.

    However, I think the ‘minor’ equipment we do export could influence significantly the effectiveness of our neighbours’ forces. We’ve exported stuff like radios, body armour, and small arms: small beer to SIPRI, but probably enough to tip the balance in a conflict between two SWPac nations, none of whom possess artillery or tanks.

    Conversely, the Pacific class patrol boats displace over 100 tons and are therefore ‘[war]ships’ in SIPRI’s eyes. However, they’re mostly used in a coastguard role, rarely armed, and ISTR they weren’t constructed to full naval specs. Admittedly, the PNGDF deployed theirs to the Bougainville AO, but everyone else uses them to rescue lost fishermen. Kiribati has one, and their constitution prohibits them from raising a military. ‘Arms’, then?

    This ‘end use’ question is — probably correctly– irrelevant to SIPRI. Vanuatu doesn’t have an army as such, but a paramilitary police unit (the ‘Vanuatu Mobile Force’ or VMF). An arms dealer might argue that sales to the VMF weren’t ‘arms exports’ because the VMF is officially part of the police. But it would make no difference if the VMF started shooting….

    So there you go!

  5. Mark L

    I think your chart for Russia actually only covers the period 1993-2008. The SIPRI data show that several other countries exported arms to the USSR between 1980 and 1992. For example, Czechoslovakia’s total for that period was $8.8 billion, way beyond the $300m maximum on your scale, and we have to assume that the bulk of this was from the Czech Republic to Russia, yet Czech Republic is white in your Russia imports chart.

    Adding Soviet exports during 1980-1992 to the Russian exports chart would change it significantly (India would be off the current scale, Germany would no longer be white, and Iraq would be at least dark orange).

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