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Symbolbild SIPRI Militärausgaben Bericht 2014
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The arms industry

Helle Jeppesen / cd
December 15, 2014

Most weapons are produced and sold domestically. As a result, weapon sales are seeing a year-on-year drop in the US - and a corresponding rise in Russia. But experts say the trend might not last.


Dramatic shifts are rare when it comes to weapons and the nations that export them. The majority of firearms are still produced in the US, Russia or Western Europe.

Increasingly, however, fresh faces are cropping up on the arms transfers report produced annually by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Firms in Turkey, India, Brazil, Singapore and South Korea today rank among the 100 largest weapons-producing nations in the world - even if that means just two companies in India's case or a 50th place spot for city-state Singapore.

"Firstly, it has to do with a political will to create indigenous defense production capabilities," said the director of the study, Aude Fleurant. "Brazil, Turkey, South Korea, for example, have all set up specific policies to ensure the development of arms production capabilities in their countries."

A drop in US sales

The US and its NATO allies are still home to two thirds of the world's weapons-producing companies. Together they account for 84.2 percent of global sales, the SIPRI report said.

But for 38 US firms in the top 100, revenues dropped by 4.5 percent in 2013.

The arms affected were "mostly major weapon systems or platforms such as warships, military vehicles, missile systems and so on - and aircraft," Fleurant told DW. "You have also major suppliers of major subsystems such as engines." Additionally, there are the companies servicing logistics, maintenance, training or other technical services.

Why the sales drop? It's due to America's withdrawal from Iraq and the ongoing withdrawal from Afghanistan combined with budget cuts.

Tomahawk missiles
Made in the USA: The Tomahawk missileImage: AFP/Getty Images/Vincent Yu

Many similar drops in arms purchases can be seen across other NATO members - the most notable exception being France - whose cash-strapped governments have opted to fight recessions rather than upgrade military hardware.

Russia on the rise

The account books for Russia's arms industry, however, are firmly in the black. Revenues are up 20 percent for the companies making SIPRI's top-100 list. A single firm, "Tactical Missiles Corporation," saw sales jump 118 percent in 2013.

"Russian companies' sales have been increasing mostly because of domestic investment so far," Fleurant said.

The Russian government has been investing for years in modernizing the armaments of its armed forces, leaning heavily on the domestic defense industry to do so.

Michael Brzoska, who heads the Hamburg-based Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy, points to the precarious situation of the Russian economy.

"Whether they can finance that is dependent, I believe, on oil prices more than anything else," he told DW.

S-400 Triumf
Russia's anti-aircraft S-400 missileImage: DW

The security expert from Hamburg does not view sanctions, however, as a stopping force in Russia's arms build-up.

"The Russian armaments industry will have larger problems due to the Ukraine crisis," said Brzoska, referring to potential supply shortages for companies sourcing components from Ukraine.

"With Donetsk, supply chains will continue to operate. But with the industries near Kharkiv, it's unclear at the moment how that'll go on."

China: The known unknown

One global player notably absent from the top-100 list is China. That's not because the world's most populous country doesn't have arms firms capable of playing with the big boys, but rather that China provides no reliable data on its domestic armaments industry.

Chinese companies, Fleurant said, produce for both the civilian and military markets, rendering opaque any attempts to split military sales from civilian.

Brzoska estimates China's military procurements at anywhere from 50-60 billion euros ($62-75 billion).

"China, in terms of scale, is probably the second-largest producer of arms," he said.

A Chinese military parade
A few of China's weapons on display at a military paradeImage: AP

A political industry

Increasingly, Chinese weapons are finding international buyers. By Brzoska's estimate, the country exports 2 to 3 billion euros' worth - albeit in relatively niche categories.

"Munitions, small weapons, mines, so things that aren't sold by others, since they're internationally outlawed in some cases."

Where those armaments end up is largely a political decision - just as it is in Germany.

"It's a political question, whether you allow those exports or not," said the director at the Hamburg peace institute. "It's not something of a 'normal' industry. It's a political industry that's dependent to a very large extent on political decisions."

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