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Bloomberg News
August 27, 2018
U.S. Retains Top Spot in Latest UN Conventional Arms Register

LIKE ITS FIVE predecessors, the 1997 UN Register of Conventional Arms, dated September 2, fell short of being the international repository for data on arms transfers that was hoped for at the register's inception. A majority of states in Africa, Latin America, Central Asia and the Middle East opted not to participate in the 1997 register. Most arms exporters, however, submitted information on their weapons transfers, providing a rough guide to the 1997 world market, which revealed that Washington delivered more arms than the other 25 participating exporters combined.

Established in 1992 to shed light on any excessive accumulation of conventional weapons, the register calls on UN members to make annual reports on exports and imports of tanks, armored combat vehicles (ACVs), large-caliber artillery, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships and missiles and missile systems. Countries are also invited to volunteer information on military holdings, procurement through national production and relevant policies.

Participation in the register has never exceeded 97 countries or dropped below 93, the mark for 1997. Of the 26 countries that reported 7,808 weapons exports, all but four were from Europe, including successor states to the Soviet Union, and North America. China, which had participated every year since the register's inception and which reported 137 exports in 1996, did not participate in 1997. Forty countries claimed imports totaling 4,504 arms, while 41 of the reporting states noted no imports or exports.

Some of the disparity between notified exports and imports reflects differing national policies in defining and reporting arms transfers, but much of the gap results from a lack of participation by key importing states, notably in the Middle East. Arab states generally boycott the register, arguing that it should be expanded to include weapons of mass destruction.

Data supplied by exporters indicated that the region received 3,172 weapons, including 918 ACVs, 75 combat aircraft and 1,860 missiles and missile systems (1,502 to Israel from the United States). Yet only Israel, Jordan and Qatar submitted information from the region, claiming a total of 32 imports.

U.S. exports, totaling 4,759, surpassed the total of all other exporting states by 1,710 weapons and more than doubled the 1996 U.S. total of 2,342. Because the export totals do not reflect the wide differences in value and usage among listed weapons—a warship and a missile both count as a single item, for example—the register does to some extent exaggerate Washington's share of world weapons exports. Missiles and missile systems alone accounted for 3,072 U.S. exports in 1997.

The top six exporters—the United States, Germany, Britain, Russia, Ukraine and France—accounted for almost 94 percent of reported arms exports in 1997. Germany and Ukraine climbed into the top ranks without exports to the Middle East. All of Germany's exports, except for three warships to Latin America, went to European states, while Ukraine shipped most of its arms to India, Indonesia and Pakistan. London's and Moscow's export totals were roughly the same as in 1996, but Paris almost doubled exports (from 136 to 242), with more than half going to the Middle East.

While intended to hold both importers and exporters accountable for arms deals, the register's value in 1997, as in prior years, suffered from the paucity of importing data to cross-reference with exporting data. Governments also hoped transparency would lead to restraint, but weapons exported in 1997 exceeded those in 1996, 1995 and 1994.

The 1997 UN Register of Conventional Arms: Top 10 Reporting Exporters and Totals

Exporter Battle Tanks ACVs Heavy






Warships Missiles &


United States 169 953 333 205 25 2 3,072 4,759
Germany 26 505       3 468 1,002
United Kingdom   114 25 60 8 5 338 550
Russia 14 389   10 30 2 68 513
Ukraine 105 12   9 2   118 246
France 68 111 56 4 3     242
Netherlands 35 1 92     2   130
Greece 27 39           66
Belarus     6 30 4     40
Israel 15   12       10 37
Total for all

Reporting Exports

(see Note)

491 2,221 576 354 72 19 4,075 7,808
Note: A total of 26 states submitted data on exports to the 1997 UN Register of Conventional Arms. The complete data of the 1997 register—including recipients and reported imports—and all past registers can be obtained from the United Nations at http://www.un.org.

Sources: United Nations, ACA.