The U.S. government sent nearly $10 billion worth of military vehicles and weapons systems to foreign governments last year. The United States is easily the largest exporter of arms in the world, surpassing other producers such as Russia and China by billions of dollars each year.
In the past five years, more than 100 nations have directly purchased aircraft, ships, armored vehicles, and missiles from the U.S. government. When excluding those nations that are not under international embargo, relatively few countries are left out of American arms deals. A few others, however, receive a disproportionately large share of American weapons. Thirteen countries accounted for almost 70% of U.S. 2016 arms exports. Saudi Arabia, a major U.S. partner in the Middle East, received almost 20% of total U.S. weapons exports.
24/7 Wall St. reviewed recently-released figures on state to state arms transfers from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s Arms Transfers Database. These are the 13 Countries buying the most weapons from the U.S. government.
Speaking to 24/7 Wall St., Aude Fleurant, director of SIPRI’s Arms and Military Expenditure Programme, explained the attitude the U.S. government has in regards to its arms exports. “The U.S. considers arms trade as a political strategic relationship. It is more willingly going to transfer weapons to countries in NATO, for instance, than it would to some other regions.” The United States deems a number of countries on this list, including the United Kingdom, Japan, Israel, and Australia, to be more trustworthy partners, and as such they are more likely to receive weapons.
As the world’s largest exporter, the United States also has the largest global weapons manufacturing industry. Of the five companies with the highest weapons and defense revenue, four are U.S.-based. When the U.S. government exports weapons to other countries, one of the many U.S. arms manufacturers — including such giants as Lockheed, General Dynamics, Raytheon, and Boeing — sells weapons to a program managed by the Department of Defense. Those weapons are then sold directly to other countries. Many of these arms sales are based on long-term partnerships and agreements, while other transfers are one-off orders.
The United States is one of the only countries in the world with a military large enough to support a private weapons industry on its own. Because starting up production for a major weapons system can be extremely expensive, nations that seek to maintain a domestic weapons manufacturing industry often rely on foreign trade partners. Rather than supporting local companies by selling their arms, Fleurant explained, many countries opt instead to rely almost entirely on imports.
Many of the nations that account for a high share of U.S. arms exports have demand for armaments, but have insufficient domestic arms production capabilities. These are countries like Saudi Arabia and Iraq, which have high military expenditure as a percent of GDP but few national arms manufacturers. “Countries that have national production capacity source weapons from domestic companies. That’s what the U.S. did during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Fleurant said. “But if you’re a country like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, or the United Arab Emirates, you don’t have national production capacity, or very little, so you’re going to turn to suppliers like the U.S.”
Most of the countries on this list import a large volume of weapons in general because they are either actively involved in military conflict or are in an unstable region where a strong military is regarded as a must. A large number of nations that import hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons from the U.S. can be found in the Middle East or in Northern Africa. “In the Middle East there’s a lot of conflict and tensions. You have the Yemen wars, the Syria war, you have domestic violence in Iraq and Afghanistan. In North Africa, almost all of these countries are dealing with insurgent groups, and there are fears of domestic unrest. All of these create conditions for the Middle East as an increasingly large recipient of weapons,” Fleurant said.
Several other major global arms importers are based in East Asia, where China’s growing and increasingly sophisticated military and its expansion into the South China Sea have put its neighbors on edge. As a result many of China’s neighbors have increased arms imports. South Korea, another major recipient of U.S. weapons, is on high military alert due to its relationship and proximity to its unpredictable neighbor, North Korea.
Mexico’s arms imports from the United States have more than tripled over the past decade as the government there continues to combat violent drug cartels.
To determine the countries buying the most weapons from the United States, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed annual arms transfer data from SIPRI for 2016. These 13 countries had the largest total arms imports for 2016. Additional data from SIPRI included total arms imports by nation as well as imports by specific type of armament. These data only include vehicles, missiles, and other major weapons systems, and exclude firearms. Additional data include military expenditure as a percent of GDP, from the World Bank, as well as GDP (PPP) from the International Monetary Fund.
These are the countries buying the most weapons from the U.S. government.