Oscar Larsson and Richard Reeve

29 August 2018 

Update: This research note was amended on 31 August 2018 to include an appendix on the Arms Trade Treaty.

This research note from Oxford Research Group’s forthcoming Sustainable Security Index (SSI) pulls together data on arms exports. It aims to measure the extent of countries’ arms sales according to three criteria: the total volume of arms exports per capita, the proportion of exported arms sold to internally repressive states, and the proportion sold to countries whose militaries are engaged in illicit use of force abroad.

This is a rather broader look at the nature and impact of arms exports than found in other indices or analyses that might, at most, look at total volume of arms sales and/or arms sales to states with repressive domestic policies and practices. We aim to do that, but also to analyse sales to those states that use actual or implied force (and thus weapons) in contravention of international law. Often these are states with quite liberal, rule-abiding domestic practices.

All figures on arms exports have been standardised using the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s (SIPRI) Trend Indicator Value (TIV)[1] estimates from 2016-17. The benefit of using a standardised unit of measure, as opposed to analysing the actual “deliveries of major conventional weapons”, is that it allows comparison between data on various sorts of exports on a consistent scale (SIPRI, 2017).

The Sustainable Security Index’s Arms Control & Peacekeeping category has a total of 25 indicators. In this research note, we assess a weighted compilation of just three of these that measure the extent of the arms trade of particular states, namely:

  • Proportions sold to internally repressive states, based on scores by Freedom House (2018), where we consider any state with the category of ‘Not Free’ as repressive. The lowest scores are given to states that export more than 90% of their total arms exports to such countries. [33.33% of total weighting]
  • Proportions sold to ‘interventionist’ states, based on ORG’s own indicator data within the Sustainable Security Index, which measures to what extent states use their military illicitly abroad. As before, countries with arms exports over 90% to such countries are given the lowest score possible. [33.33% of total weighting]
  • Total arms exports (TIVs) per 100,000 inhabitants, where countries that export more than 10 million TIVs per 100,000 population (100 TIVs per capita) are penalised with the lowest score. [33.33% of total weighting]

Figure 1 presents our provisional findings, rating the highest to lowest scoring major arms exporting states as quantified in the Sustainable Security Index.

It is worth first noting that we are here only comparing states that engage in significant arms trading. Of nearly 200 countries worldwide, only one-quarter (49 countries) were recorded by SIPRI as active in selling arms abroad in 2016-2017 and of these only 28 recorded sales above the 80 million TIV threshold that we felt was useful to cross-compare states here. Thus, the majority of states (not depicted here) get a perfect rating by default as they do not engage in any recorded arms exports. Beyond this, there are one or two anomaly states that almost certainly do trade in weapons but don’t show up in the statistics, North Korea being the most obvious. We have not tried to correct such suspected omissions here.

For those that do trade arms, some headline figures may help to establish context. Of all states, in 2016-2017 the global averages of arms exports going to internally repressive and externally interventionist states were about 40% and 32%, respectively.

Russia is the worst-scoring country on the Arms Exports indicators as a whole, scoring poorly on all three indicators but especially so on its per capita volume of arms exports. The United States, which is by far the world’s largest total exporter of arms (23 billion TIVs in 2016-2017), ranks sixth from bottom here, above France, the UK, Israel and industrial newcomer the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Indeed, among the ten lowest-scoring states overall, five Western democracies feature. The most prominent (but by no means sole) reason for this is their willingness to sell to repressive regimes. France exported 4.4 billion TIVs in 2016-2017, of which roughly 57% was sold to internally repressive states, most notably Egypt, the UAE, China, Saudi Arabia, and Uzbekistan. Similarly, the United States exported 46% of its total arms sales to authoritarian states, including the above states plus Qatar, Iraq, Afghanistan and Turkey. The UK sold a staggering 75% of all its exported arms to such repressive states, overwhelmingly to Saudi Arabia and Oman. A few other more obviously illiberal states, such as Ukraine, Turkey and the UAE, exported almost all (>80%) of their arms to internally repressive states in 2016-2017.

Equally relevant are exports to countries that use their military illicitly abroad. We measure this through a separate sub-index that aims to provide a quantifiable assessment of how each state uses its military externally. Indicators include actions such as illegal annexation and/or occupation of foreign territory, militarisation of territorial disputes, and foreign military interventions not authorised by the UN.[2] Some of these countries may also be regarded as fully functioning democracies internally, but they are at least as prone as illiberal states to use military force externally in contravention of international norms and law. In this sense, it is an innovative way of measuring the impact of a state’s arms trade. For example, France exported 71% of its total arms exports to this category of states in the last year, whereas the UK sold over 62% to such states, ranging from the United States to Saudi Arabia. Switzerland has one of the worst ratings overall for such sales, sending nearly two-thirds of its arms exports to Gulf States, China, Pakistan and Jordan in 2016-2017.

Total arms exports per capita is also an important measure, in which countries as diverse as Russia and the Netherlands perform very poorly. By far the worst performing on this indicator is Israel, which exported almost 31 million TIVs per 100,000 inhabitants in 2016-2017 (an increase of 9 million TIVs over 2015-2016). This is more than three times the per capita volume of arms exports of any other state. As Figure 2 shows, the extent of a country’s arms trade, and its importance to the national economy, can be very different on a per capita basis to a simple measurement of total output. The latter rarely tells us much more than how big and industrial a given country’s economy is. 


At the other end of the scale, Indonesia, India and Portugal are the best-performing countries. Indonesia exported 196 million TIVs in 2016-2017, which consisted of two transactions to Philippines and Senegal, neither of which is categorised as repressive (although the former has made moves in this direction) nor particularly prone to use military force illegally abroad. Portugal exported 228 million TIVs, which was a single transaction of a dozen used F-16 fighter aircrafts sold to Romania. Thus, this may not be an entirely indicative reference for the long-term behaviour of either country. India sold only 3% of its arms to an unfree regime, i.e. Afghanistan. Moreover, it exported no arms to interventionist states and most of India’s arms trade (or donations) is conducted with its “partly free” neighbours. Persuading foreigners to want to buy its weapons is a longer term priority for India.

In fourth place, Canada’s arms trade is another interesting case. It maintained a relatively low volume of exports at about 230 million TIVs and sold its arms to a wide mix of countries. About 38% and 27% were sold to repressive and interventionist states, respectively, and more of its arms trade has been with Western and American democracies, such as Mexico, Australia, Italy, Peru and Brazil. However, Canada has not been averse to selling to the Gulf States and signed a multi-billion-dollar arms deal (its largest ever) to sell armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia in March 2018. Saudi reaction to Canada’s separate intervention on women’s rights activists does place this deal in jeopardy. Finland (fifth) is similarly let down by its armoured vehicle exports to Egypt and the UAE.

Despite notching up total arms exports of about 3.3 billion TIVs in 2016-2017 (fifth largest), China ranks sixth from top in our data on arms exporters. Its relatively positive score here is in large part due to its high population, much reducing its per capita arms sales volume. But China also exported only 35% of its arms trade to internally repressive states, which is below the global average. As with India, which exports far lower volumes, in reality most of China’s trade (64%) is done with partly free Asian neighbours, such as Pakistan, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Indeed, in such instances as Myanmar, one may feel that the Freedom House political rating is a poor indicator of the extent to which a state uses force internally.

Australia (seventh) is defined largely by its exports to the United States. Thus, it mostly exports to other democracies but also to an interventionist state. In eighth place, Brazil performs relatively well on the extent of its diverse arms exports relative to its large population but is brought down as most of its exports (56%) went to Afghanistan, in a deal paid for by the United States.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that Sweden, despite its ostensibly ethical foreign and trade policies, finished just outside our top ten. It sold 41% to unfree regimes (just above the global average), the main customers being Algeria (over 30%), UAE and Thailand. The Algeria deal in particular (for anti-ship missiles and naval radar) significantly hampers Sweden’s score. This is despite it now having a legal framework that should restrict arms exports to such repressive states. Since 2017, the Swedish Parliament has passed a bill that proposes to establish a democracy criterion on arms exports, but while this would in theory restrict the weapons trade, it has not been completely prohibited. The Government may still decide that a particular arms trade deal can be in the interest of defence and national security. Regardless of this, Sweden only sold 20% to interventionist states, primarily the United States.

To sum up, a more sustainable approach in terms of arms exports should include endeavours to limit arms exports overall. Concerns should be paid to where arms exports go. With a few notable exceptions, both repressive and interventionist states are demonstrably the most likely to use arms against civilians or in contravention of international law. Thus, taking the appropriate action to limit arms trade with these countries is a necessity in order to perform better on our Arms Exports indicators.

Appendix – Note on the Arms Trade Treaty

One data source that we have opted not to use in this research note is whether a state has signed up to or ratified the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which in theory would regulate their ability to sell weapons to states acting repressively at home or abroad. While we do believe that endorsing and adopting the ATT is a good thing, and have used it elsewhere as an indicator of compliance with international norms, we have found that a state’s ATT status does not typically make any difference to its actual conduct in selling arms.

As Figure 3 shows, the aggregate Index scores for the 49 arms-exporting states grouped into three categories of ATT states parties (those that have ratified the Treaty), ATT signatories, and ATT non-signatories do not show any meaningful difference or progression. Indeed, those states that have signed but not ratified the ATT score better than those states that have ratified it. The Ratified group, which includes inter alia the UK, France and Switzerland, is the most likely group to sell its arms to both internally repressive and externally interventionist states. Four of our six best performing states (Indonesia, India, Canada and China) are still non-signatories to the ATT. This suggests that there is still a lot of work to do in enforcing the implementation of the Treaty before it becomes a demonstrably useful legal tool.

About the Sustainable Security Index

Oxford Research Group’s (ORG) Sustainable Security Index (SSI) is a new product that aims to measure the net impact of each of the world’s states on global security. It is based on more than 50 indicators and sub-indicators that provide quantifiable evidence of each state’s impact on conditions that we believe contribute to greater human security and well-being and thus contribute to sustaining peace and preventing violent conflict. It should be stressed that this is very different from attempting to measure “national security” impact.

Our indicators are grouped into the three main categories, namely (1) Equality & Inclusion, (2) Arms Control & Peacekeeping and (3) Climate & Environment. These are given an equal weighting within the Index, with scores out of ten. The first full Index of 170 states will be published in autumn 2018.

Data Sources Used


Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. (2017). SIPRI Arms Transfers Database.

Freedom House. (2018). Freedom in the World.       

World Bank. (2017). Population, total.

Oxford Research Group. (2018). Illicit Use of Military Force Abroad. Available autumn 2018 in ORG’s Sustainable Security Index.



[1] ‘The TIV is based on the known unit production costs of a core set of weapons and is intended to represent the transfer of military resources rather than the financial value of the transfer. Weapons for which a production cost is not known are compared with core weapons based on: size and performance characteristics (weight, speed, range and payload); type of electronics, loading or unloading arrangements, engine, tracks or wheels, armament and materials; and the year in which the weapon was produced. A weapon that has been in service in another armed force is given a value 40 per cent of that of a new weapon. A used weapon that has been significantly refurbished or modified by the supplier before delivery is given a value of 66 per cent of that of a new weapon’ (SIPRI, 2017).

[2] Nineteen states are currently classified as exceeding our threshold to be considered ‘interventionist’ on the SSI: Armenia, China, Egypt, Eritrea, France, India, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkey, the UAE, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Image credit: torange.biz.

About the Authors

Richard Reeve is ORG's Chief Executive and the Director of the Sustainable Security Programme. 

Oscar Larsson has been with ORG as the Sustainable Security Programme’s Intern since July 2017. He is currently assisting in the development of the Sustainable Security Index, which tracks global trends in common security. His main responsibilities include data collection, standardisation, analysis and helping with the general management of the index.