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The UK’s 2019 defence and security exports – examined

The UK has retained its position as the second-largest defence exporter in the world, according to annual figures published by the government

Despite a £3 billion drop in defence orders from 2018, the UK still sold £11 billion worth of military equipment last year (2019), constituting 16% of the global defence market. This is roughly one-third of America’s 47% market share. 

Sales have ballooned in the last two decades, with the annual value of the UK’s defence exports more than four times that of 25 years ago (£2.6billion in real terms).

The Middle East continues to be Britain’s best customer when it comes to defence, with nearly 60% of all defence sales going to the region in 2019.

The UK defence sector is dependent on aerospace production, which contributes to around 90% of sales. Recently, there has been a push from arms companies to persuade the government to fund the manufacture of an un-piloted laser-armed Tempest fighter jet, at a cost of £25 billion. A decision is expected at the end of 2025 which has been described by a BAE director as “critical to sustaining the UK’s combat air sector”.

Caveats: Russia and China

When it comes to comparing different countries’ arms exports, though, there is an issue with opacity. And it might be assumed that some in the UK government might want to make British arms exports appear larger than they might be, in comparison to other nations on the Security Council.

Russia, for example, is listed third in the UK’s Department for International Trade rankings. Yet, as the Jamestown Foundation has pointed out, there is a measurement issue when it comes to Russia.

“Rosoboronexport, Russia’s arms export agency, does not publicize total annual sales figures. In addition, some companies can sell arms directly to clients, bypassing Rosoboronexport, and may not disclose information. When Moscow does disclose Russia’s arms sales figures, the details are generally sparse,” it reported in 2017. 

Russia’s market is largely reliant on Asia. India, China and Vietnam are the principal sources of demand for Russian weapons in the region. The UK may be looking to encroach on this area, with a new defence logistics pact signed with India and the head of the British Army declaring there to be a ‘market’ for a UK military presence in South East Asia.

In addition, China, who are normally excluded from arms trade rankings due to lack of transparency, is estimated by SIPRI to actually be the second-largest arms producer in the world.

So, whilst the UK is clearly a leading arms exporter, to say it is second in the world needs to be taken with a liberal pinch of salt.

Security Exports

Despite this, the value of the UK’s security exports boomed last year to £7.2 billion, an increase of 39% (£2 billion) from 2018. This growth bumped the UK up to third in their published global security export rankings. The largest markets for UK security products were Europe, North America and Asia-Pacific.

Questions have been raised over the sector after it was revealed that the UK government approved exports of military equipment and weaponry to both Azerbaijan and Armenia, despite being signed up to an arms embargo to both nations, due to their fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Significant orders in the past 10 years

  • Typhoon aircraft (left) to Kuwait;
  • Typhoon aircraft and Brimstone missiles to Qatar;
  • Hawk & Typhoon aircraft to Oman;
  • Typhoon aircraft to Saudi Arabia;
  • Hawk aircraft to India,
  • Helicopters to Norway and South Korea;
  • Trent 700 aircraft engines to France offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) to Brazil;
  • F-35 work and bridging to USA.

Conclusion

It is clear that, in a post-Brexit world, the UK is hoping that its arms exports will be a leading money-earner for an economy already reeling from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. And such ambition is already impacting the UK’s foreign policy.

In September, the Chief of the General Staff, announced that the British Army was to have a ‘more persistent presence’ in Asia as the Government seeks to expand its military ties with regional allies there. General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith suggested that a greater UK presence in the Indo Pacific region was to reverse the regional withdrawal seen after 9/11, when Britain’s focus shifted to the Middle East.

But when the head of the Army claimed there was ‘a market’ for a more persistent presence from the British Army in the Far East, perhaps he inadvertently showed his hand: that it is not just defence that might make the UK government want to engage more in Asia. But the trading opportunities in arms that such military engagement might create.