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UK Arms Exports Surge in 2022: an Analysis

In the world of international arms trade, the United Kingdom has long been a significant player. The latest data on UK arms exports in 2022, as evidenced today in the Campaign Against Arms Trade’s (CAAT) annual report, reveals some concerning recent trends and raises important questions about the country’s role in the global arms market. 

Spike in Arms Export Licenses
One striking revelation from CAAT’s data analysis is the remarkable increase in the value of Single Individual Export Licenses (SIELs) issued for items on the Military List in 2022. These licenses, which cover various defence equipment, reached a staggering £8.5 billion. This represents a staggering 109% surge compared to the previous year and is the highest figure recorded since the data was first published in 1998. While SIEL values have been known to fluctuate over the years, such a substantial increase is significant and implies a possible overall rise in arms exports. These exports included combat aircraft to Qatar and bombs and missiles to countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and India.

Over the five-year period from 2018 to 2022, the total value of SIELs amounted to £25 billion, contributing to a five-year average of £5.0 billion, a record high. This consistent upward trend, even when adjusting for inflation, underscores the UK’s continued prominence in the global arms trade.

Open Individual Export Licenses (OIELs)
In 2022, the UK issued 1379 Open Individual Export Licenses (OIELs) for Military List items, marking a 36% increase over the previous year, the second-highest level recorded since 2017. However, the value of exports conducted under individual OIELs varies widely. Many of these licenses go to smaller or medium-sized companies that, despite holding OIELs, may not engage in substantial export activities.

Top Export Destinations
Qatar emerged as the top destination for SIELs by value in 2022, with Saudi Arabia, the USA, Türkiye, and Ukraine following closely behind. Over the five-year period from 2018 to 2022, Saudi Arabia, the USA, Qatar, Italy, and India were the top recipients. Qatar’s prominence grew in 2022 with the delivery of Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft, which had received export licenses in May of that year.

The USA has consistently maintained a high level of SIEL values over the past decade, though the majority of UK arms exports to the USA occur under open licenses. Meanwhile, Türkiye significantly increased its SIELs in 2021-2022, including substantial licenses for technology related to tanks and military vehicles.

Ukraine, in the fifth position for 2022, experienced a significant increase, with £401 million in exports—almost ten times the total value of SIELs issued to the country from 2008 to 2021. However, a considerable portion of UK arms supplies to Ukraine in 2022 consisted of military aid from UK military stockpiles, which does not require export licenses.

Regional Breakdown
Analysing the regional breakdown of SIELs in 2022, the Middle East accounted for 54% of the total value, followed by Europe (19%), the US and Canada (14.7%), the Asia & Pacific region (10.4%), Latin America and the Caribbean (1.4%), and Africa (0.6%). Besides Qatar and Saudi Arabia, significant recipients included the UAE, Bahrain, and Israel.
Within Europe, France, Italy, Spain, and Germany were the top recipients after Ukraine. India and Taiwan led in the Asia Pacific region, followed by Indonesia and South Korea.

Equipment Categories
Looking at equipment categories on the Military List represented by SIELs, ML10 (aircraft and components) retained its position as the largest category by value at £3.5 billion in 2022, followed by ML4 (bombs, missiles, and countermeasures) at £1.8 billion. Notably, licenses for ML5 (sensors and targeting equipment) more than tripled to £1.0 billion in 2022. Small arms (ML1) also more than doubled, reaching £442 million, with 62% of these licenses heading to the USA.

The data on UK arms exports in 2022 paints a complex picture of the country’s involvement in the global arms trade. While the surge in SIEL values is remarkable, it raises concerns about the nature and extent of these exports. The shifting landscape of top recipients and the regional distribution of arms exports also highlight the evolving dynamics in the international arms market.

Dr. Samuel Perlo-Freeman, Research Coordinator of Campaign Against Arms Trade told AOAV: “The UK arms trade is growing again, and the government continues its irresponsible approach of arming dictators and warmongers with little regard to the consequences, so long as the arms industry profits. “

“Even now there is talk of major new sales of Eurofighters to Saudi Arabia, with the UK rolling out the red carpet for Mohammed bin Salman,” Dr Perlo-Freeman said, “despite his horrific human rights record and the still unresolved war in Yemen. Türkiye is another major current customer actively engaged in armed conflict, and with a terrible human rights record, with talk of even bigger deals in the pipeline. As well as highlighting these and other cases, our report emphasises the continuing large transparency gap in UK arms exports, which prevents proper scrutiny of this deadly trade.”

As the UK continues to play a prominent role in the arms trade, it is crucial for civil society organizations, policymakers, and the public to closely monitor these trends and engage in critical discussions on the ethical and humanitarian implications of such exports. This report serves as a stark reminder of the UK’s role in the global arms trade, with a focus on promoting transparency and accountability in this critical sector.