The Arms Industry: Exactly How Global is Arms Production?

Gauging global arms production is not easy. When the most reliable source of data reports by company, rather than country, it’s difficult to determine globality.

Gauging global arms production is not easy.

While there are readily available data sources for global military spending and the trade in major weapons, for instance from SIPRI, no comparable information is available for arms production worldwide.

There is a data source which sometimes is mistaken to be about national arms production: the SIPRI TOP 100 list of arms producing companies. This list’s unit of reporting is companies, not industries or countries.

Therefore, data aggregated for all companies with its headquarters in one country regularly does not correspond to national arms production, as some of the production is sold.

Furthermore, in many countries, smaller arms producing companies combine to produce a large share of national arms supply, but none of them makes it into the SIPRI TOP 100 list. Finally, the SIPRI top 100 data does not include Chinese companies for lack of comparable data.

Still, the SIPRI Top 100 list provides much inside into the global arms industry, including its composition and relative importance of companies. This became clear during a workshop organised by SIPRI in March 2018.

Speakers Ron Smith and Paul Dunne, for instance, presented econometric analysis of the TOP 100 data, updating a paper published in 2016.

The global arms industry is much less concentrated than comparable industries

This indicates that the global arms industry is considerably less concentrated than comparable civilian industries. Concentration has also been falling. For instance, the share of the top five companies among the TOP 100, which was 45% in 2002, fell to 37% in 2016.

They also noted that concentration rates for the civilian side of major arms producing companies was higher than that for arms production.

One important reason for this trend is the domination of the global market for civilian aircraft by a few arms producing companies, namely Boeing and Airbus.

The largest arms producers in the world

Dr Herbert Wulf showed that even the largest arms producers in the world have small turnover compared to major companies in civilian industries.

He noted that with their arms sales, only the three top arms producers in the SIPRI list, Lookheed Martin Corporation, Boeing and BAE Systems would make it into the list of the Fortune Global 500, a list of the companies worldwide with the highest sales.

This should not surprise, however, as with the exception of a few countries such as Israel and Russia, the arms industry is a comparatively small industrial sector.


Its political importance is obviously higher. One major reason for the comparatively low degree of concentration of the global arms industry is the preference given by most governments to procurement of weapons from national sources.

This is quite different from customer behavior in most industrial markets, at least until the recent swing towards “national first” in some countries, most prominently in the United States.

The arms import ratio of countries with major arms industries

Another expression of the parochial nature of many arms markets is the arms import ratio of all countries with major arms industries. The extreme case is the United States, where less than 4% of national demand for arms were imported in 2015.

The Grubel-Lloyd Index

There also is comparatively little international Intra-industry trade in arms. Few countries are both major exporters and importers of arms. One often-used measure of intra-industry trade is the Grubel-Lloyd Index*.

While for most major industrialised countries the Index for most categories of manufacturing goods is well above 0.5, which implies that imports and exports of goods in this category are not overly different, for arms it was as low as 0.09 for the United States, and even in Germany, which had the highest ration, it was below 0.4 in 2015.

Governments prefer domestic to foreign arms

In order to determine further the extent to which governments, who are the prime actor in arms markets, prefer domestic to foreign arms, and thus limit the degree to which arms industries are globalised, more information on domestic arms production is needed.

The SIPRI TOP 100 data is useful but limited to aspects that can be investigated with the help of company data. More national or sectoral, data could improve our understanding of global military affairs.

Particularly when combined with other available data, such as data on military expenditures and the arms trade, the data could provide additional information about relative sizes of national arms production as well as differences among countries with respect to the degree of self-sufficiency in military matters.

How to increase transparency in the global arms industry

Several proposals were made during the SIPRI workshop on how to increase transparency in global arms production. However, reliable estimates require additional data, which is not available at present.

Using the available data on military expenditures, arms transfers, or the SIPRI TOP 100, in order to refine the currently rough estimates, will require major data collection efforts and the use of econometric techniques to fill the gaps.

It remains to be seen whether any research or policy institution, can and will take up the challenge.

*Calculated (within a specific category of goods) as 1- (│Exports-Imports│)/(Exports + Imports)