The International Arms Market: The Price of Success

Britain is the world’s second-largest exporter of arms and military equipment, surely this is a success story? Besides sustaining employment, the export of arms, it is claimed, reduces the unit cost of equipment for the British armed forces and helps project influence across the world.

The World Today Published 1 January 2001 Updated 26 October 2020 6 minute READ

Mark Pythian

Principal Lecturer in Politics, University of Wolverhampton

The economic, military and political benefits of selling arms are said to be clear. But on closer examination this picture of success needs to be heavily qualified. In reality, the sale of British arms in the international market has come at a considerable price, reflected no doubt in the government’s recent decision to draft a Bill on arms export controls.

There is a clear employment stake in the continued export of British arms. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) estimates that in 1997/98 one hundred and thirty thousand jobs were sustained by arms exports – half of them directly and a similar number indirectly. This was over a third of all British jobs relying on defence expenditure. However, this is a high export-dependence in an unstable sector. The market is contracting, with an ever-growing number of suppliers, cut-throat competition and increasingly overt political interventions.

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