The export of arms has been critical to war efforts for centuries. The best example in recent history was the “Lend-Lease” program signed into law in 1941 by Franklin Roosevelt. It allowed the U.S. to provide aid, which included weapons, to the U.K., Free France, and The Republic of China. Among the most important results of the program were ships sent to the U.K in the early part of WWII.
Ukraine is the most recent example of arms sent to a country that is in the midst of the war. One critical part of the program is that countries, which include America, have provided weapons to the Ukrainians without compensation. Several NATO nations have joined the U.S. in this effort.
The arrangement with Ukraine is the exception and not the rule. Usually, arms exporters expect to be paid for their weapons. It is one of the backbones of the success of military contractors like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. This, in turn, has made these corporations among the largest in America.
Using data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, or SIPRI, 24/7 Wall St. identified the country that is the largest exporters of arms. We considered countries based on the value of their arms exports as a share of all arms exports globally from 2017 to 2021. The United States and Russia alone account for over half of all global arms exports.
Many of the highest-ranking countries we reviewed are home to some of the world’s largest defense contractors. The United States, which alone accounts for over one-third of global arms exports, is home to each of the five largest defense contractors in the world, including Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman.
Strategic international alliances are often reflected in the countries that sell arms to one another. For example, about 23% of all U.S. arms exports go to Saudi Arabia, a controversial yet key U.S. ally in the Middle East that has been providing military support to Yemen in their civil war since 2015. Australia and South Korea, the second and third largest buyers of U.S. military exports, are also key American allies.
The largest arms exporter in the world is the U.S. Here are the details:
- Share of global arms exports, 2017-2021: 39%
- Largest recipient: Saudi Arabia (23% of total)
- 2nd largest recipient: Australia (9.4% of total)
- 3rd largest recipient: South Korea (6.8% of total)
- Annual military expenditure: $778.2 billion (3.7% of GDP)
Methodology: To identify the world’s largest arms exporter, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Countries are ranked on the value of their arms exports as a share of all arms exports globally from 2017 to 2021. We also included SIPRI data on the three largest recipient countries for each exporter, ranked by the share of arms purchased. Percentages below 10 are rounded to 1 decimal place; percentages over 10 are rounded to whole numbers. Supplemental data on annual military expenditure in current U.S. dollars and military spending as a share of GDP are also from SIPRI and are for 2020, the most recent year for which data is available.
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