Encyclopedia of Sustainable Management

Living Edition
| Editors: Samuel Idowu, René Schmidpeter, Nicholas Capaldi, Liangrong Zu, Mara Del Baldo, Rute Abreu

Arms Export

  • Antonio CastrofinoEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-02006-4_42-1



“Arms export” means the sale of arms made by producing countries to buying countries.


In the centuries that saw the ancient civilizations and the great peoples (Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Romans) flourish, the birth of the warrior figure and subsequently the formation of the organized army led to the first phase of strong investment by the rulers in military spending.

In the following centuries, the invention of ever more lethal weapons led to an advancement in the art of war. In the transition from the Middle Ages to the First World War, the war was transformed from a siege war to a war of attrition. The two industrial revolutions led the companies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to a standardized production that until recently was mostly handmade.

The two great world wars saw a development hitherto unthinkable of the armaments production system. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the culmination of centuries of development and the first real moment of reflection on how much the human being could harm himself. The UN was born in 1945 to maintain world peace and promote disarmament.

The “Cold War” saw, after the Second World War, the USA and the USSR protagonists in a very high international tension which only out of a sense of responsibility on both sides did not result in a nuclear conflict.

Today, the greatest attention is paid to the trade and development of weapons worldwide. The creation of advanced technologies, which if used would bring the whole of humanity and illegal trade to the brink, requires transparency from the producing States and a sense of responsibility to all world governments.

A Brief History of the Production of Weapons

The need to defend oneself from external dangers, whether they are generated by man himself or by nature, or the desire to extend his dominion to other territories, has always pushed the human being, gifted with an intellect superior to other living species present on Earth, to study more sophisticated methods of making weapons.

Over the centuries, during the creation of the first human appropriations, the new figure of the warrior began to develop. It grew from the era of the great Egyptian pharaohs, the Greeks, the Persians, and the Romans onward, a real modern army divided between draft troops and professional soldiers, trained in hand-to-hand combat and the use of weapons since from a young age. His job was to defend against enemy attacks and start military expansion campaigns to increase possessions.

At that time, the production of weapons was always the preserve of local craftsmen, specialized blacksmiths, who forged swords and shields for the warriors and for the gentlemen who commissioned their invoice. The figures of the “Armourer” and the “Gunsmith” distinguished the production of defense weapons, or “white weapons,” such as armor and shields (in the first case), and of offense, such as swords and weapons by fire (in the second case).

The Persian Empire, the largest of the ancient empires, had very strong, multiethnic warriors, the most famous of them called “immortals.” The weapons that the soldiers used were advanced and valuable, like the famous swords: the “akinaka” and the “shamshir.” The Persian army was the first to concretely develop naval warfare.

The archaeological finds demonstrate how the Hellenic gunsmiths were skilled workers of metallic materials and managed to create weapons not only of the highest quality but also with artistic touches of great importance. Famous were the large bronze shields, the “oplons,” and the armor that covered the bust. The Greeks were formidable navigators and strengthened their naval war fleet to the extent that they were large like modern ones.

Alexander the Great, in 336 BC, innovated the Greek army, also taking inspiration from the Persian one. He created an army with various integrated departments, introduced crossbow and catapult, founded military academies, and adequately equipped his men to make them more agile but at the same time fearsome.

Despite the little news found about the production of weapons, during the Roman Empire the weapons were produced by three main producers. The first were the “fabricae,” as attested by the “Notitia Dignitatum,” a text (the official discussion of which is still much discussed) containing the list of Roman military and civilian positions in the late empire. The “fabricae” were managed by the “magister officiorum” which had control over the “fabricenses,” i.e., those who worked in the fabricae. With Diocletian, the “Fabricae” became a state factory. The second producer were the legions, which were provided with highly specialized personnel (gladiarii, scutarii, sagittarii) inside the camp, capable of repairing and producing weapons for the soldiers. The third producer remained the individual craftsman. The production of private weapons was often still carried out in places where the production of state factories was far away.

During the Middle Ages, cavalry, prominent in the uses of barbarian peoples, took the place of infantry. In the Carolingian era, valuable armor also covered a considerable cost for their splendid invoices. But from the tenth century after Christ, the “chain mail” began to spread and the art failed in the manufacture of armor. In the fourteenth century, there was a new important change with the new “plate” armor. We saw the spread in the renaissance of important manufacturing centers for valuable armor. In the Holy Roman German Empire, the guilds of craftsmen who forged weapons flourished in its large cities.

In the transition from the ancient world to the Middle Ages, the development of society saw, therefore, an evolution of the art of war and weapons progressed becoming more sophisticated and deadly. What radically changed the world of weapons was gunpowder. This appeared in ninth-century China and then spread throughout the Asian and European continent. The first weapon was the siege mortar, which allowed to weaken and destroy the walls of the mighty castles.

With the passage to the nation-states in the fifteenth century and the decline of the feudal one, the army became permanent and professional. We pass shortly after the wars of conquest to the wars of attrition. It was during one of these wars, the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), that Gustavo Adolfo invented the paper cartridge for better functioning of the rudimentary rifle.

On an economic level, the passage from the great empires to the nation-states, often led by an absolute monarch, led to difficult maintenance of the expenses of military campaigns in a context where the appearance of financial instruments, banks, and traders gave way to an embryonic international economic system. Thus, often the sovereigns in conflict with each other could not stay there long if not at risk of getting into debt and subsequently having to declare bankruptcy.

All this continued until it reached the two industrial revolutions when, first in England, then in the rest of Europe, it went from artisanal production to an industrial production that was aimed at the mass.

Great protagonists changed history by revolutionizing the weapons existing in those centuries of great innovations – among them: William George Armstrong, who invented the rifled cannon with a retro-charge; Joseph Whitworth in Great Britain, with the invention of the Whitworth rifle, used by the British army; Alfred Krupp in Germany with his steel factory in Essen; Adolphe and Eugene Schneider in France with their steel mill that produced cannons, tanks, ships, submarines, locomotives.

During the modern age, colonialism saw the European powers (Great Britain, France, Portugal, Spain, and the Netherlands) succeeding in predominating over the populations of the territories not yet “civilized,” thanks to their social and economic organization, but, above all, thanks to their power of arms compared to those of the local peoples.

The American War of Independence (1860–1865) was the first modern war to see both peoples fighting with each other involved and an industrial apparatus aimed at their maintenance and production of weapons. The trains allowed a rapid and consistent supply of troops even over long distances.

The second industrial revolution (1870) continued the innovation process, characterizing the new technologies not as the result of an almost random nature but of careful and financed research of specialists and universities.

It is in this period that repeated conflicts gave birth to the machine gun, the mine, the rifles, and the pistols (in addition to the cannons), which greatly improved accuracy and shooting distance. Warships enhanced the iron hull, incorporating turrets with multiple cannons until they reached the modern battleships. In the early 1900s, the submarine made its appearance and in 1903 Orville Wright with an internal propulsion engine flew a first embryonic airplane within seconds.

However, it was the two great wars that characterized a real arms race. Nations converted industries into war and weapon industries, thus radically transforming their economies. Weapons became an instrument of advanced and mass death. Airplanes, tanks, ships, and submarines had become the tools of death that the whole international community was accustomed to knowing and to fear.

At the end of the Second World War, on August 6 and 9, 1945, the release by the USA of the first two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in Japan, certainly marks the culmination of the destructive power of the two wars and gave the whole international society the sense of insecurity to which it was necessary to remedy with closer control of governments and cooperation that increasingly focused on peace.

Thus was born in the same year the UN that gathered around the main nations of the world and had as its objectives the maintenance of peace on the whole planet and the progressive disarmament as well as an arms control and management.

The so-called Cold War (1962–1991) which accompanied the difficult post-war years continued under the banner of such insecurity. The USA and the USSR threatened to unleash a third world conflict that would certainly have been fought with the use of nuclear weapons and mass destruction. The sense of responsibility on both sides averted the worst for the entire international community. In this period, however, both sides were several times on the point of no return and both powers found themselves arming the Satellite States to secure military bases and allied countries already armed in case of world conflict.

The “Nuclear Age”

Nine States have nuclear weapons in the world and only the USA and Russia own 95% of the world’s arsenal (Granoff 2015). The other States are Great Britain, China, Pakistan, France, India, North Korea, and Israel. South Africa renounced nuclear weapons in 1991. The outbreak of a war that could trigger the use of nuclear bombs would jeopardize the existence of entire populations and would be catastrophic.

The “Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – TNP,” signed on July 1, 1968, and entered into force on March 5, 1970, featured both nuclear weapon countries and countries that did not have them. The international treaty, and its 11 articles, aimed at disarmament, nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, and their peaceful use. For this reason, on that occasion, it was established that the countries possessing nuclear weapons should not transfer atomic weapons unless under the control of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) and the countries without them should not try to get hold of them. Currently, 189 countries are signatories to this treaty.

Also, for this reason, the USA and the then USSR signed the first agreements called SALT “Strategic Armaments Limitations Talks” on May 26, 1972, and decided that the number of missiles produced and held (“ICBM” intercontinental missiles and “ABM” anti-missile missiles) should be limited. On that date, the anti-ballistic missile treaty “ABM Treaty” was also signed, which then entered into force on 3 October of the same year. SALT II signed on June 18, 1979 was the fulfillment of the agreements on the limitation of the production of strategic weapons. The “INF Treaty” for the elimination of intermediate and short-range missiles was signed on October 11, 1987. In the climate of the so-called Cold War, agreements continued slowly and with continuous suspension. Thus on July 31, 1991, the agreements on the reduction of weapons owned by the two superpowers continued with the signing of the “START – STrategic Arms Reduction Treaty” agreement, later called “START I” after the signature of January 3, 1993, of the agreement called “START II.”

On May 24, 2002, in Moscow, the two superpowers signed the “SORT – Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty” agreement also known as the “Moscow Treaty,” which had among its objectives the common reduction of nuclear warheads by the end of 2012. On April 8, 2010, USA and Russia signed the “New START” agreement which replaced all the previous “START I,” “START II,” and also the “SORT.” The “New START” aims to reduce the limit of nuclear warheads provided for by the “SORT” by 30% and lasts for 10 years, which can be extended to 15, unless a new agreement is signed between the parties.

The UN and the Arms Treaties

The United Nations has among its objectives the creation of peace between the nations of the world and disarmament and control over weapons. Over time, these objectives have given rise to some of the following tools and treaties.

The “Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons – CCW Convention” (signed on October 10, 1980, in Geneva and entered into force on December 2, 1983) aims to prohibit the use of weapons that are particularly dangerous or that would indiscriminately affect even the civilian population. This Convention is made up of five protocols in which they desire to protect human life as much as possible is evident by prohibiting the use of weapons that produce fragments, mines, and traps, incendiary weapons, blinding lasers, explosive remnants of war. To date, 125 are the signatory States of the Convention (plus 4 signatories).

The “UN Register of Conventional Arms – UNROCA” (created in 1991) is the register containing reports on the legal arms trade declared by 170 states in order to create trust and transparency and discourage massive exchange between countries by also activating diplomacy systems preventive.

The “Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction – Ottawa Treaty” (signed on December 3, 1997 and entered into force on March 1, 1999) has been ratified by 164 States with, however, the absence of states such as China, Pakistan, Russia, USA, India, and South Korea. The objectives of the Convention were the rapid destruction of the stocks of anti-personnel mines owned by each state, the reclamation of the mined areas within 10 years of entry in force of the Convention and assistance to victims.

The “Program of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects” (adopted in 2001) was created to contrast the illicit market for small arms and light weapons. Two subsequent review conferences in 2006 and 2012, four biennial meetings, and a meeting of experts from the various governments in 2011. In 2005, the “International Tracing Instrument (ITI)” was introduced asking the states that they adequately mark the weapons and that they create and maintain the relevant registers also to create greater international cooperation aimed at tracking. Achieving this goal is part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The “Firearms protocol” (resolution 55/255 of May 31, 2001, signed on July 11, 2001, which entered into force on July 3, 2005) is the protocol against the illicit manufacture of weapons which completes the “United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (Organized Crime Convention).” The protocol sheds light on the need to manage arms trade flows to prevent them from being intercepted by the illicit market.

The “National Legislation on Transfer of Arms, Military Equipment and Dual-Use Goods and Technology” (adopted in 2003) deals with regulating the trade in weapons, software, and technologies potentially usable in two versions both by the military and by the civilian population. This regulation requires a great deal of research about new technologies and the exchange of information between states, an effort required by the UN General Assembly.

The “ATT-Arms Trade Treaty” (adopted on April 2, 2013, and entered into force on December 24, 2014) is the first international treaty aimed at two main objectives: the regulation of the arms trade and the fight against illicit trafficking. The treaty aims to raise contracting states’ awareness of the suffering caused by weapons in the hope that the path of disarmament will soon be followed. There are 96 States Parties and 130 are the signatories. Articles 6 and 7 are important. Article 6 lists the cases where the arms trade is prohibited; Article 7 instead lists the criteria according to which a state must accept or reject an export request. The fourth conference of signatory states was held in Tokyo in August 2018 in which efforts were made to reach more and more low-income states, especially in the Middle East and North Africa.

SIPRI and Data on the Arms Trade

The independent international institute SIPRI, “Stockholm International Peace Research Institute,” was founded in 1966, to study and analyze conflicts, military expenses, armaments, and arms trade, with a view to “peace study.” Since 2011, in its “Yearbooks,” SIPRI has published the annual data obtained from its research translated into different languages.

SIPRI estimates that global military spending totaled $ 1.822 billion in 2018. This expenditure was 2.6% higher than in 2017 and 5.4% higher than in 2009. The USA in a logic of increasing the stock of weapons (conventional and nuclear) in their possession and an increase in military salaries have military spending increased by $ 649 billion.

In the 2019 Yearbook, SIPRI classifies the top five exporting countries: the USA, Russia, France, Germany, and China; and the top five importing countries: Saudi Arabia, India, Egypt, Australia, and Algeria.

To date, SIPRI tells us about an international reality in which the transparency of the data that each State delivers to the UN, regarding the production and trade of weapons, is increasingly fundamental. International arms transfers increased by 7.8% between 2009–2013 and 2014–2018. Seventy-five percent of the market is occupied by the five major world producers. The gap between the USA and Russia (first and second world producers respectively) was 12% in the period 2009–2013, reaching 75% in the period 2014–2018.

The volume of these exports sees Asia, Oceania, and the Middle East among the main importing countries. Asia and Oceania collect 40% of imports in the period 2014–2018 and the Middle East 35% with an increase in flow in the periods taken as a reference. In the 2014–2018 period, Europe imported only 11% and Africa imported 7.8%.

The SIPRI in its Yearbook studies and analyzes data relating to the major arms industries. According to SIPRI, the top 100 producers generated $ 398 billion in 2017.

Still in the global framework outlined by SIPRI, there are 36 multilateral arms embargoes imposed in 2018 – 14 UN, 21 EU (of which 10 implement UN ones), 1 Arab League. These embargoes were aimed at IRAN and North Korea while some EU also addressed Russia and Syria.

The four control systems envisaged for continuous technological updating and to combat illegal purchases are still active:
  • Australia Group (AG)

  • Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR)

  • Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG)

  • Wassenaar Arrangement (WA)

The EU has sought to expand its interest in “dual-use” and the ongoing control of arms exports. The EU and the USA have tightened controls on foreign direct investment for these types of sensitive technologies.

Particular cases have been in recent years IRAN and North Korea. The “JCPOA - Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” is the agreement signed on July 14, 2015, in Vienna for the elimination of medium-enriched uranium and the 98% reduction of low-enriched uranium in Iran to end heavy sanctions economic measures of resolution 1747 for the nuclear program setup. Furthermore, on the principle of nonproliferation, Iran has undertaken not to build new heavy water reactors. In 2018, however, a crisis scenario opens with the USA which, by requesting the Government to withdraw the Pasdaran from Syria, unilaterally abandons the agreement and once again requires economic sanctions on Iranian oil and banks. The European Union criticizes the US choice, which sees in this choice the risk of weakening the moderates present in the country in favor of ultraconservatives. Tensions rise after the Iranian ultimatum in 2019 and the killing of General Qasem Soleimani in a US raid in 2020, and Iran announces that it will resume the nuclear energy program.

North Korea has resumed its nuclear program since 2006. According to the SIPRI calculation in January 2019, the Asian country would have owned about 20–30 nuclear warheads. The escalation with the USA, which also threatened armed intervention if necessary, stems from the latter’s request to suspend nuclear tests started by the North Korean regime. The UN Security Council has also imposed economic sanctions, including restrictions on oil imports for the Pyongyang government. The ongoing negotiations will hopefully ward off conflicts that could lead to the use of atomic weapons.

Cybersecurity, Darknet, Terrorism, and Submerged Markets

The Europol “European Police Office” was born on July 1, 1991 to combat criminal activities carried out within the European Union. Illegal (including computerized) arms trade is still widespread in the less politically stable areas of the planet, but not only. Being the payment of weapons in the so-called Darknet (black market of the network) completely anonymous, it allows the buyer not to be traced and in some cases to buy with cryptocurrencies. The Darknet is in itself a flexible tool, in a continuous state of innovation and above all without any border barrier. Also for this reason, collaboration with the private sector through public–private partnerships is fundamental in combating these types of crime.

With the Schengen Treaty and the elimination of borders between European states, it requires further internal control over the flow of firearms. The European Directive 91/447/EEC created the “European Firearms Card” which is issued to anyone who holds firearms. After the signing of the “United Nations Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing and Trafficking of Firearms,” additional to the “United Nations Convention against Crime,” this directive was updated. Directive (EU) 2017/853 and Implementing Regulation 2015/2403, following the terrorist acts in France, were instead evidence of a greater awareness of the need to combat the terrorist use of firearms (Nunzi 2018). The European Agenda on Security was equally relevant.

The European Security Agenda (of April 28, 2015), providing for shared actions between the European Union and the Member States, has been prepared for the maintenance of security within European borders and the effective contrast of terrorism, organized crime, and computer technology.

Illegal weapons mainly come from smuggling routes that see the Balkans as protagonists (where the arms embargo on the former Yugoslavia favored illicit trafficking often in the hands of local mafias), North Africa (especially the Maghreb, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria), and the Middle Orient.

The small arms and light weapons, “SALW,” of which the western countries are exporters, are the most smuggled and also those which are held responsible for the greatest number of deaths each year.

Key Issues

In addition to being a trade with decidedly important revenues, the arms trade is closely linked to the confluences that still today do not cease to inflame entire areas of our planet. Furthermore, illicit trade feeds terrorist and criminal groups that do not help stabilize these areas. The lack of transparency of the States toward the UN on the arms trade still allows getting lost in the flow of weapons destined for submerged markets.

Future Directions

In the near future, it will be necessary to implement transparency between States through the implementation of UN brokerage and to promote cooperation, disarmament, and peace more and more. Countering the illegal trade in weapons must always be a priority for all producing states that must increasingly control the flow of weapons they produce with greater accuracy. New technologies will increasingly focus on sophisticated and deadly systems of armaments which, if not regulated and ended up in the Darknet, in the terrorist and criminal circuit, could prove potentially harmful to all humanity. The steps on Cybersecurity are still not well defined and soon need clear lines of intervention shared globally. Even the steps of the “Biological and Toxic Weapon Convention - BTWC” on the disarmament and nonproliferation of chemical and bacteriological weapons are, despite the growing attention, still not entirely sufficient in a world scenario in constant evolution.


The arms trade found its beginning in ancient times, with ancient civilizations often fighting for territorial supremacy and the appropriation of resources. The weapons have thus been increasingly advanced and deadly over the centuries. The watersheds between ancient war weapons and modern war weapons were the two great industrial revolutions and the two world wars. The arms race of those years was a run-up not only to greater productivity but also to the search for the most sophisticated offensive and defensive technology. Thus arrived at the end of the Second World War the weapon that would have frightened the entire planet for its destructive force: the atomic bomb. Today the arms trade follows several paths, legal and otherwise. Darknet today is one of the most important threats that prevent a real fight against arms smuggling, and for this reason, the global role of cybersecurity becomes increasingly important. The SIPRI, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, founded in 1966, analyzes world trade in its “Yearbook” and gives the world governments the picture of the major exporting countries and the major arms importing countries of the world.



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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Unitelma Sapienza UniversityRomeItaly

Section editors and affiliations

  • Carmela Gulluscio
    • 1
  1. 1.Unitelma Sapienza UniversityRomeItaly