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U.S. companies control 35% of the global arms industry. The growing weapons market is fueled by wars in the Middle East and by Trump’s excessive defense budget and aggressive posturing.

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GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.

The global economic crisis of 2008 and the Obama years brought a reduction in global military expenditures and in the global arms trade. However, ever since Donald Trump became president, the global arms industry has been booming. A new report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI, shows that in 2018, global arms trade increased by 4.6% over the previous year. The top 100 arms companies in the world sold weapons with a total value of $420 billion that year.

The most notable increase is among U.S. arms companies, which increased sales by 7.2% and have taken over all five top spots among the world’s largest arms manufacturers. Also, U.S. arms manufacturers made up 59% of the arm sales of the top 100 arms companies. In addition to the increase in U.S. arm sales, the SIPRI report finds that Russian arm sales remained stable, France increased its weapons exports, and Britain and Germany saw a decrease in their arms exports.

Joining me now to discuss the SIPRI report is Aude Fleurant. She is Director of SIRPI’s Arms and Military Expenditure program and joins us from Stockholm, Sweden. Thanks for being here today, Aude.

AUDE FLEURANT: Thank you for inviting me.

GREG WILPERT: Given the 4.7% increase in arms sales between 2017 and 2018 and the 47% increase between 2002 and 2018, why do arm sales continue to climb so much now that there is no Cold War to drive the conflicts? Does your analysis provide any clues for answering this question?

AUDE FLEURANT: Yeah. There are usually three main drivers of increased arms sales for companies, one of which is a new cycle of procurement funding from the state, which usually all the contracts go to all the companies that could be actually involved in that project. This is one that is currently being started by President Trump. But every single cycle of procurement has increased arm sales because those sales are produced by the companies. Armed conflict and also increasing strategic tensions at the regional or global level is also a driver of higher arm sales. There’s a feeling or perception, and therefore we turn to the military and the military industry to provide some of the means for defense or for being active in a conflict.

The third one is obviously being involved in a conflict. This is very costly. We’ve seen it with Afghanistan. It takes a lot of weapons, a lot of ammunition, and this also increases the sales of the arms industry. We are in a cycle right now that combines all those three drivers which have boosted the growth of the sales, mostly due to the ongoing conflicts, so far. But the procurement program that is coming is going to continue this increase unless it doesn’t go through.

GREG WILPERT: Now, the wars in Syria and in Yemen, and to a lesser extent the conflicts in Ukraine and Myanmar, are consuming a lot of weapons. But these are all asymmetrical conflicts in which there are many actors involved and many countries providing arms for the stronger side, that is for one side. Under these circumstances, in which arms manufacturers from many countries actually benefit, how is it possible then for the U.S. companies to increase their market share relative to that of their competitors?

AUDE FLEURANT: I really don’t see how much they could increase. The U.S. is already dominating the global market. It has relationships in terms of arms transfers, military aid and just plain arm sales with about a hundred countries. That’s quite a lot. Those relationships have been established since the Cold War for the most cases and still NATO is very much alive in Europe. That’s also a U.S. dominated organization to which a lot of European countries are still very much attached. The sales of weapons to European Union from the U.S. are pretty, pretty high too.

They are already very much by far the largest either arms producer, but also the largest arms exporter because they have a lot of destination of country recipient, that we call. So no. I mean they could eventually increase, but it would be probably smaller an area that might be difficult or that the U.S. would refuse to sell weapon to due to humanitarian issues or due to different types of factor. This happens also.

GREG WILPERT: Now, warfare has changed quite dramatically in recent decades and continues to change. Tanks and warships are no longer designed to fight each other because wars are fought with a combination of surveillance technology, sophisticated missiles, drones, and cyber warfare. Now how does SIPRI deal with these changes? That is, can you tell us for example what proportion of arms manufacture is actually in the form of homeland security technology rather than conventional weaponry? What role does the growth of surveillance technology play in the arms trade more generally?

AUDE FLEURANT: Unfortunately, we don’t collect these figures because they are very difficult to find. There is no indication of what the price of the software is. Actually in several cases, if you’re thinking about computers in combat aircraft and other types of subsystem and in electronics communication system, we don’t know what the software is so we can’t assign it any value and the companies do not disclose these kinds of information.

The way they present their arms sales, because we only work on open sources and using their annual reports or secondhand reports or different types of publication, they will give a breakdown between like we did this many in this segment, which is electronics. Which doesn’t tell us much what electronics are for, how much do they cost specifically for each and so on. Unfortunately for this, we have only the total of the arms sales of the company that we can use according to our definition, and it obviously includes these components. It’s just that the prices for these specific components are not disclosed.

GREG WILPERT: Now, finally, for peace activists who read the SIPRI reports, it is especially interesting to understand the causes for a reduction in arm sales. Now, your report shows that in 2018 Germany and the UK, two of the world’s biggest arms producers, saw decline in their arms sales. What are the reasons for this, and do you think there are policies or grassroots actions that could reproduce such factors in other countries in order to slow down weapons sales and thus human suffering?

AUDE FLEURANT: Well, unfortunately, the decrease for those two countries were due to delays in the production of very big platforms, such as ships in the case of Germany. So it doesn’t have a relationship with reducing the capacity or actually starting to wind down production because they have everything they need. Usually if you see a process of reduced militarization or reduced arms procurement, it’s going to take more than a few years before things will start to show in the figures. It takes time.

The 1990 conversion and diversification of the industry, due to the fact that the budgets were very low, has taken a time to materialize in terms of the figures that we saw from their arms sales at the time. We haven’t seen so far that some of the decreases year on year would be tied to the fact that the state would have decided not to go and build these weapons and produce them and buy them. It’s mostly delays, problems, technical problems at the test phase, these kinds of things.

GREG WILPERT: Well, that’s not very encouraging, but we’re going to have to leave it there for now. I was speaking to Aude Fleurant, Director of SIPRI’s Arms and Military Expenditure Program. Thanks again, Aude, for having joined us today.

AUDE FLEURANT: Well, thank you to you too.

GREG WILPERT: Thank you for joining The Real News Network.

Studio: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley
Production: Genevieve Montinar, Adam Coley, Andrew Corkery

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Aude Fleurant has been working on the arms industry, military expenditure and arms transfers for 25 years, since her PhD dissertation on arms industry conversion. She has been entrusted for senior positions related to her expertise in Canada, France and Sweden.