The global commerce in lethal weapons and their accessories is a nefarious multitrillion dollar business. Corruption and secrecy are its accomplices. Its perpetrators are a tribe of scheming villains whose ill-intent is to shape the world according to a devious master plan.
This is how you can think about the international arms industry and its related activities. There is truth in these assumptions–but not complete truths. Because strange contradictions are also present in the business of selling deadly wares. Evil arms dealers are real but their meager efforts pale in comparison to the mundane transactions between governments–legitimate or not–who need weapons for their own ends.
Here’s an amusing contradiction. There is a great deal of secrecy in the arms business even when it’s perforated with exposure. This brings a selection of organizations into focus. In a world where arms are trafficked with impunity there exist various groups that keep a watchful eye on what weapons are sold where.
To give credit where it’s due blogs and websites run by military enthusiasts are helpful in the same pursuit. Just fire up a search engine and trawl away. The difference is their methods depend on open sources rather than investigative research.
But this is about organizations, not hobbies. Here they are.
Arms Control Association (ACA)
The ACA is a longstanding non-profit think tank (founded 1971) whose Cold War roots have left it a strong foundation in research and subject matter expertise on nuclear proliferation. It’s a heritage that isn’t far removed from the older Federation of American Scientists (FAS).
The organization is best known for its free magazine Arms Control Today whose superb coverage of WMDs and rogue states makes it an essential text in any serious war college. Aside from the magazine and its back issues the ACA provides a digital archive of reports on conflict and security issues.
To add icing on their cake visitors can sign up for a curated ACA newsletter that shares valuable intelligence on global arms proliferation.
The ATT-BAP was launched shortly after the United Nations began enforcing the Arms Trade Treaty in 2014. ATT-BAP is a collaboration between veteran researchers Rachel Stohl and Dr. Paul Holtom.
Together they’ve assembled an incredible online resource that allows anyone to review whether UN member states are compliant with the ATT. This is important for two reasons. First, it helps explain the value of the ATT. Second, it serves as a lens for examining countries that export conventional weapons.
As a learning tool for the new rules on buying and selling conventional arms the ATT-BAP is top-notch.
Armament Research Services (ARES)
ARES are a poor fit for the think tank community and their 11-person setup (plus contractors and volunteers) identifies as a “technical intelligence consultancy” rather than a stuffy non-profit. ARES’ strength is in examining media from active war zones to determine how various small arms and weapon systems end up where they do.
Owing to their vigor and exuberance ARES have made huge strides in recent years. Aside from beating press agencies to scoops on their official blog, their free PDF reports are valuable to researchers, analysts, laymen and professionals alike. The content is rich, the writing concise, and the investigative zeal is impressive.
In short, these guys are essential reading.
Launched in 2011 with funding from the European Union, CAR tracks the spread of conventional weapons in active war zones.
CAR’s greatest asset is its growing library which catalog and examine the different arms found in battlefields around the world. The fruits of this on-the-ground research is then fed to iTrace, an interactive maps that charts real-time weapons proliferation.
Another offspring of the UN’s ATT started out as an awareness campaign in 2003 and has since become a full-blown NGO committed to examining the arms trade.
The organization has achieved a lot on very little. With a full-time staff of just nine people along with regional volunteers it assembled a substantial multilingual library that’s free to read.
Control Arms also functions as a media outlet and publishes its own coverage of the ATT’s implementation alongside editorials that extol its virtues.
Although not as well-known as the Rand Corporation the FAS’ history and level of expertise makes it one of the most credible think tanks in the world today. Despite its preoccupation with nuclear arsenals the FAS’ growing focus on critical security threats gives it an edge over its peers.
Why? It’s really a combination of a superb interface and great writing. FAS blogs, archives, and intelligence briefs are comprehensive to a fault without getting lost in boring technical detail. Even their dated Military Analysis Network counts as the Internet’s most accessible guide to modern armaments after Wikipedia.
As a think tank, alternative media outlet, and resource the FAS are in a league of its own.
The GMI is an online resource launched by the Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC). It’s an interactive map for examining the percentage of GDP spent on militaries, a phenomenon it calls “militarization,” which is always a reliable metric when anticipating a war.
The GMI’s data spans a quarter century beginning in 1990 until the present and indicators (by way of color schemes) are provided for criteria like military expenditure, military personnel, and heavy weapons.
The GMI is a superb measuring tool for the macro-factors influencing national budgets and arms sales.
The IASC is an American think tank dedicated to scrutinizing “security issues” and writing about these for the benefit of US policymakers.
Over the years the IASC’s digital footprint has expanded thanks to the vast amount of writing from its staff and contributors–a small pool of less than 20 people.The IASC publishes analysis, commentary, research, and ebooks on various subjects that may or may not pose a threat to US interests.
Although the FAS appears to be doing the same thing, the IASC differs by voluminous texts on advanced hardware and their impact on potential wars.
IISS is one of the leading US think tanks that examines the Pax Americana phenomenon as a long-term war machine. It doesn’t bother with the arms industry per se but its security research is the creme de la creme in important circles.
The IISS’ biggest selling point, other than a continuous torrent of expert opinion, is its The Military Balance. The annual report takes stock of ongoing wars and the technology used in them. There’s also a hefty does of macro-regional analysis to identify oncoming threats and potential crises. Its Armed Conflict Database, similar to the one used by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), is a handy tool for researchers who need statistics on current mass violence.
Given the IISS’ prominence it’s like a distant cousin operating across the pond from the venerable consultancy IHS Jane’s. In many ways the activities, expertise, and coverage of both organizations overlap.
This Belgian research institute is another wunderkind when it comes to enforcing transparency on the intertwining of arms and warfare. Now in its fourth decade IPIS boasts some of the world’s best arms research and fact-finding capabilities.
Other than its well-stocked library IPIS maintains an enormous catalog of reports on the arms industry, human rights, capacity building for NGOs and local communities, conflict mapping, exploitation of natural resources, and corporate social responsibility.
IPIS offers country-specific literature as well for post-conflict and war-torn states. Its media activities are just as impressive since IPIS offers a variety of intelligence briefs and even paid-for consulting.
Eschewing data streams for stark simplicity MilitaryBudget.org offers listings for–you guessed it–military budgets around the world.
The figures it publishes are divided among five world regions and amounts are based on research by the prestigious SIPRI (scroll down) and the CIA World Factbook.
MilitaryBudget.org doesn’t exactly blow the lid on the intricacies of the global arms trade but it does help by making a key indicator like state defense budgets known.
NISAT was launched in 1997 as a collaborative project between Norway’s Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), Red Cross, and Church Aid. Its do-gooder agenda is “preventing and reducing armed violence.”
NISAT offers a wealth of archived information dating on the arms trade to the mid-1990s although their current activities don’t extend beyond 2014. A genuine treat is the Document Library with its 58,863 files related to small arms and light weapons. But researchers need to get in touch with a contact person to access this trove.
There’s also the Mapping Arms Data or MAD interactive graphic for charting arms exports around the world that complements a trade database on transfers.
Small Arms and Light Weapons Guide (SALW-Guide)
SALW-Guide is another project of the BICC and functions like an OWASP for small arms used around the world. Just imagine a tool anyone with internet access can use to identify weapons in an ongoing conflict.
SALW-Guide’s interface is just as appealing for its ease of use. Four separate databases are available to identify specific weapons, their ammunition, markings, and countries of origin. This allows researchers to learn which small arms go where and the countries that already possess them.
Given the broad nature of its subject matter there are gaps in the SALW-Guide’s data. After all, some countries (North Korea, Turkmenistan, Sudan) don’t publish any statistics on their conventional arsenals. But when it comes to functionality the SALW-Guide is hard to beat.
Small Arms Survey (SAS)
SAS is a project based in Switzerland with funding from EU member states, the US, and the UN. Launched in 1999 its mission is an ambitious one: to collect the best data on “all aspects of armed violence.”
Two decades later and the breadth of media published by SAS is astounding. To think their current staff is just 35 members strong. Not only does its website offer a vast multilingual research library on conventional arms proliferation but a wealth of writing is available on modern warfare, national arms industries, and regulations on either.
SAS even has its own tools and literature for researching the arms trade, including an interactive map that tracks the incidence of mass violence. At this point everything a researcher needs can be found at SAS.
SAM takes a US-centric approach to its work, which is aggregating data and news about American hardware reaching every corner of the globe. The think tank Center for International Policy (CIP) along with several partners were responsible for launching it.
SAM features a world map divided into seven regions that each have their own statistics on four vital metrics. These are military & police aid, development aid, the monetary value of arms sales (East Asia is the leader here), and “trainees” or US military personnel assisting allied militaries.
Aside from its map SAM functions as a media outlet providing three streams of content. There’s a blog rife with analysis, a news aggregator on US foreign policy and conflict, and an event calendar for occasions where think tank wonks congregate.
This fiercely analytical Swedish think tank is a media favorite when it comes to concrete facts on the arms trade. SIPRI specializes in defense budgets and global exports but in recent years its activities have taken an analytical bent.
Founded all the way back in 1966 and funded by grants from the Swedish government, SIPRI accomplishes much with very little. Just consider its staff of less than 70 people who are mostly writers with strong academic and editorial backgrounds. Its digital library and related media is top-notch open source material for studying modern war.
The UN has its fingers in many pies. One of them is a helpful interactive map that offers real-time data on weapons sales among member states. Entitled The Global Reported Arms Trade it offers users vast quantitative metrics on multiple categories relevant to the arms industry.
Click on a specific country and the graphic reveals its exports and imports for conventional weapons, small arms, domestic procurement, national military holdings, and national policies. Data is available from as far back as 1992.
For each country separate tabulated charts appear that gives specific numbers of exports and imports for tanks, armored vehicles, artillery, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, and missiles acquired in the last 25 years. (Along with their place of origin.)
Transparency International Defense & Security (TI-Defense)
The British NGO known for rooting out corrupt practices maintains its own “Defense and Security” office. It’s a strictly by-the-book outfit that liaises with defense ministries and contractors to encourage self-policing, i.e. all parties involved subscribe to the rules for purchasing arms and military equipment.
Thanks to Transparency’s strong empirical tradition TI-Defense offers a wealth of data, reports, media, and intelligence on the global arms trade with a strong focus on corrupt practices. Their website and its vast digital library is a treat.