American Power: Where is the United States exporting its weapons?

By Ramy Rachmiel |  20.01.2022 | Translated by Yishai Gelb
Image by Michael Afonso

American military power is reflected in its technological superiority with advances in cyber, space, guided and ballistic missiles, and especially American fighter jets. The global arms market is also of diplomatic importance, with the United States as a leading supplier of advanced weapons gaining a significant advantage.

The SIPRI report compares the developments in the world arms markets and the dominance of each country in comparison periods of 4 years compared to the previous four years. Between 2010-2014, the five leading arms exporters were: USA, Russia, France, Germany, and China. In the period 2015-2019, the same five countries continued to lead and, in fact, together they gained market share compared to the previous period. The five countries together control 76% of the exports in the global arms market. But between the two periods, U.S. arms exports rose by 23%, Russian exports fell by 18%. As a result, the U.S.'s share rose from 31% to 36% of the global arms market while Russians fell from 27% to 21%.

51% of all U.S. arms exports in the current period (2015-2019) went to the Middle East, mainly to Saudi Arabia, which increased its arms imports by 130%. A total of 25% of all U.S. arms exports are to Saudi Arabia and 6.4% to the Emirates. Total arms sales are experiencing a significant growth compared to the previous period since countries such as Iraq and Israel have significantly increased their imports of American weapons. These past few years have been very intensive in the Middle East, whether in Yemen, the Persian Gulf, or Syria. In addition, regional unrest and direct American involvement have been good for business. Such as promoting the sale of $15 billion worth of THADD systems in 2019 to Saudi Arabia designed to protect it from Iranian or Houthi missiles.

30% of U.S. arms exports went to Asia and Oceania. At the same time, Australia and Japan were its main proprietorships along with South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and most recently an increase in sales to India, with its tensions with China rising. Not only for India but also countries like Malaysia or Indonesia can increase U.S. arms imports. Also, countries like Vietnam, whose current main arms imports are Russian. In 2020, the U.S. increased its sales of harpoon missile systems to Taiwan, worth $ 2.3 billion. Such Missiles aim to protect against ships if China tries to invade it or in a more likely possibility, conquer one of its southern islands. The 2019 contract with Japan for the sale of F-35 aircraft and the conversion of helicopter carriers to aircraft carriers are actions taken in light of tensions between Japan and South Korea against China. The U.S. is increasing sales of its air defense systems against any Chinese or North Korean threat, just as in the Middle East case against Iranian missiles and rockets.


Sales of weapons and missile systems are also growing in Europe. Countries like Poland, the Baltic states, Romania, and even Ukraine when in 2019 the U.S. reached a deal worth $ 47 million with the stated countries for the sale of javelin-type anti-tank systems.

The United States is the leading arms supplier to several developed countries globally. Saudi Arabia, for example, imports 73% of its weapons from the United States, Israel imports  78% of its weapons from the U.S., and Australia 68%.

Out of the 100 largest arms companies globally, 43 are American and are responsible for 59% of all arms sales in the world in 2018, an increase of 7.2% compared to 2017. The five largest arms companies are American: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Gorman, Raytheon, and General Dynamics. And out of the 15 largest arms companies globally, nine are American, and only 2 are Russian. The U.S.'s market share has grown due to technological superiority and the sales of advanced weaponry. 

Arms deals between countries are not just for technological reasons. A country sells arms to a country that is an ally, and both have a potential enemy. For example, American arms sales to Japan to combat China because China is a common enemy. Another example is Russian arms sales to Turkey with the motivation to try to pull it from the American and European side to its own. Countries with an arms industry are also trying to promote comprehensive trade and diplomatic relations. Using that logic, for Russia to grow its global arms market share, it must forge new alliances and offer something beyond arms proposals such as investments or receiving industrial imports of the country with which it enters the coalition. Russia does not have the same ability as the U.S. does. While Russia supplies weapons to Assad in Syria or arms to Egypt and Algeria, or anti-aircraft systems to Iran, it fails to sign big contracts with the big customers like selling fighter jets to the U.K. or Italy.

The United States has a distinct advantage. It has a variety of weapons for export, and it exports artillery, armored radar vehicles, and missile systems. However, the export of fighter jets is the most profitable business and is four times better than the export of missiles.

Lockheed Martin, the largest arms manufacturer in the world, produces the F-35, the F-16, the F-22, and even the Hercules aircraft, is the leading supplier to the Israeli Air Force and has sold more than 500 units of the F35, 108 of which are model B, suitable for vertical takeoff and landing. The same plane was sold to countries like Israel, Japan, Italy, Britain, and other countries, and later it will be sold even to Poland and possibly even the Emirates. As in the case of the sale of anti-aircraft guns or missile systems, the countries that purchase these American weapons are up against China, North Korea, Iran, and Russia.

Like other major U.S. arms companies, Lockheed Martin is promoted by the U.S. government when it approves or supports its arms deals with other countries in the world and is responsible for most of its procurement. In 2018, it bought $ 37.7 billion worth of weapons from the company. Boeing sold $ 23 billion worth of weapons that year. It has pledged to the United States weapons such as Apache and Raytheon helicopters, weapons worth $ 18.4 billion, a total of 68% of its sales. These companies need deep-pocketed customers like Saudi Arabia and Japan.

The F-35's price range is $ 95 to $ 115 million. The price of the Hercules C-130 is about $ 30 million. American crewless aircraft (UAVs) such as the Predator costs about $ 4 million, the reaper costs between $ 11-15 million, the Global Hawk between $ 130-220 million, or the future UAV stingray that will cost $ 800 million per unit. Such weapons are costly and require repairs, joint aerial exercises, and cyber security and information transfer, increasing costs.

France is trying to compete with the U.S. for the same markets in the Middle East and countries like Egypt or Qatar, and it has increased its arms exports by 72%. However, the same sales and cost per unit and technological superiority are smaller than the U.S.

The U.S. administration is ensuring to maintain its superiority by purchasing aircraft and other weapons to sustain the profitability and progress of its companies. For example, the U.S. army plans to buy from Boeing 144 F-15s worth $ 23 billion. This is something that a country with a defense budget of over $ 729 billion can afford, unlike other countries.

Therefore, while countries like Turkey and the Emirates can supply and sell cheap UAVs to militias in Libya, or France can sell suitable quality aircraft to Egypt and Indonesia, those countries still have to import aircraft that the U.S has already used.

This advantage is also noticeable in the cyber industry. In 2015 the information security market was $ 75 billion. This value is in information security and not cyber attacks, as 40% of it is controlled by American companies. This advantage comes in ties with Poland and the Baltic states against Russia, Israel against Iran, or Japan against China and North Korea. To all this can be added the space market; although this market is not yet advanced and is not crucial in the global balance of power, American companies like Tesla benefit from it, and those in turn, along with U.S. government investments, could bring it control of that market in the future. 

All this means that the U.S. advantage in the global arms market is its ability to be a supplier of technological superiority weapons to critical countries worldwide, an advantage that is likely to continue in the coming years.