Interview with Paul Holtom, Director of the Arms Transfers Program at SIPRI

In this interview, Paul Holtom, Director of the Arms Transfers Program at the Stockholm International Peace Research (SIPRI), answers questions about potential destabilizing trends in the arms trade, and the variety of factors driving sales in the five major import countries of India, South Korea, Pakistan, China, and Singapore. He also discusses efforts to monitor and thwart illegal arms trafficking.

SIPRI is known for assiduously maintaining a database on arms sales, using information from trade journals,  arms companies,  reports by NGOs, UN panels of experts, in addition to official data.

The interview was conducted by Maureen Quinn, Senior Adviser, International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Interview Transcript

Maureen Quinn (MQ): Good afternoon. We are sitting here today with Dr. Paul Holtom, the Director of the Arms Transfers Program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, known as SIPRI for short. Paul, thank you for coming today and agreeing to an interview for the Global Observatory.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) is known for providing authoritative databases on global trends in international security, particularly in the area of arms transfers. How do you gather your data, and what kind of challenges do you face in doing so – certainly, this information is often not public and not necessarily willingly shared by governments concerned with secrecy.

Dr. Paul Holtom (PH): Thank you for the first question. I think that what we have done over many years now is solely use open source material for our data. So we acknowledge that we may be underestimating in some degree. But what we try to do is provide information that we are confident that relates to actual deals or deliveries that are ongoing.

So, for example, we may use information from trade journals, from arms companies, we’ll use reports by NGOs, UN panels of experts, official data. And what we try to do is, in cases where we are uncertain in terms of some open source materials, we try to verify and cross reference. So we very rarely put in information for the public that we only have one source to support.

We try to triangulate across a number of independent sources very often trying to make sure that we have information from perhaps the supplier side as well as from the recipient side. There is actually a lot of information behind the public database, where we are uncertain about the veracity of the information. So we try to be cautious.

MQ: Your data shows that in recent years the volume of international arms transfers keeps increasing, including during the recent global financial and economic crisis which has led to sharp contractions in other sectors. Would you go as far as to say that there may be a connection between economic instability and conflict, as measured by the demand for weaponry?

PH: I think that on the first one of the things that is worth stressing is that the information we provided in terms of the statistics relates to deliveries and in some cases these orders would have been placed before the financial crisis. So for us, perhaps we’ll see the effects further down the line.

But I think that you are correct in terms of it is more than just economics that determines this and that there is also a very mixed picture across the world. We have seen in some cases a strong correlation between states that have benefited from the strong oil and gas boom years and in terms of them being major recipients of conventional weapons. But there is certainly a correlation generally for mil-ex [military expenditures] and arms transfers on the import side with regards to strong economies.

There is also the fact that security is a key driver in many of these areas. And that, therefore, in some cases limited budgets and resources are put into the security sector at the expense of other areas. And you see this in some of the regions that we flag up in our latest data in our report. So I think that those are some of the aspects that I would flag up there in terms of the lag and I think that also the other factor would be that it may be that the procurement plans may be lower as a result of the financial crisis and that is difficult for us to show in terms of our data. There still may be the acquisition of twenty combat aircraft, but perhaps a few years ago, the intentions were to acquire forty. We see that very much with European states and especially with cooperative projects with the U.S. where there has been a scaling back and readjustments there.

MQ: Where do you see the potentially destabilizing trends in arms transfers?

PH: I think that in the report we highlight a number of sub-regions. The South Caucasus is one where I am particularly interested and concerned with the steep increases in terms of acquisitions by Azerbaijan. And also the recent rhetoric from the Armenian side to also seek, to try if not match that, but certainly increase their acquisitions.

We also see some acquisitions of concern in East Africa, but these are perhaps not so much to do with conflict-related, but with appropriateness. So the acquisition by Uganda of SU-30 advanced multi-role combat aircraft seems out of all proportion with the actual security needs of that country. That’s an acquisition that we think could have been better made with perhaps helicopters or something that is cheaper to maintain and to procure. We have also seen some movements from Ethiopia and Kenya. To what extent that is related to involvement in Somalia, it is unclear, but there is also obviously in recent days the Ethiopian-Eritrean border issue. So that is another issue we are focusing upon there.

There also some dramatic increases in North Africa with Morocco and Algeria, reactive arms acquisitions there. And I guess the interesting thing is that very much in the Algerian case the rhetoric is about confronting AQIM [al-Qaeda in the Maghreb], but the acquisitions that we see are much larger scale. And that relates I think to the regional rivalry with Morocco.

MQ: The key questions in arms transfers are who makes these weapons and who uses them, that is who are the suppliers and who are the recipients. We are particularly interested in the regional trends in this context. Could you tell us who are the main suppliers? Has the supplier landscape changed in recent years?

PH: In terms of the suppliers, the top five have been the same for decades now. We have currently the U.S. as the largest supplier, followed by Russia, and then at a sort of a remove one has Germany, France, and the U.K. I think in the top ten we have currently six E.U. member states and there has certainly been a strong West European presence amongst the major arms exporters for many years now.

But I think there is an interesting tale to be told just outside of the top ten and the emergence of suppliers such as South Africa, South Korea, one can mention Turkey and Brazil.

And I think one of the challenges also that we have with regards to our data is Israel as an anomaly in that we think it should be a larger exporter than is actually reflected in our data. And I think that is one of the issues we have methodologically that these underreport and underestimate the actual significance in terms of contributing to military capabilities in third countries.

MQ: Correspondingly, who are the main recipients and why are they buying weapons? Are there regional qualitative differences, i.e. might there be a higher demand for small arms and light weapons in Africa relative to the greater demand for advanced and heavy weaponry in Asia and the Middle East?

PH: For the past five years 2007-2011, we have the five largest importers all come from Asia. That is India, South Korea, Pakistan, China, and Singapore. And there I think are a variety of factors that are driving these acquisitions.

With regards to Singapore and a number of Southeast Asian states which have had dramatic increases in recent years, I think there is a modernization and an upgrading that has been taken place recently that was postponed from the late 1990s, when the 1997 financial crisis led to a delay there. I think there are also clearly identified concerns in the maritime dimension with regards to piracy, and fishing, and also territorial issues that have driven large scale naval acquisitions in this region as well as advanced combat aircraft and maritime patrols.

With regards to India and China and one could also mention other emerging powers such as Brazil and South Africa, I think there is a degree towards a modernizing and upgrading of capabilities to be able to project power a bit further. So it is again naval and aircraft being acquired that are more advanced than they had previously and I think this explains certainly the Indian drive. But also the Chinese drive of the recent period as well.

MQ: Given your research in this area, can you share with us highlights of what you consider as effective in promoting greater transparency of international arms transfers, strengthening transfers controls, and combating arms trafficking?

PH: I guess in terms of transparency, one of the concerns that we flag up in our SIPRI yearbook every year is the decline in reporting to the UN register. Although a lot of the major suppliers have continued to report in the recent period, we have seen a dramatic decrease from a high in the early 2000s of 126 states down to well below 100 now, in recent years in the 70s. I think that is a concern, especially when one considers discussions in the U.N. with regards to an arms trade treaty. But I think that is also partly related to the issue in terms of the scope of the register. Just focusing upon major conventional weapons and not small arms and light weapons, which as you mentioned before is a concern of particularly African countries, but also other regions such as the Americas, too. I think that contributes in terms of concerns over the relevance of reporting.

But I think further in terms of the use of that data. Simply reporting for the sake of reporting, I think that there are concerns that if the information is not used, then why should one supply it? What we try to do at SIPRI is to use that data supplied to the UN register alongside our own open-source monitoring to raise questions about whether states are really living up to their export control commitments and whether they are interpreting that criteria in a transparent and consistent manner.

And also on the procurement side, asking questions about whether what is actually being procured matches with their clearly identified security threats and concerns and in some cases where there are not even clearly identified security threats and concerns, perhaps questions should be asked about why particular items are being procured. So I think that is on the transparency side.

But also with regards to control side, I think it fits together that we hear very often that transparency, consistency are sort of corner stones of good export control systems. And I think that is something that is also worth flagging up and comes through quite strongly in the discussions towards an arms trade treaty.

When it comes to the issue of illicit trafficking, a lot of focus is upon the role played by non-state actors and in particular illicit brokers, but I think also it is worth highlighting here the role of both the supplier state and the importers. Making sure that they are taking into account the risks involved in particular transfers, concerns with diversion, potential red flags, sharing information, cooperating to prevent these diversions and illicit trafficking as well as perhaps on the supplier side a responsibility to help ensure that there are secure stockpiles and that concerns of diversions in-country are mitigated.

I think there are also concerns here with regards to the way in which when evidence comes through that there has been diversion and perhaps government collusion in that role, that there is sharing of information at the international level about concerns with regards to that particular entity. We have seen this with Liberia under Charles Taylor and Eritrea in recent years, where they have had secondary sanctions introduced for their role in violating arms embargos. And I think that this is something that perhaps is worth looking into in further detail. I would not be saying arms embargos on everybody, but I think it is worth noting there are currently tools in the UN’s toolbox that could be used to signal concerns and perhaps influence behavior in a more positive manner.

MQ: Thank you Paul. Thank you for sharing your expertise with us today.