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The UK Government does not publish exact figures on defence exports (commonly referred to as arms exports). There is also no internationally agreed definition of defence exports or how they should best be measured.

Instead, data is published on orders for defence items won by UK companies and on export licences issued by the UK government. These are published by organisations which form part of the Department for International Trade: UK Defence & Security Exports (UK DSE) and the Export Control Joint Unit (ECJU).

Orders won by UK defence companies

UK DSE estimates that the UK is the second largest exporter of defence items worldwide based on the value of orders or contracts signed.

Between 2012 and 2021, the majority of UK defence exports went to the Middle East (51%), followed by North America (16%) and Europe (13%).

Licences granted for export

The ECJU administers licences for the export of strategic goods from the UK, which includes goods for military-use and dual-use (goods that can be used for civil or military applications). The most common type of licence issued are permanent Standard Individual Exports Licences (SIELs).

In 2021, the UK Government issued 12,600 SIELs, of which 10,600 (84%) were for permanent exports.

The total value of SIELs issued was £10.7 billion (in real terms 2022 prices). Around £6.5 billion (40%) of this was for military goods and £4.2 billion (60%) for non-military goods.

SIPRI’s Arms Transfer Database

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) has developed its own unit of measurement to measure the volume of international transfers of major conventional weapons, rather than value of sales: the trend indicator value (TIV).

When measured in TIV, the UK was the sixth largest exporter of major convention weapons between 2012 and 2021 (behind the US, Russia, France, China and Germany).

Over this 10-year period, aircraft were the UK’s main arms export, making up almost half (48%) of total TIV.

Arms exports to Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is the largest importer of arms worldwide. However, export of arms to Saudi Arabia has proven particularly controversial in recent years.

From June 2019 to July 2020, the UK Government temporarily paused granting new export licences to Saudi Arabia for goods that might be used in the conflict in Yemen.

In 2021, there were 275 SIELs issued for export of strategic goods from the UK to Saudi Arabia, with a total value of £267 million in 2022 prices.

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