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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 the value of defence export orders won by UK companies and on the number and value of licences issued by the UK government for export of strategic goods. Both publications come from organisations under the Department for International Trade: the UK Defence & Security Exports (UK DSE) and the Export Control Joint Unit (ECJU) respectively. Third party data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) can also be used when analysing arms exports.

The Library briefing paper An introduction to UK arms exports provides more detailed information on the UK’s policy towards arms exports.

Orders from UK defence companies

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

Between 2011 and 2020, the majority of UK defence exports (60%) went to the Middle East, followed by North America (17%) and Europe (15%).

Source: Department for International Trade, UK Defence and Security Exports, UK defence and security export statistics: 2020, Chart 7

Licences granted for export

The ECJU administers licences for the export of strategic goods from the UK which includes goods for military and dual-use purposes (both a military and civilian use). The most common type of licence issued are permanent Standard Individual Exports Licences (SIELs).

In 2020, there were 10,077 permanent SIELs issued, of which 46% were for military-use goods, 52% for non-military use goods and 2% for dual-use.

In 2020 the total value of SIELs issued was £22.3 billion. Around £18.8 billion of this was for non-military graded licences, £3.5 billion for military licences and £61 million for dual-use licences.

Source: Department for International Trade, Export Control Joint Unit, Strategic export controls liscencing statistics: 1 April to 30 June 2021, Table e

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.

In 2020 there were 89 permanent SIELs issued for export of military goods from the UK to Saudi Arabia with a total value of £1.47 billion. From June 2019 to July 2020, the UK Government temporarily paused granting of new SIELs for export of military goods to Saudi Arabia that could be used during conflict in Yemen.

The Library briefing paper ‘An introduction to UK arms exports’ provides more detailed information on the UK’s policy towards arms exports, the controls in place, how licences are generated and who can impose arms embargoes.

More detail on the suspension of arms exports to Saudi Arabia is provided in the Commons Library briefing paper UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia: Q&A.


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