Israel's three defense giants lead world in arms industry

While Israel and the Middle East lead in arms deals, the international community is leveling off.

Iranian missiles are seen at an underground of the new "missile site" of Iran's Revolutionary Guards naval unit at an undisclosed location in Iran (photo credit: IRGC/WANA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Iranian missiles are seen at an underground of the new "missile site" of Iran's Revolutionary Guards naval unit at an undisclosed location in Iran
International arms transfers are going strong in the Middle East, even if they are leveling off in other regions, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a group that monitors arms transfers.
SIPRI says its Arms Transfer Database is the only public resource that provides consistent information and estimates on all international transfers of major arms.
“International transfers of major arms stayed at the same level between 2011-15 and 2016-20,” it said in a report on Monday. “Substantial increases in transfers by three of the top five arms exporters – the USA, France and Germany – were largely offset by declining Russian and Chinese arms exports.”
Middle Eastern arms imports increased 25%. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt were leaders in the last four years, with Doha increasing its purchases by a whopping 361%, the report said.
Israeli exports represented 3% of the global total between 2016 and 2020. Israel’s big three defense giants, Elbit Systems, IAI and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, are world leaders in the industry.
Israel’s exports were 59% higher over the past five years than in the 2011-2015 period. For example, IAI is cashing in on new interest in loitering munitions.
Elbit Systems is picking up contracts in Europe, and Rafael’s Iron Dome and Trophy are getting new recognition. Iron Dome was sent to the US, and Trophy is now being used by Germany. Both systems celebrate 10 years of operation in Israel this year. In addition, Israeli companies have made major inroads in India and other countries.
“Israel accounted for 69% of Azerbaijan’s arms imports” in the most recent period, the report said. Azerbaijan recently fought a war with Armenia. Israeli’s Uvda program and documentary filmmaker Itai Anghel show how Israeli drones played a key and controversial role in that conflict. Israel has exported hundreds of drones to Azerbaijan, along with other defense systems, according to reports.
“It is too early to say whether the period of rapid growth in arms transfers of the past two decades is over,” said Pieter D. Wezeman, a senior researcher with the SIPRI Arms and Military Expenditure Program.
Among Western powers, exports rose. Russian and Chinese exports fell. Exports by China, the world’s fifth-largest arms exporter from 2016-20, decreased 7.8% between 2011-15 and 2016-20, the report said.
The Middle East is where all the arms seem to be going. The UAE is seeking 50 F-35 fifth-generation aircraft, it said.
“Egypt’s arms imports increased by 136% between 2011-15 and 2016-20,” it said. “Egypt, which is involved in disputes with Turkey over hydrocarbon resources in the Eastern Mediterranean, has invested heavily in its naval forces.”
Turkey’s arms imports declined 59% between 2011-15 and 2016-20, the report said. Turkey is rapidly building indigenous capacity to build drones and other weapons.
The Middle East is buying arms because of tensions between Iran and the region, ongoing wars in Syria, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere, and because many countries here are pioneering new weapon systems, such as drones, which means that others need better air defenses.
For instance, Israel’s IAI and the UAE’s Edge signed an MOU recently on countering UAV threats. Iran used drones to attack Saudi Arabia in 2019, and Iranian-backed groups in Yemen, the Houthis, use drones and missiles weekly against Saudi Arabia.
Israel is also building up its navy with new Sa’ar 6 ships, and it appears that all the other navies in the region are also increasing their systems.
The Middle East, long a testing ground for US and Soviet weapons, is now producing its own weapons and buying weapons from new suppliers. US fifth-generation planes such as the F-35 are in high demand, as are Russia’s S-400 air-defense missile system and Israel’s Iron Dome.