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When Countries Import More Weapons, Are They More Likely to Go to War?

When Countries Import More Weapons, Are They More Likely to Go to War?

Photo Credit: Pfc. Danielle Hendrix.

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Pamp, O., Rudolph, L., Thurner, P. W., Mehltretter, A., & Primus, S. (2018). The build-up of coercive capacities: Arms imports and the outbreak of violent intrastate conflicts. Journal of Peace Research, 55(4), 430-444.

Talking Points

  • In high-risk countries, an increase in weapons imports can significantly increase the likelihood that armed conflict will break out.
  • Increasing weapons imports does not serve as a deterrent to opposition forces in high-risk countries.


The relationship between violence, civil war, and weapons remains complicated. Since weapons imports often happen at the same time as the outbreak of war, it is difficult to determine which one may be primarily causing the other. In this article, the authors set out to understand more about this relationship by examining what effect a government’s military build-up may have on the onset of civil war. As the authors note, previous research has failed to adequately analyze this relationship by neglecting to understand how these two factors can influence one another, especially when they are likely occurring at the same point in time. This study is unique in the way it takes into account the fact that weapons imports and the outbreak of armed conflict can, and often do, occur at the same time. In theory, the import of weapons can both cause an outbreak of civil war and act as a symptom of an impending civil war. The authors set out to determine whether and how the two factors influence one another.

Major Conventional Weapons (MCWs): a classification that includes a broad array of weapons and military equipment–including missiles, armored vehicles, artillery, and aircraft, among others–that are not either weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) or small arms and light weapons (SALWs).

In this study, the authors analyze the 2013 arms transfer data of 137 countries and compare that information with a dataset listing annual intrastate conflicts from 2015. As mentioned above, the onset of armed conflict and MCWs imports can plausibly occur at the same time, which can prove problematic when determining how/if one influences the other. To overcome this difficulty, the authors develop a special equation model designed to isolate variables that may be affecting one another simultaneously, enabling them to determine which factor is primarily influencing the other.

In their analysis, the authors choose to study only MCWs and not to include SALWs (small arms and light weapons). Although SALWs are likely to be used in a civil war, the data on the importation of smaller weapons and ammunition is unreliable and harder to track. Rebel groups are the usual importers of SALWs, and typically they import them in secret. For their model, the authors also differentiate between types of MCWs that may have more or less importance in a civil war, as not all the weapons systems included in the MCW category are relevant to that context. In their analysis, the authors make note of the weapons that are of high importance in a civil war, such as aircraft, armored vehicles, and artillery, and the weapons that are of lesser utility in a civil war, such as air-defense systems and anti-submarine weapons. By weeding out the extraneous weapons, they are able to better understand the relationship between weapons inflows and armed conflict initiation.

The authors find a clear relationship between MCWs imports and an increased likelihood of intrastate armed conflict. This relationship was even more significant in “high-risk” countries—countries with more conflict-inducing conditions, such as a hybrid autocratic/democratic regime in control, instability with regards to the kind of regime in control, a highly mountainous region, and a high percentage of the population excluded from political power and participation. A maximum increase in weapons imports (as identified in their dataset) corresponded with a 21% increase in the likelihood of armed conflict in high-risk countries, whereas it corresponded with only less than a one percent increase in the likelihood of armed conflict in low-risk countries. Assuming civil war is about to break out in a given country, this observation suggests that a government’s decision to import weapons—especially in a high-risk country—will not serve as a deterrent to armed conflict, but rather the importation may escalate the conflict and bring upon civil war. In short, increased arms imports to countries with conflict-inducing characteristics was demonstrated not to discourage or deter violence but rather to have an escalating effect. These research findings, therefore, challenge previous research suggesting that an increase in weapons imports would deter armed conflict; instead, the authors find evidence of just the opposite, especially in high-risk countries.

Contemporary Relevance 

In the past five years, protracted civil war has become an accepted part of the global landscape, especially in the Middle East. It can be argued that the Middle East is the most volatile region today, with high levels of violence and civil unrest. Interestingly enough, Middle Eastern countries represent about half of all weapons imports from the U.S. in the past five years (see SIPRI source under Continued Reading). Based upon the above analysis, this fact should be of no surprise. The biggest arms importer of U.S. weapons is Saudi Arabia, who, in turn, supplies those weapons to the Yemeni government. Arms transfers are often overlooked and under-reported, but upon closer examination the relationship between arms imports and civil war becomes clear. It should be noted, however, that arms imports do not cause an armed conflict—they only serve to exacerbate the situation when conflict-inducing conditions already exist within a country. For example, Saudi Arabia—a relatively “low-risk” country according to the authors’ indicators—has been importing large quantities of weapons for the past five years and has not devolved into civil war. Conversely, Yemen could have been considered “high-risk” prior to the outbreak of civil war and Saudi-led intervention in 2015, and its the security situation continues to deteriorate to this day.

Most importantly, this research has shown that increases in weapons imports do not serve to deter armed conflict but rather can even bring it about. It is easy to see how this finding could be even further accentuated in the case of ideologically or religiously motivated armed groups like ISIS. Because their motivations to fight are rooted in beliefs, they are unlikely to be dissuaded from fighting even when the odds are against them, in the form of a government’s large supply of weapons. In short, it is critical for peace practitioners and policy advisers to use this research to dispel the myth that increasing weapons imports into politically unstable environments will deter conflict.”

Practical Implications

This research is helpful in understanding how to prevent potential civil wars. Contrary to popular belief, the decision to increase weapons imports in the face of security threats and civil unrest is unlikely to deter opponents. Some argue that a government’s decision to increase weapons imports amid a burgeoning conflict will signal to the opposition that the government is ready and highly equipped to wage war, thus making the opponent back down. The results of this study indicate that this is not usually the case and, in fact, that increasing weapons imports may exacerbate the conflict. The lessons learned from this analysis can be useful when determining applicable conflict resolution strategies in response to unfolding civil unrest. In applying these insights to real world scenarios, major arms exporting countries can be conscientious when selling weapons to countries embroiled in political instability, as well as to countries that are known weapons suppliers to volatile regions. Similarly, peace practitioners can strongly advise against increasing arms exportation to at-risk countries and arms importation by governments dealing with unrest.  Instead they can choose to advocate alternative conflict resolution strategies by making clear that the march to war is not a deterrent but rather just that: a march to war.

Continued Reading

Trends in international arms transfers, 2017 By Wezeman, Fleurant, Kuimova, Tian & Wezeman. SIPRI, March, 2018.

Britain and the US must stop fuelling the bloody Saudi war on Yemen By Patrick Wilcken. The Guardian, 20 March, 2018.

Global Arms Trade and Corruption. World Peace Foundation, The Fletcher School at Tufts University. 

Keywords: arms deal, autocracy, civil war, weapons import


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