What is Corruption in the Arms Trade?

Corruption in the arms trade comes in many forms and is therefore notoriously difficult to define. At the Corruption Tracker, we use a working-definition that helps our team determine which cases to cover on our website. It is important to note that we are in no way making legal accusations under any jurisdiction.

For our working definition, we follow Transparency International in defining corruption as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain”. Our definition includes:

  • Bribery and kickbacks
  • Economic offsets involving corrupt benefits
  • Off-Book spending
  • Over-invoicing
  • Nepotism
  • Embezzlement

For practical reasons, the Corruption Tracker primarily records cases that:

  •  Fall under the broad definition of corruption mentioned above;
  •  Include a monetary component, or benefit in-kind, in their corruption;
  •  Include the sale and/or purchase of military equipment or services in the “official” market.

For a more detailed elaboration of our corruption definition please refer to our submission guidelines.

Why is Corruption in the Arms Trade a Problem?

Corruption is not an add-on to the arms trade, and the arms trade is not just one more corrupt market. While it is notoriously too difficult to quantify the extent of both the trade and the corruption within it, Transparency International expert Joe Roeber has reported, in the late 1990s, corruption in the arms trade was estimated by the Central Intelligence Agency to make up 40-45% of corruption in all world trade, and is often central to military procurement decisions. Yet, some may ask why we should care?

Corruption can seem like a notoriously difficult problem to even define, let alone address, and direct victims are difficult to pin down beyond the general purses of the taxpayer. However, corruption in the arms trade is far from being a victimless crime. Not only does corruption lead to diversion of arms in illegal markets, but the ways in which corruption drives procurement decisions in the “legal” arms trade can lead to the diversion of public funds, the maintenance or creation of corrupt patronage networks, the erosion of democratic institutions, and it can inflate military procurement, which contributes to regional and international instability. Against common misconceptions, this is not a “problem of the global south”. Corruption often begins and is driven by countries and companies from the global north, and harms both buyer and seller countries. In the case of newly democratic South Africa, for example, bribery from Swedish SAAB and British BAE systems led to the procurement of fighter and trainer aircraft that stood in no relation to South Africa’s military needs, and were significantly more expensive than the planes the South African military actually wanted. While millions were spent on weapons, more than 330.000 lives were lost because a feasible and timely antiretroviral drug treatment program was not implemented. It has been argued that the South African arms deal has been seen as the fall from grace of the new democracy, where corruption eventually took over the state itself. In other countries too, corruption in the arms trade has interfered with democratic processes, taking for example the form of legal or illegal political financing, as in the French Karachi affair. Thus, Corruption in the arms trade is neither a niche problem nor a victimless one. As Joe Roeber has pointed out, “Removing or even significantly reducing corruption would do more to reform the trade than any other single act.”


Indefensible – 7 Myths That Sustain the Global Arms Trade

Project Indefensible presents compelling evidence, examples, and analysis to debunk the myths that sustain the global arms business.

The Shadow World – Inside the Global Arms Trade

Pulling back the curtain on the secretive world of the global arms trade, Andrew Feinstein reveals the corruption and the cover-ups behind weapons deals ranging from the largest in history – between the British and Saudi governments – to BAE’s controversial transactions in South Africa, Tanzania and eastern Europe, and the revolving-door relationships that characterise the US Congressional-Military-Industrial Complex. He exposes in forensic detail both the formal government-to-government trade in arms and the shadow world of illicit weapons dealing – and lays bare the shocking and inextricable links between the two.
The Shadow World places us in the midst of the arms trade’s dramatic wheeling and dealing, ranging from corporate boardrooms to seedy out-of-the-way hotels via far-flung offshore havens, and reveals the profound danger this network represents to all of us

The Hidden Market: The Effects of Corruption in the International Arms Trade

In this out of print book, Joe Roeber draws back the curtain on Corruption in the arms trade. For a shorter account see Roeber’s 2005 lecture “Parallel Markets”

Articles & Book Chapters

Hardwired for Corruption

In this seminal article Transparency International analyst Joe Roeber explains why corruption is so central to the global arms trade.

Research Handbook on the Arms Trade – Chapter 7: “Corruption in the Arms Trade”

This chapter by Sam Perlo-Freeman sets out the available information about the scope, patterns, and trends regarding corruption in the arms trade, including efforts to control it. It also considers the factors that make the arms trade vulnarable to corruption, including factors linked to the nature of the trade and broader political economic factors connected too the relationship of national arms industries with governments, and the political nature of the arms trade as a whole.

SIPRI Yearbook 2011: Corruption and the Arms Trade: Sins of Commission

A classic introduction to Corruption in the Arms Trade:
I. Introduction
II. Understanding corruption in the arms trade
III. The South African arms deal: undermining a nascent democracy
IV. The impact of corruption in the arms trade
V. Conclusions: the way forward

Parallel Markets: Corruption in the International Arms Trade

In this lecture given by Transparency International Analyst Joe Roeber in 2005, Roeber gives a succinct summary of the issue of corruption in the arms trade, what it is, why it matters, and why it is so difficult to tackle.

Red Flags and Red Diamonds

This report by Dr. Sam Perlo-Freeman (WPF, CAAT UK) builds on the work of World Peace Foundation’s Compendium of Arms Trade Corruption, a collection of more than 40 cases of corruption in the arms trade and the broader military sector. It discusses both the ‘red flags’ – the warning signs that help citizens, NGOs, governments, and those companies seeking to avoid corruption to identify and avoid corruption risks – and the ‘Red Diamonds’, the underlying politics and economics of the arms trade that create situations where companies and governments actively choose corruption at a high level.


7 Myths that Sustain the Global Arms Trade by dED ucation

Myth 1/7: Higher Defence Spending Does NOT Equal Higher Security

From the Corruption Tracker

CT Launch on YouTube
The Arms Trade, Corruption, and Feminism YouTube