Analyzing Canadian arms exports for 2021

September 20, 2022

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 43 Issue 3 Autumn 2022

By Kelsey Gallagher

On May 31, the Canadian government tabled the 2021 Exports of Military Goods report, providing details on reported Canadian arms exports and brokering of military goods for that year. The total value of these exports was the second highest in history: $2.73-billion. As has been true in recent years, most exports were light armoured vehicles (LAVs) destined for Saudi Arabia; however, exports to non-Saudi destinations also hit historic highs.

This report can be criticized for being untransparent and incomplete. For example, most exports bound for the United States were not included, even though the U.S. is a major importer of Canadian weapons.

Moving Canadian weapons

The current report contains information on exports and brokering of military goods to 81 countries and territories in 2021. The five top non-U.S. destinations by export value were Saudi Arabia ($1.7-billion), Japan ($280.4-million), the United Kingdom ($115.5-million), Germany ($67.8-million), and Ukraine ($54.9-million).

Saudi Arabia has been at the top of this list for the past six years, with arms exports consisting almost entirely of armoured combat vehicles. Most, if not all, have been light armoured vehicles (LAVs), manufactured by General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada (GDLS-C) in London, Ontario. Saudi Arabia was also the recipient of 14 categories of armaments with a total value of more than $122-million. This value is larger than the reported value of arms exports to any other individual non-U.S. destination, excluding Japan.

Exports to the United States?

The United States is Canada’s largest trading partner for both commercial and military goods. Although the scale of military exports to Saudi Arabia has disturbed this pattern in the last few years, typically, more than half of all Canada’s weapons exports each year go to the United States. Despite their significance, these exports are largely excluded from the public report.

In 2016, Canada began including in the annual report information on exports to the United States of firearms, larger calibre weapons, ammunition, and bombs and their components. Canada includes in reports to the UN Register of Conventional Arms and the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) secretariat data on exports of “full systems” to the United States. However, many Canadian military exports to the U.S. are parts and components, most of which are not captured in these alternative reporting formats.

The result is a serious undervaluation of the Canadian arms trade. The systematic omission of information on some transfers of military goods to some foreign countries, for whatever reason, is inconsistent with the spirit and letter of the ATT. The treaty calls for greater transparency of arms transfers and requires that controls be implemented in an objective and nondiscriminatory manner.

Factoring out the biggest players

Plotting the annual values of reported Canadian military exports on a historical timeline gives the impression that the non-U.S. Canadian arms trade has grown substantially since 2017. But this increase is largely due to LAV exports to Saudi Arabia. Removing Saudi Arabia from the mix offers a more nuanced view of general trends. Total reported Canadian military exports in 2021 to all countries except the United States and Saudi Arabia were valued at $984.3-million, the highest reported figure in the 40 years that this data has been collected.

Value of total Non-U.S./Non-Saudi Canadian arms exports by year (1978-2021)

Exports to conflict-involved states

In 2021, Canada exported weapons valued at more than $1-million to each of 11 states involved in interstate or intrastate conflicts or tensions.

While ATT States Parties are obligated to assess the risk that arms exports may undermine peace and security, they are not forbidden from providing weapons to conflict-affected states. It is indisputable, however, that a sizable portion of total Canadian arms exports can be seen as contributing to national and regional insecurity in some instances.

Exports exceeding $1-million to conflict-involved states in 2021

Saudi Arabia $1,746,347,878
Ukraine $54,922,825
Algeria $34,778,746
Israel $26,092,288
Morocco $22,227,411
Tunisia $12,072,273
Indonesia $10,708,499
Thailand $8,521,765
India $6,248,229
United Arab Emirates $3,070,851
Nigeria $1,896,504

Saudi Arabia

In 2014, the Canadian government announced a $14-billion deal to supply hundreds of LAVs to Saudi Arabia. The following year, Saudi Arabia spearheaded a coalition that launched an intervention in the civil war in Yemen, a conflict that has so far killed nearly 400,000 people. There have been many credible allegations that this coalition has breached international humanitarian law, committing acts that are possibly commensurate with war crimes.

In 2021, Project Ploughshares and Amnesty International released a major report that indicated that Canada’s export of LAVs and other military equipment to Saudi Arabia was a violation of its obligation under the ATT to assess risk objectively and cancel export permits if undue risk could not be mitigated. The Canadian government has not made an official public response to these findings, and exports of Canadian weapons to Saudi Arabia continue to this day.

Algeria and Morocco

Rising geopolitical tensions have fed an arms race between Algeria and Morocco. A breakdown in diplomatic communication in 2021 has raised fears that open conflict could break out between the two states.

In 2021, Canada shipped to Algeria arms worth $34.7-million, the highest value since 1987. Canada also sent Morocco arms valued at $22.2-million, the highest value ever to that country. Exports included L3Harris Wescam EO/IR surveillance and targeting sensors for use on Morocco’s newly acquired Bayraktar TB2 Uncrewed Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).


Israel’s 11-day bombardment of Gaza in May 2021 likely resulted in between 151 and 192 civilian deaths and scores of injuries. Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank and other territories has led to calls from credible human rights monitors for a comprehensive arms embargo. And yet, in 2021, Canada exported to Israel weapons valued at $26-million, one of the highest figures ever to that country. Included were fire control equipment, bombs and associated components, and electronics and spacecraft.

Brokering data

As required under the ATT, Canadian officials now regulate the brokering of military goods, i.e., the facilitation by a Canadian entity of the transfer of arms from one actor to another. Officials authorize the brokering of military goods to “low-risk” countries by issuing a General Brokering Permit No. 1. Any brokering transaction involving other states requires an individual Brokering Permit.

Canadian officials issued Brokering Permits worth $755.6-million in 2021. Most were for military goods from the United States that were destined for Saudi Arabia. Other top destinations included Chile, Bulgaria, and Morocco.

Authorizations for both the export and brokering of military goods are subject to risk assessments. However, there is some evidence that Canadian brokering controls face a lower regulatory threshold than initially reported.

A rosy outlook for the Canadian arms trade

Whichever way one looks at the data, it is a fact that Canada is exporting more weapons than ever before. Many of the top recipients are engaged in human rights abuses, at home or in other countries.

Defence market analysts predict that the international arms trade will experience explosive growth in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Canadian suppliers will likely participate in this growth, which we anticipate will be reflected in future reports of Canadian arms exports.

A full analysis of the 2021 report on Canada’s export of military goods will be posted on the Project Ploughshares website.

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