Arms Sales: USA vs. Russia (1950-2017)
Between countless proxy wars and the growing threat of nuclear catastrophe, the Cold War created an unprecedented geopolitical climate.
For nearly half a century, the world’s two biggest superpowers were scrambling to top one another by any means necessary. It was a tension that ignited everything from the space race to sports rivalries, with the impact often spilling over to neighboring nations.
Not only did the U.S. and Soviet Union duke it out in the mother of all arms races – they also extended their influence by selling arms outside of their borders. Interestingly, this latter race continues on until today, almost three decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Visualizing Arms Sales
Today’s animation comes from data scientist Will Geary, and it shows the history of international arms sales originating from the U.S. and the Soviet Union (later Russia) from 1950 to 2017.
More specifically, using data from the SIPRI Arms Transfers Database, the animation shows the geographic movement of arms from country to country as well as the evolving share of the arms trade held by the respective countries. The video is also pleasantly backed by audio that represents music from each decade, ranging from Buffalo Springfield to The Clash.
Peak Arms Dominance
If you watch the pie chart in the upper left corner of the animation, you’ll see that the early-1960s is the peak of U.S. and Soviet arm dominance – at this point, around the same time as the Cuban Missile Crisis and then the JFK assassination, the two superpowers combined for 80% of global arms sales.
In the 1960s, the biggest customers of U.S. arms were Germany, the United Kingdom, and Japan – while the Soviets sent the most weapons to Egypt, Poland, and East Germany.
Fall of the Wall
By the 1980s, the global arms trade started dying down as Soviet leaders like Gorbachev focused on domestic reforms, and eventually perestroika.
Later, the Soviet Union dissolved, and arms sales continued to plunge all the way to 2001:
Since then, arms sales have been ramping up again – and today, they are back at levels last seen before the Berlin Wall came down.
The Modern Era
Who is selling the most arms, according to the last 10 years of data?
Even though the Cold War is now long gone, the U.S. and Russia have kept their legacy of international arms sales going well into the 21st century.
And today, the two nations combine for roughly 60% of arms sales, with top U.S. weapons manufacturers like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon getting a big slice of that pie.