Arming Africa: Who is the second-largest supplier of weapons in the world? China? France? Russia? No, it's Britain

... but these are a great export success
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Britain may have lost much of its car, consumer electronics and engineering industries. But there is one thing it still does better than most other countries and that is to make and export arms.

The pounds 500m defence order signed last weekend with the Gulf state of Qatar helped re-affirm the United Kingdom's position as the world's second largest exporter of military equipment after the United States.

The firms involved in that order - British Aerospace, GKN, Vosper Thornycroft and Shorts of Belfast - have helped the UK run a trade surplus in arms for as long as anyone can remember.

Leaving aside the US, far and away the biggest exporter of military hardware, only the French come close to challenging Britain's position in the arms exporting league. Last year, the UK sold pounds 5bn worth of defence equipment overseas, giving it a 20 per cent share of the world export market. According to the Department of Trade and Industry, the defence sector provides 400,000 jobs across the country.

Britain's biggest arms exporter is British Aerospace, which manufactures everything from Tornado fighter aircraft and trainer jets, to surface to air missiles, tank ammunition and rifles. It owes that position largely to the pounds 20bn Al Yamamah arms-for-oil deal signed between Britain and Saudi Arabia in 1985.

That one contract, mainly for Tornado jets, is worth about pounds 2bn a year to the British defence industry alone. Last year BAe's defence business notched up sales of pounds 4.3bn. The Middle East was BAe's single biggest market, accounting for pounds 2.7bn of the group's pounds 5.7bn sales and the major slice of its pounds 10bn defence order book.

BAe is also one of the few British arms suppliers to have penetrated the Pentagon in any serious way, supplying the US Marine Corps with the naval version of its Harrier jump jet.

Close behind BAe comes GEC-Marconi, which specialises in defence electronics, radar and missiles. GEC also owns the Yarrow warship yard on the Clyde and the Trident nuclear submarine builder VSEL which also makes howitzers and surface ships.

Last year, GEC's sales from electronic and defence systems reached pounds 3bn, of which 45 per cent were exports. Among overseas successes are deals to supply flight-control systems for the US Navy's F-14 Tomcat combat aircraft and head-up cockpit display systems for F-22 fighters.

GEC is also a prime contractor on the UK's Merlin helicopter programme where it supplies the Blue Kestrel radar. There are high hopes that the Merlin will bring in substantial export orders.

The Merlin is the naval variant of the Westland-built EH101. Westland, now owned by GKN, is supplying 16 variants of the EH101 to Italy in a deal worth pounds 150m. Westland is also supplying Super Lynx helicopters to the Brazilian Navy under a pounds 110m contract and is hopeful of orders from as far afield as Australia, Malaysia and New Zealand.

GKN's other major arms exports are armoured vehicles. It is supplying 250 Desert Warriors to Kuwait, Piranha armoured vehicles to Oman and Simba armoured personnel carriers to the Philippines.

The other major supplier of fighting land vehicles is Vickers, which is bidding to supply its Challenger 2 tank to the Saudis in a deal that could be worth pounds 2bn.

Britain's biggest exporter of naval equipment is the Southampton-based warship yard Vosper Thornycroft which makes minehunters, corvettes and fast-patrol craft. More than 80 per cent of its pounds 240m sales are exports and 43 per cent of its pounds 450m order book comes from overseas military customers.

The Ministry of Defence and the DTI are notoriously defensive when it comes to arms exports because of the difficulty of balancing economic factors such as job creation with humanitarian considerations.

Earlier this year, after meeting a delegation from the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, the Trade Minister Anthony Nelson said: "The Government is committed to a responsible policy on defence equipment sales. We do not allow arms to be exported indiscriminately. We do not export equipment which is likely to be used for internal repression and defence sales are strictly controlled."