BERLIN, Oct 20 (Reuters) - The German government approved significantly more arms exports in the first half of this year, official figures showed on Tuesday, despite a pledge from the economy minister to take a more cautious approach on licensing such sales.
German arms exports have come under scrutiny in recent years because of the increasing sums involved and because a greater number of arms have been heading to countries outside the European Union and NATO, including to potentially unstable regions.
Last year, Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel vowed a much more cautious approach to licensing arms exports, unnerving Germany's sizeable defence industry and signaling a change in policy from the previous coalition government under which sales rose.
But in the first half of this year, the government approved individual permits for arms exports worth 3.5 billion euros ($3.97 billion), the Economy Ministry said, an increase from 2.2 billion euros in the same period last year.
On top of that came group permits worth some 3 billion euros which mainly concerned joint deals with other EU countries and NATO partners.
An Economy Ministry spokesman said "the figures alone are not a suitable indicator for a particular arms export policy".
The main reason for the rise in individual permits was a deal for four tanker aircraft for Britain, which accounted for some three quarters of the total amount. This category of permits also included a submarine deal with Israel.
Permits issued for small arms fell in the first half of the year to almost half the level in the same period last year.
Arms sales are a highly sensitive issue in Germany because of the country's Nazi past and the role of its arms makers in fuelling 19th and 20th century wars.
Germany's national security council, which includes Merkel and the ministers of economy, defence, development and foreign affairs, has to approve licences and the details of its individual decisions are not made public.
Jan van Aken, a defence expert with the left-wing opposition Linke party, said Gabriel's vow to restrict arms exports was "hollow talk." ($1 = 0.8811 euros) (Reporting by Gernot Heller; Writing by Paul Carrel; Editing by Gareth Jones)