Global military spending just saw its biggest spike in a decade, but the US outspends everyone else by far

US Air Force/R. Nial BradshawAn F-35A fighter jet combat-power exercise at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, January 6, 2020.
  • Global military expenditures rose in 2019 to the highest level since 1988, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
  • The US has led the way, spending 38% of the total, but China and India continue to pour money into defence.
  • But a coronavirus-related economic slowdown could bring that spending back down to earth in the years ahead.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Global military expenditure was $US1.917 trillion in 2019, rising 3.6% from 2018 and 7.2% from 2010 to reach the highest level since 1988, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

World military spending decreased steadily in the years after the 2008-2009 global financial crash but has risen in each of the five years since 2015, the latest in what SIPRI researcher Nan Tian described as four phases in military spending over the past 30 years.

The post-Cold War years saw spending decline in what many saw “as a peace-dividend period,” Tian said Tuesday during a webcast hosted by the Stimson Centre and SIPRI.

That decline bottomed out around 2000, when the September 11 attacks prompted years of defence-spending increases that peaked around 2010 and 2011, Tian said. Spending fell again in the early 2010s.

SIPRI World military expenditure by regionSIPRI Military Expenditure DatabaseWorld military expenditure by region from 1988 to 2019. Rough estimates for the Middle East are included in the world totals for 2015-2019.

“But more recently, in the last three years, we really see that spending has really picked up,” Tian said. “The reason is US announcing really expensive modernisation programs … and also the end of austerity measures in many of the world’s global spenders.”

US military spending grew by 5.3% in 2019 to a total of $US732 billion – 38% of global military spending. The US’s increase in 2019 was equivalent to all of Germany’s military expenditure that year, SIPRI said.

Military spending in Asia has risen every year since 1989, with China and India, second and third on the list this year, leading the way. (Tian said SIPRI’s numbers for China are higher than Beijing’s because SIPRI includes spending it defines as “military-related.”)

“In the case of India and China, we’ve seen consistent increases over the last 30 years,” Tian said. “While India and China really [were] spending in the early 1990s far less than Western Europe… Chinese spending really starts to pick up since about 2000.”

China’s spending, now several times that of France or the UK, and India’s growing expenditures point to “a change in the global balance,” Tian said.

“Whereas a few years ago we saw … [for] the first time that there are no Western European countries in the top five spenders in the world, this is the first time where we see two Asian countries, in India and China, being within the top three spenders, followed by Russia and Saudi Arabia.”

Military spending as a share of GDP in 2019SIPRI Military Expenditure DatabaseMilitary spending as a share of GDP by country in 2019. The countries with military spending of 4.0% or more of GDP are listed.

Data is not available for all the countries in the Middle East, but Saudi Arabia is by far the biggest spender for which SIPRI could estimate totals. In terms of arms imports, the Middle East “has now the largest share it has ever had since 1950, as a region,” SIPRI senior researcher Siemon Wezeman said on the webcast.

“That’s partly related to ongoing conflicts [and] very strong tensions, Iran vs. the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia. It is a very strong driver of arms imports, especially by the Gulf States,” Wezeman added, noting that Iran, under arms embargo, is not a major weapons importer.

Most of Africa’s military spending, 57%, is done by North African countries. “They have the money,” Wezeman said, “especially Algeria, and Morocco to a lesser extent, are basically the big ones buying there.”

“Many of the other African countries buy a couple of armoured vehicles – a helicopter here, a little aircraft there – and do that every few years. That’s basically their armed forces,” Wezeman said, adding that fighting insurgencies, like Boko Haram, or peacekeeping, as in Somalia, also drove increased military spending.

Sub-Saharan Africa has seen “extremely volatile spending” in recent years, related to the many armed conflicts there, Tian said. “As countries need to fight … they need to allocate resources to the military. But conflicts, of course, are extremely destructive on a country’s economy,” Tian added. “So we see that countries are increasing spending one year, decreasing spending another year.”

Croatia army mobile rocket launcher NATO PolandSgt. Arturo Guzman/US Army National GuardA Croatian army Hedgehog Battery conducts a Vulkan M-92 Mobile Multiple Launch Rocket System live-fire training at Bemowo Piskie, Poland, December 5, 2018.

Overall military expenditures by Western European nations fell slightly between 2010 and 2019, but Eastern European countries have increased their military spending by 35% over the past decade.

“Some of this is really down to a reaction to the perceived threats of Russia,” as well as the replacement of Soviet-era equipment and purchase of US and NATO equipment, Tian said.

“European countries, aside from seeing a bigger threat from Russia, also are going through a cycle of replacing their fourth-generation combat aircraft with fifth-generation combat aircraft. So there is a big load of new combat aircraft, mostly or almost all of them US-exported weapons, going to Europe,” Wezeman added.

But an economic contraction sparked by the coronavirus pandemic is likely to bring down military expenditures.

“We’ve seen this historically following the ’08-’09 crisis, where many countries in Europe really cut back on military spending,” Tian said, noting that military spending as a share of GDP might increase if “GDP falls and spending doesn’t decrease as much as GDP.”

This time around, spending in Europe may “be stronger in the coming years” despite the coronavirus, Wezeman said, “because the contracts … in many cases have been signed.”

Below, you can see who the top 10 defence spenders were and how much of the world’s military expenditures they accounted for in 2019.

10. South Korea, $US43.9 billion — up 7.5% from 2018 and 2.3% of the world total.

REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File PhotoSouth Korean Army K1A1 and US Army M1A2 tanks fire live rounds during a joint live-fire military exercise in Pocheon, South Korea, April 21, 2017.

9. Japan, $US47.6 billion — down 0.1% from 2018 and 2.5% of the world total.

US Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Benjamin W. StrattonThe first operational F-35A Lightning II is welcomed to the Japanese Self-Defence Force’s 3rd Air Wing, at Misawa Air Base, February 24, 2018.

8. United Kingdom, $US48.7 billion — even with 2018 and 2.5% of the world total.

Sgt. Seth Plagenza/US ArmyA British paratrooper prepares to load a helicopter in a simulated medical evacuation during the Swift Response 16 exercise in Hohenfels, Germany, June 17, 2016.

7. Germany, $US49.3 billion — up 10% from 2018 and 2.6% of the world total.

REUTERS/Fabrizio BenschGerman Bundeswehr soldiers fire mortars during the Joint Air Warfare Tactical Exercise 2014 at an army training area in Bergen, May 20, 2014.

6. France, $US50.1 billion — up 1.6% from 2018 and 2.6% of the world total.

AP Photo/Francois MoriFrench Marine officers wait atop nuclear submarine Le Vigilant at L’Ile Longue military base, near Brest, Brittany, July 13, 2007.

5. Saudi Arabia, $US61.9 billion — down 16% from 2018 and 3.2% of the world total.

ReutersSaudi soldiers at an airfield where Saudi military cargo planes were delivering aid, in Marib, Yemen, January 26, 2018.

Saudi Arabia’s 2019 defence spending and its share of the world total are estimates by SIPRI.

4. Russia, $US65.1 billion — up 4.5% from 2018 and 3.4% of the world total.

ReutersRussian sailors during Navy Day celebrations.

4. India, $US71.1 billion — up 6.8% from 2018 and 3.7% of the world total.

Adnan Abidi / REUTERSIndian army combat vehicles during the Republic Day parade in New Delhi, January 26, 2018.

2. China, $US261 billion — up 5.1% from 2018 and 14% of the world total.

China’s 2019 defence spending and its share of the world total are estimates by SIPRI.

1. United States, $US732 billion — up 5.3% from 2018 and 38% of the world total.

US Navy/Mass Comm Specialist 3rd Class Adam FerreroThe future US Navy aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy as its dry dock is flooded three, October 29, 2019.

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