Global military expenditure saw its biggest uptick in a decade in 2019 rising to $1.9 trillion, according to the latest survey by the Swedish Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) published on Monday (27 April), marking the first year two Asian countries were among the top three spenders.
According to the researchers, the total amount for 2019 represents an increase of 3.6% from 2018 and the largest annual growth in spending since 2010, making military spending reach the highest point since the end of the Cold War.
“Global military expenditure was 7.2% higher in 2019 than it was in 2010, showing a trend that military spending growth has accelerated in recent years,’ said SIPRI researcher Dr Nan Tian upon release of the new report.
“This is the highest level of spending since the 2008 global financial crisis and probably represents a peak in expenditure.”
Globally, countries spent a total of $1.917 trillion on defence in 2019, equating to 2.2% of global gross domestic product, or $249 per citizen.
The researchers base their calculations on official government information, such as that found in national budgets. A country’s military expenditure as a share of GDP—also known as the military burden—is the simplest measure of the relative economic burden the military places on that country.
‘Great Power Competition’
The five largest spenders in 2019, which accounted for 62% of expenditure with $1.2 trillion, were the United States, China, India, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Driving the increase are the world’s largest spenders, headed by the US, which spent $732 billion in 2019. It marked the second year of growth with 5.3% after seven years of decline, making the country alone accounting for 38% of global spending.
According to the report, the increase comes due to recruitment of additional personnel and nuclear and conventional weapons modernisation. Pieter Wezeman, one of the authors of the SIPRI report, sees the reason for the recent surge in the “return to a competition of the great powers” perceived by the Americans.
The perception is also shared in Asia: For the first time, two Asian countries were among the top three, with China and India spending an estimated $261 billion (up 5.1%) and $71.1 billion (up 6.8%) respectively.
While US military spending declined by 15% overall over the past decade, Chinese increased by 85% between 2010 and 2019.
India, with the third-largest military budget, increased spending by 6.8% – the highest increase in the top five. According to the SIPRI researchers, the main drivers are New Delhi’s tensions and regional rivalry with Pakistan and China.
Despite various armed conflicts, spending in the Middle East decreased by 7.5%. However, the SIPRI report has only partially recorded expenditure in the region since 2015 as no reliable data has been available for Yemen, Qatar, Syria and the United Arab Emirates.
Spending grows fastest in Europe
In Europe, expenditure rose more rapidly than in any other region by a total of 5% compared to 2018 and 8.8% to 2010, amounting to a total expenditure of $356 billion. In Asia and Oceania, expenditure grew by 4.8%, in North and South America by 4.7%.
Five of the world’s 15 largest military spenders are in Europe: Russia (rank 4), France (rank 6), Germany (rank 7), the UK (rank 8) and Italy (rank 12).
The French rise in 2019 by 1.6% to reach $50.1 billion followed the adoption of the Military Planning Law for 2019–25, which aims to bring France’s military spending in line with the NATO target of 2% of GDP by 2025.
Germany’s military spending rose by 10% in 2019 to $49.3 billion, the highest growth among the top 15 with almost 50 billion spent on defence in 2019.
Overall Germany was also the country with the highest expenditure in the EU. According to the report, German military spending in 2019 was the highest since 1993, when the military burden was 1.7% of GDP compared to currently only 1.3%,
“The growth in German military spending can partly be explained by the perception of an increased threat from Russia, shared by many NATO member states,” SIPRI researcher Diego Lopes da Silva said.
In comparison, the UK’s military expenditure was unchanged in 2019 at $48.7 billion, but with 1.7% of GDP at its lowest level since 1950.
There were sharp spikes in military expenditure among NATO members in Central Europe, where four countries increased military spending by more than 150% between 2010 and 2019: Lithuania (232%), Latvia (176%), Bulgaria (165%) and Romania (154%).
Poland, which accounted for 38% of the Central Europe total in 2019, increased its military spending by 51% over the decade 2010–19.
In 2019, Bulgaria had the highest relative increase in military spending of any country in the world with 127%, mainly due to payments for eight new combat aircraft.
The total military spending by all 29 NATO member states was $1.035 trillion in 2019.
As the world heads for a potential global recession, Tian argued that governments will have to weigh military spending against other sectors, such as healthcare and education.
“It’s highly likely that this will really have an impact on military spending,” Tian said.
Looking at the historical data, that fall in spending would however likely not last, according to Tian.
“We could be looking at one to three years of declining spending and then an uptick again in the years to come,” Tian said.
In Europe, NATO has encouraged its members to maintain their military spending despite the economic shock of the COVID-19 pandemic, suggesting that military can play a role in helping to mitigate the crisis.
Several European countries had used their armed forces to enforce checks after introducing border controls in an attempt to contain the outbreak.
In 2019, spending targets of 2% GDP were fulfilled by only eight European NATO members, according to the Alliance’s annual report.
[Edited by Georgi Gotev/Zoran Radosavljevic]