New historical record for world military expenditures

(To Stefano Marras)

Recently released by the Stockholm Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) data on military expenditures worldwide that in 2018 saw an increase in 2.6% compared to 2017, an inescapable sign of an increasingly conflicting international situation and sees the most incisive sign in the geopolitical competition between the United States and China. For Washington, the increase in the 4.6% represents the highest growth since the 2010, while the 5% of China, although it is the lowest figure from the historical 9.3% of the 2013 in line with the relative economic slowdown, nevertheless represents an important increase that goes to add to what is already the second military budget in the world after the US one. Expenses also increased in Europe (1,4%), Latin America (3,1%) and Turkey (24%), while they decreased in Africa (-8,4%), Russia (-3,5%) and Middle East (-1,9%).

In total, in the 2018 there was a worldwide expenditure of 1.8 trillions of dollars, the 74,7% of which represented by the first 10 countries of the aforementioned ranking. NATO, with its 29 members, constitutes instead the 53% confirming once again the strongest military alliance in the world in terms of military spending. The ranking for individual countries, however, once again sees the United States in first position with the unattainable figure of 649 billion dollars, followed by China at 250, Saudi Arabia at 67,6, India at 66,5, France at 63,8, Russia at 61,4 , UK to 50, Germany to 49,5, Japan to 46,6 and South Korea to 43,1.

In particular, it reflects the progress of Asian countries which, in addition to Japan and South Korea, see India, driven by strong economic and demographic growth, overcome every European country for the first time in history. Also surprising is the case of Russia which reduces military spending, thus losing the podium.

On the other hand, the position of Italy does not change that much, even though it has recovered two positions from the 2017, it remains out of the top ten with a modest expenditure of 27,8 billion dollars on an equal level with Brazil. Rome in fact during the 10 last years, also and above all due to the economic crisis, has reduced the 14% defense budget, causing numerous debates on the matter. In particular, in addition to the controversial issue of the purchase of the F-35, Italy with a military expenditure corresponding to 1,3% of the national GDP, is part of those NATO countries that do not reach what has been defined as the minimum threshold of the 2 %.

However, if these data offer a good overview to identify the balance of power between nations or groups of nations, they should still be read under a critical perspective that takes into consideration other factors such as demography, the economic and financial system, the war industry and manufacturing, national cohesion, political will and ambition, the geographical position, the technological and engineering level, the system of alliances, the availability of natural resources, and not least the quality and experience of the armed forces. Saudi Arabia, for example, despite being the third country in terms of military spending, in the opinion of the writer, could hardly be categorized as one of the major military powers in the world as it is too dependent on foreign military supplies (currently it is the first country in the world for war imports1), which in this way undermine its strategic and operational autonomy. Not to mention the lack of experience in theaters of war and the dubious fighting capacities, also brought to light in the current conflict in Yemen.

Moreover, as clearly demonstrated by the magazine Defense News, there are also problems in the calculation method used by the Swedish Institute based on dollar conversion. This system can in fact be misleading, as in the Russian case in which the acquisition of war material takes place mostly within the national territory and therefore without the use of the US dollar. From here, according to the author of the article, the need to calculate military expenditures at the same purchasing power, which despite certain problems, still guarantees a clearer and more truthful picture.

Ergo, the Russian defense budget would be much larger, roughly reaching the 150-180 billions of dollars, and therefore third in the world, far superior to that of any other European power2. On the other hand, it is difficult to reconcile the relative low military expenditure calculated by SIPRI with the huge number of men and military, conventional and nuclear means available to Moscow.

In addition to the questionable calculation method, a further factor to consider concerns just how military expenditures are employed, being certain countries, like Russia, more prone to invest in staff training and technological research compared to other European countries, often accused of spending badly and in areas of little use to the fighting capabilities of the armed forces. Without considering the potential "not made public" expenses and therefore not included in the calculations of the Stockholm Institute.

Consequently, a larger defense budget does not necessarily translate into greater military strength, but should be analyzed taking into account all the elements listed above. If, therefore, this classification cannot give us a completely clear picture of the balance of power, it nevertheless offers us a necessary starting point at a quantitative level for a subsequent and more accurate qualitative level analysis.

The only certain element is that in a world that increases military spending, Italy will be increasingly inadequate and less and less credible in facing international threats and challenges.



Photo: US Navy / Ministry of Defense / MoD Russian Federation