Global spending on military and defense grows to 1.8 trillion

06 June 2016 5 min. read

Global spending on military and defense has increased for the first time since 2011. Spending amounted to a total of about $1.8 trillion, more than 50% higher than at the beginning of the 21st century. When it comes to the big guns, the US and China reign supreme, while Saudi Arabia holds the spot for biggest spender in relation to income.

Growing tension and unrest within the global geopolitical landscape, from the South China Sea to the Middle East, have, in 2015, ensured that for the first time in five years, there was an increase in global military spending – reveals an analysis based on data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Between 2011 and 2014, global military expenditure fell from $1.78 trillion to less than $1.75 trillion, while last year total expenditure increased by 1% to $1.76 trillion. In the 13 years prior to 2011, global spending for military purposes increased by more than $700 billion – from $1.07 trillion in 1998 to $1.78 trillion in 2011. From 1988 onwards a steady reduction in military spending followed, from $1.6 trillion to the trough in 1998.
Global spending on defense and weaponsNot all countries are increasing their defense spending however. Sam Perlo-Freeman, head of SIPRI’s military expenditure project, explains: “Military spending in 2015 presents contrasting trends. On the one hand, spending trends reflect the escalating conflict and tension in many parts of the world; on the other hand, they show a clear break from the oil-fuelled surge in military spending of the past decade. This volatile economic and political situation creates an uncertain picture for the years to come.” 

An analysis of military spending by region show that different parts of the world show mixed trends when it comes to military spending. In Asia and Oceania military expenditure on the whole was up compared to 2006; the region saw an increase of 64% on military expenditure, and since the end of 2014 spending increased by 5.4%. The bulk of the region’s total $436 billion military bill is by East Asian players, which accounted for $302 billion. 

Defense budgets per region

In Europe, spending has increased by 1.7% since 2014 and 5.4% since 2006. The continent, however, presents a relatively mixed bag, with Western and Central Europe mainly reducing their expenditure and Eastern European countries bolstering their respective budgets. For the coming years, the UK, France and Germany have indicated in their budgets that there may be an increase in spending, partly due to the unrest in the Middle East, tensions in Ukraine and the rising threat of terrorism. In Eastern European countries, increases of up to 90% have been seen since 2006, primarily due to turmoil close to their boarders, and in some cases, within them. The data available from the Middle East, is, according to the researchers, insufficient for an accurate assessment.

The African region also reveals a mixed picture. In North Africa, budgets have been substantially ratcheted up in recent years – an increase of 148% compared to 2006. In 2015 expenditure levels in the region appear to have stabilised, with only a slight increase of 2.1% noted. In the southern parts of Africa spending on respective militaries contracted significantly in 2015, expenditure decreased 11% to $19.1 billion. With a total of $37 billion, Africa is by far the smallest region for military spending.

North and South America together constitute the region with the highest spending on their militaries. North America, in 2015, spent more than $611 billion on its military, around 2.4% less than in 2014. South American countries collectively, expanded expenditure by 27% since 2006, but also showed a contraction in 2015, with a decrease of 4%.

Top 15 countries with the largest defense budgets

Top 15 countries
The level of military spending in North America is high, mainly due to the US. The country spent a total of $596 billion on its military in 2015; making it by far the largest military force in the world, accounting for 36% of global expenditure. China takes second place, with an estimated expenditure of $215 billion, more than double its 2006 budget. Saudi Arabia accounted for $87.2 billion in military spending, and is in third place, followed by Russia with $66.4 billion. Both countries increased their military spending by more than 90% since 2006. The top five is closed by the UK, which reduced its spending by 7.2% in recent years, to $55.5 billion.

Of all European countries in the top 15, Germany is the only one that spends more compared to 2006 on its military; its total spend stands at $39.4 billion, up 2.8% on 2006, with the country accounting for 2.4% of the total worldwide. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) takes the title of the fastest growing military spender in the top 15 over the past decade, with a growth of 136%. Together, the top 15 accounted for $1.35 trillion in spending – 77% of the global total.

Top 15 countries with the largest defense budgets (w.r.t. GDP)

The extent to which a country is focused on military spending is, however, best illustrated by studying the military’s share of the country’s total GDP. The analysis finds that mainly the countries in the Middle East are growing their armies’ ranks, with Saudi Arabia at the top (13.7%), followed by the UAE (5.7%). China takes the shared third place with Israel – both countries invest around 5.4% of their GDP on their militaries. Despite its declining military spending, the US still is in the top five, with 3.3% of GDP is spent on matters related to combat, peacekeeping missions and weapons.

A recent analysis by showed that over the past six years total military spending by NATO members has dropped by $200 billion, a shift which slashed one fifth of NATO’s total budget.