Lockheed Martin photo
For the first time since 2011, the world has spent more on troops and weapons than in the previous year, according to new data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
The researchers estimate that countries spent $1.676 trillion on their militaries in 2015, a one-percent increase over 2014. This is equivalent to around 2.3 percent of the world's economic output.
But as is often the case with these kinds of statistics, the details are actually more interesting than the headline figures. For starters, there are stark regional differences. Only Eastern Europe and Asia and Oceania boosted their spending. The rest of the world spent less — a lot less.
Africa reduced its spending by 5.3 percent, the first reduction in 11 years. But a closer look at the data makes clear that the continent's governments haven't suddenly become radical pacifists. Instead, all North African countries with the exception of Morocco actually increased military spending at rates comparable to previous years. And in Sub-Saharan Africa, most countries stayed on their previous trajectories, as well.
The big outlier is Angola. The southern Africa country cut its military budget by a whopping 42 percent, the first real reduction since it embarked on a spending spree in 2002 after the government had regained control of all diamond mines and oil wells in the aftermath of the civil war.
Angola is still essentially a military dictatorship, so the spending cuts are not representative of a changing government doctrine. Instead, historically low oil prices have battered the heavily oil-dependent economy and government budget, making drastic cuts to military spending all but inevitable.
Some other oil-reliant governments across Africa also cut their spending, but more modestly than Angola did. This seems to indicate that these countries have either diversified their economy much better than Angola has …. or have much more pressing security concerns that make continued high spending necessary despite eventual financial collapse.
Overall, Africa spent 68 percent more on its militaries in 2015 than it did in 2006.
In South America, the situation is comparable to Africa, with Venezuela taking the role of Angola and cutting its military spending by 64 percent. Overall, South America and North America slightly decreased their spending, while Central America and the Caribbean increased spending by 3.7 percent.
Obviously, the United States is North America's most prolific military spender — $596 billion in 2015, a 36-percent share of the whole world's spending on troops and weapons.
Iraqi M-1 tanks on parade | Wikimedia photo
This is actually more than 20 percent below America's most recent spending peak in 2010, a result of troop draw-downs in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the automatic "sequestration" budget cuts.
Western and Central Europe essentially maintained their military spending, laying out 0.2 percent less than in the previous year. European spending is down 8.5 percent since 2006.
But the researchers believe that military spending could rise again in this part of the world. "For the first time since 2009, the number of countries in the subregion that increased expenditure was higher than the number of those that reduced spending." Austerity measures are declining while the threat from terrorism — and Russia — seems to be increasing.
This brings us to the regions that have actually increased spending. All sub-regions of Asia and Oceania boosted their military budgets by at least 0.9 percent — and most individual countries did, as well.
Russian Su-30 fighter | Wikimedia photo
China is obviously the most relevant in this part of the world, representing 49 percent of the regional total. Beijing boosted outlays by 7.4 percent and retained its position as the world's second-biggest spender. The region at large increased military spending by 64 percent from 2006 to 2015, with only Fiji recording a significant decrease of 23 percent.
But no region increased spending more drastically than Eastern Europe did, at 7.5 percent, contributing to an overall 80-percent boost in military budgets over the last decade. Russia obviously drives this development, both directly by way of Moscow's own 7.5-percent increase in spending, and indirectly by compelling neighboring countries to re-arm in order to deter Russian aggression.
Still, Russia actually lost its third place in the world rankings to Saudi Arabia. The Middle East country now spends $87.2 billion a year on its military, which actually represents only a 5.7-percent increase over 2014. Saudi Arabia placed before Russia due to the weak ruble, which made Russian military investments cheaper in dollar terms.
A Saudi F-15 during a Red Flag exercise in the United States | U.S. Defense Department photo
SIPRI's researchers did not include estimates for the Middle East overall because too many countries in the region did not provide public military expenditure data — and independent estimates are unreliable.
Apart from Saudi Arabia, the most interesting country with sufficient data is Iraq, which stands out for its record spending increases over the last decade as it tries to rebuild its shattered armed forces. The Iraqi government increased military spending by 536 percent since 2006 and 35 percent since 2014, bringing the total in 2015 to $13.1 billion.
In contrast, Iran's military expenditure decreased by 30 percent since 2006, with the largest part of these cuts taking place in 2012 and 2013, after the European Union enacted economic and financial sanctions. As sanctions began to lift in January 2016, experts expect Iran's military spending to increase in coming years.
Looking at the long-term data, military spending seems to rise and fall based more on economic cycles and long-term policy decisions than on short-term shocks and conflicts. Russia's recent spate of foreign interventions came after Pres. Vladimir Putin boosted military spending.
Western and Central Europe seem to spend mostly in years when their overall balance sheets look good — and Saudi Arabia is decreasing its rate of spending growth despite its ongoing intervention in Yemen.