America Shouldn’t Get Sucked Into An Arms Race

REUTERS/U.S. Department of Defense, Missile Defense Agency/Handout via Reuters

Jeremy Lott Senior Fellow, Defense Priorities
Font Size:

The latest numbers on worldwide military spending are bad news for the peace of nations.

Last year saw the reversal of a trend, which had seen military budget decline as conflicts and tensions had died down and mercifully fewer people went off to war. In 2015, larger conflicts came roaring back, thanks to the threat of ISIS in the Middle East and territorial tensions in the South China Sea.

Nations spent an estimated $16.76 trillion on armies, transport, kit and munitions last year. Spending was up 1 percent from the year before, according to a report by the well-respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

American military spending declined at the same time, leading some hawks to charge that the U.S. is “falling behind” and that its military is being “hollowed out” through budget sequester and inattention.

However, a deeper look at the numbers tells a very different story than the one being told by alarmists. It’s true American military spending declined last year, but it did so “at its slowest annual rate since 2011,” according to SIPRI. 

And the total level of spending surely matters: “The United States, with total expenditure of $596 billion, remains by far the world’s largest military spender, at nearly three times the level of China, which is ranked second.”

In fact, America spends more on its military than the next seven largest spending countries combined. Last year, America spent more on its military than the defense budgets of, in order, 2) China, 3) Saudi Arabia, 4) Russia, 5) Britain, 6) India, 7) France and 8) Japan.

The case for spending restraint on the American side gets more convincing when we look at the countries that are allegedly challenging us.

Saudi Arabia is usually an ally and likely to help, not hurt, with U.S. efforts to put down ISIS, possibly supplying the ground troops that Americans are understandably loathe to send back into Iraq. Russia cannot maintain its level of spending given the makeup of its economy and current world oil prices. Some of the monies Britain, France and Japan spend on defense are monies that won’t have to be footed by U.S. taxpayers.

Our rate of increase also matters. A 1 percent bump in total worldwide military spending is troubling, but it hardly signals a new global arms race. And some of that increase makes total rational sense. When real, immediate threats arise, nations that want to stick around spend more money on defense.

Explaining Middle Eastern military expenditures, the study’s authors wrote that “The largest [percentage] increase in the region – and indeed the world – between 2006 and 2015 was by Iraq.” Understandable when we consider that “It has rebuilt its armed forces in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion and subsequent withdrawal, and is now embroiled in a war with the Islamic State.” This is not a war of choice for Iraq, but one it cannot afford to lose, so it is spending what it takes.

The overall story these numbers tell us is one of heightened regional conflicts and tensions that local nations have responded to by beefing up their militaries. If America were to build up its own already gargantuan spending levels in response, it would be an overreaction and possibly worse.

There is not, at present, a worldwide buildup of forces. Some nations are spending more on defense, some less. That could all change if America gets spooked and does something rash.

Jeremy Lott is a senior fellow at the American Security Initiative Foundation.