ICAEW chart of the week: global military spending

19 March 2021: The UK’s Integrated Review is the inspiration for this week’s chart, illustrating the 20 countries around the world that spend the most on their militaries.

Chart showing global military spending in 2019 led by USA (£526bn) and China (£200bn) followed by 18 other countries - see text below the chart for details.

The UK Government launched its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy on 16 March 2021, setting out a vision for the UK’s place in the world following its departure from the European Union and in the context of increasing international tensions and emerging security threats.

At the core of the Integrated Review is security and defence, and ICAEW’s chart of the week illustrates one aspect of that by looking at military spending around the world. 

The chart shows spending by the top 20 countries, which together comprise in the order of £1.2tn of estimated total military spending of around £1.4tn to £1.5tn globally in 2019 – an almost textbook example of the 80:20 rule in action.

More than a third of the total spend is incurred by just one country – the USA – which spent in the order of £526bn in 2019 converted at current exchange rates. The next biggest were China and India at £200bn and £50bn respectively, although differences in purchasing power mean that they can afford many more soldiers, sailors and aircrew for the same amount of money. This is followed by Saudi Arabia (£45bn), Russia (£41bn), France (£38bn), the UK (£38bn), Germany (£38bn), Japan (£34bn), South Korea (£33bn), Australia (£21bn), Italy (£20bn), Canada (£17bn), Israel (£16bn), Brazil (£14bn), Spain (£13bn), Turkey (£11bn), the Netherlands (£9bn), Iran (£9bn) and Poland (£9bn).

Exchange rates affect the relative orders of many countries in the list, for example between Russia, France, the UK and Germany which can move up or down according to movements in their currencies, while there are a number of caveats over the estimates used given the different structures of armed forces around the world and a lack of transparency in what is included or excluded in defence budgets in many cases.

In addition, the use of in-year military spending does not necessarily translate directly into military strength. Military capabilities built up over many years or in some cases (such as the UK) over many centuries need to be taken into account, as do differing levels of technological development and spending on intelligence services, counter-terrorism and other aspects of security. Despite these various caveats, estimated military spending still provides a useful proxy in understanding the global security landscape and in particular highlights the UK’s position as a major second-tier military power – in the top 10 countries around the world.

Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy sets out some ambitious objectives for security and defence, which it summarises as follows: “Our diplomatic service, armed forces and security and intelligence agencies will be the most innovative and effective for their size in the world, able to keep our citizens safe at home and support our allies and partners globally. They will be characterised by agility, speed of action and digital integration – with a greater emphasis on engaging, training and assisting others. We will remain a nuclear-armed power with global reach and integrated military capabilities across all five operational domains. We will have a dynamic space programme and will be one of the world’s leading democratic cyber powers. Our diplomacy will be underwritten by the credibility of our deterrent and our ability to project power.”

The estimates of military spending used in the chart were taken from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)’s Military Expenditure Database, updated to current exchange rates.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

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