WASHINGTON — Global spending on militaries rose to $1.981 trillion last year, an increase of 2.6 percent over the previous year’s figure, according to new research by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
That total is the highest since the think tank SIPRI began tracking military spending in 1988. The top five largest military spenders contributed to 62 percent of that total.
The U.S. ($778 billion, 39 percent of overall spending) easily outpaced its closest competitors, with China ($252 billion, 13 percent), India ($72.9 billion, 3.7 percent), Russia ($61.7 billion, 3.1 percent) and the United Kingdom ($59.2 billion, 3 percent) rounding out the top group.
Overall, the U.S. and China represent 52 percent of all military spending for the year.
Rounding out the top 10 are Saudi Arabia ($57.5 billion), Germany ($52.8 billion), France, ($52.7 billion), Japan ($49.1 billion) and South Korea ($45.7 billion). No other country accounted for 2 percent or more of overall military expenditure in 2020.
While 2020 was an unprecedented year globally, military expenditures stayed steady overall, said Diego Lopes da Silva, a researcher with the SIPRI Arms and Military Expenditure Programme.
“We can say with some certainty that the pandemic did not have a significant impact on global military spending in 2020,’ Lopes da Silva said in a news release. “It remains to be seen whether countries will maintain this level of military spending through a second year of the pandemic.”
COVID-19 did have one impact on the data set: As global economies struggled in 2020, defense spending as a percentage of national gross domestic product reached a global average of 2.4 percent in 2020, up from 2.2 percent in 2019 — the biggest year-on-year rise since 2009, according to SIPRI.
While that change was due more to GDPs coming down than to nations actively increasing their defense spending, it did allow three NATO nations to break the 2 percent GDP spending target that had previously not done so, by SIPRI’s estimation.
Researchers relay on estimations for China’s defense spending, but its annual 2020 figures appear to represent a 1.9 percent increase from 2019 — the 26th year in a row that China’s military spending has increased, and the longest such streak SIPRI has tracked. Overall, in the last decade, China has increased its military spending by 76 percent.
“China stands out as the only major spender in the world not to increase its military burden in 2020 despite increasing its military expenditure, because of its positive GDP growth last year,” Nan Tian, SIPRI senior researcher, said in a statement. “The ongoing growth in Chinese spending is due in part to the country’s long-term military modernization and expansion plans, in line with a stated desire to catch up with other leading military powers.”
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.