Military Expenditures Remain Near Peak

New Worldwatch Institute report critically examines spending priorities

Washington, D.C.—In 2012, world military expenditures ran to $1,740 billion, expressed in constant 2011 dollars, just slightly below the peak value of $1,749 billion in 2011. Estimates from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) indicate that this was still higher than in any other year since the end of World War II. Governments thus maintain a large and well-funded apparatus of security agencies, but have failed to address many of the underlying reasons for the world’s conflicts and instabilities, finds a new Vital Signs Online trend released by the Worldwatch Institute (  

After the end of the cold war, military spending declined by about a third from $1,613 billion in 1988 to $1,053 billion in 1996. But it did not take long for budgets to bottom out and grow again. Starting in 1998 and particularly following the September 2001 attacks in the United States, military budgets were resurgent, expanding by 65 percent.

A variety of factors drive military expenditures, although the precise circumstances and motivations differ substantially across the world. In some countries warfare—against either a neighboring country or a domestic opponent—is the key driver. Other countries maintain considerable military establishments even though they face little prospect of attack.

The manufacturers of armaments—producing anything from “conventional” weapons like tanks, missiles, and fighter jets to nuclear weapons and drones, as well as related services—are powerful proponents of large military spending. In current dollar terms, sales by the world’s leading 100 companies (excluding Chinese firms) more than doubled in the last decade to $410 billion in 2011, but after inflation they rose by 51 percent. U.S. companies accounted for close to 60 percent of these sales; West European firms had 29 percent of sales and Russian firms had 3.5 percent, with companies from all other countries contributing just 7.8 percent.

During 2012, military budget trends varied widely among different countries and regions. In absolute terms, Russia (spending $12.3 billion more than in 2011), China ($11.4 billion), and Saudi Arabia ($5.7 billion) revved up their budgets the most. Even though the United States decreased its expenditures by $42.6 billion, the country remains the world’s military colossus. During the past quarter-century, it routinely accounted for more than 40 percent of global expenditures, and its share in 2012 is still just below that line. At $682.5 billion in 2012 (current dollars), the United States spends as much as the next 11 countries combined ($683.4 billion), with the rest of the world beyond these 12 accounting for a comparatively small $387.3 billion.

Unparalleled in the world, the United States maintains a military presence in almost every country on Earth. About 164,000 U.S. soldiers were stationed abroad as of July 2013, in addition to 1.2 million military personnel at home and in U.S. territories. Close to 140,000 people were involved in “contingency operation deployments” related to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as of mid-2013.

“At a time when endemic poverty, mass unemployment, health epidemics, and the looming threats of climate change cry out for greater attention, the continued largesse for military purposes in many countries reflects a troubling set of priorities,” said Michael Renner, a senior researcher at Worldwatch and the trend’s author.

In a world where 2.4 billion people struggle to survive on $2 per day or less (hardly changed from 2.6 billion in 1981), military budgets remain disproportionately high. The $1,234 billion that high-income countries spent on military programs in 2012 is more than nine times the $133.7 billion they allocated for development assistance.

Further highlights from the report:

  • As rich-poor divides widen in wealthy countries, military priorities there deserve greater scrutiny. More than a third of U.S. federal government spending in 2012 went to pay for past and current wars, compared with just 3 percent for energy, science, and environment, and 2 percent for diplomacy, international aid, and support for the United Nations and other international agencies.
  • In addition to military budgets, increasing spending is devoted to a wide range of measures undertaken in the name of security and on closely entwined issues such as counter-terrorism and anti-narcotics campaigns.
  • This includes expanding internal security bureaucracies, the militarization of civilian police departments, and ever-expanding intelligence and surveillance efforts directed at political adversaries, economic competitors, and civilian populations alike.



Notes to Editors:   

For more information and to obtain a complimentary copy of “Military Expenditures Remain Near Peak,” please contact Supriya Kumar at

About the Worldwatch Institute:

Worldwatch is an independent research organization based in Washington, D.C. that works on energy, resource, and environmental issues. The Institute’s State of the World report is published annually in more than a dozen languages. For more information, visit

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