Defense in decline

US Department of Defense | Flickr

Article Highlights

  • Spending on hard power is down across most of the NATO alliance

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  • As US defense spending is down, Chinese and Russian defense spending is on the upswing

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  • The world is not sitting still as Washington’s work slows to a trickle

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As the U.S. military scales back its size, capabilities and war plans, the latest defense strategy out of the Pentagon assumes increased allied contributions to their own security. This heightened reliance on friends and allies to do more militarily so the U.S. does not have to, however, is in contradiction with the reality that many of these same countries are reducing their defense alongside America’s.

Spending on hard power is down across most of the NATO alliance. According to data from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, non-American NATO defense budgets declined by just under 7 percent from 2011 to 2012, and again by just under 1 percent from 2012 to 2013. Moreover, aside from the United States, only three other member states met the 2 percent of gross domestic product defense spending goal for members at least once over the past three years.

But while NATO’s defense spending is continuing to drop, military budgets are up elsewhere in the world. Russian defense spending increased by roughly 14 percent in 2012 and about 16 percent in 2013. At the same time, Chinese defense spending increased by about 14 percent in 2012 and more than 9 percent in 2013.

More broadly, defense budgets are on the rise across Asia and the Middle East. In Asia, defense spending rose by nearly 6 percent in 2012 and almost 4 percent in 2013. Throughout the Middle East and north Africa, military budgets rose by more than 14 percent in the last two years. To be sure, some of this increase was driven by American allies. Israeli and Australian defense spending both rose by more than 11 percent in 2012, and South Korean defense spending rose by nearly 9 percent in 2013. Other military spending growth in these regions was driven by countries less friendly to the United States, such as Iran, which saw a large one-year spending bump of more than 29 percent in 2012 followed by similarly-sized decrease the next.

Rising defense spending in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa reflects increasing international tensions that, in many cases, have already boiled into major combat or war. The world is getting more unstable. In many cases, the countries closest to the action have responded the most quickly by increasing their military spending.

Of course, defense dollars say little of what capabilities and outputs are being purchased. Still, defense toplines are an important metric from which to glean broader trendlines and policymakers’ priorities.

For the United States and many of the Western powers who comprise the bulwark of the NATO alliance, defense spending is only set to decline further now and over the next several years. Since the Budget Control Act was passed, the U.S. military has lost about $291 billion in planned spending.

As the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff has told Congress already, the “smaller and less capable [US] military” outlined in President Obama’s latest defense strategy “could reduce our ability to intimidate opponents from escalating conflict.”

The nation’s most senior military officer concludes that “Nations and non-state actors who have become accustomed to our presence could begin to act differently, often in harmful ways.” In addition, he notes that “many of our most capable allies will lose key capabilities.”

The world is not sitting still as Washington’s work slows to a trickle. As international challenges grow, the United States and its friends and allies around the world should listen to senior military commanders and revisit plans to disinvest in defense.

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