World military spending last year hit about $1.2 trillion.
That's some 2.5 percent of world GDP. The United States was responsible for
about 40 percent of that spending. This is still less than the peak Cold War
numbers, which reached a peak in the
late 1980s, when spending (adjusted for inflation), went past $1.6 trillion a
year. After the Cold War ended in 1991, worldwide spending fell by nearly half,
to about $900 billion a year. Since then, especially since the war on terror
and growing aggressiveness by Iran, the spending has been rising. It was just
over a trillion dollars in 2005.
The Soviet Union, which started the arms race in the early 1960s, couldn't
keep it up, and disintegrated, partly because of the attempt to, in 1991.
Global defense spending began to rise again in the late 1990s. Now annual
global military spending is rising
steadily. But it's not the same as before. In fact, it's very different. Back
during the Cold War era, there were over a hundred million people under arms,
and each year, factories turned out thousands of tanks, hundreds of warplanes
and dozens of warships. No more, not even close, even though current spending
is about 75 percent of the Cold War peak.
There are fewer than 40 million people under arms now, and tank production
rarely exceeds a few hundred a year, with annual warplane production of less
than a hundred a year, and only a handful of warships.
When the Cold War ended, so did the era of huge conscript armies, masses of
tanks (the Soviet Union had over 50,000 when the end came) and comparatively
large numbers of combat aircraft and warships. Suddenly, after 1991, everything
got smaller, and more expensive. Conscripts were replaced by a lot fewer
professionals, who got paid a lot more money. This was something the British
pioneered in the 1960s, followed by the United States in the 1970s. When the
Cold War ended, and everyone saw what pros could do in the 1991 Gulf War,
everyone began to dismantle their conscript armies. Smaller armed forces, staffed
by professionals and equipped with less, but more capable, gear, were the new
norm. A lot of the growth in U.S. defense spending in the last few years, is to
support operations in Iraq. This includes lots of money for bases in Iraq, and
the hiring of over 100,000 civilians (including about 20,000 armed security
contractors) to help with the war effort.
Thus the patterns of defense spending have changed. Much more of it now goes
for payroll, and for buying far fewer, but higher quality, weapons. More money
goes into equipment, high tech stuff like satellite based communications and
computers. Billions of dollars a year is spent on satellite communications
alone, and not just by the United States.
With the Soviet Union gone, no one else out there wants to try and match the
United States spending levels. The war on terror also has American spending
going up again. Currently, the United States spends about $500 billion a year
(according to SIPRI, and independent defense research organization), all of
Europe, over $200 billion, all of Asia, about the same, the Middle East, over
$100 billion (and rising fast). Africa and the rest of the Americas add another
$30 billion or so. While nearly half the spending is by the United States. most
of that money is not buying weapons, but payroll, benefits and materials needed
for training and operations (food, fuel, spare parts, services.)
Not many new tanks, warplanes or combat ships are being built, as everyone
continues to live off the Cold War surplus. Many countries want to build new
stuff, but everything has gotten so much more expensive. That's because
computers and powerful sensors and all manner of nifty technology provide most
of the lethality in new weapons. For example,
your basic $500 assault rifle becomes far more lethal when you add
several thousand dollars worth computerized accessories.
Countries are spending more on defense, but they aren't buying the same kind
of stuff they were two decades ago.