TrendPriorities in global defense budgets shift

Published 9 June 2009

Since 9/11, the growing impact of terrorist groups and non-state actors has made defense priorities complex; the recent economic downturn makes the ordering of priorities difficult

When it comes to the defense budget, it is not readily apparent what is critical in the twenty-first century, and the recession could speed up a rethink about what threats the world is arming itself against.

The Guardian’s Luke Baker writes that Since 2001, global military spending has risen steadily and still rose last year despite economic problems, climbing 4 percent to $1.464 trillion, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The economic picture is shifting and spending priorities with it. “There’s going to be tremendous pressure on budgets and the question is, where will the cuts come?” said Alex Nicoll, a defense and economics expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “We’re still very much in an era where each country has a different view of what its security priorities are and what role it wants to play in the world.”

While major powers still need big ticket items such as ships and aircraft to defend their territory and trade routes, the U.S. projection of its power globally means its military also needs a much greater airlift and logistics capability.

Since 9/11, the growing impact of terrorist groups and non-state actors has made defense priorities complex. The attacks in Mumbai last November showed a small group of lightly men armed could have a impact far beyond their numbers. The ongoing insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq also illustrates how a relatively small force can tie up large numbers of troops armed with billions of dollars worth of equipment in what has come to be known as “asymmetric war.”

Baker writes that while fighting for the credibility of the alliance in Afghanistan, NATO states are also worried about the impact of unrest everywhere from Georgia to Pakistan and then also have to strengthen security at home in case of terrorist attacks. Latin America and Africa are also plagued by insurgencies, but states have border conflicts or heavily armed drug gangs to contend with as well. In the Middle East, Israel frets about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, while battling non-state actors such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

Each of these diverse threats means different spending priorities. As well as needing to maintain ships, helicopters, tanks and jets, nations need the latest non-conventional equipment for reconnaissance, surveillance, cybersecurity, biometrics and robotics. And all for less money.

The head of Britain’s army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, laid out his vision of the future in a speech last month, painting a