Globally, the amount spent on defense reached an all-time high in 2021, with more than $2.1 trillion spent on the world’s militaries. And while that equates to only a 0.7% increase from expenditures in 2020 — which topped out at $1.98 billion and was the largest total spent since 1988 — it remains a telling number, considering tensions both in Europe and in the Pacific.
“Even amid the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic, world military spending hit record levels,” Diego Lopes da Silva, senior researcher with SIPRI’s Military Expenditure and Arms Production Program, said in the report. “There was a slowdown in the rate of real-terms growth due to inflation. In nominal terms, however, military spending grew by 6.1%.”
The top five spenders — the U.S., China, India, the United Kingdom and Russia, respectively — accounted for 62% of the world’s total military expenditures last year.
Reaching a massive $801 billion spent in 2021, the U.S. has increased its military research and development costs by a whopping 24% in the last decade, the report showed, despite spending less on arms procurement.
“The increase in R&D spending over the decade 2012–2021 suggests that the United States is focusing more on next-generation technologies,” Alexandra Marksteiner, a SIPRI researcher, said. “The U.S. government has repeatedly stressed the need to preserve the U.S. military’s technological edge over strategic competitors.”
Numbers are projected to be even higher for 2022, as the war in Ukraine kicked off a global defense spending spree for countries on both sides of the conflict. Russia spent approximately $65 billion last year building up its military prior to February’s invasion of Ukraine.
“High oil and gas revenues helped Russia to boost its military spending in 2021,” Lucie Béraud-Sudreau, director of SIPRI’s Military Expenditure and Arms Production Program, said in the report. However, “Russian military expenditure had been in decline between 2016 and 2019 as a result of low energy prices combined with sanctions in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.”
In the wake of that Russian invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea, Ukraine’s military spending had risen by 72%. Total spending fell in 2021, however, to around $6 billion.
Prior to the Aug. 23 announcement of another $3 billion in aid, the U.S. had already contributed more than $10 billion in support of Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion.
On the other side of the world, both Australia and Japan also increased military spending in 2021, moves analysts attribute to China’s aggressive growth in the region. China allocated approximately $293 billion to military spending in 2021, marking a nearly 5% increase from 2020.
“China’s growing assertiveness in and around the South and the East China seas have become a major driver of military spending in countries such as Australia and Japan,” SIPRI senior researcher Nan Tian said.
“An example is the AUKUS trilateral security agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States that foresees the supply of eight nuclear-powered submarines to Australia at an estimated cost of up to $128 billion.”
Japan added $7 billion to its military spending budget, topping out the island nation at $54.1 billion spent in 2021 and marking the country’s highest annual increase since 1972. Australia’s total spending grew by 4%, reaching around $31.8 billion for the year.
Other notable spenders include Nigeria, which increased military spending by more than 50% to help in the fight against Boko Haram and Islamic State-West Africa, and Iran, which increased its military budget for the first time in four years, reaching $24.6 billion.
Rachel is a Marine Corps veteran and a master's candidate at New York University's Business & Economic Reporting program.