1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
ConflictsGlobal issues

Global military spending soars to new record highs

April 22, 2024

The global defense budget saw its largest yearly increase in 14 years in 2023, according to the think tank SIPRI. Russia's war in Ukraine, the China-Taiwan crisis and other global conflicts played a significant role.

Polish soldiers on tanks take part in a military parade in Warsaw on Polish Army Day
Poland increased its military spending the most of all European countries in 2023Image: Wojtek RADWANSKI/AFP

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) has updated its Military Expenditure Database for 2023, with top spenders such as the United States, China and Russia ratcheting up their military budgets.

Military spending is up in Africa, the Middle East, Europe, Asia, Oceania and North and South America. It's the first time since 2009 that annual spending has increased in all geographical regions examined by SIPRI at once.

With a budget increase of 105%, the Democratic Republic of the Congo stood out as the country with the single largest increase in military spending in 2023 by percentage. Researchers attributed this boost to the protracted conflict between the government and non-state armed groups.

How surprising is military expenditure rise?

Xiao Liang, a researcher in SIPRI's military expenditure and arms production program, told DW that "what might be surprising is how large the increases are in the rest of the world, especially in Latin America and Africa."

Liang said the governments of Mexico and El Salvador were using the military for internal affairs such as combating organized crime and gang violence. Ecuador and Brazil are showing similarly concerning trends, he added.

"The increase itself is not too surprising, but it's the scale and scope of the increase," Liang said. "For the global trend, if the current conflicts and tensions continue, we will probably see more increase in the coming years."

Ukraine-Russia war spending imbalanced

Ukraine has remained a conflict hot spot since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in early 2022.

At 5.9% in 2023, Liang said, Russia's military spending in relation to its gross domestic product (GDP) reached its highest point since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

By comparison, Ukraine's military spending was 37% of its GDP. "So the war is burdening Ukraine much more than Russia," Liang said. The bare numbers highlight that the fight between Russia and Ukraine is imbalanced, but Western support has helped Ukraine level the playing field, preliminary SIPRI reports indicated.

Awaiting aid, Ukraine salvaged damaged weapons

"From the spending trend last year, all but three countries in NATO increased their spending," Liang said. "And also we've seen the most number of countries, in 11 out of 31 members in NATO, that met or exceeded the 2% GDP target, which is the highest since the end of the Cold War. We expect to see more countries reaching their targets in the next few years. Now also, with Finland and Sweden joining NATO, I think the spending by NATO countries as a whole will keep rising."

What's behind China's military spending increase?

The conflict between China and Taiwan also drove up military spending in 2023. China increased military expenditures by 6% from the previous year, allocating about $296 billion (€277.5 billion) to the military in 2023. That's about half of the overall military expenditure across the Asia and Oceania regions. 

Liang said China was directing most of its growing military budget toward increasing the combat readiness of its People's Liberation Army.

"We are clearly seeing that trend because, if you look at spending, it has been rising for 29 consecutive years," Liang said. "That's the longest streak recorded by a single country. It's mostly actually increasing set alongside the pace of its economic growth, regardless of fluctuations in geopolitical tensions or global crisis such as the war in Ukraine or COVID."

Liang said China's military modernization had also prompted countries such as Japan, Taiwan and India to increase their military spending. Japan and Taiwan both raised their military spending by 11%, to $50.2 billion and $16.6 billion, respectively. 

How regional conflicts are fueling military spending increases

Another noteworthy development in SIPRI's database is the increased military spending in South Sudan. Marked by internal violence and spillover effects from the civil war in neighboring Sudan, the world's youngest nation increased military spending by 78% compared with 2022.

Countries across Europe spent another year fearing security threats from Russia. Poland increased its military spending the most of all European countries, by 75% from 2022, to $31.6 billion in total.

In the Middle East, Iran recorded a military budget of $10.3 billion, making it the region's fourth-largest spender.

'Military security has became a priority again'

"We live in an age when military security has became a priority again and security is defined in a militaristic framework," said Niklas Schörnig, a political scientist at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt. "In this sense, these numbers are just a reflection of that mindset."

Pointing to Ukraine and the recent exchange of blows between Iran and Israel, Schörnig also noted that defense was far most costly than an offensive. "Take the drones that Iran is delivering to Russia, for example, and that Iran recently deployed," he told DW. "Organizing that kind of defense is hugely cost-intensive."

Schörnig, the institute's senior researcher in international security, said conflicts such as the war in Ukraine were proof that the logic of disarmament has reached its limits. Instead, he said, the world has entered a new era in which armament is spiraling out of control as most arms control agreements are outdated or no longer in use.

To counter this trend, Schörnig proposed a new international goal. "States need to return to controlled armament," he said. "They need to agree not to arm themselves above a certain level. This could de-escalate things a bit. Arms controls could be an interim goal, a way to limit and stabilize armament, and avoid everyone wildly arming themselves however they like."

It's likely SIPRI's report on military expenditures in 2024 will once again find an increase in spending. In 2023, Israel's large-scale offensive in Gaza and tensions in the wider region led to the highest annual growth in military spending the Middle East had seen in 10 years.

Total military expenditure in the region grew by 9% and amounted to $200 billion. Israel's military spending alone spiked by 24% to $27.5 billion, second only to Saudi Arabia.

Schörnig said he had a pessimistic outlook. "If the general political climate doesn't change, I don't believe the current upward trend in armament will come to an end," he said. "This would only be possible if Ukraine achieved a peace agreement that didn't divide the country."

He said he also hoped the United States and China could negotiate to keep the regional conflict with Taiwan under control.

Even if they could, he said, "this current geopolitical situation is like a powder keg, and SIPRI's numbers reflect just that."

This article was originally written in German.

Oliver Pieper | Analysis & Reports
Oliver Pieper Reporter on German politics and society, as well as South American affairs.