When it comes to spending (or losing) obscene amounts of money, it’s never a good idea to bet against the military. While normal people struggled to make ends meet and adapt to stressful economic uncertainties presented by the pandemic’s lockdowns and restrictions worldwide, global militaries were making a killing.
New data released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) found total global military spending increased by .7% last year to reach an all time high of $2.1 trillion spent on means of war in a single year. When combined, the world’s top five spenders (the U.S., China, India, the United Kingdom and Russia) accounted for well over half (62%) of the world’s military spending. A SIPRI chart documenting global spending over the past three decades shows a mostly steady uptick in investment worldwide since 2000, easing up only briefly between 2010 and 2015.
Though the report’s data precedes the current crisis in Ukraine, it provides a clear glimpse into Russia’s burgeoning military buildup in the months leading up to its invasion. According to the SIPRI data, Russia increased its military spending by 2.9% last year, the third consecutive year of military spending growth for the country. Last year, Russia’s estimated $65.9 billion in military spending accounted for 4.1% of its GDP, the report notes.
In Ukraine, on the other hand, military spending actually fell slightly last year, though that’s an exception compared to much of the past decade. Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Ukraine’s military spending has increased by a whopping 72%. Ukrainian officials clearly saw the writing on the wall.
Even on the eve of Europe’s largest war since the 1940’s, Russia and Ukraine’s spending didn’t come close to touching the U.S. According to the report, the U.S. spent a gargantuan $801 billion on military spending in 2021 which works out to roughly 3.5% of its GDP. Shockingly, that’s actually a decrease of 1.4% in spending the previous year.
No war, no problem: advanced and emerging technologies bulk U.S. spending
2021 saw the Biden administration complete the U.S. military’s withdrawal out of Afghanistan, drawing a symbolic end to more than two decades worth of large-scale fighting in the Middle East. The country’s military spending hasn’t reduced in kind to reflect that change, a disparity driven partly by defense industry leaders’ eager interest in new, and often extremely expensive, cutting edge technologies. While traditional spending on weapons and other arms procurements decreased by 6.4% between 2012-2021, U.S. spending on research and development actually increased by 24%.
“The increase in R&D spending over the decade 2012–21 suggests that the United States is focusing more on next-generation technologies,’ SIPRI Military Expenditure and Arms Production Programme Researcher Alexandra Marksteiner said in a statement. “The US Government has repeatedly stressed the need to preserve the US military’s technological edge over strategic competitors.”
That “technological edge,” includes numerous pricey contracts with Silicon Valley for shiny new toys. Just last year, the U.S. Army entered into a major contract with Microsoft, reportedly worth up to $21.9 billion, to bring its HoloLens augmented reality headsets to soldiers. The army believes the soldiers will strap on the headsets to “fight, rehearse, and train” using a single integrated system and use AR and VR to, “enable a life-like mixed reality training environment.” Actual deployment of those goggles has already faced delays.
The military’s ties with Big Tech aren’t just limited to Microsoft either. A report published last year by by advocates and researchers at Little Sis, Action Center for Race and the Economy (ACRE), and MPower Change, estimates the Pentagon and The Department of Homeland Security spent over $44 billion on services from Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Twitter since 2004.
Tech focused R&D spending in the military may swell even further in the next decade as the Pentagon ramps up its already brewing technological arms race with China, particularly around artificial intelligence. Speaking at an event organized by the United Nations last year, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said the U.S. would dish out nearly $1.5 billion on AI research and development in the next five years to compete with China, which he claims is developing the tech for, “a range of missions, from surveillance to cyberattacks to autonomous weapons.”
Part of that effort to ramp up the military’s AI presence traces back to former Google CEO and President Obama tech whisperer Eric Schmidt. As head of the National Security Commission on AI, Schmidt and other defense minded thinkers published a report pushing back against international calls for bans on AI-assisted weapons systems and forcefully advocated for increased cooperation between private industry and military. Not long after Schmidt co-authored The Age of AI, with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger where he warned of a coming AI Cold War.
President Biden, who faced criticism from some conservatives and interventionists over the U.S’ response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine doesn’t seem interested in cutting back on military spending anytime soon. Earlier this month, the president released his annual budget proposal which sought to provide the military with a record $813 billion in funding over a year, a 4% increase from the previous. Even if Biden’s unlikely to secure that exact amount in funding, the proposal provides a glimpse into the President’s priorities.Those figures drew the ire or progressive lawmakers like Washington state congresswoman Pramila Jayapal and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders who slammed the proposal for prioritizing military spending above needed social services.
“At a time when we are already spending more on the military than the next 11 countries combined, no we do not need a massive increase in the defense budget, ‘Sanders said in a statement.