America is awash with weapons, and the tragic consequences are before us every day. The world is also awash with weapons, as reported by the Stockholm Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the leading source for data on military spending and the arms trade. SIPRI’s latest report shows that the US remains the world’s leading arsenal. President Joe Biden, speaking at a Lockheed plant in Alabama where the Javelin antitank missile is made for export to Ukraine, proclaimed that such weapons make the US “the arsenal of democracy.” I’ll come back to that shortly. But first, here are some findings on the global arms situation along with my assessment of its larger implications.
As demonstrated in Figure 1 overleaf, the US is by far the leading arms exporter at 39 percent of the world total, followed by Russia and France. China and Germany are a distant fourth and fifth. Europe accounts for 13 percent of global arms transfers and is the major growth region in arms imports. Other regions with significant increases in arms imports between the periods 2012-16 and 2017-21 are Oceania, thanks mainly to Australia’s 62-percent growth, and East Asia, which grew by 20 percent. The US is the major arms supplier to both Asia and Oceania; rivalry with China is the principal rationale. Overall, arms imports were down in the Americas and in Africa, but up in the Middle East, especially Israel and Egypt.1
As US arms aid to Ukraine continues to pile up, the US role as the world’s leading arms supplier will only grow larger. The latest arms package of about US$47 billion not only dwarfs the budget for combating climate change, it “would make Kyiv the largest yearly recipient of US military aid of at least the past two decades,” explained Elias Yousif, a security assistance expert at the Stimson Center. “The amount is more than twice the largest yearly total ever provided to Afghanistan … and approximately seven times Israel’s annual military assistance package.”2
This category can be tricky. It covers official spending, which is typically well below actual spending on the military. Depending on the country, military spending might not include expenditures for nuclear weapons, weapons research and development, certain types of arms assistance, veterans’ affairs and interest on the national debt because of wartime spending.
With those qualifications in mind, the leading military spenders in 2021 were the US, China, India, the UK and Russia. As Figure 2 shows, these five accounted for 62 percent of global military spending of about US$2.1 trillion — the first time such spending exceeded US$2 trillion even as the major economies took a hit because of Covid-19.3
As Figure 2 shows, the US, at 38 percent ($801 billion) of the world total, spends as much on the military as the next nine countries combined — or, if you like, China+8. (In 2022, official US military spending will be about US$853 billion; but actual spending will come closer to US$1 trillion.) The US military burden, as it is called, also decreased slightly, from 3.7 percent of gross domestic product in 2020 to 3.5 percent in 2021. (The comparable figure for Russia is 4.1 percent of GDP.) US funding for military research and development rose by 24 percent between 2012 and 2021, reflecting a major focus since President Barack Obama’s time on new weapons, such as next-generation nuclear weapons.
Note that China, the world’s second-largest spender, allocated an estimated US$293 billion to its military in 2021, an increase of 4.7 percent compared with 2020. Again, the qualifications mentioned earlier need to be kept in mind, since there is also considerable unofficial spending on, for example, weapons R&D and the paramilitary People’s Armed Police. On the other hand, US military spending as a percentage of GDP for some time has been more than twice that of China. Beijing’s more assertive foreign policy is a major factor driving military spending increases all around Asia. India, for example, with the world’s third-highest military spending, increased its budget by 0.9 percent in 2021. Japan had a 7 percent increase, and Australia a 4 percent increase. Expect similar increases in those countries this year as tensions with China remain high and US pressure builds on them to contribute more in the context of coalition politics, namely, AUKUS (Australia-United Kingdom-US) and the Quad Security Dialogue (US-India-Japan-Australia).
A Closer Look: ‘MAGIC’ in the US
About 40 years ago, Gordon Adams introduced the term “iron triangle” to characterize the interlocking relationships of the Pentagon’s military services, the corporations that build weapons and provide services, and the Congressional committees that vote on military appropriations and national security — in short, the key players that constantly push for annual increases in military spending and the latest weapons.4 Other players fill out the triangle — lobbyists, Pentagon advisory committees and pro-defense think tanks, for instance. Hence the more encompassing term “MAGIC” — the military-academic-governmental-industrial complex. These groups work together to meet and sometimes exceed the military’s funding requests, in good economic times and bad, in peacetime as well as in times of crisis. To them, national security is a gravy train. But it also represents the permanent war economy, as Seymour Melman called it.5
Let’s look at those corporate-Pentagon contracts. Total prime contracting, which does not include subcontracts, in the current fiscal year (FY2021) is US$447 billion, a jump of US$42 billion from FY2020 and of more than US$300 billion since FY2016. These contracts account for about two-thirds of all federal contracting (US$682 billion) during those years. Under Biden, large military budget increases remain the order of the day, and Congress is adding on to his proposals, ensuring that lucrative corporate contracts with the Pentagon will move ahead. Thus, for FY2022, Congress added US$25 billion to Biden’s military spending bill.6
Table 1 shows the 10 leading prime contractors. They account for US$190.3 billion in contracts, or 42 percent of all private defense contracting. Just how big (and influential) the top defense contractors are becomes evident when we consider that the top five are also the leading federal contractors overall. And three — General Dynamics, Harris and Raytheon — are in the top five information technology contractors to the government.7
Congress — part of the “G” in MAGIC — is the Pentagon’s reliable partner when it comes to military spending. Most House and Senate members never vote for cutting military spending, nor vote to transfer some military spending to social welfare spending. These members also take the most money from military contractors, whose political action committees are reliable donors. The unsurprising finding: The more they take, the more assured their vote for military budget increases. Stephen Semler, who tracks Pentagon economics, found that Democrats are no different from Republicans: In the 2020 election cycle, 179 House Democrats “received (on average) US$30,075.85 in campaign contributions from the defense industry…”8
First, the United States remains by far the principal military power in world affairs. Its military spending and exports continue to grow, increasingly driven by China’s activities but now also by the war in Ukraine. But one must not forget the role of MAGIC independent of events abroad. Pentagon spending is that rare area of legislation that can be assured of strong bipartisan support in Congress.
Second, the intensifying US-China competition is likely to spur arms races throughout Asia, not just among US security partners — with South Korea, Australia and Japan leading the way in increased military spending and arms upgrades — but also among the nonaligned in ASEAN, such as the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam, as they seek to protect their economic interests in adjacent waters as well as improve self-defense. The South Pacific looms as a new trouble spot for US-China contention ever since the Solomon Islands signed a security pact with Beijing.
Third, the slowing of the world economy during the pandemic has only had a slight impact, up or down, on global military spending and arms imports.
Fourth, the war in Ukraine is sharply increasing military imports and spending in Russia, Ukraine, and throughout Europe. There are no prospects of a negotiated end to the war. Every war-ending scenario I’ve seen calls for more sophisticated weapons, which means the replenishment of US and European stockpiles and thus more business for the arms industry.
Fifth, an easy prediction: future SIPRI reports in 2023, 2024, 2025 and beyond will have similarly depressing figures on arms transfers and military budgets. They always go up.
Arsenal of Democracy?
The sixth and final point takes us back to Biden’s claim. Americans should not be deluded into believing their country is the arsenal of democracy. We’re an arsenal, period, at home as well as abroad. With more guns in Americans’ hands than there are people (roughly 400 million privately owned), with murderous attacks on schools that politicians can’t or won’t stop, we are a country out of control. Demand for guns has surged since the Donald Trump years, and the profits of gun manufacturers are at an all-time high. The parallels between MAGIC and its domestic counterpart are inescapable: the powerful combined influence of Congressional support for an unregulated gun market, the obeisance of right-wing politicians to the National Rifle Association and pro-gun lobbyists, and the impunity of gun manufacturers when mass shootings occur. Consider these additional facts about the American arsenal:9
• The number of guns manufactured in America every year has nearly tripled over the past two decades, from 3.9 million guns in 2000 to 11.3 million in 2020.
• We endure more mass shootings than all other developed countries combined.10
• Of the 20 deadliest mass shootings since 1982, 13 happened in the past decade.
• There were 118 school shootings in 2018, doubling the previous record of 59. Then 119 in 2019. Then 114 in 2020. Then 249 in 2021 and 137 so far in 2022. The three deadliest years for school shootings in the past half-century are 2018, 2021, and (so far) 2022.
• Guns have become the leading cause of death among children in the US, overtaking other deaths in 2020.
The US arsenal may help protect some people abroad, such as Ukrainians — though we know, of course, that it protects dictators at least as often — but at home the arsenal is a threat to national security, democratic governance and public health. Only by banning sales of high-powered automatic weapons, as several democratic countries have done, will Americans have any hope of keeping their democracy and maintaining social wellbeing. Otherwise, Chinese President Xi Jinping will be proved right when, according to Biden, Xi told him “democracies cannot be sustained in the 21st century, autocracies will run the world. Why? Things are changing so rapidly. Democracies require consensus, and it takes time, and you don’t have the time.”11 And who should know better about suppressing democracy than Xi Jinping?
1 “Global arms trade falls slightly, but imports to Europe, East Asia and Oceania rise,” SIPRI press release, March 14, 2022, sipri.org/media/press-release/2022/global-arms-trade-falls-slightly-imports-europe-east-asia-and-oceania-rise
2 Ben Friedman and William Hartung, “Putting Biden’s New Whopping US$33 Billion Ukraine Package into Context,” Responsible Statecraft, April 28, 2022, responsiblestatecraft.org/2022/04/28/putting-bidens-new-whopping-33b-ukraine-package-into-context/
3 “World military expenditure passes US$2 trillion for first time,” SIPRI press release, April 25, 2022, sipri.org/media/press-release/2022/world-military-expenditure-passes-2-trillion-first-time
4 Gordon Adams, The Politics of Defense Contracting: The Iron Triangle (New York: Routledge, 1981).
5 Seymour Melman, The Permanent War Economy: American Capitalism in Decline (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1970).
6 Stephen Semler, “Do Barbara Lee and Mark Pocan have the votes to reduce Pentagon spending?” Speaking Security, Sept. 15, 2021, stephensemler.substack.com/p/do-barbara-lee-and-mark-pocan-have
7 “10th Annual BGOV200: The top government contractors in 2020,” Bloomberg Government, June 10, 2021, about.bgov.com/bgov200/
8 Stephen Semler, “A one-party system: House Democrats and military spending,” Speaking Security, July 22, 2020, stephensemler.substack.com/p/a-one-party-system-house-democrats
9 Robert Weissman, President of Public Citizen (publiccitizen.org), e-mail to the author, May 29, 2022.
10 Since 2012, there have been 14 shootings in the US in which at least 10 people died.
11 Katherine Fung, “China President Warned Biden Democracy is Dying: ‘You Don’t Have the Time,’” Newsweek, May 27, 2022, www.newsweek.com/joe-biden-naval-academy-speech-china-democracy-warning-1710966