After a decade of growth, global military spending has fallen during the past two years and looks set to fall in 2014. But yet Australia is bucking the trend.

The United States has announced it will slash military funding, bringing down the size of its army to under pre-World War II levels. This is in line with most other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development states cutting military expenditure in the wake of the global financial crisis, in an effort to tighten national belts and wind down from the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts.

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But while the West downsizes its armed forced, new powerhouses are upping the ante; since 2008 Russia and China have increased defence outlays by 30% and 40% respectively. These increases come as China is increasingly comfortable with projecting military capacity commensurate with its economic power, and it has tried to convince neighbours to back down from rival territorial claims.

Russia is trying to assert its regional dominance, having fought a war with Georgia in 2008. Some worry that recent unrest in the Crimea following the fall of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych could lead to a Russian intervention in the pro-Russian region.

Australia is also a country whose armed forces are on the rise: military spending looks set to grow over the next few years, following a 10% cut in 2012. Australia’s military spending is low by international standards — around 1.6% of GDP, compared with around 3.7%  for the US. The number of personnel in the Australian Defence Force (not including reserves) has grown from 50,932 in the 2001-02 financial year to 58,235 in the 2013-14 budget, but that’s down from almost 70,000 in the early 1990s. The Defence budget is expected to rise from around $25.4 billion in the 2013-14 financial year to $30.8 billion in 2016-17.

The difference between Australia and other developed countries in spending trends can be attributed to two reasons: China and budgets. Most developed nations are in Europe and, notwithstanding a bit of posturing by Russia, Europe is much more secure now than it was during the Cold War. Australia’s strategic neighbourhood is completely different, placing us near the vast naval growth zone being eagerly watched by China, India, the US and a host of smaller powers.

Australia’s finances have played a role, too. Once again, Australia is in a different position to most developed states, having avoided austerity. According to last year’s Australian Strategic Policy Institute report, the previous government’s 2013 “boost to defence spending was a direct consequence of [its] failure to achieve a surplus. Had a surplus been within reach, the defence budget would have undoubtedly come under renewed pressure.”

But Professor Richard Tanter of the School of Political and Social Studies at the University of Melbourne thinks it is “pretty implausible” that the Coalition government will be able to reach the target of $30.8 billion in 2016-17, given “Labor was finding it difficult to fulfil its promises to expand defence spending” while in power.

According to Tanter, troop numbers in most OECD states have been shrinking in the past few years as militaries invest in “casualty-averse technologies” such as drones, which reduce the need to train and arm humans who are liable to be killed in war. Some countries, such as the US and Israel, have already been using armed drones to attack their enemies, while others have thus far only used drones for surveillance.

“The personnel size of militaries is in itself pretty irrelevant to any assessment of what they mean,” said Tanter. “Training, equipment, readiness, logistics, technological level, organisation and doctrine in general are equally important. In the case of the North Koreans, they are barely feeding their soldiers, and their planes have virtually no aviation fuel apart from what they stockpiled long ago.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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