If the level of military spending is an indication of power, then the EU, representing the sum of its members, is a declining power. That is one inference from a report
by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) on global military spending levels.
After 13 years of increase, world spending has levelled out, with 2011 at $1.74 trillion, almost the same the figure in 2010. In real terms, there is in fact a very small increase of 0.3 percent, but that compares with an annual average increase of 4.5 per cent between 2001 and 2009.
Six of the world's top military spenders - Brazil, France, Germany, India, the UK and the US - cut their military budgets in 2011, in most cases as part of attempts to reduce budget deficits. Other states, notably China and Russia, increased their spending markedly.
The key comparator, though, is the US. On the world stage, it remains by far biggest spender, even if its expenditure fell by 1.2 percent ($8.7 billion in 2010 prices). But of the Europeans, according to the European Defence Agency, the total military spend for the 26 EDA participating member states (pMS) was $257 billion. That compared with US spending of $689 billion – a ratio of 2.7:1.
And while the US has seen a modest fall, of the three top spenders in Western Europe - France, Germany and the UK - France's military budget has fallen four percent since 2008. Germany has cut 1.4 percent and only the UK is holding up, with a 0.6 percent cut – although deeper cuts are in the pipeline.
In other European countries, far larger cuts have been made. Greece is down 26 percent since 2008, Spain 18 percent, Italy 16 percent and Ireland 11 per cent. Belgium has seen a 12 percent cut and most central European countries have also made severe cuts.
Taking the aggregated defence expenditure of the 26 EDA pMS between 2006 and 2008, this has been about half that of the US. But in the years 2009 and 2010 this difference increased. While the EU aggregated defence expenditure decreased from $266 billion in 2008 to €257 billion in 2010, US expenditure increased from $612 to $689 billion in the same period.
Comparing defence spending with other macroeconomic data, in 2010 US defence expenditure represented 4.8 percent of GDP and 11.2 percent of overall government expenditure. In the EU these ratios were, respectively, 1.6 and 3.2 percent. As for defence expenditure in relation to the total population, the US $2,222 per capita in 2010, while the EU spent on average $517.
The spending alone does not tell the whole story though. Between 2006 and 2010, EU pMS spent half of their aggregated defence budget on personnel (civilian and military staff). In the US, personnel costs represented slightly less than one third of total defence spending during the same period.
Operation and Maintenance costs of EDA pMS were between 22 and 23 percent of total defence expenditure for the period 2006 to 2010. In the US this percentage was closer to 30 percent.
Another important difference was defence investment (Equipment procurement and R&D/R&T). In the EU, the proportion of the budget dedicated to investment has always been lower than in the US (respectively 20 and 30 percent). However, it increased from 19 percent in 2006 to 22 percent in 2010, at $57 billion. As for R&D expenditure, the US spends more both in absolute terms and as a proportion of defence expenditure.
Turning to defence personnel, in 2006 total defence staff was higher in the EU than in the US (2.4 million against 2.1 million). Between 2006 and 2010, the number of staff working in defence decreased by 17 percent in the EU and in the US it increased by six percent. As a result in the past two years (2009 and 2010) the relative position changed and total personnel in the US exceeded the number of personnel in the EU (2.2 million and 2.0 million respectively in 2010).
Military personnel represents 80 percent of total personnel in the EU while in the US the proportion is 66 percent (these proportions have remained constant for the period 2006 to 2010). In terms of absolute figures, the US has twice as many civilian defence staff as the EU (778 thousand and 390 thousand), whereas the EU has more military staff than the US (1.6 million in the EU against 1.4 million in the US).
In terms of deployed personnel, the US deployed on average almost 200,000 troops. This represents 14 percent of military personnel. The EU deployed 66,000 troops, four percent of the total military personnel.
For all the figures, these last ratios have the most force. The four percent deployed by the EU represents probably the maximum capability, less than a third of the US figure. And given that the EU 27 exceeded the US in population and GDP, any ambitions the EU might have of matching the US on the world stage are no closer than they have ever been. Compared with the US, the EU is a pygmy.
And nor even does it stop there. The year 2011 saw Russia increase its military spending by 9.3 percent in 2011, reaching a total of $71.9 billion. This makes it the third largest military spender worldwide, overtaking the UK and France.
Furthermore, military expenditure in Asia and Oceania rose by 2.4 percent, due mostly to a 6.7 percent ($8.2 billion) increase by China. India's military budget fell by 3.9 percent, or $1.9 billion, in real terms, with high inflation cancelling out a nominal increase.
The US, therefore, continues to remain at the top of the league, spending more on its military than EU countries, China and Russia put together. But as the latter two powers increase their spending, the EU is trailing further and further behind. Its ambitions are bigger than its ability to realise them.