Despite impending cuts in the armed forces of many of its member nations, NATO remains by far the largest military force in the world, outstripping any potential rivals in terms of numbers and defense expenditures, according to annual statistics released by the alliance.
The data also show that the United States still accounts for more than 70 percent of the total defense expenditures of NATO’s 28 member countries.
The release of the latest NATO figures comes ahead of a meeting of defense ministers in Brussels and coincides with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s proposal for continued cuts in U.S. military spending after 13 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Hagel’s plan would result in slashing the active-duty Army down to between 440,000 and 450,000 troops, its smallest size since before World War II. Congress has already mandated nearly $500 billion in defense spending cuts in coming years, triggering a major re-evaluation of U.S. military needs.
Among NATO’s European members, only Estonia, Greece and Britain spent more than the alliance’s target sum of 2 percent of gross domestic product on their armed forces last year. The U.S. dedicated 4.1 percent of its GDP to defense, or $735 billion, according to the NATO data.
The combined defense expenditures of all NATO nations in 2013 amounted to $1.02 trillion. This figure includes research and development expenditures related to purchase of major equipment and pensions.
By comparison, the total of military budgets for all countries in the world was $1.745 trillion in 2012, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Sweden.
In 2012, China’s expenditures amounted to $166 billion and Russia’s were $90 billion. Iran trailed with just under $7 billion, according to SIPRI.
By troop numbers, NATO also held a lopsided advantage over any other nation, with a total of 3,370,000 servicemembers in 2013, according to NATO’s statistics. This contrasts with Russia’s 766,000 troops and China’s estimated 2.3 million active-duty personnel, according to Sam Perlo-Freeman, director of SIPRI’s program on military expenditures.
“NATO still accounts for a clear majority of world military spending, over 60 percent, and a substantial number of other top spenders are American allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel,” Perlo-Freeman said. “In terms of military capabilities, the U.S. and NATO will remain absolutely unmatched for the foreseeable future.”
But Perlo-Freeman warned that although China’s military capabilities “are far, far shorter” than America’s, it doesn’t mean that Washington can impose its will in China’s “near-environment.”
As for Russia, Perlo-Freeman said it could compare with the West only in its nuclear capabilities.
“But its conventional forces have a lot of serious deficiencies in terms of command and control and mobility, (and) in terms of actually being able to fight modern warfare, they are far behind Western countries,” he said.
Defense budgets in most European nations have come under increasing pressure since the start of the economic recession six years ago. Although military expenditures appear to have escaped major cuts during that period, analysts expect that, with the withdrawal of NATO combat troops from Afghanistan at the end of the year, they will fall to levels hard to imagine just a decade ago.
Since 2010, European nations have cut their military forces by a total of about 160,000 servicemembers. Over the next several years, the trend is expected to continue on the assumption that the alliance will not be engaged in another large-scale, long-duration ground war anytime soon. Britain has already announced it will cut 30,000 armed forces personnel, leaving just 147,000 servicemembers by 2020. Belgium intends to slash its defense budget by 20 percent, and several other countries are expected to follow suit.