The world’s no.1 military power – and spender

Last updated 8 June 2021

The United States remains the world’s overwhelmingly dominant military power. In a world where international relations still too often follow a logic of militarism and power competition, the US sits at the apex, asserting a right and duty to project military power in every region of the globe, and to use it to go to war wherever it sees its interests as threatened.

Military spending

The US has by far the world’s highest level of military spending. In 2019, according to the Stockholm international Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), US military spending totalled $732 billion, almost 3 times as high as its nearest rival China ($261 billion), and slightly higher than the ten next biggest spenders combined. Some analysts note that this does not cover the full cost of US military forces and activities, as it does not include interest on the national debt or most spending to support veterans of past wars. If these, and some other military-related expenditure were included, the total could reach as much as $1.25 trillion.

Bar chart showing military spending of top 11 spenders 2019, illustrating USA spending far higher than others. Source: SIPRI. Link to data below graph.

View graph data here.

The military industrial congressional complex

The gigantic US military budget means that in particular it is the world’s biggest buyer of arms – mostly from its own domestic industry, the largest in the world by far, although it also imports arms, including from the UK. The US Department of Defense (DOD) spent $430 billion in Fiscal Year 2020 on contracts for equipment and services, mostly from the arms industry. DOD equipment spending(procurement and R&D) was $239 billlion. The F-35 stealth combat aircraft is the most expensive weapons programme in history, currently estimated at $400 billion for procurement costs alone, and as much as $1.7 trillion over the plane’s 50 year lifespan. This figure that has doubled since the programme was announced in 2001.

Like in the UK, the DOD, members of Congress, and the arms industry share an interest in expanding the arms budget with ever larger, more complex, and more expensive programmes, frequently involving massive waste and inefficiency, and doing little or nothing for the real security needs of the American people. Like in the UK, a revolving door between the DOD and industry encourages DOD officials and top military officers to prioritise the interests of the arms industry, while large campaign contributions and lobbying expenditure, as well as the promise of jobs in their electoral district, encourage Senators and Congressional Representatives to do the same. As a result, the bloated Pentagon budget is rarely questioned by more than a small minority of politicians. While Republicans and Democrats are opposed in almost all areas, leading to gridlock in most areas of Congressional legislation, they had no difficulty in passing a $740 billion DOD spending bill in December by an overwhelming majority.

This highly corrupt, but legal system of influence and favours that maintains such obscenely high spending on arms is sometimes called the Military Industrial Congressional Complex.

The arms industry

The US is home to the world’s top 5 arms companies, according to data from SIPRI. These companies had combined revenues from military sales of $166 billion in 2019. The top 5 companies in 2019 were:

  1. Lockheed Martin, with arms sales of $53.2 billion in 2019. Lockheed are the manufacturers of the F-35, as well as the F-16 fighter used by dozens of air forces around the world. They also own combat helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky.
  2. Boeing, with arms sales of $33.6 billion in 2019. Boeing manufacture the F-15 and F/A-18 fighters, as well as transport aircraft, satellites, and much more.
  3. Northrop Grumman, with arms sales of $29.2 billion in 2019. The company produces a range of systems for land, sea, air, and cyberspace.
  4. Raytheon, with arms sales of $25.3 billion in 2019, are the world’s biggest manufacturers of missiles, as well as a range of other high-tech weaponry and systems.
  5. General Dynamics, with arms sales of $24.5 billion in 2019, produce tanks, armoured vehicles, artillery, and other land systems, and submarines and surface warships, including submarines carrying nuclear weapons.

These are just the largest of hundreds of other US arms companies, which include some of the leading military technology and services companies in the world. Many major UK companies also have large US subsidiaries, most notably BAE Systems, whose sales to the US military are greater than to the UK.

The main customer for US arms companies is the US Department of Defense. But these companies also sell their arms around the world, fuelling war and repression, in conjunction with the US government.

CAAT would not exist without its supporters. Each new supporter helps us strengthen our call for an end to the international arms trade.

Keep in touch