Towards a Comprehensive Security Approach to Military Spending

1 November 2023
Towards a Comprehensive Security Approach to Military Spending

Global military spending has risen every year rise since 2015, passing the US$2 trillion mark for the first time in 2022. While this addresses some legitimate security concerns in an era of instability, governments need resources to address many other pressing issues. Transition to a net-zero emissions economy has been costed for instance at $3.5 trillion a year until 2050. The latest United Nations (UN) Advisory Board for Disarmament Matters (ABDM) report acknowledges the rising trend in military spending. It calls for policy makers, experts and civil society to explore innovative approaches to strengthen public awareness on military expenditures, monitor its developments and contribute to deliberations on reducing military spending.

With numerous non-military threats — alongside the very urgent military threats — and at a time when economies are still recovering from the effects of Covid-19 lockdowns and high inflation levels, it is fair to ask “‘are governments spending resources on what they declare as their main security priorities’?”? The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) is working with the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) on a new research initiative exploring how this could be done, with the aim of developing a toolkit to help civil society organizations (CSOs), journalists, parliamentarians, and other stakeholders to carry out this kind of assessment.

Increased transparency is necessary but only just the first step

The ABDM report recommends that states continue to submit information to the UN Report on Military Expenditures (MilEx), an international voluntary reporting instrument on national military spending. Such calls have been around since 1981, when this instrument was created. The reporting rate has remained low, averaging around 40 state submissions per year. For the year 2022, UNMilEx received 59 submissions. This remained lower than the peak of reporting contributions in 2001, when 81 states participated. Beyond the UNMilEx instrument, SIPRI’s Military Expenditure database provides official data for 169 states covering the period 1949–2022; the data for 2022 covers 155 states. This shows that data is available, and that there is actually a relatively high level of transparency in military-related matters at the national level in many countries. While transparency can and should improve, it is alone not sufficient to evaluate whether states spend adequately on improving security. The core consideration should be about how this information is used and by which entities.

Aligning public spending with security priorities: a new approach to military spending

The SIPRI-UNIDIR research initiative first identifies states’ national security priorities, based on national security strategies and similar documents. For some states, these priorities might include climate adaptation, or a range of other non-military issues alongside traditional hard or military-led security concerns. Germany’s 2023 national security strategy cites, after Russia, threats such as terrorism, extremism, organised crime, illegal financial flows, cyberattacks, risks for security of supply, and the climate crisis. The Philippines’ 2023-2028 national security policy lists seven categories of national security interests, including national sovereignty and territorial integrity, ecological balance and climate change resiliency, and national identity, harmony and culture of excellence.

In such instances, limiting the analysis to traditional military security overlooks the complete picture. Instead, traditional security should be integrated into the broader framework of the single security space. By combining national budget documents with national security priorities, credible assessments can be done on whether government expenditure is coherent with its own stated security priorities.

CSOs who have a specific mandate or focus on government transparency and accountability would be particularly well-placed to benefit from UNIDIR and SIPRI’s exploratory research and toolkits. Imali Yethu in South Africa, a coalition of CSOs actively working with the South African government towards transparent budgeting and accountable governance, is an example of such CSOs. Another is the International Budget Partnership (IBP), who works with local CSOs and communities towards responsible, effective, and equitable management of public resources. These organisations have the networks and platforms to turn raw budgetary data which includes military expenditure and public policy objectives into compelling narratives that can engage the public and policymakers alike.

A new pathway to promote oversight and accountability in broader security spending

To a large extent, military expenditure data is readily accessible, and freely available. Repeating calls for a reduction in military spending have had limited success over the decades, and now even sound tone-deaf in the current global security context. SIPRI and UNIDIR offer a response to the ABDM calls for a critical and innovative approach to the scrutiny of military spending.

The proposition involves equipping local CSOs, lawmakers and media with the right tools for understanding whether governments are spending what they say they should be spending to address their declared national security priorities. This should enable a broader range of stakeholders around the world to interrogate relevant data on military and security spending and meaningfully engage with their governments to conduct oversight and hold governments to account. In a few years, we hope to be able to identify and promote successful examples of where states have been held to account on the extent to which their military and security expenditure is in line with their own security priorities. By covering broader aspects of security, addressing human security, and lowering the reliance on just military security, the aim is to offer a transformative discussion from military spending to broader security spending.

For more information about the joint research project on matching security priorities and public spending see the companion blog on the SIPRI website.


  • Dr Nan Tian is a Senior Researcher with the Military Expenditure and Arms Production Programme at SIPRI.
  • Alexandra Kuimova is a Researcher with the Conventional Arms and Ammunition Programme at UNIDIR.
  • Paul Holtom is the Head of the Conventional Arms and Ammunition Programme at UNIDIR.
  • Dr Lucie Béraud-Sudreau is the Director of the Military Expenditure and Arms Production Programme at SIPRI.