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For the companion ‘climate change’ report, go to Indefensible: The true cost of the global military to our climate and human security.

Global military spending, sustainable human safety and value for money

The nations of the world spend more today on their militaries than at the height of the Cold War. Of that $1.9 trillion, the USA accounts for 40%. It spends almost as much as the next top 10 spenders combined and three times as much as China, the second highest spender.

Geopolitical threat – real, perceived, exaggerated or invented – will likely always be with us. But there are other, equal if not greater threats to our local, national, regional and global security which are not accorded the same order of attention, urgency or resources as conventional security threats – they are climate change, habitat loss and mass species extinction, global economic instability (poverty and inequality) and now, pandemic.

“What we urgently need now is a rethinking of the entire concept of security. Even after the end of the Cold War, it has been envisioned mostly in military terms. Over the past few years, all we’ve been hearing is talk about weapons, missiles and airstrikes… The overriding goal must be human security: providing food, water and a clean environment and caring for people’s health. To achieve it, we need to develop strategies, make preparations, plan and create reserves. But all efforts will fail if governments continue to waste money by fueling the arms race… I’ll never tire of repeating: we need to demilitarize world affairs, international politics and political thinking.”

Former President of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, April 15, 2020

Climate change: an existential threat to our shared humanity and planet

We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction.

Yet the most socially and economically damaging threat to our collective global security/safety – climate change – is nowhere near centre stage in defence/security policy-making.

According to USA-based Climate Policy Initiative’s analysis, total public expenditures on climate change, both international and domestic, amounted to $141 billion in 2016, compared with military expenditures of $1.66 trillion. On average, the expenditure of national governments on climate change amounted to 8.5% of what they spent on defence, a ratio of 12:1. The G7 and other industrialised countries committed in 2015 to spend $100bn a year under UNFCCC to support climate action in developing countries. In truth, they didn’t and what they spent in International Climate Finance is completely overshadowed by their military spending ($21bn versus $845bn spent by G7 in 2016).

Since 2016, global military spending has gone up significantly.

Professor Neta C. Crawford and Catherine Lutz are directors of Brown University’s Costs of War project and although writing here about the USA and the COVID-19 pandemic, their lesson could be applied to all big defence spending nations. They make a powerful case:

“Now is the time for fundamental change premised on the value of real security as human security. We can make our infrastructure both green and good for the economy. We can finance public education, public health, and high-quality veterans care. But, to do so, we have to reduce the Pentagon budget, invest in the programs actually keeping us safe and end the post-9/11 wars. Otherwise we’ll just be sleepwalking back toward another version of the mess we’re in now.”

We have out of date definitions of defence and we are paying a terrible price

Every person, community, society, nation, region needs protection from aggressors and terrorists and it is the job of government to defend its citizens from such threats. We argue that these threats need to be in their place, proportionately, alongside much greater but entirely marginalised human security threats such as climate breakdown and pandemic.

And, it would appear, some in the most powerful military might agree.

“Rosa Brooks, a Counselor to Under Secretary of Defense for Policy in the Obama Administration, suggests the US military’s future leaders agree national security threats are centered on the economy and the environment rather than threatening global powers with massed battalions. She reports a session with majors and lieutenant colonels at the Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, where she asked what they saw as the most serious threats facing the US in the next two decades. When she offered North Korea, Iran, or Al Qaeda, no hands went up, Islamic terror more generally elicited only one or two in agreement, along with weapons of mass destruction. The far more popular answers were resource scarcity and conflict driven by climate change alongside global economic collapse. This suggests that many officers must be suffering some existential doubts: the big threats are not ones the military can do much about.”

Yet, climate change funding is absolutely the poor relation to military spending, as is pandemic preparedness. In 2010 the UK government had identified pandemic as a Tier 1 security threat in 2010 and again in its 2015 National Security Strategies (NSS). During this time, however, little was done to turn the plan into action, whether in terms of infrastructure preparation or raising public awareness to deal with this particular threat, compared to other Tier One threats such as terrorism and wars.

The ‘risk’ pyramid needs up-ending. Climate chaos should no longer be kept in the environmental and/or humanitarian ‘box’ issue and pandemic left at the door of austerity hit, privatised public health services and an underfunded World Health Organisation.

There are other ways to slice the ‘defence spending’ cake.

The F-35: a massive public to private wealth transfer

The Lockheed Martin F-35 weapons system, described as a “flying credit card,” is probably the single most successful programme of public wealth extraction ever devised by a private company. It is currently projected to cost more than $1.7 trillion during its 50-year lifetime for the United States and the total lifetime cost for all the countries that bought F-35s could be as high as $2 trillion.

The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, apart from being the most expensive military weapons system in history, is pretty inadequate at anything it is supposed to excel.

“Well, this is what I say about the Joint Strike Fighter; you pay for it five times. You pay the capital costs, you pay the operating costs, you then pay the opportunity costs of what you could have bought with the money. You pay for it diplomatically because having a good capable military changes the calculus in international relationships. And finally, if push comes to shove, when your air force is defeated, you can lose sovereignty. And that is the ultimate price to pay.”

Chris Mills, former Wing Commander with the RAAF

Value for money:  the F-35 programme vs everything else

The research in this ‘Value for Money’ report provides detailed evidence that helps us to make the case for why the time has come to update and modernise current defence and security thinking – and spending – in order that we can better deal with the greatest threats to our collective safety: climate change and pandemic.

This extends to other inter-related issues of critical importance to human and ecological survival, also grossly underfunded ie climate financing (local, national or transnational financing to address climate change); disaster response and disaster risk reduction; habitat protection and conservation of global biodiversity; the protection of global health and the role of the WHO; global pandemic surveillance and control; conflict prevention, post-conflict reconstruction, UN peacebuilding and peacekeeping; poverty and inequality.

The F-35 is as good as any to make this ‘value for money’ case. Had the $2 trillion estimated global total lifetime cost of F-35 programme been applied to the activities/areas/agencies listed above, the global community would receive any one of the following 10 items; and all ten items with 10 years of military spending at $2 trillion p/a (2020/21 figures):

  • Climate finance for 20 years
  • UN disaster response for the next 400 years
  • UN disaster risk reduction for the next 4,000 years
  • Global biodiversity conservation at $100bn per annum for the next 20 years
  • WHO funding at $2bn per annum for the next 1,000 years
  • WHO’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund for 2,963 years
  • Global pandemic surveillance and control at $8bn per annum for the next 250 years
  • Money for 4 years to lift the poorest people in the world above extreme poverty (UBI for the 700 million poorest)
  • UN peacekeeping operations at current $5bn per annum for the next 444 years
  • UN peacekeeping at $15bn per annum for the next 133 years

Sustainable human safety better describes our 21stcentury defence and security needs

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Rev Martin Luther King Jnr

Both the UN’s ‘human security’ framework and the Oxford Research Group’s ‘sustainable security’ framework effectively brought security together with wider issues, including and especially, climate change, causing a major shift in how security is perceived and defined.

We can expand even further on this and aim for a sustainable human safety framework that re-shapes the foreign and defence policy framework of the 19th and 20th centuries. The word ‘safety’ is now starting to be used in some contexts, as a replacement for security. It far better describes what we need. It also speaks more directly to people in a way that ‘security’ does not.

For many people − citizens and leaders alike − this is a tough debate. But as we tip into runaway climate change and as we are warned that COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic, our shared humanity is facing an existential threat.

If not at the 11th hour, when will be the time to redefine, redesign, repurpose the ‘terms of reference’ for our collective foreign and defence policy-making?

And if sustainable human safety is a better term for what we should be aspiring to, then to achieve it, we need to transform defence.

In this report ‘Global military spending, sustainable human safety and value for money,’ the word ‘safety’ replaces ‘security’ in many contexts.

Full report

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