A closer look at NATO figures

General Chris Deverell, commander of joint forces command (photo credit: MoD)

Earlier this week the United Kingdom’s General Chris Deverell, commander of joint forces command, made a speech at the annual International Concept Development and Experimentation Conference*, being hosted by the UK Ministry of Defence for the first time in 17 years, in which he tried to reassure his audience of the UK’s commitment to Defence Europe and NATO.

After repeating what Prime Minister Theresa May said in Florence, Italy, on 22 September with regards to the UK’s relationship with Europe,  “that our commitment to the defence, and indeed the advance, of our shared values is undimmed” and, what she said a week later to troops from the UK Framework Battle Group in Estonia that “while we are leaving the European Union […], we are not leaving Europe, so the United Kingdom is unconditionally committed to maintaining Europe’s security,” Deverell stressed in his own words that “we will continue to work with and alongside the EU as well as with out European neighbours.” He added, in the conditional tense, that “the UK could continue to contribute funds, expertise, and assets to specific CSDP (common security and defence policy) operations and missions that reflect UK and EU mutual interests,” and told his listeners that “the UK wants to build a bold, new security partnership with the European Union, recognised by treaty.” How likely this is to happen given the UK’s history of opposing institutional reforms in Brussels to give the European Union more military clout remains to be seen.

The General then moved onto Britain’s relationship with NATO and some of what he said sent us scurrying to the official NATO website and its recently published figures to double check his statements. “We have the second largest defence budget in NATO”. Correct, the UK does. “[We] are one of only a handful of allies that spend 2% of its GDP on defence.” Correct. If you look at the table below you’ll see that the United States, Greece, the United Kingdom, Estonia, Romania and Poland are the only member states that spend 2% of their GDP on defence.

Figures were compiled from those set on 30 June 2017 available on the NATO website

But then we took a closer look at the NATO figures and realised that Germany, which is a lowly equal 16th in the GDP rankings, actually holds its 4th rank in overall spending if you consider how much it spends for the size of its armed forces, which are the fifth largest amongst the NATO allies. Similarly, France which is ranked 6th in the GDP rankings, holds it’s third place for overall spending if you consider the size of its armed forces, the third biggest amongst the allies after the United States and Turkey.

And Luxembourg, which only spends a measly 0.44% of its GDP on defence, placing it last in the league table, also has the third smallest defence budget… but then it has the smallest armed forces, just 800 personnel. Montenegro, however, which only became a member of NATO last June and has the second smallest armed forces with 1,500 personnel and the smallest defence budget, ranks a remarkable 9th in the GDP rankings because the little it spends on defence still amounts to 1.66% of its GDP. All this to say that it’s not because a nation spends less than 2% of its GDP on defence that its spending is not proportionate to the size of its armed forces.

Deverell also mentioned that Britain was amongst the “handful of allies [that spends] 20% on major equipment”. Wrong. There are 13 countries which spend at least that much and the UK ranks only 10th, outranked by Romania, Luxembourg, Lithuania, Turkey, Bulgaria, the United States, Norway and France, in that order.

What Deverell didn’t mention was that the United Kingdom comes last when it comes to spending on military and civilian personnel (i.e. their wages) and for their pensions. It would be interesting to know whether Portugal, which ranks first, spending 78.03% of its budget on wages and pensions, has happier troops than Britain’s and finds it easier to recruit personnel…

Figues compiled from those on the NATO website.


* The International Concept Development and Experimentation (ICDE) Conference is the annual forum of NATO’s Supreme Allied Command Transformation and US Joint Staffs’ to discuss the most current issues of concept development and experimentation in the capability development process.