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The United Kingdom spends considerably more on defense as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) among countries with a similar need. According to Wikipedia, the United Kingdom spends 2.2% of GDP on military spending; whereas, countries such as France (1.9%), Spain (1.4%), Germany (1.3%), and Ireland (0.26%) spend considerably less on defense.

Excluding the direct benefit to increased foreign policy influence and direct impact on national security, does this disproportional spending generate any domestic economic or societal benefits to Britain when also excluding the direct economic impact of military spending (i.e. the government spending component of GDP)?

For example, an increased sense of nationalism could be a benefit of military spending, but is there a higher sense of nationalism from spending 2.2% of GDP versus spending 1.2% of GDP (the average for the countries listed above)?

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  • Currently, Germany and the likes probably regret not having spent more in the past on these things. Doesn't mean British levels are right but may put things into perspective. Last year this question might have been answered differently than this year. Safety is a big benefit.
    – Trilarion
    May 1 at 16:12
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    Not getting invaded is a societal benefit. Since the U.K. economy is the result of choices it is presumably better suited for the U.K. than an economy created by choices made outside of the U.K. to better the interests of an invader.
    – H2ONaCl
    May 1 at 22:57
  • "Excluding the direct benefit to increased foreign policy influence and direct impact on national security..." What about indirect benefits. Do you want to know about them? Increased foreign policy influence and higher national security surely also have economic benefits as such (war is really bad for the economy). Maybe the title of the question can be formulated better to better pinpoint what you want to know.
    – Trilarion
    May 2 at 8:24
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    @Trilarion: I thought that might overflow the title, but I will make this change to the title. Perhaps to, "Does the outsized military spending by Britain generate any indirect societal or economic benefits excluding the direct national security and foreign policy? May 2 at 8:40

2 Answers 2

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What are the social and economic benefits of choosing to pay for an optional insurance policy (i.e. one that is not required by law) like fire insurance?

Very few, until you need that insurance policy.

Ireland is, explicitly, neutral and has no real intent to engage in warfare, though it engages in peacekeeping. That is an entirely valid position, but is also very different from the UK's which has committed to collective defense within NATO.

France's 1.9% is not all that different from 2.2% and France is among the more committed of NATO's big members (USA aside).

Germany is a member of NATO but largely, due to both historical reasons and political budgetary expediency, does not pull its weight to support the collective defense that it has committed to and relies on the efforts of others (or at least it did until Mr. Putin helpfully corrected its outlook). Canada is in a similar spot but is arguably less exposed to actual military risks itself, so less reliant on the efforts of others. Spain I am less familiar with, but is probably somewhat like Germany.

Other countries like the Baltics do see the risk in not paying up to the insurance kitty bank.

Now, you can argue that European countries should save their money and just take the risk. But, for Europe/NATO which is the context explicit in this question, is the ongoing Ukraine war in April 2022 the best moment to be making that argument?

p.s. Neutrality does not mean "no defense" either. While Switzerland rates a relatively low 0.8% GDP it also runs a conscription army, which is a not-inconsiderable imposition on the lives of its citizens.


I think the answer could be improved by expanding what those points are (relevant to economic and societal benefits)

You are typing and reading this on one such benefit. Literally.


what those points are (relevant to economic and societal benefits) and removing the discussion around the foreign policy / national security benefits of defense spending

Not really. There are very few benefits to military spending other than security national security. That's why I already stated.

Foreign influence can be achieved without military force. For all my respect for the Canadian armed forces, for examples in their battles in WW1, WW2 and Afghanistan (Passchendaele, Dieppe and Kandahar respectively), one could argue that a key item in Canadian international prestige would instead be its leadership in bringing the Ottawa treaty banning landmines to fruition. That did not need a Canadian military budget.

Once you are reasoning about other benefits than national security with regards to military budgets, you are losing the point. Yes, there can be benefits to having armed forces, but most of these could be realized by direct funding to the relevant subjects. University R&D for example, instead of military R&D. Civilian Search and Rescue capabilities for example, instead of using soldiers for catastrophe relief. Militaries are vastly too costly and too targeted to one particular role, that of inflicting deadly force if needed, for a well-run democratic nation to contemplate having them just for ancillary benefits (or for jobs-for-the-boys reasons).

So this whole notion about not talking about the benefits to national security, when talking about military expenditures is missing the point about military expenditures entirely. That's like asking about the benefits of owning a car, asides from driving it: cars are made for driving them.

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  • The answer to this is question is "very few," which could be a valid answer. I think the answer could be improved by expanding what those points are (relevant to economic and societal benefits) and removing the discussion around the foreign policy / national security benefits of defense spending. As a hypothetical example, one might argue that US defense spending allows it to enforce anti-drug cooperation in Central and South America with the goal reducing importation of illegal drugs domestically as seen with Operation Operation Just Cause in Panama. May 1 at 5:47
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    @RaymondCarl It is very strange to remove foreign policy and national security aspects when talking about the armed forces, unless a country only uses them to supress internal dissent. A valid point could be which are the pros and cons of a country's foreign policy (e.g. does the UK benefit from having a naval base at Gibraltar?) and if the funding is enough/too much for those objectives.
    – SJuan76
    May 1 at 10:56
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    The answer to this is question is "very few," which could be a valid answer. Why ask the question if you know the answer already then? But in any case, I can give an answer, which disagrees with your opinion. You don't have to agree with it, people can vote it up or down and you can accept a different answer or not accept any. But I've edited it a bit anyway to be more specific. May 1 at 21:37
  • @SJuan76: Spending more on defense to improve defense is not the point of the question. The point of the question is, Excluding the direct benefit to increased foreign policy influence and direct impact on national security, does this disproportional spending generate any domestic economic or societal benefits to Britain when also excluding the direct economic impact of military spending (i.e. the government spending component of GDP)? May 2 at 6:39
  • "University R&D for example, instead of military R&D" There is a considerable overlap between these.
    – RedSonja
    May 2 at 11:12
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Aside from the defence benefits of having a large military, there are other potential benefits.

First note that much of the money in the defence budget is spent on things like pay for soldiers, purchasing equipment from British suppliers and so the money stays in the UK. This spending redistributes wealth. The money isn't lost from the UK economy. So while the spending is a large amount of money, this money is like welfare. The government is moving money from one group of people to another with smaller net cost.

Secondly the spending develops skills in lots of ways. It can turn a low skilled and ill-diceplined teenager into a soldier with transferable skills. That teenage might learn how to repair cars. After leaving the army they can work in a garage. The government gets a trained young person. Similarly very many civillain pilots gained their pilot's licence through the military. Many people would not be able to afford the costs of learning to fly if there wasn't the government paying for military pilots.

Spending on equipment develops skilled engineers, both in the research and development, and in the practical manufacture. In both cases skills and technologies that are developed for war, can be applied for civilian technology. An example is the development of jet engines: the initial research and the ongoing development was done for military aircraft. The successful civilian jet engine business is a spinoff from the military.

Finally, the spending has led to a large defense industrial base responsible for "export sales [at] £5.2 billion [2018], an increase from 2017 (£4.8 billion), maintaining the UK at fourth place in the rankings (UK Government)" The £5.2 billion in exports is a considerable economic impact when compared to the direct impact of £50 billion (2018) in defense spending.

So three benefits, in addition to defence of the realm, are "development of skills" "promotion of research" and "a lucrative arms trade".

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  • "The money isn't lost from the UK economy." In a way yes and in a way no. Even though you pay British soldiers, it's not like they build bridges when there is no war. So no direct economic gain there. Also the sentence "So while the spending is a large amount of money, it" may have something missing.
    – Trilarion
    May 2 at 6:04
  • The arms export aspect could be a major benefit. It would be interesting to see how much the UK exports in weapons each year. It may be difficult to cite, but it is conceivable that the export industry wouldn't exist without above average government defense spending. May 2 at 6:36
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    @Trilarion It is the same with welfare spending. The money that is spent (on welfare, on soldier's pay) is redistributed. There is economic gain in moving money from the wealthy to the less wealthy, as poorer people tend to use the money rather than save it. Soldiers use the money to buy stuff, and that stimulates the economy.
    – James K
    May 2 at 6:53
  • @RaymondCarl Yes, that may well be the case. So the point is that the government pays for "defence" (the insurance alluded to in other answers) and gets arms exports as an by product. The fact that the by product exists may make defense spending more attractive than other forms of spending.
    – James K
    May 2 at 6:56
  • you could also add it's about 140,000 people directly employed in the defence industry (not counting actual enlisted personnel), plus all the sub contractors that support the industry in a time when manufacturing jobs are increasingly off-shored
    – mgh42
    May 5 at 1:38

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