THE cold war may be over, but arms budgets go on. World military expenditures totaled $880 billion last year, according to a new report by World Priorities Inc. That figure represents about a 5 percent drop since the peak spending year of 1987, but it's still one of the highest military spending totals of the last 30 years.
At the current rate of decline, it will be nine years before inflation-adjusted arms spending is back where it was in 1980, before the world arms race accelerated sharply. It will be 18 years before the level drops to that of the 1970s, estimates World Priorities, a research group opposed to large military budgets.
"The trend of world arms spending is slightly downward, but the total decline in evidence at the beginning of 1991 is modest, and in sharp contrast to the explosive growth of recent years," notes author Ruth Leger Sivard, a former US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency official.
It is no surprise that the United States ranks as the number one military spender, with the Soviet Union in second place. France and West Germany, numbers three and four on the list, have defense budgets substantially smaller than those of the superpowers.
Developed nations account for the vast majority of world military spending - about 85 percent of the total. But defense spending is a more crushing burden for most third world nations, due to their far lower per capita gross national products, argues Ms. Sivard.
As a group, developing nations spent 23 percent more on their military establishments during the decade between 1978 and 1988 than they received in economic development aid, according to the report, though many of the heaviest spenders were Middle East oil kingdoms.
Again not surprisingly, Iraq was the single biggest arms importer in the third world for the 20 years of 1969 to 1988, buying $61 billion worth of weapons. Saudi Arabia was second, at $37 billion for the two decades, with Vietnam third and Syria fourth.
And where the arms go, war follows. Between the year 1500 and the end of World War II, Europe was by far the most war-wracked region on Earth, accounting for two-thirds of all war deaths during that time. Europe now is the most peaceful of regions, and the Far East has replaced it at the top of the list, accounting for more than half of all those killed by war since 1945.
"Without exception, the wars of the last two decades have all been in the developing world," notes the report.
As the locale of war has moved, so has the figure of civilian dead as a percentage of total casualties. During the 1980s it appears that around 74 percent of all people killed in war were unarmed civilians.
Another recent development has been the declining likelihood that a country which starts a war will win it. In past centuries aggressors had a 50-50 chance of coming out on top; in the 1980s only 18 percent won, according to World Priorities statistics.
The cost of weapons has similarly seen major changes in recent decades. Since 1945, the US price index measuring inflation has increased by about seven times. US tanks, however, are 88 times more expensive than their World War II counterparts. Submarines are 300 times more expensive.
The F-117 Stealth fighter is almost 2,000 times more costly than a World War II fighter aircraft.
Modern US weapons are far more capable than those of past years. Yet "if comparable price increases had occurred in the civilian market, the average family automobile would now have a price tag of at least $300,000," claims Sivard.