By Michael D. Mosettig, former Foreign Editor of PBS NewsHour
Some times great historical transformations come bundled in packages of small statistics.
A most recent example: a document from the International Institute for Strategic Studies reporting that for the first time in history countries across Asia will spend more money for their armies, navies and air forces than the nations of Europe.
Behind that dramatic shift is a combination of military, political and economic forces, according to the London-based think tank.
But the numbers and trend lines in the graphics of the 570-page The Military Balance (available for $ 443) report tell a clear story. A decade ago, Asian nations (excluding Australia and New Zealand) were spending a $100 billion less on their militaries than the 26 European countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
The IISS pegged Asian defense spending last year at $287 billion, or an 8.6 percent annual growth rate while European spending declined to $262 billion, an average 3.6 annual drop. (By way of comparison, the latest U.S. defense budget is projected to shrink slightly to $526 billion-- more than the next 14 nations combined).
China military budget for 2012 is $136 billion. Next biggest spenders in Asia are Japan, India, and South Korea in that order.
In its report, and at a recent Washington press briefing, the IISS analysts pointed to several trends in Europe and Asia, from the global financial crisis of 2008-09 to the Euro crisis, political fatigue with the lengthy engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan and a rapid rise in defense spending by China and smaller boosts by some of China's neighbors.
"Indeed, the increase in Asian defense spending has been so rapid, and the defense austerity pursued by European states so severe, that 2012 nominal Asian defense spending exceeded total official defense spending not just in NATO Europe but across all of Europe, including spending by non-NATO European states," The Military Balance reported. The study said the gap would be even more pronounced if pensions for retired service personnel were excluded from the totals.
The downward trend goes across Europe, even in such countries as Britain and France, where as IISS analyst Christian La Miere said, "there is a high degree of interest and support for the armed forces" and which have led military operations in Libya and Mali over the past two years.
La Miere told the Washington news conference that Britain's 20 to 30 percent reduction in capability would make it difficult to repeat its operations in the Balkans and Iraq. Other analysts have speculated that it would be impossible for Britain to remount its Falkland Islands campaign of 1982, should Argentina follow through on threats to try again to seize the territory.
Britain and France constitute about 40 percent of Europe's defense spending. Britain's military has fallen to the axe of the Cameron government's overall austerity campaign. In France, another defense white paper is due out soon, seeking to match its strategic designs and ambitions with an overall cut in government spending.
One of the report's authors, retired Brig. Gen. Benjamin Barry, told the Washington news conference that military leaders in both countries may have to deliver unpleasant news to political leaders seeking military intervention in a distant land or former colony. Already, Barry said the French operation in Mali was hampered by problems with airlift and refueling.
"In both cases (UK and France) you will have chiefs of staff having to say, 'there's a limit up to which we can go.' "