Is the world edging closer to a nuclear war? We seem to be in tinderbox territory. First, it’s the Israelis battling Hamas and firing missiles at the Iranians. Now, another terrifying scenario is unfolding as Russian President Vladimir Putin orders his troops to carry out nuclear drills. The main culprit for ratcheting up tensions is French President Emmanuel Macron, who raised the prospect of EU troops entering the Ukraine battlefield.

British foreign secretary David Cameron followed that up gung-ho style by suggesting British weapons might be used to strike targets within Russia. Putin retorted that if that happened, British military facilities and equipment in Ukraine or abroad could be targeted. The US, meanwhile, has raised the heat by shipping ATACMS long-range ballistic missiles to Ukraine that can be aimed at targets deep inside Russia. The Kremlin response was almost understated, saying an “unprecedented new round of tension.. was being created.” Another TV presenter put it more dramatically, saying: “If NATO countries deploy their forces to Ukraine…. we’ll send everything flying everywhere.”

These are the worst but not the only unsettled parts of the globe. And that’s reflected in global defence spending which, according to SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), has climbed for nine straight years and now is at a record $2.44 trillion. Unsurprisingly, India’s right up there with the world’s fourth-largest defence budget at $83.6 billion, 4.2 per cent higher than the previous year. Still, we’re puny beside global leaders like the US (at a colossal $916 billion) and China ($296 billion).

India isn’t the only Asian country upping military expenditure. Just about everyone’s adding more might to their arsenal, due mainly to China, though for the West, Russia could be the biggest immediate threat. Japan, for instance, has cast off its self-imposed post-war defence spending shackles. Japan’s military budget was up 11 per cent to $50 billion in 2023. Tiny Taiwan, too, hiked its defence budget, by 11 per cent, to $16.6 billion.

That’s an enormous budget for a small island but it has to face almost daily challenges. Just last week, 30 Chinese warplanes flew close to the island in 24 hours.

Similarly, the Chinese are aggressively pursuing their claim to Japan’s Senkaku Islands. An extraordinary 1,287 Chinese ships entered the Senkaku Islands’ contiguous zone in 2023. It’s the same story with the Philippines which faces regular water cannon attacks from Chinese Coast Guard ships. China expressed its annoyance at joint naval exercises between India and the Philippines. China has disputes involving large swathes of the South China Sea.

In Europe, too, it’s much the same story. Countries like Finland and Sweden have joined NATO and are spending way more on defence.

Warfare is changing

Also escalating spending is that warfare’s changed with new technology. India is spending on weapons like the Predator and its marine cousin, the Sea Guardian. We’ve also bought thousands of drones. The Azerbaijan-Armenia war showed military strategists globally that drones had altered the way wars are fought and the Russia-Ukraine war has underscored those lessons. Even the Houthis, with their limited resources, have proved that relatively inexpensive drones can have devastating impacts. In Myanmar, rebel forces like the Chins and the Arakan Army are demonstrating that $400-drones can destroy army camps.

There are even questions about whether tanks now are obsolete. No, analysts reply, they’re still critical and that massive Russian tank losses at the start of the Ukraine invasion reflected poor preparation. The Indian Army’s answer to new forms of warfare has been to create the FRCV (future ready combat vehicle) which have added protection and weapons able to destroy incoming missiles.

India has also been forced to dramatically boost spending in regions like Ladakh, creating new airfields and building heated quarters for troops to brave the savage winters. Till 2020, our main focus was Pakistan. Now, it’s vastly richer and more powerful China.

But the greatest current dangers are flashpoints like Ukraine and Gaza. NATO could possibly strike a deal with Russia that it wouldn’t sign up Ukraine as a member. In Israel/Gaza, Hamas said it accepted a ceasefire deal but the Israelis are going ahead with their offensive.

While defence spending looks set to keep rising, it’s unlikely to make the world safer.

The Doomsday Clock, devised in 1947 amid Cold War nuclear tensions, says humanity remains closer than ever to global catastrophe at 90 seconds to midnight. It was furthest from “midnight” in 1991 when it fell back to 17 minutes after the Cold War ended. Those were the good old days.