The independent resource on global security

Balancing transparency and national security

Transparency in government spending is a prerequisite for the effective participation of parliaments and civil society in the political process. That governments are often less than transparent when it comes to military budgets has serious ramifications for both democracy and security. Finding an appropriate balance between transparency and national security concerns could in fact help reduce the causes of insecurity and conflict.

Governments agree on the need for transparency

Military forces are key instruments in the security policies of individual states and are often surrounded by secrecy. However, transparency in military matters—including defence policies, military spending and military capability—is generally considered an essential element for building trust and confidence between states. Transparency can also help prevent wasteful spending on the security forces. Furthermore, transparency serves several objectives relating to democratic oversight, accountability and resource allocation. In many countries, while such transparency exists in many or most government sectors, it is generally absent in the security and defence sectors.

There is widespread formal agreement among states that exchanging information on military capabilities can help to prevent the exaggeration of threats, misinterpretations of intentions or actions, military miscalculations and excessive or destabilizing arms build-ups. In 1980 global support for these transparency principles resulted in the establishment of the United Nations Instrument for Reporting Military Expenditures. Then, in 1991 the UN established its Register of Conventional Arms.

Nearly all UN members voted in favour of these initiatives, through which the UN requests member states to provide certain standard data on military spending, and on arms imports and exports. However, both mechanisms are voluntary, and despite widespread initial support, actual participation is embarrassingly low: in 2012 only one-third of the 193 UN members states submitted any information on their arms import and exports, and even fewer states reported on their military expenditure.

Transparency in reporting to national parliaments is improving

While transparency between states has led to the creation of several transparency-related mechanisms, and the notion of transparency enjoys general support, there are no globally agreed binding rules or even guidelines related to domestic transparency in defence policies, military budgets or arms procurement and sales. In most countries, military budgets and information on arms procurement and sales are considered highly sensitive matters. Governments argue that publishing information on them would benefit the strategic planning of hostile parties. Therefore, they restrict public access to information, even shielding it from parliamentary scrutiny.

In practice, transparency in military matters varies widely. Governments in a number of countries regularly provide information on their defence policies (either through specific reports such as defence white papers or annual budgets) or in public statements (which provide information about objectives for military planning and the military structures and equipment required to achieve the objectives). However, in a majority of states, military issues are obscured by secrecy, making constructive public or parliamentary debates, scrutiny and input very difficult or even impossible.

Nevertheless, progress has been made. In Latin America the comprehensiveness of information on military budgets and arms procurement has improved considerably in recent years and major projects are often decided only after public discussion. For example, it took years of open discussions before Brazil decided to procure submarines (including a nuclear submarine) in 2009 and combat aircraft in 2013. Some limited improvements have also occurred in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. For instance, the details of spending and procurement are regularly debated in the Ghanaian parliament, while in Indonesia the parliament has become more informed and more outspoken on military budgets and procurement.

The secrecy of military matters is an illusion

Many governments justify secrecy in military budgets on the basis that such information should not be allowed to fall into the hands of potentially hostile forces. However, maintaining secrecy about military spending and key military procurement projects is practically impossible. For example, SIPRI has had 45 years of experience in collecting information about military budgets and international arms transfers. Open sources, official or non-official, provide SIPRI with a wealth of information about the procurement of major arms. If organizations like SIPRI, with minimal resources and working only with open sources, can calculate military spending and map global arms transfers with a high degree of comprehensiveness and accuracy, then national intelligence agencies in potentially hostile countries are obviously able to achieve a lot more.

Therefore, instead of complete secrecy, governments can only achieve partial secrecy, which can actually create confused debates on national defence, the appropriate allocation of national resources and the appropriate military tools for maintaining national security. Rather than letting half-truths guide discussions and policymaking at home or in neighbouring countries, a more open approach would contribute to confidence building and would help prevent misinterpretations and miscalculations of state intentions that can lead to a waste of resources, corruption and interstate tensions.

Partly because of the open availability of data on the arms trade, an increasing number of key arms-supplying countries have concluded that secrecy is an illusion. As a result, they have begun to provide official information on arms exports to their parliaments and the general public. Such information sharing is not endangering national security interests—on the contrary, it is needed in order to ensure that civil society understands and can contribute to responsible arms export policies that do not create or exacerbate conflict.

Moving beyond a culture of waste

Secrecy in military budgets and procurement also has the potential to create economic waste. It leads to unnecessary acquisitions and reduced accountability, and encourages corruption and unclear price-setting for military equipment. Ultimately, secrecy may well result in dangerous and wasteful arms races and military build-ups. Transparency is crucial precisely because it increases accountability. No parliament can fulfil its role while being kept in the dark about military budgets and procurement. In many developing countries, in particular, governments face tough choices when balancing scarce resources between development and security. A lack of transparency and accountability only exacerbates this difficulty. Hopefully the new Arms Trade Treaty, agreed in 2013 and close to becoming active, will provide an impetus for increased transparency in the arms trade.

Nevertheless, transparency is not a goal in and of itself. Rather, it is a tool for promoting discussions about issues of national and international importance. Furthermore, in the absence of an environment in which a variety of stakeholders are included and informed decisions can be made by all stakeholders on defence policies, budgets and procurement, transparency in military matters is merely a futile exercise in public relations.



Pieter D. Wezeman is a Senior Researcher in the SIPRI Arms Transfers Programme.
Siemon T. Wezeman is a Senior Researcher in the SIPRI Arms Transfers Programme.