Asymmetrical wars in Afghanistan, Vietnam, and now in Syria demonstrate all too clearly that relatively small numbers of belligerents can carry out successful military operations against superior forces.
But still, firepower is extremely important. A country’s projection of power relies in large part upon its military capabilities. Successfully being able to project and wield that power is a key diplomatic asset.
The website Global Firepower ranks the most powerful militaries in the world based on multiple factors, including available manpower, total labor force, and access to strategic assets. Nuclear capabilities are not included in the calculation.
Below are the 11 most powerful militaries in the world according to the 2014 rankings (click country names to see military assets data).
The U.S. defense budget is $612 billion. Despite sequestration and other spending cuts, the United States spends more money on defense than the next ten highest spending countries combined.
America’s biggest conventional military advantage is its fleet of 19 aircraft carriers, compared to 12 carriers operated by the rest of the world combined. These massive carriers allow the U.S. to set up forward operating bases anywhere and project power throughout the world.
The super power also has by far the most aircraft of any country, cutting-edge technology like the Navy’s new rail gun, a large and well-trained human force — and that’s not even counting the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.
Two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia’s military is growing again. The Kremlin’s military spending has increased by almost a third since 2008 and is expected to grow 44% more in the next three years. Today, the Russian defense budget stands at $76.6 billion.
Russia currently has 766,000 active frontline personnel with a reserve force of 2,485,000 personnel. These troops are backed up by 15,500 tanks, the largest tank force in the world. Russian soldiers generally receive relatively mediocre training, however, and their equipment, like that tank force, is aging.
China has embarked upon a relentless policy of massive military spending, with a 12.2% increase in spending over the past year. China’s defense budget stands at $126 billion but could unofficially be higher, prompting concern across Asia as China attempts to project its power to settle border disputes with Japan and the Philippines.
The size of the Chinese army is staggering, with 2,285,000 active frontline personnel with an additional 2,300,000 in the reserves. China also has a history of successfully stealing sensitive military technology, such as recently acquiring sensitive information about the new F-35.
India’s defense spending is expected to rise as it pursues a modernization drive. Currently, it is estimated that India only spends $46 billion on its budget, and it is slated to become the fourth highest spender by 2020. It is already the world’s largest importer of military goods.
India has ballistic missiles with a range capable of hitting all of Pakistan or most of China. Indian military strategy has been dominated by its long-simmering conflict with Pakistan, although there have also been minor wars between China and India in the past.
British Army Corporal Birendra Limbu of the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Gurkha Rifles, shows his rifle to Afghan children as he secures an area near an Afghan National Police (ANP) checkpoint outside the town of Lashkar Gah in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, July 13, 2011.
The U.K. is planning on reducing the size of its armed forces by 20% between 2010 and 2018, with smaller cuts to the Royal Navy and RAF. The defense budget stands at $54 billion.
Despite scaling back, the U.K. counts on being able to project its power around the world. The Royal Navy is planning on putting the HMS Queen Elizabeth, an aircraft carrier that has a flight deck measuring at 4.5 acres, into service in 2020. The Queen Elizabeth is planned to carry 40 F-35B joint strike fighters around the world. Thanks to superior training and equipment, Britain could still hold an advantage over emerging powers like China, according to a leading think tank.
French soldiers stand on a street during a patrol ahead of Sunday’s presidential election in Timbuktu, July 25, 2013.
France effectively froze its military spending in 2013 while cutting 10% of its defense jobs in an effort to save money for purchasing high-tech equipment. The country spends $43 billion a year on defense, which is 1.9% of its GDP, below the spending target set by NATO for member countries.
Despite a leveling off of its military budget, France is still highly capable of projecting force around the globe, with significant deployments in the Central African Republic, Chad, Mali, Senegal and elsewhere around the world.
German military strength falls short of its economic strength on the world stage. Recently, Germany has started considering offering military support to eastern European NATO members. It has also considered a more active international role militarily. Germany spends $45 billion on its military annually, making it the eighth largest spender in the world.
Following the aftermath of World War II, the German population generally became anti-war. The German military was originally limited to a defense force, but has become more accustomed to taking an active international role following the breakup of Yugoslavia. Germany only has 183,000 active frontline personnel with an additional 145,000 members in the reserves. Germany eliminated mandatory service in 2011 in an attempt to create a professional army.
Turkish military spending is expected to rise 9.4% in 2014 over the 2013 budget. The ongoing conflict in Syria and possible clashes with the Kurdish separatist organization, the PKK, were key reasons for the spending increase. Turkey’s defense budget stands at $18.2 billion.
The NATO member has contributed soldiers to various initiatives around the world. The Turkish military took part in operations in Afghanistan, as well as in peacekeeping operations in the Balkans. Turkey also maintains a large military force in Northern Cyprus.
9. South Korea
South Korea has been increasing its defense spending due to both the increasing armament of Japan and China, and the constant threat from North Korea. South Korea spends $34 billion on defense.
South Korea has a relatively large military force for its small size. It has 640,000 active personnel with an additional 2,900,000 personnel in the reserves. South Korea also has 2,346 tanks and 1,393 aircraft. The South Korean military is generally well-trained and routinely takes part in military exercise with the United States. South Korea’s air force is also the sixth largest in the world.
Japan increased its defense spending for the first time in 11 years in response to growing disputes with China. It has also started its first military expansion in over 40 years by placing a new military base on its outer islands. Japan spends $49.1 billion on defense, the sixth most in the world.
Japan’s military is fairly well-equipped. It currently has 247,000 active personnel with an additional 57,900 in reserve. Japan also has 1,595 aircraft, the world’s fifth largest air force, and 131 ships. Japan’s military is limited by a peace clause in the constitution that makes it illegal for the country to have an offensive army.
Israel spends significantly more than its neighbors proportionally for defense. In 2009, Israel spent 18.7% of its national budget on defense. Israel’s defense budget stands at $15 billion.
A large percentage of the Israeli defense budget goes toward defense technology. One of the best examples of this is Israel’s Iron Dome, a missile defense shield that can intercept rockets shot into Israel from the Palestinian territories. Israel aims to replace Iron Dome with a laser defense shield called Iron Beam.