The 5 Most Powerful Armies on Planet Earth

The great powers on land. Who is the most deadly? 

Prioritizing the five most powerful armies on Earth is not an easy task. Each country has its own unique security situation that shapes its military in general and land power in particular, accordingly.

Geographic, political, diplomatic and fiscal issues all determine army size. Does it exist in a bad neighborhood like India, Afghanistan or Jordan, or a nice neighborhood like the United States, Luxembourg or Canada? Is it internally focused, externally focused or both? How much in military spending can the government afford?

The end of the Cold War marked shift of hard military power eastward. The British Army is projected to drop from 120,000 in 1990 to just 82,000 in 2020. The French Army has been cut from 236,000 in 1996 to just 119,000 personnel. The most striking cuts have appeared in Germany, where the army has declined from 360,000 in 1990 to 62,000 today.

At the same time, several Asian armies are well north of half a million troops: India, Pakistan, North Korea, South Korea and China. Honorable mention goes to Myanmar, Iran and Vietnam, all of which have armies at least five times larger than Germany’s.

Manpower isn’t everything: North Korea has an estimated army size of 950,000, but is antiquated and unable to project land power beyond the Korean peninsula. Neither is technology, for that matter.

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Could the German Army of 62,000 beat the Indian Army of 1.1 million? That’s probably not the right way to look at it. Switch armies between the two countries and both would be poorly served. With all of that in mind, here are five suggestions for the most powerful armies on Earth.

The United States

The undisputed land power on the planet is the United States Army. The Army has 535,000 soldiers, many of which are combat veterans, backed up by modern, cutting-edge equipment and a robust logistical system. The result is the only land power capable of multidivisional combat operations outside of its hemisphere.

At the core of the U.S. Army are ten combat divisions, backed up by a handful of separate combat brigades. Each division consists of three armor, mechanized infantry, light infantry, Stryker, airborne, and air assault brigades, complemented by one aviation and artillery brigade each. Manpower is from roughly 18,000 to 14,000 each, depending on the particular unit.

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The U.S. Army is still reliant on the so-called “Big 5” weapons systems introduced during the Carter-Reagan era. The M1 Abrams main battle tank, M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicle, AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System and Patriot Missile systems are all soldiering on thirty years after their introduction. Significant upgrades have maintained the lethality and relevance of these systems on the modern battlefield.

A significant portion of the U.S. Army is devoted to special forces and commando-type troops. U.S. Army special operations forces include three battalions of Rangers, seven Special Forces Groups, the brigade-sized 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and Delta Force. Total manpower for Army Special Operations Command alone is 28,500.

The People’s Liberation Army Ground Forces (China)

China’s Army—officially the People’s Liberation Army Ground Forces (PLAGF)— is the largest army in Asia. Numbering 1.6 million active duty troops, the PLAGF is charged with securing China’s borders, providing a capability to project land power in China’s neighborhood and increasingly, on a global scale.

The 1991 Persian Gulf War, in which the United States and its coalition allies made short work of a larger Iraqi Army shocked the PLAGF leadership. The Chinese Army’s traditional reliance on manpower had clearly been negated by advances in technology.

As a result, the Chinese Army has undergone significant changes in the past two decades. Active manpower has been slashed by several million troops. The number of field armies and combat divisions has been dramatically cut. At the same time, China’s rapid economic growth has allowed it to rapidly increase defense spending, funding high-tech upgrades.

Although the PLAGF lags behind China’s naval and air forces in priority, it has introduced a number of modern weapons systems. The Type 99 series of tanks has undergone several major revisions in the past decade, as the Chinese Army seeks to deploy a tank on par with the American M1 Abrams. The WZ-10, China’s first real attack helicopter, has begun to enter service. Despite the influx of new equipment, the PLAGF still counts vast amounts of obsolete equipment, such as Type 59 tanks in its active-duty inventories. Full modernization will take at least another decade, and possibly two, as the Chinese economy slows.

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