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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Rapid deployment forces are a key part of the PLAGF. PLAGF units could be called upon to operate on the border with India in the Himalayas, in the East and South China Seas or to invade Taiwan. In addition to armor and mechanized and infantry units earmarked for rapid response, the PLAGF has three airborne divisions, two amphibious divisions and three amphibious brigades. In addition, the divisions of the Shenyang Military Region may be called upon to secure the border with North Korea on short notice, or even intervene internally.
At 1.12 million troops, the Indian Army is the second largest army in Asia. India, sandwiched between traditional rivals Pakistan and China, requires an army capable of defending long territorial boundaries. Native insurgencies and the requirement to conduct operations with the country of 1.2 billion people also pushes the country to a large, infantry-heavy force.
The Army’s best divisions are split among their four “Strike Corps”, with three such corps facing Pakistan and one facing China. India has two amphibious brigades, the 91st and 340 Infantry Brigade Groups, and also operates three airborne and eight special-forces battalions.
India’s Army has undertaken a considerable modernization effort over the last decade, primarily to improve its ability to operate conventionally against Pakistan. The so-called “Cold Start” doctrine, in which the Indian Army’s Strike Corps can execute a short-notice attack on Pakistan, requires a highly mobile army along Western lines. Indian-made Arjun and Russian-made T-90 tanks, alongside American-made AH-64 Apache helicopters will be expected to defeat the Pakistani Army before nuclear weapons could be employed.
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The rise of China and what India has considered territorial violations along the Himalayan border between the two countries has prompted India to deploy an additional 80,000 troops—as many as the British Army in 2020—to its border with China.
Russian Ground Forces
The Russian Ground Forces were formed from remnants of the Soviet Army. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, many units were simply transferred to the Russian Army. Underfunded for decades, much of the Russian Ground Forces are still equipped with Soviet-era weapons. The Ground Forces are receiving, and projected to receive, an influx of new, modern equipment.
The Russian Ground Forces number 285,000, or roughly half of the U.S. Army. The Ground Forces are fairly well equipped and fully mechanized. Despite this, the sheer size of Russia (one soldier per 23 square miles of territory) means the Ground Forces are spread thin.
Despite their relative paucity, the Ground Forces have had considerable combat experience since the end of the Cold War, from ill-fated operations in Chechnya in the early 1990s to the current situation in eastern Ukraine.
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The Russian Army inherited the Soviet Union’s airborne and marine forces, which by the mid-2000s, had been reduced from six to four divisions. At 6,000 troops, each division is light on manpower but highly mobile, equipped with BMD airborne infantry fighting vehicles. There are also roughly 9,000 naval infantry spread among Russia’s major fleets, although these are technically part of the Russian Navy.
The Russian Ground Forces are set to receive the Armata Universal Combat Platform in a few years’ time. A break from a present dominated by legacy T-72/80/90 tanks, BMP infantry fighting vehicles and BTR armored personnel carriers, Armata will be a whole new family of vehicles dedicated to the tank, infantry fighting vehicle, artillery and recovery vehicle missions.
The British Army
Although fairly small by global standards, the British Army is probably the most capable land force in Europe. Well rounded with a mixture of light infantry, airborne, tank, mechanized and aviation units, the British Army is capable of a broad spectrum of operations.
The British Army currently numbers 102,000 troops. The army is currently facing a reorganization by 2020 that will cut active duty manpower to 82,000 while increasing the role of army reservists. By 2020, the British Army’s deployable land forces will amount to seven brigades: one air assault, three armored/mechanized infantry and three infantry brigades.
Like the U.S. Army, the British Army relies on a legacy force of upgraded Cold War equipment. Challenger II main battle tanks and Warrior infantry fighting vehicles equip the mechanized forces. Although proven and reliable, these are getting on in age and will have to be eventually replaced at considerable cost.
The British Army’s special-purpose and special-operations forces are small, but among the best in the world. The British Army has three parachute battalions under 16th Air Assault Brigade plus the world-famous 22nd Special Air Service Regiment. An additional 8,000 Royal Marines, an infantry-centric force, operate under Royal Navy control and can deploy 3 Commando Brigade.
Kyle Mizokami is a writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in The Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and The Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter:@KyleMizokami.