12 Biggest Militaries in the World: Does Size Matter?

In this article, we take a look at 12 biggest militaries in the world and whether or not military size is still a strategic edge. You can skip our detailed defense analysis and go directly to 5 Biggest Militaries in the World. 

Military size has played a critical role throughout human history. However, as technology evolved, starting from the early modern period, it changed the landscape of warfare forever. The British were able to colonize much of the world with ease, despite being few in numbers relative to their subjects, because of advanced military technology. 

The Defense Industry: An Analysis

In the present day, technological advantage has replaced the size advantage to a fairly large degree in most military doctrines. These doctrines are executed through investments in military R&D. The global military spending grew by 0.7% in 2021, surpassing the $2 trillion figure. 

The US alone accounted for 38% of this global spending, with a 2021 military budget of a little over $800 billion. Most of these funds go into defense contract obligations. According to a report released by the US Department of Defense, 71% from the ‘contract-obligations-and-payroll-spending’ budget went to defense contractors. 

The report showed that Lockheed Martin Corporation (NYSE:LMT), The Boeing Company (NYSE:BA) and Raytheon Technologies Corporation (NYSE:RTX) were the government’s top three defense contractors in 2021, respectively. This goes to show that technology matters much more than military size.

There’s many technologies being developed but the ones that have the most to offer in terms of strategic advantages as of late are hypersonic scramjet missiles and glide vehicles, 5G, autonomous systems and AI. The US is already strategically matched by Russia and China in stealth, autonomous systems and air-defense technologies. However, Russia and China have a lead over it in hypersonics. 

In fact, the top DoD contracts are an effort to develop hypersonic technology. According to a DoD report, hypersonics R&D cost the highest amount of money, at $3.2 billion, in US defense contracts for military technology in 2021. It was followed by autonomous systems & AI, at $2.5 billion and 5G at $1.5 billion. 

Most of the contracts for these novel technologies have been awarded to Lockheed Martin Corporation (NYSE:LMT), Raytheon Technologies Corporation (NYSE:RTX), The Boeing Company (NYSE:BA) and Northrop Grumman Corporation (NYSE:NOC).

Photo by Michael Afonso on Unsplash

Insofar as autonomous weapon systems are concerned, even some mid-tier military powers have made significant strides. Turkish Baykar-Bayraktar-TB2 drones supplied to Ukrainian forces have been highly effective in their counter-offensives against Russia. On the other hand, Iranian Shahed-136 drones, which Iran has admitted to exporting to Russia, have been wreaking havoc in Ukrainian cities. 

When deployed autonomously, these drones can pick and choose their own targets within the mission parameters and so their low cost, autonomy  and group coordination makes them operationally scalable and highly effective.

Now that we’re caught up with major global military developments, let’s head over to the list of 12 biggest militaries in the world. 

Our Methodology

For our list of the 12 biggest militaries in the world, we’ve ranked them on a 2021-2022 quantitative basis but one that relates primarily to military equipment. We’ve focused on the number of aircraft (in the air force), naval ships (we’ve considered only strategic warships like frigates, cruisers, destroyers and corvettes). We’ve mentioned aircraft carriers and submarines separately for emphasis, tanks and secondarily, personnel (active and reserve).

We’ve mentioned the number of strategic assets like nuclear weapons, submarines and aircraft carriers (if any) as well. We’ve also discussed their defense spending. With that said, here’s the 12 biggest militaries in the world:

12. Iran

Strategic Ballistic Missiles: 3000

Aircraft: 343

Tanks: 1513

Strategic Warships: 10

Submarines: 19

Iran is located in West Asia and is the twelfth biggest military power in the world, going by their military arsenal. The country possesses 3,000 strategic missiles with varying range and payload capacity. It tops the range limit at 2,000 kilometers. While Iran currently doesn’t possess nuclear weapons, it has missiles in its arsenal capable of carrying nuclear payload.

It has over 1,500 main-battle tanks, 7 frigates, 3 corvettes and 19 submarines. Iran’s aircraft inventory has 343 units in total as of 2021. These include fighters, bombers, multirole, attack aircraft, as well as tankers, transporters, patrol and electronics-warfare aircraft. Its top jets include Sukhoi 27, Mig-29 and F-14 Tomcat. 

Lastly, the country has close to 1 million personnel that includes both active and reserve military members. Iran is primarily engaged in a cold war in the Middle East against the US and Saudi Arabia, with theaters being Syria and Yemen and to some extent, Iraq.

Most of the western military equipment in Iran made by companies like Lockheed Martin Corporation (NYSE:LMT), Northrop Grumman Corporation (NYSE:NOC), Raytheon Technologies Corporation (NYSE:RTX) and The Boeing Company (NYSE:BA) is from the pre-Islamic-Revolution era. For instance, the F-14 Tomcat in Iran’s air fleet was made by Grumman Corporation.

11. North Korea

Aircraft: 545

Tanks: 3500 

Strategic Warships: 11

Submarines: 20

Nuclear Weapons: 50 (estimate figure)

North Korea is located in East Asia. It is geopolitically isolated for the most part and has developed a huge military arsenal to counter what it claims are US and South Korean military threats to its sovereignty. 

It has roughly 3,500 main-battle tanks, 11 strategic warships, which include 3 frigates and 8 corvettes, 545 aircraft, Mig-29 being the premier fighter, and 71 submarines. Its Hwasong-17 missile has a range of over 15,000 kilometers.

Its nuclear-weapon estimates, based on the amount of fissile material it possesses, put the number between 45 to 55. It is also one of the biggest militaries in terms of personnel, with its military being 1.9-million-strong as of 2021, including both active and reserve personnel.

10. Israel

Aircraft: 334

Tanks: 1370 

Strategic Warships: 17

Submarines: 5

Nuclear Weapons: 90 (estimate figure)

Israel is a powerful military force in the Middle East. Israel and its neighboring countries have historically had a hostile relationship due to its UN-recognized occupation of Palestine. Its geography, coupled with its lack of strategic depth, makes it enormously vulnerable in the face of a large-scale attack. 

This has led Israel to develop an aggressive military doctrine based around preemptive measures and technological advantage, and as a result, it has had success in military conflicts against multiple countries. 

For instance, it was able to defeat the coalition of Jordan, Syria and Egypt in the Six Day War. Israel is perhaps the best example of the fact that size doesn’t matter anymore. Regardless, its military has become sizable over the past 20 or so years. 

The country spent 2.8% of its 2021 GDP for its military capability. It operates 17 strategic warships, including frigates, corvettes and missile boats, 1,370 tanks and 334 aircraft as of 2022. Its aircraft inventory includes jets like F-16, different variants of F-15 and the fifth generation stealth aircraft F-35 Lightning-II.

It has opted for strategic ambiguity on the possession of nuclear weapons but effectively has an estimated 90 nuclear weapons as of 2022. It has close to 0.6 million military personnel, with 73% of it being the reserve personnel.

9. Pakistan

Aircraft: 431

Tanks: 4148

Strategic Warships: 18

Submarines: 8

Nuclear Weapons: 165

Pakistan is one of the strongest military powers in Asia. The country has historically had a rocky relationship with neighboring India over Kashmir, leading to three wars. 

This has led Pakistan to develop a powerful military arsenal. Its military doctrine was based on conventional war with India, but instability in the neighboring Afghanistan and the resulting insurgency in Pakistan’s FATA during War on Terror led the country to develop counter-insurgency capability as well. 

Pakistan maintains 165 nuclear warheads as of 2021, a vast array of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, nearly 4,200 tanks, 97 attack helicopters, 8 submarines and 18 strategic warships including 10 frigates, 2 destroyers and 6 corvettes. 

Its aircraft inventory consists of 431 aircraft and spans attack, multirole, bomber and utility airplanes. Its notable fighters include the F-16 Falcon and JF-17 Thunder. Pakistan has 1.2 million military personnel, with more than half being on active duty.

8. France

Aircraft Carriers: 1

Aircraft: 333

Tanks: 222

Strategic Warships: 27

Submarines: 10

Nuclear Weapons: 290

Military Satellites: 7

France is one of the two most capable military powers in Europe, the other being the UK. France has invested extensively in its military arsenal under the leadership of Macron, in order to realize ‘strategic autonomy’ from the US-led NATO. 

The country maintains an operational aircraft carrier, a total of 290 nuclear warheads, 27 warships including 3 destroyers, 18 frigates and 6 corvettes, 333 aircraft and 67 attack helicopters. France also has 7 operational military satellites. 

As far as its aircraft fleet goes, Rafale, made by Dassault Aviation Société anonyme (OTCMKTS:DUAVF), is its most prominent multirole fighter, with 102 units in service. France has over 200,000 active military personnel, with 35,000 in reserve.

7. South Korea

Aircraft: 595

Tanks: 2321

Strategic Warships: 35

Submarines: 17

South Korea borders North Korea and has historically had a tense relationship with its northern counterpart. This is why the country has invested heavily into its military to keep North Korean ambitions in check. In 2021, it dedicated 2.8% of its GDP to defense spending. South Korea boasts an air fleet of 595 aircraft as of 2021. 

Its notable fighting aircraft include F-15 Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon and the fifth generation stealth aircraft F-35 Lightning II. In terms of strategic warships, South Korea’s naval fleet consists of 3 cruisers, 6 destroyers, 14 frigates and 12 corvettes.

Its military power on land is primarily bolstered by over 2,000 main-battle tanks. South Korea’s military is manned by 5,50,000 personnel. Its reserve force is one of the biggest in the world, with 2.75 million personnel as of 2020.

6. Japan

Aircraft Carriers: 2

Aircraft: 606

Tanks: 580

Strategic Warships: 44

Submarines: 22

Japan’s huge economy, coupled with regional threats, has allowed it to become one of the biggest militaries in the world. The country projects power in the Pacific using two Izumo-class aircraft carriers, with a third one under construction. The aircraft carriers are designed with helicopters in mind but Japan has repurposed them for the fifth generation F-35B Lightning-II Joint Strike Fighters as well. 

In addition to carriers, Japan’s other strategic ships include 38 destroyers and 6 frigates. Its air fleet has 606 aircraft as of 2022. Notable fighters in Japan’s air force include the F15 Eagle, and the F-2, jointly made by Lockheed Martin Corporation (NYSE:LMT) and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd. (OTCMKTS:MHVYF). Japan has been building up its forces to counter the rising military vulnerability it faces from China.

American defense companies like Raytheon Technologies Corporation (NYSE:RTX), The Boeing Company (NYSE:BA) and Northrop Grumman Corporation (NYSE:NOC) also work with US allies like Japan. 

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Disclosure: none. 12 Biggest Militaries in the World: Does Size Matter? is originally published on Insider Monkey.

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Habib Ur Rehman