Submitted by Taps Coogan on the 1st of September 2017 to The Sounding Line.
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We recently came across the website Global Fire Power which, in addition to being an interesting read, contains a trove of information regarding the quantity of military equipment (tanks, helicopters, destroyers etc..) in service by militaries around the world. While we can’t speak to the accuracy of the various strength comparison metrics used by the website to compare the overall military power of different countries, the raw numbers of equipment attributed to various countries seem to be reasonably accurate. Thus, we have compiled a collection of charts based on this data that illustrate some of the large themes in the quantity of equipment in service by conventional military forces around the world.
To be very clear, these charts make no distinction between the quality or capability of equipment listed. North Korean submarines are obviously not equivalent to US submarines and the same likely goes for all of the other equipment listed. Nonetheless, the enormity of the difference in sheer numbers, and diminished technological difference between many of the countries’ equipment, make the observations worth noting.
Overwhelmingly, Russia has the largest combat tank force in the world with over 20,200 tanks in service. By comparison, China has 6,457 and the US has 5,884. All of the countries in the EU combined have 5,821, just surpassing North Korea with a surprisingly large fleet of 5,025. Once great conventional military powers, France and the UK have just 406 and 249 respectively.
Turning to helicopters, the advantage shifts from Russia to the US. The US military has over 6,000 helicopters, followed by the EU at 2,853, and Russia at 1,389.
Similar trends persist when looking at military aircraft more broadly (including attack, fighter, strike, bomber, support and trainer aircraft, as well as helicopters, etc.). The US leads the world with 13,762 aircraft, followed by the EU at 6,731, then Russia at 3,794, and China at 2,955.
In terms of aircraft and helicopter carriers, the US takes the lead again with 19 of the largest and most expensive pieces of military equipment in the world, followed by the EU with ten, and then Japan and France with four each (though Japan’s are exclusively helicopter carriers).
In terms of naval destroyers, the US again takes the lead with 63, followed by Japan with 42, and China with 35. Once great conventional military powers, France and the UK have just four and six respectively.
Finally looking at submarines, surprisingly, North Korea has the most with 76, followed by the US with 70, China with 68, the combined EU with 64, and Russia with 63. It should be noted, that North Korea’s submarines are highly obsolete and have at times been described as ‘a big joke.’
Taken together these chart highlight a few important themes:
Russia maintains, overwhelmingly, the largest tank fleet in the world, dwarfing all others, and continues to develop state of the art tanks. Russia clearly sees itself as a major land power and has invested in the equipment to back that claim up.
In addition to possessing the overall best equipped military in the world, the US maintains by far the largest naval and aircraft fleets in the world and continues to push the state of the art in both fields.
While the EU ranks modestly well in terms of the combined equipment of all 28 countries, particularly in terms of aircraft, it is probably a stretch to count these forces together. The largest military spender in the EU, the UK, is already on its way out of the Union. Other existential political risks to the EU abound from Italy, to Greece, to Hungary. Furthermore, the EU militaries are not meaningfully integrated under EU command, but are instead integrated through NATO. For now, the EU remains a political, not military, union.
That brings us to the traditional European powers: the UK, France, and Germany. On an individual basis, each possess a quantity of military equipment more in line with countries such as Turkey or Taiwan, though presumably of higher quality. The UK has just 249 tanks to Russia’s 20,000, 856 aircraft to America’s 13,762, six destroyers to America’s 63. France and Germany are hardly better equipped. That these countries, which vied to be the most powerful militaries in the world less than 100 years ago, have essentially abandoned large conventional military power is profound. There exists a strong argument that this disarmament is perfectly rational. The idea that nuclear weapons have made conventional war impossible has become quite popular. France and the UK’s security is guaranteed by both their nuclear arsenals and NATO’s large conventional military forces. They, and all of their neighbors, are allied and members of the EU and/or NATO. The prospect of a major conventional western European war seems so remote as to be absurd. These countries’ equipment leaves them more than capable of executing counter-terrorism operations and military operations against non-peer military powers.
So why do the US, Russia, China, and other countries continue to maintain large conventional forces?
Because of the principal of mutually assured destruction, it is questionable that nuclear arsenals alone are an effective military option except in the case of the most extreme existential threats. For countries like the US, Russia, and China, which have diverse strategic interests around the world, there exists a range of conceivable military conflicts that do not constitute truly existential threats. Winning is of course still important, just not to the point of invoking their own obliteration via nuclear war.
When nuclear deterrence is your sole military option against other global powers (with whom mutually assured destruction is guaranteed), there isn’t a valid military option except to the gravest of existential threats and that option will assuredly lead to your destruction. For old European powers, any non-existential strategic interest opposed by a major power, which doesn’t align with that of a major conventional military power such as the US, may be largely inoperable. This begs the obvious question of whether or not they still have any such interests. For better or for worse, perhaps not.
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