Ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, cartel violence in Central and South America, and simmering tensions in the South China Sea belie the fact that we are living through one of the most peaceful periods in human history, at least when considering deaths in violent conflicts. One school of thought claims that our relative peace is not only the product of a network of international alliances and agreements, but also of military power and capability that deters overt acts of aggression between nations.
There are an estimated 27.5 million military and paramilitary personnel across the globe. While the world has come a long way since the Cold War, when geopolitics was largely defined by two polar superpowers, military strength, arms and personnel, is still concentrated in a small number of countries. About half of all active-duty servicemen and servicewomen worldwide are in just 10 countries.
Using armed forces personnel data from the World Bank, 24/7 Wall St. identified the countries with the world’s largest militaries. Personnel counts include active-duty military personnel as well as paramilitary personnel and are from 2018, the most recent year of available data. Only paramilitary personnel whose training, organization, and equipment suggest they could be used alongside — or in lieu of — a more traditional military were included. Their inclusion means that personnel estimates may differ from other published estimates.
While maintaining a large standing army is a national security priority for each of the countries on this list, including the United States, it is perhaps less important now than it has been in years past. Advanced military technology, including drones and intercontinental ballistic missiles, now serves many of the same functions as raw human power. There are now nearly 1 million fewer Americans serving in the military than there were at the end of the Cold War. Here is a look at 19 commercial products invented by the military.
While militaries may be shrinking in size in much of the world, military budgets are not. Global military spending nearly topped $2 trillion in 2020, the highest level in over three decades. Only four countries on this list had a smaller military budget in 2020 than they did in 2011. Here is a look at the countries spending the most on war.
To determine the countries with the largest militaries, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed World Bank data on military personnel from 2018, the most recent year of available data. Personnel counts include active-duty military personnel as well as paramilitary personnel.
Annual military expenditure in current U.S. dollars in 2020 are from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Military expenditure covers the expenditures of current military forces and activities, including salaries and benefits, operational expenses, arms and equipment purchases, military construction, research and development, central administration, command, and support. Supplemental data on military expenditure in 2011, military expenditure adjusted for inflation, military expenditure as a percentage of GDP, and military expenditure per capita also came from SIPRI. Population data for 2019 came from the World Bank.