Special Report

Countries Where the Most People Serve in the Military

The United States has a massive military presence in the world, and to achieve military superiority, it spends more on defense annually than the next 10 countries combined, a list that includes China, Russia, and four of the largest European Union state military budgets. The recently-passed debt limit deal in the U.S. Congress would increase military spending to $886 billion in the next fiscal year and $895 billion in 2025.

The U.S. maintains this defense capability with a relatively low share of its citizens serving in its all-volunteer active-duty military. Though 1.39 million Americans serve in the world’s third-largest military force after China and India, that amounts to just 0.4% of the population. (These are the countries where America has the most soldiers.)

By comparison, the top 30 countries with the biggest share of their citizens serving as active-duty military personnel range from 0.6% in Russia to 4.41% in North Korea.

To find the countries where the largest share of the population serves in the military, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the CIA World Factbook’s Military and security service personnel strengths, which provides 2022 CIA  estimates of each country’s active-duty military force. Countries are ranked by the share of the country’s population serving as active duty personnel. 

Low-population countries tend to have larger shares of their populations serving in the military, while countries with the highest populations demand less from their citizens. For example, China taps only 0.14% of its population to maintain a 2-million-strong active-duty military force, while Brunei, with a population of just 485,000, requires 1.24% of its population to maintain 6,000 active-duty military personnel.  

North Korea and Eritrea, which is unflatteringly nicknamed “Africa’s North Korea” because of its oppressive and isolationist form of government, top the list. They are also the only countries with a share of their population serving in the military that tops 2%. More than one out of 100 citizens are active-duty military personnel in 11 other countries, including Israel, Greece, South Korea, and Armenia.

A third of these countries rely on voluntary enlistment, while the rest have some form of mandatory service, typically targeting able-bodied males shortly after they become adults. Out of the top 10 countries with the largest share of their populations serving in the military, only Lebanon relies on voluntary enlistment after it lifted mandatory enlistment in 2007. (These are 13 countries with required military service for men and women.)

Russia has been aggressively drafting men, including inmates, to fight its war with Ukraine, while Ukraine has used mandatory enlistment to more than triple the size of its active-duty military since Russia’s invasion in February 2022.

Here are the countries with the largest share of civilians serving in the military.

Click here to see our detailed methodology.

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