Special Report

Countries With the Largest Paramilitary Forces

Photo by D. Myles Cullen / U.S. Department of Defense

Government paramilitary forces are semi-military entities that can be used for a nation’s internal security or as an auxiliary force to a country’s military. Though not part of a nation’s military, they may have the structure of a military force.

While the term can be used for mercenary forces, rebel groups, militias, and more, in some countries paramilitary forces are officially part of the government. In these nations, these forces are tasked with border security, counterinsurgency, and law enforcement. In other cases, paramilitaries can be private contractors, regulated by some government agency, that can be called upon by the government to support military forces. But the number of paramilitary forces changes greatly between nations. (These are the countries where the most people serve in the military)

To determine the countries with the paramilitary forces, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed 2023 data from GlobalFirepower, an annually updated defense-related statistics website with information on 145 countries. We ranked countries by the number of paramilitary forces in each country and included the number of active-duty and reserve personnel for each country. From Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s Military Expenditure Database, we included total military spending by country in 2021 and military spending as a percentage of gross domestic product. 2021 population figures come from the World Bank.

Many of the countries with the largest military budgets have expansive paramilitary forces, including India, China, Russia, France, and Saudi Arabia. Some even have more paramilitary personnel than active-duty military personnel. (These are the largest militaries in the world)

India has by far the world’s largest paramilitary force, which is almost the same size in the number as its combined active and reserve forces of 2.6 million, or roughly the same size as the other seven top global paramilitaries. But in an effort to rebrand its five central paramilitary forces, India dropped the word “paramilitary” and replaced it with “armed police” in 2011.

Russia’s soldiers of fortune are estimated to be equal in number to its 250,000 reservists, while the number of Ukraine’s paramilitary soldiers is estimated at 50,000. In fact, Ukraine’s far-right nationalist Azov Battalion, which began in 2014 as a paramilitary group, has since been incorporated as a special unit of Ukraine’s National Guard. 

The U.S. doesn’t officially use paramilitaries, but it has played a role in fostering and deploying private soldiers from its numerous U.S.-based security contracting firms.

In some places, governmental paramilitary forces have been linked to human rights violations and extrajudicial killings. The semi-official or unofficial nature of some paramilitary groups can make it easier for governments to deny responsibility for atrocities. 

Click here to see the countries with the largest unofficial military forces.

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25. Iran
> Paramilitary forces: 90,000
> Military active-duty personnel: 575,000 – #7 most out of 145
> Military reserves personnel: 350,000 – #15 most out of 145
> Population (2021): 87,923,432 – #17 most out of 217
> Military spending (2021): $24.6 billion – #14 most out of 145
> Military spending as pct. of GDP: 2.3% – #36 out of 145

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24. Mexico
> Paramilitary forces: 100,000 (tied)
> Military active-duty personnel: 250,000 – #17 most out of 145
> Military reserves personnel: 65,000 – #41 most out of 145
> Population (2021): 126,705,138 – #10 most out of 217
> Military spending (2021): $8.7 billion – #28 most out of 145
> Military spending as pct. of GDP: 0.7% – #126 out of 145

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23. Malaysia
> Paramilitary forces: 100,000 (tied)
> Military active-duty personnel: 85,000 – #51 most out of 145
> Military reserves personnel: 52,000 – #46 most out of 145
> Population (2021): 33,573,874 – #45 most out of 217
> Military spending (2021): $3.8 billion – #50 most out of 145
> Military spending as pct. of GDP: 1.1% – #108 out of 145

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22. Laos
> Paramilitary forces: 100,000 (tied)
> Military active-duty personnel: 30,000 – #81 most out of 145
> Military reserves personnel: N/A
> Population (2021): 7,425,060- # out of 217
> Military spending (2021): N/A
> Military spending as pct. of GDP: N/A

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21. Italy
> Paramilitary forces: 107,000
> Military active-duty personnel: 170,000 – #30 most out of 145
> Military reserves personnel: 20,000 – #62 most out of 145
> Population (2021): 59,109,668 – #25 most out of 217
> Military spending (2021): $32.0 billion – #11 most out of 145
> Military spending as pct. of GDP: 1.5% – #75 out of 145

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20. Belarus
> Paramilitary forces: 110,000
> Military active-duty personnel: 45,000 – #70 most out of 145
> Military reserves personnel: 290,000 – #17 most out of 145
> Population (2021): 9,340,314 – #97 most out of 217
> Military spending (2021): $763 million – #77 most out of 145
> Military spending as pct. of GDP: 1.2% – #101 out of 145

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19. Saudi Arabia
> Paramilitary forces: 125,000
> Military active-duty personnel: 225,000 – #20 most out of 145
> Military reserves personnel: N/A
> Population (2021): 35,950,396 – #41 most out of 217
> Military spending (2021): $55.6 billion – #8 most out of 145
> Military spending as pct. of GDP: 6.6% – #3 out of 145

Source: Joel Carillet / iStock via Getty Images

18. Iraq
> Paramilitary forces: 130,000
> Military active-duty personnel: 200,000 – #22 most out of 145
> Military reserves personnel: N/A
> Population (2021): 43,533,592 – #36 most out of 217
> Military spending (2021): $4.7 billion – #46 most out of 145
> Military spending as pct. of GDP: 2.3% – #37 out of 145

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17. Turkey
> Paramilitary forces: 150,000
> Military active-duty personnel: 425,000 – #11 most out of 145
> Military reserves personnel: 200,000 – #26 most out of 145
> Population (2021): 84,775,400 – #18 out of 217
> Military spending (2021): $15.5 billion – #18 most out of 145
> Military spending as pct. of GDP: 2.1% – #45 out of 145

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16. France
> Paramilitary forces: 175,000
> Military active-duty personnel: 205,000 – #21 most out of 145
> Military reserves personnel: 35,000 – #57 most out of 145
> Population (2021): 67,749,632 – #21 most out of 217
> Military spending (2021): $56.6 billion – #6 most out of 145
> Military spending as pct. of GDP: 1.9% – #52 out of 145

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15. South Africa
> Paramilitary forces: 180,000
> Military active-duty personnel: 40,200 – #73 most out of 145
> Military reserves personnel: 12,500 – #70 most out of 145
> Population (2021): 59,392,255 – #24 most out of 217
> Military spending (2021): $3.3 billion – #53 most out of 145
> Military spending as pct. of GDP: 0.9% – #119 out of 145

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14. Colombia
> Paramilitary forces: 185,000
> Military active-duty personnel: 360,000 – #14 most out of 145
> Military reserves personnel: 845,000 – #6 most out of 145
> Population (2021): 51,516,562 – #29 most out of 217
> Military spending (2021): $10.2 billion – #25 most out of 145
> Military spending as pct. of GDP: 3.4% – #16 out of 145

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13. North Korea
> Paramilitary forces: 200,000 (tied)
> Military active-duty personnel: 1,200,000 – #4 most out of 145
> Military reserves personnel: 600,000 – #7 most out of 145
> Population (2021): 25,971,910 – #54 out of 217
> Military spending (2021): N/A
> Military spending as pct. of GDP: N/A

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12. Algeria
> Paramilitary forces: 200,000 (tied)
> Military active-duty personnel: 130,000 – #38 most out of 145
> Military reserves personnel: 135,000 – #30 most out of 145
> Population (2021): 44,177,969 – #34 most out of 217
> Military spending (2021): $9.1 billion – #26 most out of 145
> Military spending as pct. of GDP: 5.6% – #4 out of 145

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11. Russia
> Paramilitary forces: 250,000
> Military active-duty personnel: 830,900 – #5 most out of 145
> Military reserves personnel: 250,000 – #18 most out of 145
> Population (2021): 143,449,300- #9 out of 217
> Military spending (2021): $65.9 billion – #5 most out of 145
> Military spending as pct. of GDP: 4.1% – #11 out of 145

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10. Indonesia
> Paramilitary forces: 280,000
> Military active-duty personnel: 400,000 – #12 most out of 145
> Military reserves personnel: 400,000 – #14 most out of 145
> Population (2021): 273,753,191 – #4 most out of 217
> Military spending (2021): $8.3 billion – #29 most out of 145
> Military spending as pct. of GDP: 0.7% – #125 out of 145

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9. Egypt
> Paramilitary forces: 300,000
> Military active-duty personnel: 440,000 – #10 most out of 145
> Military reserves personnel: 480,000 – #11 most out of 145
> Population (2021): 109,262,178 – #14 most out of 217
> Military spending (2021): $5.2 billion – #43 most out of 145
> Military spending as pct. of GDP: 1.3% – #93 out of 145

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8. Yemen
> Paramilitary forces: 375,000
> Military active-duty personnel: 45,000 – #69 most out of 145
> Military reserves personnel: N/A
> Population (2021): 32,981,640 – #46 out of 217
> Military spending (2021): N/A
> Military spending as pct. of GDP: N/A

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7. Brazil
> Paramilitary forces: 400,000
> Military active-duty personnel: 360,000 – #15 most out of 145
> Military reserves personnel: 1,340,000 – #3 most out of 145
> Population (2021): 214,326,223 – #6 most out of 217
> Military spending (2021): $19.2 billion – #17 most out of 145
> Military spending as pct. of GDP: 1.2% – #100 out of 145

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6. Pakistan
> Paramilitary forces: 500,000
> Military active-duty personnel: 654,000 – #6 most out of 145
> Military reserves personnel: 550,000 – #8 most out of 145
> Population (2021): 231,402,117 – #5 most out of 217
> Military spending (2021): $11.3 billion – #23 most out of 145
> Military spending as pct. of GDP: 3.8% – #13 out of 145

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5. China
> Paramilitary forces: 625,000
> Military active-duty personnel: 2,000,000 – #1 most out of 145
> Military reserves personnel: 510,000 – #9 most out of 145
> Population (2021): 1,412,360,000 – #1 most out of 217
> Military spending (2021): $293.4 billion – #2 most out of 145
> Military spending as pct. of GDP: 1.7% – #63 out of 145

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4. Cuba
> Paramilitary forces: 1,146,000
> Military active-duty personnel: 50,000 – #67 most out of 145
> Military reserves personnel: 40,000 – #53 most out of 145
> Population (2021): 11,256,372 – #82 most out of 217
> Military spending (2021): N/A
> Military spending as pct. of GDP: N/A

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3. Venezuela
> Paramilitary forces: 1,600,000
> Military active-duty personnel: 137,500 – #35 most out of 145
> Military reserves personnel: 30,000 – #59 most out of 145
> Population (2021): 28,199,870- #51 out of 217
> Military spending (2021): N/A
> Military spending as pct. of GDP: N/A

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2. India
> Paramilitary forces: 2,527,000
> Military active-duty personnel: 1,450,000 – #2 most out of 145
> Military reserves personnel: 1,155,000 – #4 most out of 145
> Population (2021): 1,407,563,842 – #2 most out of 217
> Military spending (2021): $76.6 billion – #3 most out of 145
> Military spending as pct. of GDP: 2.7% – #30 out of 145

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1. Bangladesh
> Paramilitary forces: 6,800,000
> Military active-duty personnel: 165,000 – #32 most out of 145
> Military reserves personnel: N/A
> Population (2021): 169,356,251 – #8 most out of 217
> Military spending (2021): $4.9 billion – #45 most out of 145
> Military spending as pct. of GDP: 1.3% – #96 out of 145

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