At about 8:15 a.m. Monday, August 6, 1945, the American atomic bomb “Little Boy” dropped on Hiroshima effectively killing 80,000 people and destroying 69% of the city’s buildings in an instant. Three days later, a second bomb on Nagasaki killed 40,000 just as quickly, and tens of thousands more died from injury and radiation by the end of the year. So ended the Second World War in Asia, when Japan surrendered to the allies just months after Hitler’s suicide in a German bunker.
Today, a single thermonuclear weapon weighing just over 1,000 kg has the explosive equivalent of about 1.2 million tons of TNT. If global war were to erupt today, it would be the first time in history where virtually all major combatants had this sort of destructive capability. With estimates of some 22,000 total nukes in modern military arsenals, it’s not hard to believe countries really do have the means for multiple mass-extinctions, as some have sensationally warned.
But is that what a Third World War would look like? Certainly, the days of a war centred around battles fought in trenches are long behind us. Would warheads now simply pepper the planet and wipe nations out in one fell swoop? Would it be over within days? Weeks? A handful of months or years maybe from nuclear ecocide?
It’s a frightening thought, but thankfully military conflict is more complicated than that; America’s choice to unleash just two instances of that destruction on Japan remains by far the most morally, politically and historically problematic military decision ever made. Perhaps the fact that industrialized countries continue bloating their military budgets for all sorts of less-frightening armaments, like F-35 fighter jets with 24 million lines of software code and bunker-busting cruise missiles, means it’s unlikely a global war would take off running with a decisive nuclear parade.
But then again, the most recent evidence of major military powers facing off comes with a nuclear explosion. Are the nukes just in-waiting for that next “World War”?
This is barely scratching the surface of the uncertainty of the question: Who would win WWIII? Some of us might be tempted to place victory in the nuke-count, plain and simple. But in an attempt to try and make our own predictions about this hypothetical global conflict a little more realistic and diplomatic, we combined several points of data on the biggest military powers today with trends in their economic growth and defense spending. We looked at:
- Military personnel count (total active, reserve and paramilitary troops)
- Naval size (by displaced tonnage of water, i.e. total real weight of military sea vessels)
- Air force size (number of combat planes and attack helicopters)
- Trends in military spending (both the amount in U.S. dollars, and percentage of GDP).
- Estimated nuke count
Now before we square off on the biggest military-geek debate on the internet, we’d like to reiterate: While based on factual information, the situations described here are entirely hypothetical and the conclusions drawn have been reduced to analyses of the set of criteria stipulated above combined with the findings of research on predicted future trends.
The abundance of nuclear weapons, among other things, makes it virtually impossible to carry out a tactful analysis of how modern militaries might fare in a global conflict, and it hardly needs stipulating that war is about context, and that’s very much more than facts and figures. Countries also have a lot more at their disposal than combat aerials and warships; home-base defense ballistics and the whole gamut of auxiliary ground, air and sea vehicles that play crucial roles in military deployment, not to mention geography, leadership, allying potential and other unquantifiable dynamics, are mostly overlooked here. Most of all, this exercise is about making a future prediction, not a World War 2014, which means there’s a lot more than present military proportions to consider.
So be warned: this sort of hypothesising could benefit from some healthy zombie-apocalypse-type scepticism, lest you lend it a little too much credibility as a portrait of future military supremacy. With this in mind, however, our top 5 list serves as a rundown of military power, as per the specifications listed. Without further ado, here are our top candidates…
5. United Kingdom: $60.8 billion spent in 2013; 2.5% of GDP
Air: 222 combat aircraft, 153 attack helicopters
Sea: Approximately 367,860 tons
Nuke estimate: Fewer than 160 deployed, 225 total
Britain’s military reputation is notable for its historic romanticism; Her Majesty’s exemplary Armed Forces with her past claims to the best navy in the world don’t quite capture the reality of global military power today, though. In truth, the Royal Navy is the fifth biggest, and the Royal Air Force—the oldest independent air force in the world—doesn’t place in the top ten. But the UK is still by most measures the second biggest Western military power at the moment (though some might argue for France), and their military spending ranked fourth worldwide in 2013. We had a tough time ourselves deciding whether France, Germany or Japan would have better chances in this virtual World War, but here’s why we settled with the UK:
According to the 2013 annual World Economic League Table report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research, the U.K. is on path to becoming the largest Western European economy ahead of Germany by around 2030. It’s conceivable that, by this time, the effects of the current EU debt crisis will have left most European economies trailing behind rising powers like India and Brazil, while the UK—retaining its independence from the Eurozone—remains insulated from long-term economic slowdown. With only about 2.5% of Britain’s GDP being currently spent on defense, there is feasibly much room for rapid militarization in the event of rising tensions. Close historical and ideological ties with the US doesn’t hurt, either.