It’s a volatile world that we live in. There are hot spots and flashpoints all over the globe where violence can break out in an instant. From the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas, to the frequent face-offs between Asian powers in Kashmir; there’s always somewhere on this planet where the wrong words spoken could be sufficient to spark a clash of arms. Because of this state of affairs, many countries wield large active militaries to deal with the expected or predictable situations. But what about unexpected powder-keg moments that could potentially scale upwards into total war?
In moments of invasion, all-out defense or global conflict, countries have to rely on their reserve militaries. For instance, the USA (which does not feature in this top 10) can count on several different reserve components including the Army Reserve, National Guard and Navy Reserve. Military reservists can continue their civilian lives whilst fulfilling an agreed amount of time in training and operations. The simple idea is, in a time of extreme crisis, these trained personnel can be called upon and mobilized to support active personnel (regulars).
Apart from one special exception, this list does not incorporate paramilitaries (armed organizations that are generally not part of the nation’s official military) or active military. So, although Israel (with 445,000 reservists), Pakistan (with 515,000) and the USA (with 850,800 reserve troops) can call up massive support, the countries in the top 10 have reservist forces in their millions. Some countries rely on volunteers to fill their ranks, whereas others resort to conscription and civic duty. Figures on this list can obviously change with the current political climate, for example, Russia and Ukraine will be mobilizing their huge reserve forces due to the former’s recent incursion into the Crimea. As for the latter, they have 1 million reservists to help out, but are pushed out of 10th place by the first entry on this list. The countries are ranked by numbers of active reserve military personnel.
10. Taiwan (Republic of China): 1.675 million
Although officially known as the Republic of China, this island province is better known to the world as Taiwan. A reserve force of over 1.6 million is a large amount for a nation that has a total population of just over 23 million. There are some other estimates for this Asian state, with numbers going as high as 3.87 million, which would have put Taiwan in third position. However, due to the total population of 23 million, the lower figure is the more likely amount.
9. Brazil: 1.8 million
In military terms, Brazil is the most powerful country in South America. Its reserve forces are made up of a number of organizations such as the Military Police (450,000 personnel) and Military Firefighting Corps (50,000). The Brazilian constitution cites these organizations as capable of supporting the active armed forces when necessary. Brazil also has one of the highest defense budgets in the world, estimated at around $33 billion.
8. Iran: 1.8 million
Iran has a massive reserve force and a large active force (the latter is bigger than Brazil’s, which is why it takes eighth place over the Southern American nation). The sizes are indicative of the hostile region that Iran occupies. Being sandwiched between war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan means the country is exposed to violence, which is exacerbated by the militant government. Iran also has huge oil and gas reserves to protect, and unstable diplomatic relations with various other states means the Iranian government insists on maintaining a powerful reserve force, regardless of the nation’s poor GDP per capita rate of just $7,207.
7. India: 2.143 million
India is one of the countries on this list that will no doubt see a change in its position over the coming years. The country seemed to stagnate for many years after independence but economic liberalization and a set of reforms in 1991 encouraged the nation to embrace capitalism. Since then, India’s GDP has rocketed, and it is still growing. As the economy strengthens, no doubt the defense budget will grow, increasing these already impressive figures.
6. Bangladesh: 2.28 million
It may be surprising to find a country like Bangladesh so high on this list. This country of over 150 million people suffers from monsoons, floods, cyclones and poverty. The GDP per capita makes the previously mentioned figure for Iran look positively decadent, with Bangladeshis scraping by on just $797 a year on average (whilst neighboring Indians can hope for almost double at $1,499). However, the large reserve military might be explained by the fact that Bangladesh has border issues with Burma (Republic of the Union of Myanmar) so both sides are building up their militaries in that area.
5. China (People’s Republic of China): 2.3 million
It says a lot about the regional tension found in Asia when looking at the countries of this list: One South American nation, one country that straddles both Asia and Europe and eight countries solely located in the world’s biggest and most populated continent. Obviously the land area and amount of people in Asia are contributing factors, but the majority of currently considered flashpoints (Taiwan Straits, Golan Heights, Senkaku Islands and those mentioned in the introduction) are situated in this eastern landmass. The Chinese reserve also consists of 1.5 million members of the People’s Armed Police.
4. Russia: 2.485 million
Estimates of Russia’s reserve capacity fluctuate, from 2.035 million to just under 2.5 million (and with potential reserve figures reaching a reported 20 million). Russia has been spending more on its defense budget over recent years, so the higher figure has been chosen to represent the world’s largest country on this list. The Russian Federation relies on conscription and therefore doesn’t have to worry about the volatile variables which come up when relying on volunteers.
3. South Korea (Republic of Korea): 2.9 million
With the usual suspects of China, Russia and the USA out of the way, it is up to three smaller Asian nations to occupy the top three places, starting with South Korea. The 2.9 million members of the Republic of Korea Reserve Forces (ROKRF) are deemed necessary because of the country’s belligerent neighbor and the constant threat of war which looms over the Korean Peninsula. Numbers rose dramatically after the Blue House Raid of 1968 when North Korean elite troops tried to assassinate the South Korean president in his official residence (the Blue House in Seoul).
2. Vietnam: 5.04 million
It was tricky deciding which country should be placed at No. 2 and which at No. 1. Both have initial reserve forces of similar figures, but the nation in top place also has a further element added to its total which is sometimes considered a paramilitary organization. It is quite astonishing to learn that this Asian country of over 89 million has a reserve force of over five million. Vietnam is a Communist state which populates its forces with conscripts and volunteers in case issues with Cambodia, Laos or China should ever escalate out of diplomatic control.
1. North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea): 8.2 million
Some sources give a figure of around 4.5 million for North Korea, not including the paramilitary force that is the Worker-Peasant Red Guards (3.5 million personnel). Although the introduction to this article indicated the exclusion of paramilitaries on the grounds that they are often not under control of a state’s armed forces, this is not the case for North Korea. The Guards are controlled by the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces and the Workers’ Party of Korea, so it is a paramilitary and a reserve force. Its duties are comparable to the US National Guard, therefore pushing this secretive state to the head of this list.