Having a large armed force is indicative of several things: a large population, significance on the global stage and a fear of outbreaks of violence. It is not always a sign of wealth, as some of the armed forces on this list belong to countries with a nominal GDP outside the top 30 countries. These “poorer” armed forces tend to rely on outdated equipment and less well-trained personnel to fill their ranks.
The term “armed forces” is often confused with “army” (which more accurately alludes to a ground force), although even some of the countries on this list call their entire armed forces an army (contrast United States Armed Forces with the Korean People’s Army). For the sake of this round-up of power, armed forces include all active military personnel figures (navy, air force, marines, army, coast guard etc.) available for that nation. Certain countries are notoriously difficult when it comes to providing accurate data, so sourced estimations have been made for them. Reserve forces and paramilitaries have not been included.
Numbers have fluctuated considerably over recent years. For example, sources for Turkey state a military strength from 410,500 to 664,049 (the latter figure would have put Turkey in the top 10). However, a very recent figure, published by the official website for the Turkish Armed Forces, stood at 375,374, possibly down to budget cuts and reorganization.
Another interesting historical example is that of the British Armed Forces and specifically their army. In 1950 the British Army had an impressive 364,100 regulars; by 1990 this was less than half at 152,800 and the projected figure for 2020 is just 89,000. The goal for some countries is to have a smaller but highly mobile professional force that can adapt to many situations, rather than a large armed force.
So while power might not necessarily come in numbers – when we consider that investment, quality of armaments and the training and skill of the forces are all contributing factors to the strength of a nation’s armed forces – the actual number of personnel is still an intriguing and often revealing statistic. With that in mind; which are the 10 countries that can call on the biggest armed forces in the world?
10. Algeria: 511,000 active military personnel
Algeria is one of those countries mentioned in the introduction that has a low GDP per capita at $5,583 per person (in the USA it’s $54,609 per capita). Algeria has been building its armed forces – the figure stood at just 147,000 not that long ago. The Algerian People’s National Army is made up of the country’s army, navy, air force and territorial air defense force. Algeria’s large and growing troops have militant groups and border disagreements to deal with.
9. Iran: 583,000 active military personnel
The Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran consist of the army, navy, air force, air defense force and the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution (IRGC, also known as the Revolutionary Guard). Figures for Iran are likely to be bigger now, as new brigades were introduced in 2013, but the country is not known for publishing detailed lists of its military capacity (as proven by the constant cat-and-mouse game of Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program).
8. Egypt: 606,500 active military personnel
Figures for the Egyptian Armed Forces fluctuate depending on the source – hardly surprising considering the current volatile state of the nation. Numbers stretched from 468,500 to over 600,000. The branches of Egypt’s armed forces are the army, navy, air force and air defense forces. The Egyptian army alone has around 468,500, hence the higher estimate which considers the other branches of the armed forces. Egypt boasts the largest armed force in Africa and the Middle East (the Israeli Defense Force numbers just 176,500 in comparison).
7. South Korea: 639,000 active military personnel
The Republic of Korea Armed Forces is made up of the army, navy and air force. Being backed up by an enormous reserve force of 2.9 million means that South Korea is able to take on just about any armed conflict in which it might find itself embroiled. This is necessary in South Korea, as the constant threatening rhetoric of North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un (and his father Kim Jong-il before him) is enough to make any nearby state feel insecure and nervous. Military service is mandatory in South Korea.
6. Pakistan: 646,000 active military personnel
The army, navy, air force and border force are the branches of the Pakistan Armed Forces. The figure of 646,000 could be raised significantly by the amount of personnel in the various segments of the border force, but as many of these are considered paramilitary, they have not been included. The renowned London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) suggests that the Pakistan Army alone could have up to 725,000 active personnel, which would boost the Asian country up a few places in this list. However, there are no more details to support this number, so the lower figure has been selected as the more reliable number. Pakistan is a very poor country; the GDP per capita is just $1,295, so the country’s huge armed forces often rely on poorly-paid volunteers.
5. Russia: 766,055 active military personnel
Like many countries on this list, different think-tanks and semi-official bodies offer up wildly contrasting figures for the Russian armed force total. Although numbers over one million have been suggested for Russia, arguably the most accurate figure is just over three-quarters of a million, with an under-manning issue being a problem in the vast but relatively sparsely populated country. The Armed Forces of the Russian Federation have many branches: Russian Ground Forces, Russian Air Force, Russian Navy, Strategic Missile Troops, Russian Aerospace Defense Forces and Russian Airborne Troops.
4. North Korea: 1,120,000 active military personnel
The total for the Korean People’s Army (KPA) is unlikely to be 100 percent accurate due to the notorious difficulty in extracting information out of the country. The KPA is formed by the Korean People’s Army Ground Force, the Korean People’s Navy, the Korean People’s Air Force, the Strategic Rocket Forces and North Korean Special Operation Force. The US Department of Defense estimates the ground force alone has 950,000 personnel, which means the total figure could well be considerably higher.
3. India: 1,325,450 active military personnel
The Indian Armed Forces include the army, navy, air force and coast guard. It truly is a force to be reckoned with and is an indicator of how India has strived for greater global recognition over the last few years. With supplies coming from Russia, the USA, France and Israel, the Indian Armed Forces are rapidly modernizing and expanding. Hindered in the past by old equipment and a lack of armaments, India’s giant defense budget of $46.1 billion is incredible considering the GDP per capita is just $1,389. The country has placed a lot of importance, and resources, into making its armed forces a true representative strength of the prospective superpower.
2. USA: 1,369,532 active military personnel
Just beating India for second place are the United States Armed Forces, populated by members of the army, navy, air force, coast guard and Marine Corps. A recent Department of Defense report stated the listed figure, although conflicting numbers go as high as 1.44 million. Either way, this is the second largest armed force in the world, operated by the country with the third largest population. The US Armed Forces personnel are well-trained and well-equipped, but they cost their country a fortune (estimated at $682 billion in 2013). This may be a huge amount, but the US has a huge GDP to cover it and actually spends a smaller percentage of GDP on its armed forces than Saudi Arabia, Israel or Algeria.
1. China: 2,285,000 active military personnel
It’s no surprise to find the People’s Liberation Army at the head of this list. The PLA incorporates a ground force, a navy, an air force and the Second Artillery Corps into its ranks, with some estimates of its total strength reaching 2.44 million. The majority of this number is made up of the PLA Ground Force, with 1.7 million active troops helping the country project power, secure its borders, discourage hostile threats and remind the world that the People’s Republic of China is no toothless tiger.