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...
8 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.
7 India: $46.1 billion spent in 2013; 2.5% of GDP
Air: 1080 combat planes; 140 attack helicopters
Sea: Approximately 317,725 tons
Nuke estimate: up to 100
India’s current military spending ranks only 8th worldwide, with France, Japan and even Saudi Arabia spending about $10 billion more in 2013. So what makes the former British colony such a promising candidate for future military supremacy, even more so than its colonial ancestor?
A 2007 report by investment bank Goldman Sachs found India’s accelerating growth could see its economy surpassing Britain within a decade; another report just last year by global information group 'IHS Jane’s' specifically predicts India’s military budget will overtake Britain’s by 2017, based on current trends. Indeed, the data shows Britain, though somewhat insulated from the Euro debt crisis, will see cuts where India sees boosts in long-term defense spending. India is poised to catch up—perhaps even surpass—Western military powers in the near future. Though not all currently active, India also has the second highest number of troops worldwide, largely from massive paramilitary groups who could potentially bolster the Indian Army in the event of global conflict.
6 The Russian Federation: $90.7 billion spent in 2013; 4.4% of GDP
Air: 1,900 combat aircraft; 1,655 attack helicopters
Sea: Approximately 845,730 tons
Nuke estimate: About 1,480 deployed, 4,502 total
Thanks in part to the accelerating activity of Russia, the third highest defense spender in the world, global military spending is now growing for the first time in five years. Like India, Russia’s budget appears to be doing the opposite of virtually all Western military budgets, including the United States’, and its recent surpassing of Britain is pretty strong evidence of the trend.
IHS Jane’s Annual Defense Budgets review predicts Russia’s military spending to grow by over 44% over the next three years, providing a much-desired revitalization of Russia’s military training and equipment. With already the second biggest navy and air force in the world, and the second biggest nuclear arsenal, few doubt Russia’s plans to remain a major military power for quite some time.
5 United States of America: $682 billion spent in in 2013, 4.4% of GDP
Air: 3,318 combat aircraft; 6,417 attack helicopters
Sea: Approximately 3,415,893 tons
Nuke estimate: Approximately 1654 deployed, 5,113 total
How can we possibly have more faith in any other military than the United States’? America’s finest are the very best, most technologically advanced and well-trained in the world, and we’ve all heard that nauseating statistic that the US spends more on its military than the next 10 superpowers combined. So why, why is America sitting at just second place?
Let’s play devil’s advocate and assume a third World War doesn’t happen until sometime at the end of the century, and then consider the following:
While the US spent an enormous $682 billion on defense in 2013, IHS Jane’s forecasts a 2014 budget of around $574.9 billion. While that’s still massive—reliably more than the next eight-or-so countries combined—a single-year drop of over $100 billion (twice the entire defense budget of the UK, give-or-take) is far from insignificant. Like Western Europe, America’s growing debt problems and increasingly unpopular defense spending appear to be causing some penny-pinching as of late; predictions showing a solid slashing by a near-sixth of its military spending.
Yes, that might not mean much when you already have the largest navy and combat air force in the world by a longshot, and a frightening nuclear arsenal, but then there’s also this to consider…
4 The People’s Republic of China: $166 billion spent in 2013; 2% of GDP
Air: 1,500 combat aircraft; ? helicopters
Sea: Approximately 708,086 tons
Deployed nuke estimate: Maybe 240 total — data unreliable
China’s economic growth since the late 70s has been all but totally unprecedented; what’s more impressive than China’s sheer size today is the speed at which it got there, and there’s something to be said about that speed.
Despite being stunted by serious social problems and environmental issues, the Chinese government have demonstrated an admirable capacity to push through ongoing waves of economic and social reform. They've proven highly effective in developing the economy and improving the living standard of many Chinese citizens. For most analysts, the big question about China’s growing prominence is whether any underlying tensions will come to the fore; will the government lose control of its population if the government's economic growth leaves more of the citizens behind?
In the way of military supremacy, how much do these questions matter? Some might say an unhappy population can’t coexist with a truly robust and competitive military; some might say the single-party government can’t retain legitimacy at all in the face of an increasingly globalized (even Westernized) world. But here’s what the data has to say:
- The 2013 World Economic League Table report predicts China’s Gross Domestic Product to surpass the United States’ in 2028. China currently spends only 2% of its GDP - versus America's 4.4% - on military growth.
- A 2011 International Institute for Strategic Studies report found that given current spending trends, China will reach military equality, or parity, with the US in just 15-20 years. This was before China increased its spending to $166 billion last year.
And with the Chinese Communist Party managing the country behind closed doors, how much do we really know about the Chinese military? The full extent of their strength remains to be seen, but with the figures as they are it's possible that China could defeat America if push came to shove in the realm of tenuous China-U.S. relations, in the event of international conflict.
Now that we've ranked the 5 future potential World War III competitors by their military trajectories, let’s consider a few more imminent ways a global conflict could arise in the 21st century...
3 Trade War: America Vs. China
Though perhaps not outright military competitors, the two countries have long regarded their deeply entrenched trade policies with suspicion. Are America and China in the makings of an economic war? Many in American government cry “currency manipulation” as Chinese government continues selling its currency and purchasing foreign U.S. dollars (essentially, devaluing their currency to make their exports cheaper and more competitive on the world market). In 2012’s US presidential election, Republican candidate Mitt Romney even went as far as announcing he would officially label China a currency manipulator and allow the government to impose taxes on Chinese goods entering America—on the very first day of his presidency. Would this be a declaration of war? If so, how would China retaliate?
No doubt China and the US would prefer settling trade matters with quiet diplomacy, rather than, say, a legal dispute under the World Trade Organization. But this hot issue has the potential to shake the economies of both countries, and perhaps trigger a much greater conflict somewhere down the line.
2 Asia Pacific War: China Vs. the West
A few months ago, Beijing declared an air-defense zone over a set of disputed East China Sea islands between Japan and China. The air-defense asserts all airlines must provide Chinese authorities with flight plans before entering the designated airspace. With both countries holding claims to the islands, it was a blatant act of aggression.
The islands are the focal point of a very sensitive nationalist issue—the Second Sino-Japanese War, and the brutal Japanese invasion of China from 1937 to 1945. They’re also said to hold enough oil to fuel the Chinese economy for 45 years. Both countries have recently claimed acts of provocation by the other; Chinese ships sailing through Japanese waters; Japanese naval patrol invading China’s personal space. Such is the sensitivity of the issue, charged with the weight of 20 million Chinese and 2 million Japanese lives lost to historical conflict.
The most startling aspect of the Pacific dispute is that it has the potential to affect the whole world: On one hand, conflict between these two great Asian economic powers spells disaster for the global economy. On another, America’s security treaty with Japan guarantees the US will come to the country’s defense, meaning Russia will probably come to China’s.
1 Military Conflict: Russia Vs. the West
The most fascinating thing about the recent dispute in Ukraine is the echoes of the past coming to the forefront. The conflict began when the Ukraine president, under Moscow’s influence, refused to sign a trade deal with the EU. Protests supporting Ukraine’s EU-integration flared up and quickly turned violent. Russian president Putin declared an insurrection and took over the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. The US condemned it as an “incredible act of aggression”.
To generalize the issue, many Ukrainians see themselves achieving true independence by aligning with the European Union and not the former Soviet Republic, and vice versa. In the past few days, protesters from Kiev to Moscow have thrown opposing chants—“Support us, America!” and “Russia! Russia!”—in an old-fashioned stand-off across Ukrainian territories and international politics. What’s more, to the West the sudden conflict is probably the most ideologically and historically charged in recent memory. Western powers have threatened Russia with economic sanctions; in response, Russia drafted legislation allowing it to confiscate US and European assets if sanctions were imposed. Both on the ground and behind closed doors, tensions are high in this sort of classic Cold War scenario.
For now, Russia remains in control of Crimea.