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It is in some ways remarkable that there is still no commonly agreed method on quantifying and ranking national military power.
There is one such for economics, for instance. It is called the GDP. You can make somewhat different arguments on relative economic size or living standards based on various ways of measuring GDP – e.g., the eternal debates over whether nominal or PPP is best – but it does make these discussions factually “grounded” in a way that military discussions (at least as they are carried out in the popular press and comments sections) are not. This may even extend to some extent to the US military itself. For instance, here is a short quote from an article by Adrian Bonenberger, who spent 7 years as an infantry officer in the US Army:
This is the greatest risk we face for World War III. Not that Russia defeats Ukraine and moves toward Poland and Estonia, but that Ukraine wipes out the Russians currently in Ukraine, and Putin is forced to take some drastic action to prevent further losses. After all, why should Ukraine not feel entitled to take some of Russia’s territory in return for their lost Crimea? And who will be there to stop them, save demoralized and confused Russian conscripts?
The chances of that happening in the foreseeable future are precisely zero, so awesome is the current size of the military gap between Russia and Ukraine (it approximately doubled from a factor of 4.5 in 1992 at the time of the Soviet collapse, to a peak of 9 by 2013). Even cursory examinations of force structure would confirm it; just the Russian Southern Military District by itself is considerably more powerful than the entire Ukrainian military. Tall tales of Donetsk airport “cyborgs” mowing down thousands of elite Pskov paratroopers to the contrary, on the one occasion in the Donbass War that the Ukrainian military engaged directly with the Russian military resulted in a resounding defeat for the Ukraiians at Ilovaysk – and that despite the Russian military having to maintain plausible deniability and thus forego the use of its fancier toys.
Nor will this situation change cardinally in the future, as the graph to the right shows (which incidentally is based on some very “optimistic” assumptions about Ukraine’s ability to remain solvent and maintain military spending at 5% of GDP). The idea that Ukraine will be able to militarily reconquer the LDNR so long as Russia provides it with support, to say nothing of actually seizing chunks of territory from Russia itself, is too absurd for further commentary.
This is just one limited example of flawed military commentary in the popular press. Literally hundreds of other examples can be thought of, from ‘Murica patriots who literally believe it is 1,000 times stronger than any other “military or combination of militaries,” to the Russia stronk! types and neocons who are in strange agreement that Russia is currently establishing a “hegemony” over the Middle East with its small-scale Syrian air intervention (which if Washington really wanted to could put to a forcible end within 24 hours).
Anyhow, I don’t claim to be any sort of military expert. If you asked me to compare the EW capabilities of the F/A-18A versus the Su-30MKI, I would draw up a total blank. That said, I have read a fair bit about military history and military theory, so I think I can contribute in a small way to uplifting the level of the popular discourse by introducing some rigor to it by way of the Comprehensive Military Power concept, a sort of military analogue of GDP that is both additive (so that alliances can be compared) and consistent across time (so that historical comparisons can be made and even what-if scenarios of the Modern Poland vs. Nazi Germany type).
But first, I would like to criticize or introduce caveats to some other popularly accepted ways of making sweeping large-scale military comparisons.
Existing Attempts to Quantify Military Power
This is by far the most common and intuitive method of making comparisons. It is objective and commonsensical: All other things equal, the more you spend on your military, the better it will be.
As historians like Paul Kennedy in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers pointed out, in the longterm, it is almost invariably the countries with the biggest economic potential who end coming out ahead in superpower struggles. With a bigger economy, you can have a bigger military budget with less overall strain (since once you go much about 5% of GDP military spending, your overall economy tends to start becoming distorted).
But military effectiveness depends a lot more than just the amount of dollars that are pumped into it. It also depends on domestic price levels (e.g., salaries for equivalent-quality Chinese soldiers will be much less than for American soldiers); the presence or absence of a domestic military-industrial complex (e.g., compare Saudi Arabia buying US equipment at international prices versus the ability of a country like Russia with its own MIC to produce its own advanced equipment at much lower costs); the aggregate of former spending, accounting for things such as what percentage of it “stayed on” in the form of military capital (which itself is continually adjusted for depreciation); and what US military theorist Trevor Dupuy called “combat effectiveness value,” that is, the relative effectiveness with which a military can use its existing manpower and capital stocks to win engagements and wrack up good K/D ratios, and which itself depends on a myriad of factors beyond just money such as generalship, esprit de corps, etc.
As we shall soon see, while consideration of the above factors does not (for now) change the fundamental fact of US military dominance, but it does move the focus away from overly simplistic rhetoric of the type that “the US spends as much on its military as the next 10 countries/20 countries/rest of the world combined” with the unspoken assumption being that actual military power is a mere extension of dollar spending on it.
This is the best known popular online index of military power available. Unfortunately, its methodology is secret so far as I’m aware, and its scaling is strange and obviously non-additive. Nor is it very intuitive. For instance, the gap between the US and Russia seems to be similar to that between the UK and France. This is almost flat out impossible. French and British military power, much like economies and demography, are remarkably similar. There is no way that even the proportional gap between them is as big as that between the US and Russia, which does have a very formidable military but is currently in the midst of rebuilding it from the post-Soviet stagnation.
Likewise for this recent ranking from Credit Suisse.
There is the Composite Index of National Capability, which uses military expenditure, military personnel, energy consumption, iron and steel production, urban population, and total population as inputs to develop an index of “national capability.” This was developed in the US during the 1960s, a time when the use of such inputs would have been logical due to memories of the World Wars, which were won by mass conscript armies and steel foundries that produced the means to churn out thousands of guns, tanks, and artillery pieces.
But is it still relevant to today’s world? Suffice to say that it is a pretty sure thing that iron and steel production will not be a limiting factor in any plausible Great Power war either now, nor would it have been even by the 1970s. The fact that China now produces almost ten times as much steel as the US will have vastly less significance than Germany producing 17.6 million tons of steel in 1913 to 4.8 million tons by Russia in 1913. Indeed, the very fact that China overtook the US on the CINC around 2000 discredits it as a viable index of modern military power or even national capability.
The blogger and political scientist Phil Arena has a better version of the CINC which he calls “M” that is a much better proxy of military power. It is still flawed but has the major advantage of being very simple and possessing face validity.
Chinese geopolitical think tanks have developed the concept of Comprehensive National Power, which attempts to measure all facets of national power (2015 rankings to the right).
The Chinese are obsessed with not repeating what they see as the mistakes of the Soviet Union – e.g., distorting its economy through massive military overspending – so they actually tend to deemphasize the military aspect from such comparisons in favor of financial and soft power influence.
This is, of course, perfectly valid – so long as an American CVBG doesn’t show up on your coast, at any rate – but this is going beyond the scope of what this post is about, i.e. strictly military comparisons.
On the Internet, most of the more informed military discussions tend to be about the superiority of one or another weaponsd platform over another. Who would win in a Leopard 2A7 vs. M1A2 Abrams vs. T-14 Armata slugfest? (I have no idea) Does the fact that Indian fighter pilots in Su-30MKI’s beat British Typhoons in a recent exercise mean that Russia is stronk and the RAF sucks? (No, because dogfighting isn’t the same thing as BVR combat) Will the F-35 program reinforce US air dominance or does it constitute the most spectacular military boondoggle thus far? (Somewhere in between most likely)
I don’t put much stock in these discussions. First off, a lot of the real details are classified, so real life performance can often differ from theory (and war games). Argentinian Mirages were supposed to outperform British Harriers in 1982, whereas the final “score” ended up about 10:0. These discussions frequently discount cost considerations. This is the classic Tiger vs. T-34 phenonenon: Crudely speaking, the former might be a match for 5 of the latter, but that isn’t so useful when you can have ten T-34s for the price of one Tiger (which will in any case break down due to its overengineering and have to be abandoned for lack of spare parts). But the crucial question of cost rarely enters these fanboyish arguments. Third, good militaries are supposed to act as tightly coordinated wholes, so the impact of any one platform – be it substantially above or below performance expectations – isn’t that relevant in the overall scheme of things. The French had substantially more and BETTER tanks in 1940, but that didn’t end up doing them much good, because their tanks had far less coordination due to a paucity of radios (which all Panzers were equipped with) and they were spread out all over the place, making it impossible to use them as the armored spearheads they were supposed to be. If you don’t have the appropriate doctrine for them, your fancy toys aren’t very useful.
This can apply even to really old, well-established tech. For instance, Liveleak and YouTube are full of videos in which Syrian Arab Army tanks in dense urban areas trundle about in the open without infantry support, making them easy targets for jihadist RPGs. You would think they’d have learned to stop doing it after four years and counting of defeats, but apparently not. They are lucky in the sense that while their jihadist opponents might be much more enthusiastic, they are also at least just as incompetent. Those videos are likewise full of Allah Akbaring in the middle of firefights and firing without aiming.
Professional Military Ratings
They are hard to dig up, but I have found a few examples of these.
For instance, from Ian Morris’ The Measure of Civilization – companion book to his more famous Why the West Rules – he cites war games designer James Dunnigan, who gave the following scores for land and sea power:
While the naval scores look feasible enough, the land scores are clearly incredible. Suffice to say that if that was true then Russian land power would not only be significantly lower than India’s (which sources a lot of its tech from Russia) and Israel’s (which is a respectable Power but nowhere near the very top leagues), it would also be less as a percentage of US land power than its naval power is as a percentage of US naval power. Considering the US relative focus on sea power, which Russia as a primarily land power does not share, this is just logically impossible.
In 2010, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences released the following estimates of military power for 2010. Especially considering that Chinese analysts are not particularly given to nationalistic bombast, this looks to be about credible.
It shows that China and Russia are each at about a third of US military power, while France and the UK in return are a third of that of China and Russia. This tallies well with my CMP estimates.
Finally, it is also worth pointing out that according to one discussion I’ve had with a professional British military analyst – who must for obvious reasons remain anonymous – these figures all substantially understate Russian military power. In particular, he argues that “Russian ground capabilities would be a very close second to US ones,” which if so implies that Russia’s aggregate score – that is, including the naval component – on any such comparison would be closer to half that of the US than a third (although he strongly questions the utility of such quantification in general). He also has a very dim opinion of Chinese military power. I find it difficult to agree with many of his points, especially since even just the US Army is substantially bigger than Russia’s Ground Forces, and surely has a significantly higher combat effectiveness value on average. This would make it hard to square with his (80%-90%?) evaluation of Russia’s ground capabilities relative to the US. But as a professional, this opinion is worth mentioning at least as a FWIW.
A lot of great work has been done on detailed, startlingly accurate modeling of military engagements – starting all the way back from the war games of the Prussian General Staff in the mid-19th century, and culminating in complex computer models that query huge databases of past military engagements to find optimal strategies that are used by modern militaries today.
However, apart from the small detail that they tend to be classified, they are all focused on the tactical or operational level, not the strategic one. I.e., they don’t measure comprehensive military power.
Comprehensive Military Power
To compile my rating, it has to satisfy several prerequisites:
- It has to make sense at a fundamental level (face validity)
- It has to be both additive and historically consistent, so that cross-country comparisons across time and space can be made
- It has to be fairly simple conceptually and use openly available data
Nuclear war power is a totally different kettle of fish and is entirely excluded. This is an index exclusively of conventional military power.
The solution I settled down is a “translation” of the GDP concept from economics into the military sphere.
- CMP is comprehensive (national) military power;
- L is “labor” aka military manpower, or Army personnel numbers;
- K is “capital” aka military capital, aka the stock of equipment a military possesses i.e. tanks, guns, bulletproof vests, fortifications, etc.
- CE is the “total factor productivity,” or how effectively L and K are used, and is a proxy for combat effectiveness value. This is a multiple of the technology level (T); of Troop Quality (Q); and of a cultural factor (C). Explanations below.
- alpha is set = 0.5. This implies that a force with twice as many troops should be about equivalent to a force with twice as much military capital, everything else being equal. Is this a good assumption? Perhaps I underestimate labor slightly in terms of ground forces. But it would also massively overestimate labor in terms of its contributions to naval power. Clearly, having twice as many warships is preferable to having twice as many sailors (all else equal). I think 0.5 is a good compromise, but if you have good arguments for other figures, I would be happy to hear them.
The only comprehensive data I could find that goes back to 1989 is the World Bank’s figures for total armed forces personnel. This includes paramilitary forces, which rarely match up to the quality of the conventional forces, but in the absence of figures just for active duty personnel I had to go with those figures.
I made adjustments only for two countries, India and North Korea. India because it has a huge paramilitary component that virtually trebled the size of its military, so I specifically used the figures for its active duty personnel. North Korea because its paramilitary component is likewise unreasonably huge, plus actual academic demographic estimates of its military size indicate that it is at 700,000 troops and has long ceased to be a million man army.
As we can see on the graph to the right, the number of military personnel in all the Great Powers has been steadily going down since the end of the Cold War. Partly this has been to a general trend of military downsizing – most pronounced in Russia/USSR – but also due to the continuing devaluation of raw manpower in favor of more automated systems.
I found some historical figures for the 1950-1990 period (the 2000 and 2010 numbers are future projections, and as such useless) from a 1989 RAND report, Long-Term Economic and Military Trends, 1950-2010.
I got additional rough figures for East Germany and the Koreas from other sources. In addition, I recall reading that Israel’s total military capital in the 1980s was approximately equal to that of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, which enabled me to make a rough estimate of its military capital stock (unfortunately I can no longer locate this report).
I proxied other countries’ military capital stocks by reference to the averages of the respective groups they belonged to (e.g. Cold War NATO, Eastern European Socialist Bloc, Developing Nations, Asian Boomers, etc). This might seem like a very rough and imprecise way of going about things, but that is not actually the case – at least so far as estimates of military potential by, say, the 2010s, are concerned – because a big chunk of that initial military capital stock in 1990 would have depreciated by then.
This takes us to the precise way in which military capital stock figures were generated for the post-1990s period.
First off, I made the blanket assumption that 25% of military spending everywhere is devoted to procurement. This is pretty weak, but considering that there are major uncertainties over the size of military budgets in countries as big as China – to say nothing of individual components of that budget – trying to individually estimate the share of procurement spending across many countries would have been an extremely time-consuming and utterly pointless endevour. In any case, swings of 5% or even 10% points up or down would not have had absolutely cardinal effects, since the main factor here is total military spending, for which we have relatively reliable figures for the 1988-2014 period from SIPRI. This military spending data was adjusted to take into account yearly international price level differences.
Second, military capital depreciates. A tank built in 2005 will be worth considerably less today. Moreover, this depreciation rate varies across both historical time and particular militaries due to their different force structures, maintenance standards, etc. Over the course of twenty years, the majority of the then existing military capital would have depreciated. But some military capital can linger on for a very long time. The Tupolev Tu-95s were first built in the 1950s and continue to serve to this day. Is this because impoverished Russians can’t design or build anything newer and are forced to continue flying obsolete rustbuckets? Field this question to the USAF, which likewise built the first Boeing B-52 Stratofortresses in the 1950s and plans to keep them in service until 2045. The avionics get updated, of course, but an airframe can last a long time.
The picture to the right is of the author at the USS Midway (CV-41) aircraft carrier, commissioned in 1945 and serving the entire length of the Cold War to be decommissioned in 1992 and transformed into a museum.
How fast does military capital depreciate? There is a huge range of estimates, and for the above reasons, no exactitude can be hoped for in any case. Some estimates of yearly military capital depreciation I’ve encountered include: 6.3%; 3.5%-5%; 10%; 8%-10%; 3.5%-6%. I ended up using a simple 5% throughout.
Using 1990 as an anchor, the military capital calculations consisted of an addition of 25% of current military spending (inflation adjusted) and the subtraction of 5% of the existing accumulated military capital stock.
This crucial factor consists of a multiple of three components: Technology; Troop Quality; and Cultural Modifier.
Military technology is advancing at a continuous pace. Ian Morris in The Measure of Civilization cites an estimate that the weapons systems of 2000 have 50-100x as much mobility, resilience, and destructive potential as those of 1900, whereas those of 1900 are 5x as capable as those of 1800. This is an ongoing process that finds expression today in things such as drones, swarms, cyberwar, and even more exotic possibilities like railguns and DEWs. It will also accelerate or decelerate depending on the underlying rate of overall technological growth and the percentage of R&D that will be devoted to military competition in the years ahead. Furthermore, depending on their nation’s developmental level and international relations, some militaries will be systemically more technologically advanced than others.
To proxy this, I first compiled an estimate of the rate of technological military progress over the past century (see right). I didn’t try to be particularly detailed, since that is probably a futile endevour. Four broad historical periods can be made out, though:
- The 1900-1935 period saw a modest degree of both technological and doctrinal progress. In the former sphere, you had of course the appearance of the first rudimentary armor and air forces. You also had major matching doctrinal developments, such as the Hutier tactics that eventually broke the stalemate on the Western Front in World War 1, and would later wield great influence over the proper employment of armor. Outside Germany, however, these innovations were not readily accepted. Overall, yearly growth of perhaps 3%.
- The 1935-1975 period saw blisteringly fast progress. To get a sense of the scale of the change, consider that the mid-1930s began with aircraft like the Spitfire and Messerschmitt Bf 109 replacing old wood and fabric models, culminating in the F-15 and Su-27 by the 1970s – both planes that in their modernized versions continue to form the backbones of the US and Russian Air Forces. The later part of this period also saw the development of the Revolution in Military Affairs, spearheaded by Marshall Nikolay Ogarkov in the USSR in the 1970s and most intensively adapted by the US after the 1980s. Overall, yearly growth of perhaps 7%.
- The 1985-2015 saw a slowing down of military technological growth. To be sure, it still continues, predominantly in the fields of networking and IT, but you no longer have the major leaps every decade that you had in the previous period. Overall, yearly growth of perhaps 5% in 1975-1985, and 3% thereafter.
- The 2015-2050 period lies in the future, so any propositions are largely guesswork. But assuming no fundamentally new paradigms are developed, no computer superintelligences, no technological singularities, the yearly rate of growth might continue to be around 3%.
Using the year 2000 as an anchor, military technology of previous and future years is adjusted based on the above schema. It is further adjusted based on each individual military’s closeness to the military technology frontier, as represented by leading industrial countries such as the US.
- Technological frontier – The US, its closest allies (e.g. Israel and the Five Eyes), and NATO/allied countries that are economically well developed and possess substantial military-industrial complexes of their own (e.g. France, Germany, Japan). This does not necessarily mean that all their weapons systems are top notch. It just means that mere money is the only major obstacle in attaining such a state. If Germany right this moment decided to become stronk! and build itself a fifth generation fighter, and financed that project properly, there’s no real doubt over its theoretical capacity to do so. The extent to which countries do or do not do this is proxied by their accumulation of military capital.
- Lag of 5 years – Small NATO countries, close NATO clients, and the USSR and modern Russia as well as Russia’s closest allies and small rich countries like Singapore that devote a lot of attention to their militaries. Assigning a lag of a mere 5 years to Russia might be controversial, considering the poor reputation of Russian technology – largely a result of it being used by incompetent countries like Syria and Iraq against competent countries like Israel and the US – but all in all I do not think it unrealistic. There might indeed be a lag of 5 or even 10 years in individual spheres such as drones or fighter aircraft, but for every one of those there is a sphere where Russia is on the leading edge, such as tanks, anti-aircraft, and diesel subs.
- Lag of 10 years – China, India, most middle income countries and buyers of Western and Russian “monkey model” equipment – China is fast closing the gap and will soon reduce its lag to 5 years, but for now this is probably accurate. In particular, it continues to fail at building reliable high performance fighter jet engines that have long been mastered in the West and Russia.
- Lag of 15 years – So-called “rogue” regimes that have been heavily sanctioned by the West and are not in a position to innovate most of their own hi-tech equipment, such as Iran, as well as the more impoverished Third World tinpot countries.
Spending more money per soldier will almost inevitably improve overall quality. Brighter, more motivated people will be incentivized to show up in the first place. More time can be devoted to training, using more bullets and flying time. Full time cooks and cleaners can be hired so that soldiers don’t have to waste time doing things irrelevant to their profession.
I made Troop Quality equal to per soldier spending times 4 in the last year, plus per soldier spending times 2 in the year before that, plus per soldier spending times 1 three years back. This loosely reflects the idea that it is the most recent spending that will have the most effect.
I then took the cube root of this figure to account for diminishing returns. After all, doubling spending on a soldier can hardly be expected to double his combat effectiveness. But a 25% increase is quite reasonable.
In both the World Wars, as Trevor Dupuy recounts in his books such as A Genius for War, the Germans consistently had a 25% combat effectiveness advantage over the Allies – the French, the British, and the Americans – and in individual engagements, they inflicted 50% more casualties adjusted for personnel numbers, equipment, local geography, and offensive/defensive status. Over the Russians, their combat effectiveness advantage was more along the lines of 100%+. (Incidentally, this, and not the Hollywood myth of “two soldiers per rifle,” is what accounted for the high Soviet:German casualty ratios. Even a cursory perusal of WW2 war production statistics, in which the USSR outproduced Germany in virtually all weapons categories, would confirm this. The Germans were just a lot better at fighting, while the Soviets were a lot worse – possibly because the 1940s USSR was still in many respects a Third World country).
As such, I gave Germany a 25% across the board advantage in combat effectiveness. (Is this still valid? Dupuy, after all, argues that the key factor that explained German overperformance was the quality of their General Staff, which they no longer really have. However, I don’t fully buy that argument. Many countries as early as the aftermath of the Prussian victories in the 1860s-70s adopted the General Staff structure, but failed to recreate German-style military efficiency. So I suspect this is more of a permanent cultural or even sociobiological factor).
I also gave a 25% across the board advantage to a few other countries that have displayed unusually impressive military “feats” in their history, such as Finland (Winter War), Israel (the Arab Wars), Mongolia (that Ghengis guy), Switzerland (Swiss pikemen), etc.
I took 25% off countries that I deemed to be “Southern” (the Latin, African, Arab, and Indian subcontinent peoples) to account for the traditional stereotype of them being generally inferior soldiers to “northerners.” However, I did not extend this to Turks, Greeks, and Armenians/Israelis, who have somewhat better military reputations. I also took another 25% off from countries that I perceived to have excessive levels of clannishness in their societies, since clannishness is – as I discussed at length previously – antithetical to being a good soldier as part of the army of a nation-state. The net effect of this is to reduce the default combat effectiveness of Arabs to 50%, which is in fact somewhat similar to the ratios they displayed in their wars with Israel. There is no such clannishness “hit” as concerns Arabs who fight for clan (e.g. the Syrian National Defense Forces) or for God (e.g. Al Nusra, Islamic State) but these types of military structures are not any good at conventionally fighting actually competent militaries who know how to wage combined arms warfare.
Putting it All Together
The result is the Comprehensive Military Power index. It is of course a largely theoretical figure, so further specific adjustments will be necessary to take into account aspects like geography, the land/sea division, etc. Nonetheless, at least in the sense that militaries aim to expend their resources in a way that maximizes their power – a sort of military version of the efficient markets hypothesis – Comprehensive Military Power should be at least a useful proxy of their results.
Here are the top 15 militaries of 2015 according to the Comprehensive Military Power index (you may find the full list at the bottom of this post).
In the default CMP, i.e. the second column, the US score in 2000 = 100. In the third column, the US score in 2015 has been normed to 100.
|Rank||Country||CMP 2015||CMP 2015 (US=100)|
|2||China, P. R.||83.45||42.28|
A Few Comments on How CMP Will Translate into Real Battle Results
Conventional modern combat follows the classic Lanchester model, in which the damage your army inflicts over time is a function of the size of your army (see graphic illustration right, via Wiki). Likewise for the enemy.
As such, assuming equal damage rates (as proxied by combat effectiveness), even a small initial advantage can soon translate into crushing victories and defeats – see the first diagram on the right. It is these considerations that underlie Clausewitzian concepts such as the principles of The Offensive, Maneuver, Mass, and Economy of Forces. These principles were intuited by the Great Captains of yore (Alexander, Napoleon, etc) and have been formalized in Military Theory 101 in modern days.
The method for quick but generally reliable predictions of failure or success in prospective military operations, which can be performed by the layman, is a consideration of the share of the national CMP and the gross size of that CMP that the respective combatants can realistically allocate to the sphere of combat operations.
Let us consider a few examples:
The Gulf War
According to my database, the US had a CMP of 92.2 versus 2.1 for the Iraq of Saddam Hussein in 1990. This includes the standard -50% adjustment for Muslim Arabs, which as per usual was justified for this war.
The US concentrated something like 25% of its global military power to this campaign. In tandem with its coalition allies, that made for a regional CMP concentration of up to 30, that is – for all his tanks – a multiple of almost 15:1 relative to Saddam’s forces.
Saddam wouldn’t have stood a chance, even had he been a talented military leader, which he was not. He failed to do anything to disrupt the US buildup, and exercised a rigid, paranoid style of control that quelled lower-level military initiative.
The Syrian Conflict
The Syrian state and the Islamic State both have around 1.7 points on the CMP. I suspect FSA/Al Nusra is a bit lower, maybe around 1. No wonder it’s been a long stalemate… until, perhaps, the Russian airstrikes.
This is where the Russian Air Force can hopefully make a big difference. Even the fighters already in place will allow the Syrians to effectively double their number of sorties, and Russian fighter pilots are much more skilled and have more modern armaments than their Syrian counterparts. Effectively, this translates to a tripling or quadrupling of Syrian air power that can be concentrated in support of SAA ground operations. Air power can seriously degrade the combat power of enemy formations that do not have adequate AA counters to it (that describes both the FSA/Al Nusra and ISIS). Whereas a front might have once been in equilibrium, due to roughly matching combat power on either side, a sustained air campaign could begin to systemically swing the advantage over to the SAA and eventually enable the reconquista of Syrian territorities currently under renegade Islamist control.
The War in Donbass
In 2014, the fledgling Novorossiyan state as of the August fighting had a CMP of about 0.9, relative to Ukraine’s 6.9. This is a difference of almost 8:1. Thus, when the Ukrainian Army began to fight seriously – for all its manifold problems logistics, morale, and generalship problems – it made progress and would have almost certainly ended up strangling Novorossiya in its cradle. But thanks to the “Northern Wind” and the limited Russian intervention at Ilovaysk, this was not to be.
Both sides have continued to build up their forces, and as of mid-2015, the CMP of Novorossiya was approximately 2.1 to Ukraine’s 8.1 – now a ratio of less than 4:1. Considering that Ukraine cannot realistically commit a huge percentage of its forces to attacking Novorossiya, a military solution to the conflict is for the time being out of the question, as even Poroshenko has been forced to belatedly acknowledge. While Ukraine might be able to make gains, Russia would be able to bolster Novorossiya just as fast. That said, under current spending plans, Ukraine’s CMP should almost double by 2020 – assuming it doesnt’t go bankrupt and is able to maintain military spending at 5% of GDP – which would give it an almost tenfold advantage if Novorossiya stands still in the meantime. (Which, with Russia apparently losing attention, might well happen).
Finally, it also gives the lie to Ukrainian claims which are uncritically repeated in the Western press that they faced down and defeated the Russian Army inflicting thousands of casualties on the Muscovite aggressor. There was in fact just a single intervention at Ilovaysk; Russian military KIA is almost certainly below a hundred for the entire conflict; and unlike the Ukrainians, they were forced to engage while using only a fraction of their capabilities so as to maintain plausible deniability. In effect, they had to forego their vast military capital advantage, and instead rely on superior combat effectiveness. The fact that that they easily trounced Kiev’s forces regardless is incidental testament to Russia’s complete military superiority over Ukraine.
A Confrontation with NATO in the Baltics
Assume the crazier neocons take over the reins and smash Russia’s Latakia airbase to pieces (there’s nothing Russia will be able to do to stop that).
Now Brzezinski might not formally be a neocon, but frankly neocon ideas so dominate US interventionist discourse that we might as well call them all neocons. Here is what the neocon Brzezinsky had to say on this:
“In these rapidly unfolding circumstances the U.S. has only one real option if it is to protect its wider stakes in the region: to convey to Moscow the demand that it cease and desist from military actions that directly affect American assets,” he said.
“The Russian naval and air presences in Syria are vulnerable, isolated geographically from their homeland,” Brzezinski noted. “They could be ‘disarmed’ if they persist in provoking the US.”
Here is another, bona fide neocon, Noah Rothman, pretending to be in anguish over the threat of World War 3 while rationalizing and implicitly calling for the US to attack Russian forces in Syria who are there at the request of its legitimate government:
Washington is faced with a terrible choice: Withdraw unceremoniously and invite further Russian aggression or deter Moscow’s military activities abroad through the credible threat of force. The Pentagon is preparing for the latter course.
On Friday, the Associated Press reported that the Pentagon was readying a set of options for the president should he choose to protect Washington-supported rebel groups on the ground in Syria from air attack by Russian forces. The details of such a plan remain a secret, but they would necessarily include putting U.S. air assets in close proximity to Russian forces, triggering an international incident with the expectation – or perhaps the hope – that Russia would climb down from the crisis it has ignited. “At worst, if Russia bombs rebels trained by the U.S. and American fighter jets intercede to protect the Syrians, the exchange could trigger an all-out confrontation with Russia — a potential disaster the administration would like to avoid,” Fox News reported.
Both suggestions if carried through would actually be straightforward acts of war.
Assume that Putin doesn’t back down and try to make amends with his “partners,” which is not entirely impossible, but instead decides to up the ante by confronting NATO in the Baltics. What happens?
I would imagine the conventional answer is that Putin gets smashed and the Russian hordes get sent back fleeing to Eurasia.
The CMP concept, however – not to mention Pentagon war games – suggest NATO wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. Russia’s CMP is a third of that of the US, and a fifth of NATO’s. However, a great percentage of it is already concentrated at its western borders. The Balts themselves collectively have less than 1 in CMP, compared to Russia’s 66. There is no way that NATO will be able to mass in sufficient force to have any short at defending the Baltics. Should they attempt to do so anyway, they will merely be destroyed piecemeal with minimal damage on Russian forces. The only hope of reversal would be either fullscale mobilization across NATO (not going to happen no matter how shrill the neocons get), or draconian economic sanctions (which is what will happen).
However, I don’t expect any of the neocons to pay any particular attention to such matters, because they have an idee fixe – e.g., American triumphalism, Israel firstism, Russophobia – and have no interest, desire, or incentive to deviate an iota away from it.
The Future Global Military Balance
In tandem with various assumptions about future economic growth and the share of spending that will be devoted to the military, we can make rough projections of future military power.
Cold War History
In short, a CMP analysis shows:
- US superiority in the 1950-1975 period, Soviet superiority thereafter until its collapse. (Yes, the US was roughly twice as powerful as the USSR in 1945. However, it went below the Soviet lower following postwar demobilization. During the Korean War it sprang back up again and the permanent military-industrial complex was there to stay).
- NATO vs. Warsaw Pact approximate parity on land, and continuous NATO dominance on the high seas. Of course the Warsaw Pact did have a preponderate in forces stationed in Europe proper. This was why Cold War military strategy was mainly about keeping the Warsaw Pact at bay long enough for American reinforcements to make their way to West Germany.
- A clear period of US military supremacy from 1992 until today. But China is gaining fast.
All this has face validity.
Future Superpower CMP
As concerns the Chinese-US military balance, the purely naval component is more important than the aggregate one, since the likeliest clash will be over some Pacific island or other.
Calculating separate CMPS for land and sea is unrealistic. However, one can make reasonable estimates of the share of national CMP that is land based vs naval based. In the US, for instance, I would estimate that the Navy and Marines (sea), and the Army and Air Force (land), each account for about half of its CMP. In the USSR, this split was more like 25%:75%. China during the Cold War was even more exclusively land-based, not possessing a blue water fleet at all. However, this is now changing fast. The Army is getting downsized, while as early as 2020 the PLAN will begin to resemble a smaller version of the USN.
- The Chinese naval share of CMP grows steadily from about 30% in 2010 to 50% by 2050.
- The US naval share of CMP grows from 55% in 2010 and 2020, to 60% by 2020 and thereafter.
- Chinese military spending increases by 10% during the rest of the 2010s (as before), by 7% in the 2020s, by 5% in the 2030s, and by 3% in the 2040s.
- US military spending remains constant until 2020, then resumes growing at 3% a year.
- China will move from a 10 year technological lag in 2010 to a 5 year technological lag by 2020, and remain there until 2050 (i.e. will not become technologically leading edge).
Here is what the US/China naval comparison will look like in the years ahead under these non too demanding assumptions, which involve China continuing to converge rapidly with developed world living standards (like South Korea with a lag period of 20 years) and maintaining military spending at about ~2-2.5% of GDP, while the US grows at around 3% and keeps military spending at around 3% of GDP.
Under these conditions, China will overtake the US in overall military terms in land military power during the early 2020s, in overall military power in the early 2030s, and in naval military power by the early 2040s.
I view that as being historically plausible. Germany committed to major naval buildup at 1888, when its total GDP was still considerably smaller than Britain’s. Twenty five years later, the Imperial German Navy had emerged from obscurity to become half the strength of the Royal Navy. But Germany also had to maintain an Army capable of fighting a two front war, and its GDP never far outpaced Britain’s because their total populations were so close (65 million to 47 million in 1913). In contrast, China has a relatively secure rear with Russia, which it is slowly overshadowing in land military power anyway; its GDP is already bigger than the US in purchasing power parity adjusted terms; and its population is more than four times as large as America’s. Should it merely converge to Korea’s level of GDP per capita relative to the US, its aggregate economic size will be three time greater than America’s.
As such, China’s naval ascendancy by the mid-21st century is entirely plausible.
George Friedman of Stratfor claims that carrier operations are so complex that only Americans can really understand them (I am not even simplying his arguments all that much), but he also claims that China will break apart in the 2020s and Poland and Mexico will be superpowers this century, so take his forecasts with a grain of salt.
Comprehensive Military Power
In global terms, there will be four military powers, with Russia and a rising India coming in behind the American and Chinese behemoths.
The article is becoming too long for stating the assumptions behind Russia’s and India’s trajectory in any great detail; perhaps I will leave that for a later post (more on that below).
There will also continue to be a number of middling powers, such as France, the UK, Germany, Japan, and South Korea, but none of them are likely to go far beyond 10% of the US CMP. This is, of course, all assuming no major wars, mobilizations, unexpectedly sharp increases in military spending, superintelligence takeoffs, etc.
Further Applications of CMP
I spent quite a bit of time developing the CMP and intend to milk it for all it’s worth in future blog posts. So please feel free to suggest:
- Further “grand strategic” future scenarios with differing assumptions about military spending as share of GDP and GDP growth for different countries and potential alliances.
- Individual conflict analysis based on the CMP (e.g. India vs. Pakistan, the two Koreas, Azerbaijan vs. Armenia), as well as CMP based analyses of regional military balances e.g. Europe, Middle East, etc.
- Historical what-if and sci-fi scenarios, such as, Could the Warsaw Pact have conquered Western Europe? Could 1940 Nazi Germany take on 2015 Poland? Would a global UN military of 2015 be able to defeat the Wolfenstein: New World Order of 1960, or would Wilhem Strasse’s Panzerhunds rip us all apart with Teutonic ease??? Feel free to make them as wacky as you like!
Make these suggestions here and/or at my ask.fm account.
Comprehensive Military Power 2015
In the default CMP, i.e. the second column, the US score in 2000 = 100. In the third column, the US score in 2015 has been normed to 100.
|Rank||Country||CMP 2015||CMP 2015 (US=100)|
|2||China, P. R.||83.45||42.28|
|33||United Arab Emirates||3.11||1.58|
|118||Congo, Dem. Rep.||0.16||0.08|
|143||Trinidad & Tobago||0.05||0.02|
|152||Papua New Guinea||0.03||0.01|
|155||Central African Rep.||0.02||0.01|