In 2015, I attempted to quantify the military power of the world’s states with an index of Comprehensive Military Power. You can read the post, including the detailed methodology, here.
Since then, its conclusions – broadly speaking, that China and Russia had about a third of US military power in the mid-2010s, while the next-tier Powers had a third of Russia/China’s military power in turn – has been replicated in a couple of other indices:
… and was to correctly predict the outcome of Karabakh War II.
Nonetheless, five years is a significant period of time in world geopolitics, especially as concerns rapidly modernizing China, so an update is warranted (note there have been a few minor methodological changes*).
Top Military Powers of 2020
Performance of the US, Russia/USSR, China, and India in terms of total CMP from 1940-2020.
This table contains the CMP of the world’s states where the US is normalized to 100 every single year.
The most notable change, obviously, has been China’s rapid gain on the US (though it not been more impressive than its economic gain – cognizant of the perceived rule of military overspending on the Soviet collapse, it has soft peddled this aspect of its convergence). Russia has paddled water relative to the US. India’s growth has been very impressive, albeit from a low base. Nor should the striking divergence between South Korea and North Korea since 1990 surprise anyone. India has left Pakistan in the dust.
Here is a visualization of the CMP in which, as in the table, the US is fixed at 100.:
American remilitarization during the Korean War knocked the USSR back down – though in fairness, the Soviet advantage then was deceiving, since the US had hundreds by the late 1940s and thousands by the early 1950s, so in practice, it was vastly more powerful. But the 1970-80s Soviet military buildup brought it to parity. Then it collapsed and China overtook it sometime during the late 2000s.
This chart is perhaps especially useful in that it shows what a determined military buildup can achieve. The USSR, with half or less of US economic power, built up a military machine that went from 70% of its CMP in 1970 to parity by 1980. China is now at 57%, but it has a bigger GDP (PPP) than the US (it produces its own weapons, so yes, GDP (PPP) is what counts here), a much faster rate of growth, and on top of that its military spending is around 1.9% or almost twice less than the US at 3.4%, i.e. much more room for more catch-up spending (should it choose to pursue that path) that was feasible for the USSR. Even under “business as usual” (5% points higher growth in military spending annually, in line with growth), Chinese CMP should exceed the US by the mid-2030s. However, raising that to a 10% point advantage could allow it to excess the US as early as 2030 (and it would still spend less on the military as a share of GDP than the US by then).
The China + Russia counter dates to 2001, when the SCO was founded. This has become more relevant over time as the two have drifted closer, with increasing talk of an alliance. Combined Sino-Russian military power is now entirely comparable to American, at 90% in 2020 vs. 70% in 2015 and 55% in 2010. The recent effective entrance of Iran into the Sinosphere adds a further 5% of US CMP to this bloc and raises its total to effective parity with the US as of this year.
It is also instructive to look at the Great Powers’ share of world military power. Since the end of the Cold War, the US has accounted for a steady 30% of world CMP. However, the rise of China as well as stronger regional militaries has now knocked down that share to 25%.
Nonetheless, we see that NATO brings its share up to 41.5%, still far ahead of the Sino-Russian bloc, let alone either China or Russia separately. This hints at the great multipliers the US gains from its system of alliances (if they can be successfully coaxed in should a conflict develop into World War III). Tacking on Japan (1.9%), South Korea (2.4%), Taiwan (1.0%), and Australia and Canada (0.8% each) increases the Western bloc’s share of military power to almost half the world’s total – most likely fully half adding in various minor satraps. And in the event that India could be brought on board too, that’s another 6.0% of the world’s military power. This is why we can expect to see an intensification of US efforts to swing India into its camp.
The US has a rapidly narrowing window in which to win a conventional war against China. Probably. There’s a substantial margin of error either way in these CMP estimates, plus other factors (e.g. China will be able to concentrate a greater proportion of its CMP in a war theater than the US, whose military infrastructure is spread thin across the entire globe). However, the US can maintain parity by leveraging its systems of alliances – assuming they can do this in lockstep with Chinese military catchup. This is partly the logic of the Great Bifurcation. The point is not just to block off the emerging Chinese hegemon from economically dominating the entire world, but to intensify military/ideological ties within the Western Alliance to maintain military parity.
On a more philosophical note, it is fascinating to observe fault lines harden and alliances coalesce just when critical milestones in relative military power are passed. Almost as if geopolitics is like some kind of chemical soup, subject to natural laws, with all else (e.g. “Uyghur genocide”, “WuFlu”, etc.) being naught but sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Biggest change is that I decided to narrow the technological gap between the world’s Powers on the assumption that globalization has made them much less germane than during the Cold War (e.g. ball bearings for missiles that could only be manufactured in a few facilities a generation ago can now be ordered off Ali Baba). For a concrete example, see Iran’s Missile Attacks May Have Been Mini-Sputnik Moment. As such, I have converged all rich, high IQ countries, NATO members, Russia, China, and India to the first technological rank (no gaps – assume they have the gross human capital to largely get whatever they need), and have narrowed their gap with the rest to just 5 years.
I think adding a +25% bonus to Germany’s combat effectiveness based off WW1/WW2 performance is increasingly untenable. There was always a major element of arbitrariness to this enterprise, and there are many cultural factors that will be hard to capture (e.g. “Woke Mil” – the SJWization of Western militaries). In later editions of the CMP, I plan to do away with “cultural factors” (“south”, “clannish”, “feats”) in general, and replace them with IQ scores from Lynn & Vanhanen or David Becker. They are not perfect either – in particular, they would not capture the meritocratic element, which has also been fast declining in the US military based on Marine officer test scores – but they are however the most objective and universal measures we realistically have. Ultimately, virtually all aspects of success leverage around average IQ, and correlations become much better still when groups are considered, such as work groups, nations, or – presumably – military organizations.
Speaking of plans, I eventually hope to make a separate website for the CMP (along the lines of Global Firepower) and make it an open data and interactive experience. Hopefully I can do that before another big update becomes necessary, i.e. sometime between now and 2026. But that obviously requires quite a bit of work and I don’t want to spend too much time on that right now (I need to finish GB for a start).