A country’s military is one of its most important assets. The military works for the government and is tasked with enforcing domestic and foreign policies and protecting that country's citizens. Some nations have mandatory military service in which every citizen must serve for at least a certain number of years.
Factors to consider when evaluating a country's military strength
There are several crucial factors to consider when analyzing the strength of a nation’s military. The capability and availability of equipment (vehicles, weaponry, communications gear, etc.) is essential. The quality of training each soldier receives is vital. Their commanders' ability to consistently devise effective tactical strategies can be pivotal. But one of the most fundamental measures of a country's military strength is the number of soldiers it can deploy.
The list of countries that boast the highest total (active duty, reserves, and paramilitary) number of members in the military may be surprising to some readers. However, it is vital to also keep in mind servicepeople are usually divided into three categories: soldiers on active duty, reserves, or paramilitary members.
- Soldiers on active duty — Soldiers who work for the military full time, often live on base, and may be deployed at any time.
- Reservists — Soldiers who typically serve part time and join the reserves—such as the Army Reserve or National Guard—to make extra money, get tuition bonuses at college/university, or take advantage of other perks without devoting themselves full time to the military.
- Paramilitary members — Servicepeople who belong to organizations such as Canada’s Canadian Rangers or France's National Gendarmerie, which are military-like, but not formally part of the armed forces.
Top 10 Countries with the Highest Total Number of Military Personnel (in members):
|Rank||Country||Total Personnel||Total (Per 1000 Capita)||Active (Per 1000 Capita)|
North Korea dominates the list in terms of military members per capita, with 306.1 total members and 50.4 active members per capita. For comparison, the next closest countries in those categories are South Korea with 130.5 total per capita and Eritrea with 33.8 total active members per capita. However, these numbers can be deceiving, as the overwhelming majority of soldiers in Vietnam, North Korea, and South Korea are reserves or paramilitary, not active duty. In terms of the total number of active military members, there are eight nations with active militaries exceeding 500,000 soldiers:
Top 10 Countries with the Highest Number of Active-Duty Military Personnel (in members):
- China: 2,185,000
- India: 1,455,550
- United States: 1,388,100
- North Korea: 1,280,000
- Russia: 1,014,000
- Pakistan: 654,000
- Iran: 610,000
- South Korea: 599,000
- Vietnam: 482,000
- Egypt: 438,500
It is noteworthy that the world's three most populous countries also have the three largest standing armies, and in the same order. China's massive force is the largest, followed by India and the United States. While the United States has the third-highest population in total, the third-highest number of active military members, and the fourth-highest number of military members overall, it has the highest military spending of any country in the world. Once reserve members are added in, Vietnam's military becomes the largest, with roughly 5 million people in its reserves. The Republic of Korea also has 3.1 million members in its military reserves.
Top 10 Countries with the Highest Number of Active-Duty and Reserve Military Personnel (in members):
- Vietnam: 5,482,000
- South Korea: 3,699,000
- China: 3,355,000
- Russian Federation: 3,014,000
- India: 2,610,550
- United States: 2,233,050
- North Korea: 1,880,000
- Taiwan: 1,820,000
- Brazil: 1,706,500
- Pakistan: 1,204,000
Looking strictly at each nation's paramilitary capabilities, the ranking again changes. The nation with the largest paramilitary is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), which has over 5.889 million members. Conversely, the United States does not count paramilitary organizations as part of its available military (though some, such as the Civil Air Patrol, are considered auxiliaries), so its paramilitary officially has zero members.
Top 10 Countries with the Highest Number of Paramilitary Personnel (in members):
- North Korea: 5,889,000
- Vietnam: 5,000,000
- South Korea: 3,013,500
- India: 2,526,950
- Cuba: 1,146,500
- China: 660,000
- Russia: 554,000
- Egypt: 397,000
- Brazil: 395,000
- Pakistan: 291,000
On the other side of the coin, some nations have no active military members, or their militaries are minimal. The following six nations have no active members of the military: Costa Rica, Iceland, Libya, Marutius, Palestine, and Panama. For a full table of countries and their military headcounts, see below.