Military Machine: 3. How Does The USA Compare To The Rest Of The World?


So, is $900 billion per year in defense spending the right amount for the US? Do we face grave national security risks that suggest a greater level of spending is needed or are we exaggerating the risks we face and spending way too much?

This article will try to help answer that question by comparing US defense spending and force levels to the rest of the world. Lets start with spending.

There are a variety of international organizations that track defense spending around the world and they all paint the same picture. The US outspends every other country by a very wide margin, as follows:

2016 Military Expenditures: Top 15 Countries

Country 2016 Military Expenditures ($ billions)
USA 611.2
China 215.7
Russia 69.2
Saudi Arabia 63.7
India 55.9
France 55.7
UK 48.3
Japan 46.1
Germany 41.1
South Korea 36.8
Italy 27.9
Australia 24.3
Brazil 22.8
UAE 22.8
Israel 17.8

Source: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute

So, in 2016 the US spent more money on defense than the next 8 countries combined and spent more than twice the combined spending of China and Russia.

Keep in mind that the total disbursements of the US Department of Defense were $895.6 billion in fiscal year 2016, or about $284 billion higher than the amount on the table above. As outlined in an earlier article, the “Defense Budget” which is the source of the information in the table, is only a portion of the total appropriations granted to the Department of Defense.

It is also important to note that all of the top 15 countries, excluding Russia and China, are allies or friends of the USA. The combined spending of the US and its allies dwarfs that of Russia and China.

Foreign Bases

Foreign bases provide an interesting strategic snapshot for a country. Many foreign bases in areas far from the homeland suggest a strategy of projecting military power. Such a posture is offensive as opposed to defensive. Few or no foreign bases suggest that a nation’s military strategy is focused on the defense of its homeland. With few of no foreign bases, the ability to project military power far from home is strictly limited.

Foreign Military Bases by Country

Country Number of Foreign Base Countries Number of Bases/Installations
USA 31 64
UK 10 15
Russia 9 14
France 9 9
China 1 1

Source: Wikipedia. US Department of Defense Base Structure Report for USA.

The US is the only country with a global footprint of foreign military bases covering the globe. The US has multiple facilities in South America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australasia.

With the exception of Syria, all of Russia’s foreign bases are located in ex-Soviet republics lying in close proximity to the Russian homeland.

China has a single foreign base in Djibouti, along with the USA, France, Italy and Japan. These bases serve as the base for anti-piracy activities in the Indian Ocean.

Comparative Force Levels

The next several charts will simply illustrate how basic military force levels compare, including active military personnel, military aircraft and naval capabilities.

Active Military Personnel: Largest Countries

Country Active Military Personnel 2016
China 2,200,000
India 1,400,000
USA 1,300,000
North Korea 1,200,000
Russia 800,000
Pakistan 700,000
South Korea 600,000
Iran 500,000

Source: International Institute for Strategic Studies

Many countries will have reserve and or domestic police operations that could be added to the personnel levels outlined above. The USA, for example, has an additional 865,000 national guard and reserve personnel.

Military Aircraft

Military aircraft includes fighters, bombers, helicopters, transport, tankers and training aircraft. The top ten air forces ranked by total number of aircraft is provided below.

Country Total Number of Military Aircraft
USA 13,717
Russia 3,547
China 2,942
India 2,086
Japan 1,590
South Korea 1,429
France 1,287
Egypt 1,133
Turkey 1,007
North Korea 944

Source: FlightGlobal and Teal Group

The USA has 26% of the world’s total military aircraft. Not only does its air power dwarf all other nations in sheer numbers, it is also highly advanced technologically. The chart below ranks fighter aircraft fleets by technical age.

Top Fighter Aircraft Fleets

Country 2nd Generation 3rd Generation 4th Generation 5th Generation
USA 1,226 193
Russia 275 855 1
China 484 509
India 245 214 311
France 259
Japan 217
UK 146 1

Source: FlightGlobal and Teal Group

Naval Power

The chart below outlines the naval resources of the six countries that currently have nuclear ballistic missile submarine capability.

Selected Naval Fleets

Country Supercarriers Cruisers, Frigates & Destroyers Ballistic Missile Submarines Amphibious Craft
USA 10 93 54 31
China 1 78 52 4
Russia 1 32 49
India 1 28 14 1
France 1 23 14 3
UK 1 19 7 6

Source: International Institute for Strategic Studies


The US is the only military superpower in the world today. It spends more on its military than the next eight countries combined. It is the only country with a global network of military bases extending to the four corners of the globe. Its air fleet is four times larger than the next largest country. It is the only country with a fleet of aircraft carriers and amphibious assault vehicles. It also employs the most advanced military technology in the world.

The cost of this superpower strategy is staggering: $800 to $900 billion per year, adding to an unsustainable federal deficit and massive levels of federal debt.

It might be healthy for the country to engage in a more active debate regarding its military strategy. Here are a few key questions to think about.

  1. Is the country trading military might for financial weakness?
  2. Is the global military dominance strategy really in our best interests?
  3. Do the majority of US citizens really benefit from this strategy?
  4. Would a strategy more focused on homeland defense and less focused on far- flung regional conflicts make sense?
  5. What domestic sacrifices do we want to make to support the cost of the current military strategy?



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