Military Machine: 2. How Big Is It?


The US has the largest and most expensive military forces in the world by a wide margin.

This article will provide information on the size and scale of US military operations so readers can begin to understand how the country spends so much money on defense. Before getting into the details of the current situation, a bit of history will provide some interesting background for the discussion.

A Bit of History

Until WWII, the US was not (and did not want to be) a military power. The strategic thrust was to keep European powers out North and South America (the Monroe Doctrine) and avoid “foreign entanglements” everywhere else in the world. Domestically, the military was used to protect and expand the western frontier.

The US would form armies to fight wars and then rapidly disband them. This pattern repeated itself from the Revolutionary War to WWI. The National Defense Act of 1920 set up the Army, National Guard and Reserve as we know them today and called for a standing Army of some 275,000 soldiers and Reserves of over 400,000. Congress simply failed to fund this.

In 1939, on the eve of WWII, the US had only 180,000 in the regular army, ranking it number 19 in the world.

The US Navy developed in three phases. Piracy in the Mediterranean (the British Navy let the Barbary pirates know that American vessels were fair game provided British vessels were left alone) and Caribbean motivated the creation of a Navy to protect US trade. In the Civil War, the Navy was expanded and “Ironclads” were first developed to blockade Southern ports during the war. In the 1880’s, the US decided that it needed a larger modern navy and funding was made available to develop steel-hulled battleships and cruisers. By 1900, the US had the number 5 Navy in the world and by 1920 was equal to the British Navy.

US aircraft were first deployed in WWI. In the interwar years, the military was instrumental in developing aviation technology (despite a Congress very reluctant to provide any money). During WWII, air power proved its worth. The Army, Navy and Marines all had separate Air commands. In 1947, the Air Force as a separate branch of the military was established.

Change in Strategy

World War II and the resulting Cold War led to a sea change in US strategic thinking. Instead of winding down the forces after WWII, the US decided to be a global superpower. The narrow strategy of defending the America’s was replaced by a strategy to be the dominant military force everywhere in the world.

This is a very expensive strategy.

Today’s US Military

Lets start with the military headcount, as follows:

US Military Personnel

Category Headcount
Active Military Personnel 1,300,000
Guard & Reserve 809,000
Civilian Employees 750,000
Current Active Personnel 2,859,000
Military Retirees & Survivors 2,300,000

Source: Department of Defense Agency Financial Report Fiscal Year 2017

Imagine the cost to pay, train, feed, clothe and house 1.3 million active service personnel every day on bases and ships around the world.

About 200,000 military personnel are now posted overseas, in some 170 countries. Many of these postings are small detachments protecting US embassies in countries around the world. However, unlike any other country in the world, the US also maintains a vast global footprint of military bases and installations around the world today.

The US has 38 “named bases” in 31 countries and facilities and installations in at least another 40. The largest operations are detailed below:

Country US Military Personnel
Japan 39,345
Germany 34,805
Afghanistan, Iraq & Syria 25,900
South Korea 23,468
Italy 12,102
Great Britain 8,479

Source: Defense Manpower Data Center, US DOD

There are also US bases in Niger, Israel, Kuwait, Kosovo, Bahamas, Brazil, Cuba, Djibouti, Greece, Spain, Greenland, Portugal, Qatar and Turkey.

Domestically, the US military has some kind of operations in all 50 states.

All these people and all these bases require lots of infrastructure. According to the Department of Defense, there are 4,800 military sites around the world containing 568,000 buildings, structures and linear structures.

There are also weapons, lots of weapons. The US military has 14,000 aircraft, including attack and fighter aircraft as well as transport, surveillance and training aircraft. There are 275 “battle force ships”, including 10 aircraft carriers and 70 submarines. There are almost 6,000 combat tanks and over 40,000 armored vehicles. Now add drones, missiles, rocket projectors, self-propelled artillery, towed artillery, rifles and ammunition. Behind all this sits the nuclear arsenal.

Is all this military capability too much or too little? To help answer that question, the next article will compare US force levels and defense expenditures to the rest of the world.


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