How Top Powers U.S., Russia, China Compare With Other Militaries Across the Globe During the Past Decade

The United States continues to lead the world in its military might with Russia and China closer behind than ever—a power dynamic that has fluctuated the past 10 years and may continue amid emerging technologies and new political realities as 2020 approaches, a review of Global Firepower reports shows.

Its 2019 list, released in May, shows a familiar gathering at the top—the United States, Russia and China, in that order. Ten years ago, the U.S. firmly led the list of 42 countries, but it was China then that narrowly clinched second later in 2009. Russia regained this spot in the following edition two years later and has remained there ever since.

"Major American defense competition comes from Russia and China, putting the United States under immense pressure to spend, modernize, and evolve," the latest report found.

No single, certified ranking of armed forces exists, and how the nations of the world compare to one another in terms of military strength is a subject of much debate among scholars and everyday citizens alike. Global Firepower, launched in 2006, updates its annual index using an "in-house formula" of 55 data points including size, economy and technology—but not nuclear weapons. It now covers 137 countries and is one of the most widely-proliferated sources for these statistics.

The methods of calculating the so-called "power index" have evolved over the years, but what's become clear through the date is that the three leading powers have been especially committed to enhancing their armed forces and both Moscow and Beijing have begun work toward considerably closing the gap with Washington.

NATO us military exercise north macedonia
U.S. soldiers from Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 111th Infantry, 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team conduct a night live-fire iteration during Exercise Decisive Strike 2019 at the Training Support Center in Krivolak, North Macedonia, June 11. The tiny Balkan nation is NATO's newest member, bringing the Western military alliance to a total of 29 member states. Staff Sergeant Frances Ariele Tejada/5th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment/U.S. Army

The index considers 0 to be a perfect score and the U.S. earned a .0615 in this year's ranking. Overcoming a margin of what was once hundreds of points, Russia with .0639 now lagged behind the U.S. by only a couple dozen points.

"Defense modernization continues despite sanctions and a weakened currency - local industry has been instrumental in rearmament," the report said.

China, at .0673, was not too far away from its competitors. "A second commissioned aircraft carrier is in the works for a growing Chinese surface and undersea fleet - to go along with an already powerful land and air force," the report's authors wrote.

Further than down the line was India, whose military has secured its spot at fourth place in every single Global Firepower report in the past decade. The following positions have shifted frequently throughout the years, with the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Brazil, Japan and Turkey occupying fifth through tenth places, respectively, in 2009.

This year, those spots looked like this: France, Japan, South Korea, the U.K., Turkey and Germany. Notable trends involving other countries whose armed forces often dominate U.S. headlines included North Korea's rise two points to 18th and Iran's jump four spots to 14th, putting it just ahead of Pakistan, which remained the same as it did 10 years ago.

The Middle East proved to be a particularly volatile region as ten years of civil war, conflict and unrest redefined the region's power dynamics. Syria, Iraq and Libya fell from 34th, 37th and 39th to 50th, 53rd and 77th, respectively. Israel dropped from 11th to 17th and Lebanon hugged the bottom of the list, falling from the then-last place of 42nd in 2009 to 118th in the latest report of 137 states.

In last place now is the tiny, Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, which just celebrated its 112th national day Tuesday. Although the country boasts little in the way of firepower, its strategic location has made it a flashpoint in a territorial dispute between top-military-tier neighbors China and India, which was already embroiled in a decades-long spat with Pakistan and recently bought advanced weapons from Russia.

These complex, overlapping conflicts across Asia came as Moscow and Beijing saw their interests increasingly aligned in the face of Washington's efforts to isolate the two Eastern powers. As Russia and China sought to build bridges with regional powers, however, their intentions have increasingly been called into question in the West, where the U.S-led NATO alliance has sought a 21st-century strategy in dealing with both.

russia china military joint drills east
Chinese troops parade at the end of the day of the Vostok-2018 (East-2018) military drills held jointly among Russia, China and Mongolia at Tsugol training ground in Siberia, on September 13, 2018. Within months of one another, Russia and NATO held joint drills last year considered to be their largest since the Cold War. MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images

How these trends would play out through the 2020s remained difficult to predict, but recent developments such as the collapse of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty may play a major role. Since 1987, the historic arms control deal banned Washington and Moscow from fielding land-based missiles ranging from 310 to 3,420 miles but President Donald Trump's administration pulled out in August and has already tested two such weapons in the months since.

Moscow has refuted accusations that it had violated the deal with a new weapons system of its own and has tried to convince U.S. officials to begin negotiations surrounding another non-proliferation agreement, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). Should this be left to expire in February 2021, Russia and the U.S. will be left with virtually no mutual measures for restricting or inspecting one another's nuclear arsenals for the first time since 1972.

At the same time, new and more advanced platforms for delivering such weapons of mass destruction have already begun to enter the battlefield. Pentagon spokesperson Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Robert Carver told Newsweek last month that Russia and China's development of hypersonic missiles capable of outpacing existing defense systems "has created a warfighting asymmetry that we must address," an effort now considered to be the U.S. military's "highest technical research and engineering priority."

With an unmatched defense budget defense, numerous allies and as many aircraft carriers as the rest of the world combined, it was unlikely the U.S. would lose its lead military anytime soon, but it may be slipping in another vital category. Months after releasing a power index that showed Beijing beating Washington in key economic and political categories in Asia, the Lowy Institute published a new report last month finding China had surpassed the U.S. as the world's top diplomatic power across the globe.

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A graphic ranks the world's top 20 most powerful militaries based on 55 data points calculated by Global Firepower's 2019 Power Index. STATISTA

This article has been updated to include a graphic provided to Newsweek by Statista.