Global Military Capabilities Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The military capabilities of 2010 are not goals for the future but the functions of our militaries today.


The military capabilities of 2010 are not goals for the future but the functions of our militaries today. Indeed, some militaries today seem to be militaries of tomorrow, with robots, drone airplanes, and other high-tech weapons. Speed and communication are considered the most valuable traits in a modern army, the high cost of which has led to an incredible diversity in military capabilities. The level at which a nation can conduct warfare has many measurements. Is it strong enough to protect itself from aggressive neighbors? Can it project power beyond its own borders? How far can it project and how much of its forces can be mobilized? How quickly can its army move its forces?Global military capabilitiesArmies;twenty-first centuryGlobal military capabilitiesModern militariesArmies;twenty-first century


Throughout the ages, armies have used superior speed and mobility to gain an advantage, and the armies of today must be faster than ever before. Beyond conventional warfare, a modern military must also be able to compete with asymmetric warfare–to deal with guerrilla tactics, kidnappings, terror bombings, and fighting in close proximity to civilians. Like conventional warfare, asymmetric warfare has evolved. Insurgents and malcontents make excellent use of mass communications to strike at civilians around the globe.

Definitions of Global Military Capabilities in 2010

The complications mentioned above create benchmarks by which the military capabilities of a nation can be assessed. Few nations are able to excel in all areas. The strata of modern militaries can be broken down into innumerable subcategories of those who are able to meet certain challenges but lack the capabilities to meet others, but for simplicity’s sake can be divided into three groups. Those in the top tier are, unsurprisingly, those nations with Developed nations’ militarieshigh military budgets, nuclear weapons, and a hand in the direction of global politics. The second-tier nations all have respectable conventional militaries, capable of protecting their borders, but lack the resources to project that power in other parts of the world. The third tier consists of nations that lack advanced military technology and use archaic weapons and weapon systems. This analysis will address the soldiers of Asymmetric warfareFourth-generation warfare[Fourth generation warfare]asymmetric warfare, or “fourth-generation warfare,” as it is heralded by some. These soldiers are known by many names: guerrilla, insurgent, terrorist, and freedom fighter among them. Although it is difficult to gauge the capabilities of these forces with accuracy, any study of upcoming armed conflict, and military capability, would be remiss to exclude them.

It is generally those nations with the strongest economies and highest military budgets that have the most advanced militaries. In 2010, the nations on this exclusive list were the ChinaPeople’s Republic of China (referred to herein as China), the Russian FederationRussian Federation, the United StatesUnited States, FranceFrance, the United KingdomUnited Kingdom, IndiaIndia, PakistanPakistan, IsraelIsrael, and North KoreaNorth Korea. These nations have sophisticated machines, cutting-edge electronics, and huge numbers of troops, planes, and tanks. It is important to note that not all of the world’s major powers seek to project military force globally. Many are simply concerned with National securitynational security. Currently North Korea, Israel, India, and Pakistan are mainly interested in national security. China is evolving from a period of defense to one of interest in global affairs. In fact, only the member nations of the North Atlantic Treaty OrganizationNorth Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) seem mainly concerned about projecting their military might across the planet. Therefore, as different as each of these nation’s military goals are, their nuclear weapons tie them together.

U.S. president Barack Obama at the Group of Eight (G8) meetings in Italy during July, 2009, where he expressed “serious concern” over post-election violence against demonstrators in Iran.

(AFP/Getty Images)

Some individuals and organizations argue that Nuclear weapons and warfare;twenty-first centurynuclear weapons have, to a great extent, lost their place in battle and have become purely political tools. The invasion of Israel in 1947-1948 illustrates that nuclear weapons do not necessarily prevent attack. Nuclear weapons give negotiating power, but they do not win wars or protect any nation completely. For rival nuclear powers like India and Pakistan, the possibility of nuclear war is very real, held off only by a fragile peace. Here nuclear weapons produce the same circumstances that they did in the Cold War. The theory of Mutual assured destructionmutual assured destruction (MAD) has brought the nations to the negotiating table.

Hence, the major asset of a nuclear arsenal remains the defensive advantage gained by the threat of large-scale destruction. An excellent example is the newest member to the nuclear club. In 2006, Nuclear weapons and warfare;North KoreaNorth Korea;nuclear weaponsNorth Korea conducted its first successful nuclear test. The result was that Western powers were forced to see North Korea in a new light; once admitted to the club, “nuclear” nations are given a new respect. Even before North Korea started its nuclear weapons program, it had built a substantial military. In fact, having the enormous amount of money that is necessary to develop nuclear weapons, as all of these nations have, means there is a great deal of money available for investment in building an excellent conventional army. Let us take a closer look at the military capabilities of the United States and China.

U.S. Military Capabilities

Strategic United States;twenty-first century militarycapabilities are what make the U.S. armed forces such a powerful military. The United States;as superpower[superpower]United States has the ability to project military power to almost any part of the globe and can do so very quickly. The American military has bases throughout Europe–in Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom. It has bases in the Pacific–in Alaska, Hawaii, Singapore, Japan, and Australia. It even has permanent bases in the Middle East–in Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. Beyond bases, it has forces abroad in Bosnia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Hungary, Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and the former Yugoslavia. Even that is not a complete list of known bases and deployments. This worldwide presence gives the United States its unmatched ability to deploy troops far and wide; it is strategic planning at the highest level.

A robot designed to detect improvised explosive devices (IEDs), used by terrorists and other insurgents, in Afghanistan in 2005.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

How fast can the American military respond to international threats? Unfortunately, that information is not readily available. The U.S. military is understandably cautious about disclosing response times to international threats; however, some of the U.S. ability to deal with domestic threats has been announced. The U.S. government has stated that the Marine Corps is capable of deploying two platoons of soldiers anywhere in the United States within twenty-four hours, and then is able to support those Marines with another thousand soldiers within three days. Considering the size of the continental United States, twenty-four hours is quite a short amount of time. The use of this type of accelerated deployment domestically is a response to new threats.

The shock of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, terrorist attacksSeptember 11, 2001, sent a devastating message to the United States. Americans realized that, although they had little to fear from most conventional armies, they were still vulnerable. As in the case of the special unit of Marines mentioned above, the U.S. has invested heavily in research and development of tactics to deal with asymmetric warfare. In the search for viable counterstrategies to terrorism, the United States has developed ideas such as Network-centric warfare“network-centric warfare” and has invested billions in robotics and information technology.

One Roboticspursuit of the United States and other top-tier nations has been robotics. Used commonly in manufacturing, robots (robotic devices) have been examined by the military for their use in warfare. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have finally brought these science-fiction dreams into reality. Drone planesDrone airplanes, controlled by soldiers thousands of miles away, are a perfect example of the type of warfare one can expect to be increased in the future. Drone airplanes, and the robotic aides that accompany ground troops, mark a very interesting turning point in warfare. Many of the robots in service now are used to do jobs that are considered too dirty, too dangerous, or too demanding (the “three D’s”) for human soldiers. In using robots to locate and disarm Improvised explosive devicesimprovised explosive devices (IEDs), for example, robots have become human proxies; they are being used to limit the discomfort and danger of warfare. The impact of robots in the near future has not yet been fully conceived, however, and tough questions are already being asked. How do robots identify targets? What if the robot’s program fails to work and it attacks a friendly target? What if it sees a child with a gun? Although we are a long way from automated tanks and electronic super soldiers taking over for humans, the presence of robots on the battlefield increases daily, and their impact on warfare is changing the way that militaries assess threats.

China’s Military Capabilities

In China;twenty-first century militarystark contrast to the United States, China’s military seems powerful but slow. This is not a failing of the Chinese military People’s Liberation Army (China)People’s Liberation Army (PLA) but is in fact adherence to China’s central international policy: noninvolvement. Despite that ideology, China is beginning to emerge from its shell and is enhancing its capabilities for power projection. In mid-April of 2009, China celebrated its navy’s sixtieth anniversary. To mark the occasion, it brought out a great deal of its fleet on maneuvers. The fleet is composed of modern destroyers, submarines, and frigates. Although many Chinese citizens flocked to the highly publicized event, the maneuvers were not for the people’s entertainment; they were intended as a spectacle for the rest of the world to see.

China has the largest land army in the world, but it is still in the process of modernization. China announced that during the 2010’s it will focus on closely integrating its various military branches–a prerequisite for developing advanced strategic capabilities. China’s two international focuses are acquiring sources of oil and the reintegration of TaiwanTaiwan (the latter is considered a domestic issue by the People’s Republic). Although the United States pledges its continued support to Taiwan’s independence, if China decided to invade Taiwan, the conflict would be short and likely end in China’s favor, since China is fully capable of quickly pacifying the tiny nation. American support, however, keeps Taiwan’s independence a political and not a military issue. In January of 2007, China shot one of its own Satellites;Chinasatellites out of space. The action was a show of China’s military advances. Along with its own program to put more satellites into space, the satellite strike suggested that China is moving to become a player in the game of information warfare.

Network-centric Warfare

The Network-centric warfaregreatest technological advances have been in Intelligence gathering;twenty-first centuryinformation-gathering technology, not robotics. Since 1991, a great deal of the information and communication technology that the United States used to overpower Iraqi forces has become commercial technology: the Global Positioning SystemGlobal Positioning System (GPS), night-vision goggles, thermal imaging cameras, and satellite photographs of anywhere on Earth available over the Internet. Since these technologies are now widely available, advanced nations seek to gain further control over the flow of information. This information advantage forms the basis for network-centric warfare (sometimes referred to as “net-war”).

Freed from constant military threats, advanced nations like the United States, Russia, and China have turned their focus to dominating their opponents’ communications. Because of the incredible amount of information that is available from satellites, spy planes, and long-distance detection devices, a battle can be fought over hundreds of miles in multiple locations. The modern theater of engagement could include offshore batteries from miles away, tactical bombing and missile attacks from aircraft, indirect fire from mobile batteries, and enfolding tactics from soldiers behind enemy lines (deep striking). With modern technology, attacks can be synchronized and coordinated across an entire country.

The key theory in net-war is that the army that has the most information, and that is able to make best use of that information, is unbeatable–or, as stated in a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “[to be] able to penetrate the enemy’s decision making system and react so quickly that the opponent cannot compete.” In ages past, if a battlefield commander could find a key spot in battle from which to gain the advantage, that commander was said to have an “eye” for the battlefield. Now battlefields are so large that the only “eye” of any use is one from a satellite or aircraft.

Fourth-Generation Warfare and Nonconventional Threats

The Fourth-generation warfare[Fourth generation warfare]Nonconventional threatscapability for power projection via strategic warfare is what stands between many modern nations and a world-class army. Although some nuclear powers are not actively projecting power, they have the capabilities to do so. The second-tier nations listed above lack the resources or motivation to project power outside their region. These nations build up their militaries mainly for defense. Outside the major powers there are many large and powerful militaries. Most European countries are proud of their armed forces, as are nations like Turkey, Egypt, and South Korea.

Not everyone, however, is convinced that the robot revolution and net-centric warfare are the keys to modern military dominance. Fourth-generation warfare, or 4GW for short, is a theory that focuses on the changing nature of warfare. 4GW states that in the modern era we have passed the days of centralized warfare between well-organized armies, having moved into an era of warfare when armies fight against small cells of armed civilians. Fourth-generation warfare has its own critics, however, who point out that a new theory is not needed to explain Guerrilla warfare;twenty-first centuryguerrilla war tactics–which have been used for thousands of years. What the theory of fourth-generation warfare identifies is that we are moving into a period when conflicts between ideologies and inequalities are championed (or taken advantage of) by militant groups. Using modern technology, these militants are able to move quickly and communicate secretly. Military analysts point to conflicts like those in Vietnam, the wars in Afghanistan (both the 1979-1989 Soviet and the current U.S. attempts to pacify the area), and the current conflicts in Israel and Iraq to show the weakness of conventional armies. Therefore, modern militaries must adapt; they must become more flexible, more covert, and better able to handle a range of different threats. Instead of using a platoon of tanks to accomplish a mission, for example, they must use covert operations (“black ops”).

One great benefit of the 4GW theory is that it takes into account a wide range of capabilities and combatants. In fact, that range is the whole point of 4GW–it covers militants from African warlords to the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers. They are usually either loosely connected or not connected to traditional armies and fight for ideology, resources, or family or tribal groups instead of a national military. These groups are so small that they are infuriatingly difficult to pin down by conventional militaries. However, like traditional militaries, these sideline groups have evolved.

The West holds some stereotypes of nonconventional combatants: that they all use AK-47 machine guns, old Soviet RPG launchers (rocket-propelled grenades), and the infamous IEDs, or homemade bombs, to harass invaders. Due to constant news coverage and stories from the Middle East, most Americans would connect this type of warfare to extremist Muslim groups. The tales of Suicide bombingssuicide bombers have become all too commonplace on the nightly news. However, this type of fighting neither is confined to the Middle East nor represents the extent of these groups’ capabilities.

In New Face of War, The (Berkowitz) The New Face of War (2003), Berkowitz, BruceBerkowitz, Bruce Bruce Berkowitz describes a friend, a reporter, who bought a Computers computer from a pawnshop while covering the conflict in Afghanistan. The pieces for his new computer had all come from a PC that was looted when al-Qaeda forces were routed and pushed into the mountainous areas near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Recognizing his luck, the reporter sent the hard drive to a computer specialist to crack and retrieve the information. What he found on the hard drive was a plethora of plans and communications of incredible complexity. It should be understood that the terrorists who owned that computer represent the majority, and not the minority, of modern nonconventional threats. Echevarria, Antulio J.Echevarria, Antulio J. Antulio J. Echevarria, in her work Fourth-Generation War and Other Myths (Echevarria)[Fourth Generation War and Other Myths] Fourth-Generation War and Other Myths (2005), debunks the legitimacy of the 4GW theory, although she concedes that it is tempting to see new, nontraditional combatants as a brand-new and trendsetting threat simply because they are so far from the cave-dwelling nomads with AK-47’s that many believed they were.

Asymmetric Asymmetric warfaresoldiers have access to such a wide range of technology and are so mobile that they are able to strike almost anywhere. In his award-winning research on nuclear disarmament, Wilson, WardWilson, WardWard Wilson argues that Nuclear weapons and warfare;terrorismnuclear weapons are most useful to those (perhaps useful only to those) aiming to spread terror. Governments are justifiably worried about terrorist groups acquiring weapons of mass destruction. In the 1960’s the United States was forced to fight asymmetric warfare against national communists in Vietnam; however, the Vietnamese were incapable of striking at the American people. The situation has changed: In 2010, militaries and governments must prepare to fight a new breed of nonconventional opponent who is globally mobile and capable of massive attacks on civilians.

Militaries of today face the constant pressure of modernization and preparation. If there is any single military truth that has made its way through history and is unlikely to change soon, it is that militaries must constantly evolve. Not only are traditional militaries expanding their capabilities; even nonconventional military forces are expanding and adapting their strategies to gain the upper hand. This element adds a new level to an already difficult and expensive competition. Today the threat from the nonconventional opponents is perhaps the most pressing.

To meet these threats, foreign and domestic militaries will continue to adapt. They will buy more robots, build more ships, acquire new long-range cameras, piece together new tanks, and develop new tactics and technologies. The militaries will continue to evolve–as they must. The militaries of 2010 are our militaries of today; however, with phenomena like global reach, network-centric warfare, airplane drones, and combat robots, the capabilities of some advanced militaries embody our ideas of the future.Global military capabilitiesModern militariesArmies;twenty-first century

Books and Articles
  • Berkowitz, Bruce. The New Face of War: How War Will Be Fought in the Twenty-first Century. New York: Free Press, 2003. Investigates how information in warfare has changed the nature of combat in the twenty-first century.
  • Burke, Arleigh A. The Asian Conventional Military Balance in 2006: Overview of Major Asian Powers. Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2006. Presents detailed profiles of major Asian nations, as the region has become increasingly vital in the early twenty-first century.
  • Echevarria, Antulio J., II. Fourth-Generation War and Other Myths. Carlisle, Pa.: Strategic Studies Institute, United States Army War College, 2005. Discusses the idea of fourth-generation war: an insurgency that uses political, economic, social, and military pressure to convince an opponent nation that victory will cost more than it is worth.
  • Langton, Christopher. The Military Balance, 2002-2003. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. The major source book, presenting the relative strengths of the world’s armed forces, rebel groups, and other military forces.
  • Wilson, Ward. “The Myth of Nuclear Deterrence.” Nonproliferation Review 15, no. 3 (2008): 422-439. Investigates whether the strategy of nuclear deterrence actually was the preventive factor during the Cold War and whether or not it can work in the modern age, with the slow but steady proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Warfare in Iraq

Warfare in Afghanistan: The United States

The War on Terror

Warfare and the United Nations

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