The History of US Military Strength

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The United States military, prior to World War II, was actually pretty weak relative to the militaries of both our allies and adversaries.

A lot of this has to do with the public perception of the need for a “standing army.” A standing army, unlike a reserve army, is a permanent and professionally trained military body that is composed of full-time career soldiers who are not disbanded or dismissed during times of peace. For most of history, the United States for reasons that go beyond the scope of this answer, had no need for a standing army.

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Before we dive into the United States military as a whole, lets first look at the U.S. Army as a case study. At the start of WWII, the Army was made up of three primary components: the regular Army, the National Guard and the Reserves. The Army numbered 243,095 and was scattered in 130 posts, camps and stations. The National Guard was 226,837 strong and was equipped by individual states and received two weeks’ training each summer.

Soldiers parade after joint African, European and U.S. military exercise

Soldiers parade during the closing ceremony of a joint military exercise between African, U.S. and European troops in Saint Louis, Senegal, February 29. The U.S. has signed an agreement increasing access to facilities in the West African country. SEYLLOU/AFP/Getty Images

As a point of comparison, in 1940 at the start of WWII, the U.S. Army was smaller than Portugal’s army.

It’s also important to note that the citizen soldiers that made up the United States pre-war Army were hardly soldiers at all. Most trained for tw0 weeks a year in what could be described as a “summer camp”, where soldiers showed up to shoot at some targets and march around in formation. When judged by most criteria, the U.S. Army in 1940 was undertrained, lacked equipment and leadership, and was a threat to no one.

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So let’s fast forward from 1939 to 1945 at the end of WWII and expand our scope beyond just the U.S. Army. The United States military in its entirety (Army, Navy, Marine Corps) ballooned from 334,473 active duty and reservists to an astonishing 12,209,238 largely active duty soldiers, sailors, and marines. These troops were also highly professional, had experienced leadership, and had the largest quantities and the best quality of military equipment in the world.

In 1945, the entire population of the United States was 140 million. So from a raw numbers perspective, at the end of WWII roughly one in eleven individuals living in the United States was serving in a branch of the military. When you filter out eligible individuals for health reasons and age, an even higher percentage of able bodied young men were serving on active duty.

Today, the current military strength of the United States numbers around 1.3 million troops with another 865,000 in reserve. This number has fluctuated a lot over the years, mostly in relation to the number and intensity of active conflicts and in response to external threats.

In terms of raw numbers, our 1.3 million active duty troops makes the United States the third largest standing military in the world today (behind India’s 1.4m and China’s 2.2m active duty militaries). North Korea comes in a close fourth with 1.2 million active duty troops.

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It’s important to note, however, how little active duty troops weigh into a countries Military Strength Index, which weights the following criteria in a country's ranking of its overall military capabilities:

  • Number of active personnel in the army (5%)
  • Tanks (10%)
  • Attack helicopters (15%)
  • Aircraft (20%)
  • Aircraft carriers (25%)
  • Submarines (25%)

In that objective ranking, the United States today is the most powerful military force in the world, and we should not expect that ranking to change inside of the next several decades.

If you were to look past all of this data and focus on a pure spending perspective, the United States currently spends somewhere in the neighborhood of 3.5% of our GDP on defense (last year we spent $596 billion on our military). Compare that to the 41% of our GDP that was spent at the height of WWII.

So where does this leave us? The modern American military is technologically superior to any of our adversaries or allies. However, the American military at the conclusion of WWII was consuming nearly half of our Gross Domestic Product and included almost every able bodied man in the country. It was also backed by a thriving and largely unscathed manufacturing apparatus whereas most of the world at the time had been industrially decimated by war.

So to answer the question of whether or not our military is the strongest it has ever been, in conventional terms and adjusting for technological improvements and the introduction of nuclear weapons, no we are not at our strongest conventional military strength relative to other countries or to ourselves historically.

Is the US military currently the strongest it’s been in terms of world power, or was there a point when it was stronger, relatively speaking? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. More questions:

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