Image ID: E550J3 3d render of battle field with bullets on chess table on background with reflection. CREDIT: Denys Rudyi / Alamy Stock Photo
There is more to analysis of a military's capability than size and scale alone (Picture: Denys Rudyi / Alamy Stock Photo).

Why there's more to military capability than simply size and scale 

Image ID: E550J3 3d render of battle field with bullets on chess table on background with reflection. CREDIT: Denys Rudyi / Alamy Stock Photo
There is more to analysis of a military's capability than size and scale alone (Picture: Denys Rudyi / Alamy Stock Photo).

When Russia invaded Ukraine, the international community looked both inward and outward.

Hypothetically placing their nations' armed forces in Ukraine's shoes, civilians well-versed in cyber threat warnings became obsessed with the ability to defend against a kinetic attack. 

But observing Russia's failure to overwhelm Ukraine went a long way to prove that military capability is not solely dependent on size and scale.

Using data from the International Institute of Strategic Studies, here are three factors to consider when comparing military forces.

1. Training and combat experience

The size of the UK Armed Forces, particularly the shrinking British Army, is routinely highlighted. The latest data shows the UK as having the fifth largest number of active personnel in Europe (150,350) – behind Italy, Germany, France and, in first place, Turkey.

While Turkey boasts 355,200 active members, its use of conscription lowers the standard of its total figure – individuals liable to serve between six months to a year. Joining up as a British soldier – the initial Combat Infantry Course takes 28 weeks alone.

Another consideration is the operational experience of personnel within a fighting force. Some countries have played large, more frequent, or consistent roles in recent conflicts than others, including as part of coalitions in theatres such as Afghanistan.

While a country's low population age can point toward a larger number of recruitment-age individuals emerging each year, an older force is more likely to have been tested in combat.

Watch: What impact has the war in Ukraine had on European defence spending?

2. Geographical positioning and defence priorities

Where a country sits on a map can help explain some of the numbers underpinning its military strength. The UK's status as an island gives it an immediate layer of defence, compared to bordered nations.

France only tops the UK's naval manpower by 900 personnel, but its army possesses 31,350 more troops.

A proportionally greater emphasis on land power can be at least partially explained by mainland France bordering eight sovereign states – Germany, in particular.

Russia's defence posture can be explained by its own position and the strengths of others.

Moscow's large availability of artillery systems (4,500 listed within the army) shown in the conflict with Ukraine can be traced back to its shared borders with Nato applicants and members, as well emerging military players like China and, to a lesser extent, North Korea.

Russia succeeds in exporting its surface-to-air missile (SAM) launchers internationally and possesses more than double (2,650) non-ship-based SAMs than the United States.

This particular expertise and investment sits alongside an acknowledgment that it does not have the air-to-air power to match the US in the skies.

Watch: A comparison of British and Russian main battle tanks.

3. Age and performance of equipment

When looking at paint-by-numbers equipment reports, research the spec of the technology before passing judgement.

Of more than 150 selected tactical fighter, fighter-ground attack and dedicated attack aircraft, the UK had almost 130 ranked as 'modern' – more than 20 labelled 'advanced'.

Greece has almost 250 of the selected combat planes in question, although fewer than 20 are considered 'modern' and the rest are deemed to be 'ageing'.

At a glance, France has around 230, although almost 100 of these are 'ageing' and none are considered 'advanced'.

The modernity of combat aircraft may even reveal how outnumbered a pilot can afford to be in a hypothetical dogfight, with leaps in stealth technology from 4th to 5th generation fighter jets improving survivability.

While Russia's Aerospace Forces possess 1,153 'combat capable' aircraft, only six '5th generation' Su-57 Felon fighters had been supplied to Russia by September 2022. Meanwhile, the US Air Force alone possesses almost 350 F-35A aircraft.

Finally, budget figures should also be considered carefully. The amount a country commits to its defence department does not necessarily go hand in hand with its combat performance.

The UK's ambition to project 'soft power' and post-Brexit influence in the Indo-Pacific was underpinned by a carrier strike deployment of a £3bn aircraft carrier in 2021, with only two offshore patrol vessels left to patrol the region today. Potential trade deals, as well as shared security goals, were motivating factors behind the move.

Sustained funding for over-running and under-performing vehicle procurement programmes can fatten security spending in the UK, which also chooses to manufacture much of its own kit rather than buy from abroad.

Meanwhile, the US pours millions of dollars into developing novel technologies each year, with no guarantee they would ever make an appearance in combat.

As the predominant Western military force, it also bears much of the responsibility to lead the way on vital programmes – currently in an expensive race with China and Russia to obtain hypersonic missiles.

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