NATO: When identifying and comparing armies in the world, it is common to think of the United States and Russia, which have the two most powerful armed forces by a long margin, and then it is customary to mention nations with huge populations or resources – or both, like China and India – to keep up with small technologically advanced countries like Israel or Taiwan. Founded in 1949 to counter the Soviet Union’s land-based military might in post-World War II Europe, NATO has had a long and contentious history, marked by internal debates about its role and almost constant expansion.
Recently, it became the center of one of Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s arguments to justify his invasion of Ukraine, alleging that the joining of NATO in recent years by a posse of former Soviet and Eastern European countries formerly under Moscow’s orbit was a threat to Russia, and he would not let the same happen to Ukraine. NATO was not going through its best moment —there were discussions among its members about its role— but after the invasion, it tried to close ranks: it coordinated its response as an organization and in support of Ukraine, it opened the doors to Sweden and Finland —to which it was Turkey opposes —to start the process of admission and even Germany, one of its main members, announced a significant increase in its military spending after years of lag.
NATO’s military might
NATO is made up of 30 countries (28 Europeans and 2 North Americans) and is a very varied group: from the gigantic United States, the world’s leading economy and home to some 330 million people, to the depopulated Iceland, an island in the middle of the Atlantic with just over 300,000 inhabitants, and the tiny Luxembourg and Montenegro.
But its members include some of the most powerful and capable—and historically relevant—military forces in the world. According to the Global Firepower Index, among the 15 most powerful armies in the world, there are 5 from NATO: the United States (1st), France (7th), the United Kingdom (8th), Italy (11th), and Turkey (13th).
Germany is in 16th place, but this is partly due to its lagging behind in military spending in recent decades, something that the government of Chancellor Olaf Scholz said it will try to remedy in the coming years. When the decision hits, it is expected that the country – the fifth global economy and a key player in the defense industry – will move up several places on the list. In addition, NATO members include three countries with nuclear arsenals – the United States, France, and the United Kingdom – of the nine currently in the world that have these weapons of mass destruction. These three countries are also permanent members —with veto power— of the UN Security Council.
These are NATO’s most powerful forces
*According to the 2022 Military Balance of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Global Firepower, and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute ( SIPRI )
It is the main military power in the world, with more than 1.3 million members in its Armed Forces, some 13,200 aircraft, 6,600 tanks, and 484 warships, including 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, dozens of destroyers, and submarines. In addition, it has some 5,550 nuclear warheads (deployed and stored), a figure equaled only by Russia, and the largest military expenditure in the world, valued at some US$777 billion.
The French Armed Forces have 203,000 soldiers, in addition to 1,055 aircraft, 406 tanks, and 180 warships, including a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle (only France and the United States currently master this technology). France’s nuclear arsenal totals 290 warheads, and its military spending is about $60 billion.
NATO’s third-largest nuclear power has an expanding stockpile of 225 nuclear warheads and military spending of some $71 billion. Its Armed Forces also have 153,000 members, 693 planes, 227 tanks, and 75 warships, including two large aircraft carriers, the Queen Elizabeth class.
The Bundeswehr, the German Armed Forces, has 183,000 members, operating 617 aircraft, 266 tanks, and 80 warships of all kinds. Its military spending stands at about $56bn, according to IISS, but this is expected to rise in coming years following announcements by the Scholz government to raise the total by 2022 to $105bn.
The Italian Armed Forces have some 161,000 members, in addition to 862 aircraft, 200 tanks, and 184 warships. The military expenditure of this Mediterranean country is about US$ 33,000 million, according to IISS.
Other countries within NATO have significant numbers of personnel in their Armed Forces, according to IISS. Such is the case of Greece (143,400), Spain (122,850), Poland (114,050), Romania (71,500) and Bulgaria (36,950).
The total number
Counting the troops and equipment of only these six countries, the most powerful among the 30 NATO members, the Alliance has some 2,355,000 active soldiers, 17,400 planes, 10,700 tanks, and 1,159 planes, in addition to 6,065 nuclear warheads . It would be the most formidable military force on the planet, but only on paper: the bulk of this power is still in the United States, an ocean away from Europe, where NATO’s main security problems are located. Moreover, it is not the same homogeneous army, but rather a set of armed forces separated by language, culture, and capabilities.
But there is an entity that, as a whole, accumulates more military power —at least on paper— than any country in the world: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which is holding a summit on June 29 and 30 in Madrid.