The Incredible, Shrinking Modern Military

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For developed countries, militaries are smaller, more sophisticated and more expensive than ever.

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A U.S. Predator drone flies over the U.S.S. Carl Vinson. (Reuters)

While military forces have grown ever more sophisticated, their size and density have been on the decline for decades. In 1939, before the outbreak of World War II, the French navy boasted seven battleships, one aircraft carrier, seven heavy cruisers, 12 light cruisers, 78 destroyers, and 81 submarines. Today, France, with the world's fourth-largest defense budget, has a core fighting fleet consisting of one aircraft carrier, four amphibious ships, 12 frigates, and six attack submarines.

In 1842, Britain fielded 14,000 soldiers for the Battle of Kabul, while at the same time having enough reserve manpower to police an empire on which the sun never set. In 2012, with the U.K. still having the fifth-largest defense budget and not much of an empire, senior British military leaders have repeatedly told the British public, the political leadership in London, and anyone else who cares to listen that the deployment of a mere 8,000 British soldiers to Afghanistan on a sustained basis is almost breaking the force.

In the 1950s, the United States built over 9,000 F-86 Sabres, a key fighter aircraft in the US and allied inventories during the early Cold War period. About half as many F-16s were built in the 1970s. Today, the F-35 is touted to be the next front-line fighter for the United States, as well as for America's friends and allies across the world. It is likely that no more than 3,000 will ever be built, a two-thirds reduction in comparison to the F-86.

One reason for the shrinkage of the modern military is cost. Fielding fully-capable state of the art armed forces is expensive. Ever more exquisite and sophisticated weapons, systems, and platforms demand a growing share of a country's defense budget, crowding out other priorities and reducing the number of systems and platforms a government can buy. But the explanation isn't limited to the defense-industrial sector. The manpower required to man, maintain, service, arm, and upgrade these expensive machines is also an expensive outlay. Across the developed world, conscripted forces have gone by the wayside in favor of volunteer professionals who, unlike their historical predecessors, are required to be able to understand, operate, and maintain a dazzling array of technology.

It cost the U.S. army roughly $2,600 in today's dollars to equip a rifleman during World War II. Today, the number is close to $20,000.

A well-equipped Western soldier of today is not only required to be able to operate his basic weapon and other bits of traditional soldiering gear. He also is expected to be able to be proficient in the use of advanced weapon sights, GPS devices, handheld computers, and night-vision goggles. Platoon leaders in Western militaries (usually people in their early 20s not long out of college) are responsible for weapons, equipment, and vehicles worth tens of millions of dollars.

The numbers behind these trends are stark. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, it cost roughly $2,600 in today's dollars to equip a rifleman during World War II. Today, the number is close to $20,000. Infantry equipment currently under development for the near-future force will inflate the price tag to close to $60,000 per rifleman.

In order to attract and retain enlisted soldiers and officers capable of handling the demands placed on them by the ever-increasing sophistication of their weapons, machines, vehicles, and systems, the militaries of the West are forced to offer competitive wages and benefits. Indeed, even a very quick glance at the U.S. military's pay chart reveals that, based on education and experience levels, modern soldiering is far from a low-paying job. The benefits offered to U.S. service members (such as housing allowance, medical, child care, retirement, etc.) would be considered generous indeed in the civilian workforce. As a result, the health care and retirement benefits of the Department of Defense are projected to skyrocket in the coming decades.The point here is not that the members of the military are overpaid, just that attracting and retaining the manpower required to operate the ever more sophisticated equipment and platforms of the military comes with an increasingly high price tag.

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Magnus Nordenman is deputy director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council. 

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