To conclude on the basis of numbers only is easy, and the result is equally easy to present convincingly with the support of graphs.
However, anybody who humbly bothers to include just a fraction of the relevant strategic and military history soon realise that purely quantitative analysis is meaningless and dangerous as a basis for political decisions on security policy.
In order to establish a more solid basis for policy and strategy, one has to use and apply the knowledge and insight of relevant professionals, even if this calls for both hard work learning new stuff. And it takes humility.
The current West European view of present Russian warfare still has a relaxed and facile head-in-the-clouds-or-sand character. It is dangerous in its easy observations of Russian backwardness and crudeness of tactics.
It apparenty remains based on the amateurish view that comparisons of official budget input and status in the form of basic bean counting of equipment numbers are both relevant and sufficient in the estimate of military power and related options.
It assumes that we have learn and assimilated the lessons of the present war as well as the Ukrainians and that the Russians cannot learn anything.
Russian strategic resilience may be limited, but a good strategy is not based on optimistic hope
All this seem to be considered unchallengeable realities and is constantly promoted by shallow political scientists, busy journalists, “military analysts” uncritically echoing each other as well as parroting politicians.
This guide is for those who are willing to face the complex and unpleasant reality. It will not and cannot present any exact result. It can just offer an approach to gain the essential deeper insight.
The first step is to define the geographical focus (such as the Baltic-Nordic Region or Ukraine/South-Western Russia within the general European “theatre” of potential conflict) and to accept that military power unfortunately has very little to do with the amount of money spent.
Large amounts of money as well as sorely needed intellectual energy is wasted on:
1) running small and large base complexes for reasons rather unrelated to military power
2) paying salaries for a large number of officers without any recent practical experience and relevant knowledge of or interest in their profession or even their branch speciality
3) paying salaries to a large number of other ranks as well as civilians with no operational or relevant operational support role, many too old to contribute anything, people with no wish to learn or subordinate themselves to the military profession
4) paying salaries to underemployed full-time personnel in positions where a contract or even drafted reservist would be the better choice
5) supporting education systems that actually undermine military professionalism by seeking empty theoretical academic credits
6) supporting expensive employment and working hour contract systems that are incompatible with maintaining effective forces
7) implementing New Public Management and similar civilian fads that undermine the essential clear link between authority and responsibility for advice and implementation
8) maintaining elements of force structures only or mainly relevant for national prestige, anti-terrorism, ceremony or peace time work (such as fishery inspection, gendarme work, etc.)
9) covering pensions for retired military personnel without any reserve function in the armed forces’ budget
10) covering the cost of the veteran support system in the armed forces’ budget
11) covering costs of outsourcing driven by liberal ideology that create dependence on support structures without any military potential (because they are not deployable reserve structures)
12) covering costs of a general state rescue service rather than only the extra civil defence capabilities relevant in war
13) covering costs of the general state cyber defence organisation rather than only cyber defence and offence capabilities needed in joint and combined arms operations.
There may be perfectly good political reasons for all these budgeting choices, but most are irrelevant in a military balance analysis and some even detract from the military effect of the money spent. Military capability can only be measured with a focus on the combination of quantity and quality of the output. Focus on the ressource input breeds waste and loss of professionalism.
On the other side some states such as Russia and China fund large and capable para-military forces with war-time security roles outside the defence budget.
Basically the budgets should be ignored in the analysis of relative power, because the total input necessary to produce the same military effect may be several times larger in one state than in another.
This is not easy to achieve when the U.S. has focused on the fellow NATO member states’ commitment to spend 2 % of the GDP on defence (that has led to a creative industry to transfer other budget post to defence).
The second step is to accept that simple “bean counting” of the two sides’ number of combat aircraft, tanks, submarines, artillery weapons, etc. is nearly as irrelevant, because it ignores:
1) the availability (with fully trained operating crews, available and trained support crews, spare parts, ample stocks of key weapons such as precision munition, etc.)
2) whether fully modernised/updated (if not, it has very limited general use and cannot be counted in a comparison)
The third step is to understand whether all forces of a country would be available in the potential theatre of confrontation/war (U.S. forces committed to the now highest priority Pacific-East Asia Region cannot be counted as NATO forces for European operations as China and North Korea are likely to use any crisis in Europe to move positions forward … or worse)
Numbers are not irrelevant if all things are equal: the equipment similar, crew standards were comparable, leadership and doctrine at same quality level and the situation symmetrical (including a disputed control of the air space), however that is hardly ever the case, especially before extended fighting enhances harmonisation.
The initial part of the fourth and decisive step is to identify the numbers and availability of the force elements that should be counted as the main building stones of military power:
1) On land the relevant output to be counted is the number of basic army formations (brigades)
2) At sea the relevant output is the exercised potential for creating mixed naval task groups that are clearly balanced in composition for the analysed deployment area (with robust command-and-control systems, long range surveillance and warning, mine counter-measures, anti-submarine, long range anti-ship as well as appropriate air and missile defence systems)
3) The relevant air power element to be counted is the number of fully capable composite air combat wings that can be organised from the national air forces (with command-and-control, long range air-to-air, effective electronic and other means for suppressing enemy air defences and a mix of precision and area weapons against ground targets)
Your have to accept that the key to any sound analysis is to concentrate on the comparison of output in the form of fundamentally similar force elements available in the relevant potential theatre of conflict.
However, such a counting and comparison of the number of such force packages is not sufficient. The follow-on analysis is at least as essential and includes e.g. answering the questions that requires the professional insight that is ignored for very good reasons by “experts” that can’t have it:
1) Is the force element well-balanced for the mission? Does it have the necessary combat elements, flexible and robust command and control elements, indirect, long range fire systems with integrated reconnaissance elements (if surface forces), robust area and point air defence systems including against drones, engineer support (if land or air units), full and flexible logistic systems, and with resilience and redundancy created by personnel and equipment replacement systems. If not balanced, the force is only a facade usable for bluff.
2) Has the command cadre and the full units been exposed to a realistic and demanding, free-play training and exercise regime and the cadre thereafter been trimmed deliberately on the basis of practical performance to enhance quality? This may be quantified by counting the frequency, length and peace-time limitations of exercises ranging from fully scripted, one type, generic scenario, command post, computer supported exercises at one end of the spectre to unscripted, free-play troop exercises within changing mission scenarios and with deliberate elements bringing disruption of plans to increase friction and realism. Only the latter type of exercises can add significantly to force combat readiness.
3) Does the command philosophy encourage flexibility in execution?
4) Are one side’s forces deliberately handicapped in relation to availability of means (such as cluster ammunition, anti-personnel mines, thermobaric weapons)?
5) Are one side’s forces handicapped in the level of integration and range of indirect fire weapons?
6) Are one side’s forces handicapped by inferiority in key technical fields such as cyber warfare or electronic warfare (e.g. in the air defence/offensive air operations field)?
Even forces such as mechanised brigades that are more or less similar in manning, equipment and technological level can be fundamentally different in de facto capabilities. If one brigade has been through a rigorous, realistic two-year exercise programme and have weeded out inefficient leaders and other cadre and the other brigade has just maintained a peace-time activity level, the second formation simply does not have a military capability. It is just another waste of state funds.
It is important to accept that some forces cannot be directly included in the force comparison for a specific part of the potential conflict theatre such as large oceanic surface and submarine naval warfare units in the Baltic Sea, Black Sea and East European operational context. The same applies to the general nuclear forces of Britain, France, Russia and the U.S.
In the force comparison it is essential to accept that multinational land forces with mix at brigade or lower levels are as militarily ineffective as they may be effective as a symbol of political solidarity.
Due to language, equipment and training differences and diplomatic politeness they must be considered military Potemkin Villages if the bluff is called.
One final element: In relation to land forces it is essential to underline the fundamental operational handicap of the defender. It can only be balanced by preparations such as deep systems of obstacles to movement and concrete reinforced defence positions such as those now created by both the Ukrainians and Russians in the current war.
Normally we think that a defending unit can defeat an attacking force 2-3 times as large. This, however, assumes that the attacker must attack frontally, that no side has a clear artillery advantage, and that neighbouring units are in place to prevent the defender being bypassed. With fully developed defences and obstacles, the defending force can defeat a far larger force than one double or trippel its strength.
However, if there is no deep preparation of the terrain for defence such as in the Kharhiv Oblast last September, a mobile force inferior in size can defeat a numerically superior defending force. Land combat forces do not have the mobility of air and naval forces to concentrate and engage the enemy where and when he emerges.
With a couple of thousand kilometres of threatened sectors on the European eastern border, the side with the freedom to choose the time and places of invasion needs far fewer forces than the defender that have to screen all possible sectors and therefore will have significant forces deployed in sectors that prove to be irrelevant. A brigade or battalion can only screen a limited sector of threatened border and defend even less.
When I read text comparing forces, I see a strong tendency to ignore the fact of geographical dispersal and the requirement to chose where to deploy. It is as if the commentator believes that the two sides will be forced to commit their forces to meet the opposite number in a direct, frontal fight as if in the stricts confines of a medieval tournament. This is of course rubbish. Both sides will seek to outmanouver the opponent and the side in offensive has by far the best chances to achieve this.
A platoon to company detachment blocking a road will be destroyed by artillery in minutes and only the quality of any obstacles will create delay. A well-equipped and led battalion with engineer elements, robust air defence and long range artillery support can hold a frontage of around five kilometres with one major road for some hours. If no neighbours, it will thereafter be forced to withdraw or be bypassed and destroyed. A brigade can cover 2-3 times that frontage and two major roads.