A Brief History
On June 12, 1999, the next day after the end of the Kosovo War, some 250 Russian peacekeeping troops occupied the Pristina International Airport ahead of the arrival of NATO troops and were to secure the arrival of reinforcements over the air. American NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Wesley Clark ordered the use of force against the Russians. Mike Jackson, a British Army general who contacted the Russians during the incident, refused to enforce Clark’s orders, famously telling him, “I’m not going to start the Third World War for you.”
World War III is an unlikely scenario, although it may feel like it gets more likely every day. The globalizing economy and advancements in massively destructive weapons are strong deterrents to a pitched conflict between the world’s major military powers, but if an actual war were to happen, it is most likely that nobody would win. The damage to the earth and infrastructure of civilization would be so severe that it would be incredibly rough living for whoever survived; however, it is unlikely that a major war would completely extinguish humanity. So, even though choosing a winner might just be a matter of counting how many from each nation survive, somebody would come out on top. And they could call themselves winners, regardless of how bad life was after the war.
Let us set the state of things after World War III aside, and just try to determine who would be in the best position when the dust settled. The three superpowers in the world right now are the United States, China, and Russia. The UK would likely be an ally of the U.S. in a major war, but the UK alone does not have the military power to match any of the big three. Clearly, other nations would be involved in any world war; however, both the onset and the outcome would largely hinge on the capabilities and decisions of the three most powerful nations.
So, what are the capabilities and factors that would affect the course and outcome of World War III?
Sheer numbers are not everything; however, the number of people in a nation’s military matters. The U.S. has 1.3 million active duty troops, with another 865,000 reserve troops. It is not the largest of the world’s militaries, but it is a huge force. The United States also has the most global military presence. About 200,000 active U.S. military personnel serve in over 170 countries, which makes it difficult to surprise the U.S., and the response to military aggression is swift. It may not be a huge factor, but the U.S. citizenry is also one of the best armed in the world, and even commercially available firearms in the U.S. are capable. So, a mainland invasion of the United States could be a challenging proposition.
Russia has just over 1 million active personnel, with a massive pool of reserves. Supposedly, most of their reserves are ex-conscripts from the Soviet Union. Even so, their reserves total over 2 million troops. In total, Russia almost matches the U.S. for total forces; however, Russia’s global presence is much lower than the United States.
China has the largest military on earth. China has 2 million active duty members. The active portion of the Chinese military matches the total active and reserve numbers of the other major militaries in the world, but China has no reserve forces, which has ups and downs. They have more total forces to deploy from the onset of any conflict; however, there is nothing left if those are depleted. It’s not an issue if the forces are never depleted, though.
Navy and Air Force
Regardless of when World War III starts, the major nations are still separated by oceans. So, a nation’s ability to move forces and munitions across those oceans is a major factor in military effectiveness.
The U.S. Navy and air power are by far the most substantial in the world. The United States has 430 naval ships and over 13,000 aircraft in service. That is massive transportation and offensive power. Additionally, the U.S. has these ships and aircraft deployed and ready around the world.
By comparison, the Chinese navy has about 300 ships; however, if you include the Chinese coast guard and maritime militia, China could deploy about 650 vessels, but the coast guard and militia are generally defensive forces, although they could present an issue for an amphibious assault. Then, China has just over 3,000 aircraft in service. That is far fewer than the United States, which could be a big vulnerability if China relies on their air force for transportation or logistics.
Russia claims that they have more ships than the United States. Supposedly, it is true; however, the hard numbers are difficult to find. Also, the total tonnage of the Russian navy is less than that of the U.S. The best explanation is that Russia may have more ships, but they have few large vessels like aircraft carriers. In the air, Russia has just over 4,000 aircraft to deploy. Just like China, no match for the U.S. air power, which could be a vulnerability in Russia’s military.
Obviously, the sheer numbers do not tell the entire story. How well those forces are equipped, and how modern their supporting technology is a key factor in how effective a nation’s military is. It is difficult to get a good read on who’s got the best tech; however, military spending gives a good indicator of the resources a nation invests in updating their equipment, and developing and deploying new technology.
In terms of spending, the United States crushes everyone else. The U.S. plans to spend $989 billion on the military over the next year. This number easily crushes the military spending of every other country in the world. Nobody else even comes close.
In 2019, China’s official budget is 177.52 billion. Far below that of the United States and it shows. The best indications are that the Chinese military is not nearly as technologically advanced as the United States military.
Russia spends between $150 and $180 billion a year on defense. Their spending pretty much matches China; however, Russia has dedicated a large portion of their budget to development and upgrading their equipment; however, their total budget is so far below the United States that they likely won’t match the U.S. for some time, if they catch up at all.
Obviously, nuclear weapons cannot be ignored. Even if everyone agreed not to use nuclear weapons, nations might change their mind and start mashing the big red button if they started to lose the conventional ground war.
The total number of nuclear weapons in each country breaks down like this:
Nuclear weapons have gotten to the point that counting them is a rather fruitless exercise. Modern nuclear weapons are several thousand times as powerful as the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So, even China has enough to destroy most, if not all, of the earth.
If it came to nuclear warfare, it is likely to be mutually assured destruction. Again, nobody wins.
Who Would Win?
If the nukes were left out of it, it is most likely that the United States and its allies would win in a conventional war. The U.S. simply has the most developed and prepared military in the world right now, and would likely garner the support of other advanced nations like the UK, Germany, and other European countries.
China and Russia could join forces; however, both nations would likely attract fewer allies and the countries which allied with Russia and China would not be as militarily advanced as the U.S. allies.
So, although nothing is guaranteed, the U.S. and its allies would be the most likely victors of World War III, barring any major nuclear catastrophe.
Question for students (and subscribers): Do you think World War III will occur in your lifetime? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Ambrose, Stephen E., Caleb Carr, et al. The Collected What If? Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2006.
The featured image in this article, a map of sites in Kosovo and southern Central Serbia where NATO aviation used depleted uranium rounds during 1999 bombing, has been released into the public domain worldwide by PANONIAN, the copyright holder of this work.