On the Irrelevance of Ranking Militaries
By Lorris Beverelli
The war in Ukraine surprised many commentors and analysts. There are notably two reasons why. The first one is the mere fact that Russia openly invaded and attacked Ukrainian territory which was not traditionally considered “pro-Russian.” The second one is the fact that the Russian military, which had been typically considered as the second most powerful military in the world, got bogged down, struggled even to make light advances, and eventually got repulsed, being forced to limit its operations to southeastern and eastern Ukraine.
How could the so-called second most powerful military on Earth fail so hard in Ukraine, despite facing armed forces with less soldiers and materiel? To answer this question, one must realize that accurately ranking military forces is nearly impossible, meaningless, and irrelevant. It could seem easy to rank military power: take the number of tanks, planes, armies, divisions, or brigades, and the modernity of the equipment. Compare it with any other military, and you have your ranking.
But this process is as inaccurate as it is irrelevant. Why? Because it fails to take into account one of the most – if not the most – crucial factor to assess the efficiency of a military: its political leadership. Indeed, what those rankings and people who believe such rankings forget or are unaware of, is that a military is inextricably linked to its political leadership. Indeed, it is the latter which defines the strategic goals to accomplish in a conflict, and to an extent the ways and means to do so. One obvious example is the Vietnam War. In this conflict, the United States clearly had a “better” military in terms of capabilities, compared to the Vietcong forces. Yet, the United States lost. One of the main reasons why is the poor political and strategic direction during this conflict.
Another critical reason why the United States lost was its inadaptability to counter-insurgency warfare. Which points to another critical factor that is essential to determine whether a military is efficient or not: its doctrine (the way in which the military will be employed in a given situation). A military might possess hundreds or thousands of tanks and planes, but if it does not know how to muster them efficiently, they will be of little use. For instance, France in 1940 was considered to be one of the most – if not the most – powerful militaries in the world. But its doctrine was ill-suited for the type of warfare that Germany imposed on it. It is one of the main reasons why France lost.
Similarly, military rankings typically fail to take into account tactical efficiency. An ill-suited doctrine largely bred tactical inefficiency for the French in 1940, but another example is the Arab-Israeli War of 1973. Despite vastly superior numbers, a two-front simultaneous attack, and strategic surprise, both Egypt and Syria failed to defeat Israel, mainly because of tactical inefficiency.
This is not an exhaustive list. Other factors, such as morale, should also be taken into account to evaluate a military, but are not considered by such rankings.
It should now make more sense as to why Russia has been struggling so much in Ukraine, despite the fact it is (or was) the “#2 military in the world.” Russia might have many soldiers, tanks, and planes, but if it has poor political leadership which failed to make a sound strategic analysis, is tactically inefficient, and has weak morale among many units, it is no surprise it has been faring so poorly against a military considered materially weaker, but which has been trained by NATO forces, is determined to fight for its homeland, and enjoys international support.
Ranking militaries might make some sense if war consisted in armies facing each other in an open field, with no cover and all their capabilities available and ready to strike – not unlike the times of Napoleonic warfare. But even then, it would still not be very relevant. War is not merely about killing or destroying – it is about achieving political goals by using the military tool (but not only) to the best extent possible to achieve such goals.
War is about translating tactical victories into strategic success. To do so, an effective military apparatus is obviously needed, but more importantly, a sound political leadership able to design a viable strategy and designate realistic strategic objectives. In a sense, an efficient political leadership is more important than an efficient military, because effective political leaders would recognize the weaknesses of their military and craft a strategy while taking such weaknesses into account. Mao during the Chinese Civil War demonstrated that. On the other hand, a very effective military deprived of good political leadership might become the victim of poor strategic planning, and ultimately be defeated, such as the German armed forces during the Second World War, to a certain extent.
As demonstrated, ranking a military makes little to no sense. The war in Ukraine is just one of the multiple evidence History has in stores to prove this statement. Russia might have the numbers but lacks critical factors to be an effective military worthy of its illusive position as the second most powerful military in the world.
The war in Ukraine, and the irrelevance of ranking militaries, should also be a warning to other countries, such as the United States: self-branding your own armed forces as the best military in the world, or even worse, the “finest military in the history of the world” is in essence misleading. It might be the case in terms of capabilities, but ultimately makes no sense. A military is only as good as its political leadership. Both conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq showed that. Branding yourself as the best or the strongest might constitute to an extent a sort of deterrent, but you might fall even harder in case of defeat – just as Russia has demonstrated in Ukraine.
 Jonathon Gatehouse, Albert Leung, “Ukraine has will, but Russia has might: How their military forces match up,” CBC, February 26, 2022, https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/ukraine-russia-military-comparison-1.6365115; Krishn Kaushik, “Explained: The military strengths of Russia and Ukraine, compared,” The Indian Express, February 24, 2022, https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-military-strengths-russia-ukraine-crisis-7788612/; Poppy Koronka, “The 20 Most Powerful Military Forces in the World,” Newsweek, August 24, 2021, https://www.newsweek.com/most-powerful-military-forces-world-america-china-russia-1621130.
 Élie Baranets, Comment perdre une guerre : Une théorie du contournement démocratique, Paris : CNRS Éditions, 2017, 117-233.
 Lorris Beverelli, “The Importance of the Tactical Level: The Arab-Israeli War of 1973,” The Strategy Bridge, 2019, https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2019/11/19/the-importance-of-the-tactical-level-the-arab-israeli-war-of-1973.
 Daniel Michaels, “The Secret of Ukraine’s Military Success: Years of NATO Training,” The Wall Street Journal, April 13, 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/ukraine-military-success-years-of-nato-training-11649861339; David Vergun, “DOD Leaders Say Training Ukrainian Forces is Paying Dividends,” U.S. Department of Defense, May 4, 2022, https://www.defense.gov/News/News-Stories/Article/Article/3020199/dod-leaders-say-training-ukrainian-forces-is-paying-dividends/; “Ukraine holds military drills with U.S. forces, NATO allies,” Reuters, September 20, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/business/aerospace-defense/ukraine-holds-military-drills-with-us-forces-nato-allies-2021-09-20/.
 Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, 183-86.
 Lorris Beverelli, “The Importance of the Strategic Level: Germany in the Second World War,” The Strategy Bridge, 2020, https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2020/4/7/the-importance-of-the-strategic-level-germany-in-the-second-world-war.
 For the quote, see The White House, Remarks by President Biden at the United States Naval Academy’s Class of 2022 Graduation and Commissioning Ceremony, May 27, 2022, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/05/27/remarks-by-president-biden-at-the-united-states-naval-academys-class-of-2022-graduation-and-commissioning-ceremony/; For other examples, see for instance The White House, Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, 2021, 6; General David Petraeus (Ret.), Michael E. O’Hanlon, “America’s awesome military,” Brookings, September 30, 2016, https://www.brookings.edu/research/americas-awesome-military/.