A brief introduction to the U.S. military: Its structure, size and cost

armedforces2The military is composed of four[1] different services: Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force. The Army primarily handles war on the ground, the Navy on the sea, the Marines which are responsible for amphibious warfare, and the Air Force which is self-explanatory. There is a lot of overlap in what each service does. All of them have their own air forces, intelligence services, boats, and ground troops. The bulk of the Air Force’s combat ground troops are responsible for defense of air bases; it also has Special Forces units. The Navy’s ground troops are primarily the Marine Corps, although it too has Special Forces units, most famously the SEAL[2] teams like the one which killed Osama Bin Laden.

The military is subject to civilian control. While the president is the commander-in-chief, the Department of Defense[3] is directly responsible for overseeing the military and is run by the Secretary of Defense. Under him are the secretaries of the Navy, Army and Air Force, which are responsible for oversight of those services.

At the top of the military command structure are the chiefs of staff for the Army and Air Force, the chief of Naval Operations, and the Commandant of The Marine Corps. They also serve as the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the committee gives advice on military matters to the President, the Secretary of Defense, the Homeland Security Council and the National Security Council. They all have the top rank in their respective services: For the Army, Air Force and Marines that is a General and for the Navy it is an admiral.

People in the military serve as either officers or enlisted personnel.[4] In simple terms enlisted personnel have to do things while officers have to make sure things get done. All officers outrank and may give orders to all enlisted men and women. Officers are a little like the executives at a company in that they supervise and come up with plans for what is to be done, if not always how to do it. The chief difference is that officers are regularly required to do the same job as the enlisted. For example a lieutenant (which is the lowest grade of officer in the Army, Air Force or Marines) in command of ground troops in combat is also a fighter[5] and not merely there to supervise. Nearly 84 percent of military personnel are in the enlisted ranks and about 16 percent are officers.[i]

  • Just 16% are female, while 84% are male. In comparison, 53.1 percent of the U.S. civilian work force 16 years old and over was female in 2012. The Air Force has the largest percentage of female Service members (18.9%); the Marine Corps has the smallest (7.0%).
  • Of the 238,861 Active Duty officers, 38,574 (16.1%) are female and 200,287 (83.9%) are male.
  • Of the 1,149,167 Active Duty enlisted personnel, 164,302 (14.3%) are female and 984,865 (85.7%) are male.
  • People who identify themselves as White represent the largest proportion of the total DoD force (71.9%), while Black or African American members represent 16.2 percent. Asian, American Indian or Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander members make up 3.5 percent, 1.3 percent, and 0.9 percent, respectively. Over two percent (2.1%) of members report themselves as Multi-racial.
  • Overall, 52.6 percent people serving in the military are married. In comparison, 53.5 percent of the civilian population was married, according to the United States Census.
  • Approximately 44 percent (43.9%) of Active Duty members have children.
  • Overall, Active Duty officers have a higher level of formal education than the civilian population. As of 2012, the majority of officers (82.4%) have a Bachelor’s or advanced degree, while, ionly 30.9 percent of the U.S. population age 25 and over did. Most Active Duty enlisted members have at least a high school diploma (98.9%), which is higher than the percentage of the U.S. civilian population age 25 and over that had at least a high school diploma (87.6%).
  • In 2012, the Active Duty civilian spouse unemployment rate was 25 percent, compared to 26 percent in 2010.


3rd Infantry Regiment 'The Old Guard'

There are 1,477,000 people on active duty in the U.S. military. That makes it the second largest military in the world. China, whose population is four times larger than ours, has 2,285,000 people in its military.

The Army is the largest part of the U.S. military with 561,437 people on active duty; the Air Force is second with 328,821; then the Navy with 320,141; and finally the Marine Corps with 201,026.[ii]

If all we had was the Army we would still have the ninth largest military in the world. The Marine Corps[6][iii] alone is the 26th largest military force in the world, bigger than Israel’s armed forces and only slightly smaller than those of the U.K.[iv]

That’s only counting the active members: men and women whose full-time job is serving in the military. There are also about 424,000 people in the military reserves and another 461,000 in the National Guard.[7] The increasing number and duration of our wars – the 2nd Iraq War lasted 13 years and the war in Afghanistan will soon enter its 14th year – means the Guard and Reserves are being called upon much more than previous wars[8] with many units deployed multiple times to the war zones. So the total force available within a short period of time is closer to 2,400,000 people. China has about 800,000 people in its military reserves so its total is about 3,000,000 people.[v]


The Pentagon has:

  • 13,600 aircraft. The most of any military in the world and about as many as the next five nations’ militaries combined. The U.S. air fleet includes 2,300 fighters, as many as the next three nations combined; 2,600 bombers, also as many as the next three nations combined; 5,000 transport aircraft, as many as the combined total of the next 10 nations; and 915 attack helicopters, more than the rest of the entire world combined.
  • 8,300 tanks; the third most in the world, about half of what the Russia has and around 1,000 fewer than the Chinese.
  • 26,000 armored fighting vehicles which are used primarily to move infantry into combat. That’s about 1,500 fewer than Russia and 2nd most in the world.
  • 473 ships and boats, making it the third largest navy in the world.[vi]

That last is a deceptive number because there is little if any doubt that the U.S. Navy is the most powerful of any nation. Just consider that the largest navy (1,061 ships and boats) belongs to North Korea and most if not all of those are built to operate in the country’s coastal waters. The 2nd largest navy, 520 ships, belongs to China a nation which some consider a possible military threat to the U.S. It is worth noting China currently has only one aircraft carrier.[9] Also, China’s 30 or so attack submarines are diesel fueled[vii], so they must be refueled regularly either by returning to port or meeting up with a supply ship while at sea. As a consequence they are really only useful in coastal waters. America’s 43 attack subs are nuclear powered providing them with a virtually endless power supply – so they can go anywhere in the world and are much, much faster than any non-nuclear powered submarines.

In order to really understand the power of the Navy consider that it has:

  • 10 aircraft carriers[10]. The rest of the world combined has 12. The nation with the second most is Italy. It has two.
  • 61 destroyers – the primary attack ship for a navy – more than any other nation. In second place, with 45, is our long-time ally Japan.

Then there are nuclear weapons. The U.S. and Russia are effectively tied for first when it comes to nuclear warheads. Each has around 4,300 total either operational or in reserve.[viii] In second and third place are France (290) and China (250).


US mil spending

For the fiscal year 2015 the official budget for the Department of Defense was $495 billion. That half trillion dollars is the base budget and is what people usually mean when they refer to the military budget. However it doesn’t include all the money spent on the military. In 2015 the U.S. also spent $85.4 billion[ix] for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) [11] to pay for the wind-down of the War in Afghanistan. Another $178.4 billion was allocated under different budget items for defense-related agencies and functions, including

  • $65.3 billion for the Veterans Administration
  • $45.6 billion for intelligence agencies not run by the military (Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, National Reconnaissance Office, National Geospatial-Intelligence Program)
  • $11.7 billion for the National Nuclear Security Administration in the Department of Energy

Added together the total military budget is $693.6 billion. That makes the total military spending the second largest Federal government expenditure, after Social Security ($896 billion). Military spending has been dropping over the past several years thanks to sequestration and the end of the War in Iraq in 2011. Its all-time high was $851.3 billion in FY 2010.[12][x] Military spending is greater than Medicare ($529 billion), Medicaid ($331 billion), or the interest payment on the debt ($251 billion). It’s also more than the three next largest departments combined: Health and Human Services ($73.1 billion), Education ($68.6 billion) and Housing and Urban Development ($32.6 billion).

world mil spending 2012It is also more than any other nation. In fact it is as much as the military budgets of the nations with the 2nd through 13th largest militaries combined.

Some comparisons:

  • US military spending accounts for 39 percent, or almost two-fifths of the world’s total military spending
  • US military spending is almost 4 times more than China, about 8 times more than Russia, and nearly 70 times more than Iran.
  • The United States and its strongest allies (the NATO countries, Japan, South Korea and Australia) spend approximately $1.2 trillion on their militaries in total, representing more than 70 percent of the world’s total spending on the military. [xi]
  • In 2011 the Pentagon spent $20.2 billion on much needed air conditioning for service members in Iraq in Afghanistan. That was one-third of the United Kingdom’s entire defense budget for that year[xii] and $1.8 billion more than the entire budget of NASA.[13]

It is quite clear that what the U.S. military needs is not more money but the ability to use the money it has more effectively.

That will be the subject of my next blog post.


[1] Sometimes five – the Coast Guard, which is currently part of the Department of Homeland Security, serves as both a law enforcement agency and a military force. When a war is declared the Coast Guard can become part of the Navy. The Coast Guard has been deployed to war zones during World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the first and second Iraq wars.

[2] The name is an acronym for SEa, Air, Land.

[3] It is also referred to as DoD and the Pentagon, which is the name and shape of its headquarters building. Until 1947 DoD was called the Department of War, a more accurate name.

[4] There is a very small third group called warrant officers. These are enlisted personnel who have extensive expertise in a specific area – like piloting or surgery or even being a chaplain – and are in jobs that require the authority of an officer. Warrant officers outrank all enlisted personnel and are outranked by all officers.

[5] The Department of Defense refers to people who serve in front-line, combat jobs as “war fighters.” Was someone concerned the troops would not know what type of fighting they were supposed to be doing?

[6] The Marines are the only part of the military to have a minimum size determined by law. In the Marine Corps bill of 1952 the size was set at three divisions, three air wings and supporting forces. This law protects the Marine Corps, which does many of the same things the Army does, from being eliminated or severely cut in size — something that was regularly proposed by members of Congress seeking to reduce government spending.

[7] Don’t feel bad if you don’t know the difference between the National Guard and Reserves, many people don’t – including people serving in them. The National Guard has a dual state-federal mission. This means it is normally under the command of the state government but the President can activate it and put it under Federal command. The Guard can be called up for domestic purposes: Providing aid in the event of national disasters and supplementing or replacing local law enforcement authorities. Federal troops, like the reserves, are forbidden by law from performing domestic law enforcement. Each state has both an Air and Army National Guard, which go thru the same training and have the same basic equipment as the active (regular) Air Force or Army. The Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Reserves, in contrast, are solely a federal component of their respective military branches and have no domestic responsibilities. Both the Guard and Reserves can be called up for service in wars – declared or otherwise.

[8] During The Vietnam War, which lasted 19* years, only about 9000 members of the Guard were deployed to Vietnam. This was because of the draft which provided a constant flow of new soldiers to the Army. *Officially the government says the war lasted 14 years, from February 1961 to May 1975. However U.S. personnel had been involved in the war starting in 1955. The first American soldier killed in the Vietnam War was Air Force T-Sgt. Richard B. Fitzgibbon Jr. He is listed by the U.S. Department of Defense as having a casualty date of June 8, 1956.

[9] They bought it used from Russia. A lot of noise is being made about the fact that China looks to be building an aircraft carrier and that this is a threat to the U.S. Much of that noise is made by groups which will gain from increased military spending – military officers, companies which make weapons systems and the members of Congress which represent the places those companies are based in.

[10] The U.S. Navy is a carrier-focused operation. Whether this is a good idea is very debatable. They are incredibly expensive and are increasingly vulnerable to less costly munitions. See The U.S. Navy’s Big Mistake: Building Tons of Supercarriers.

[11] For OCO spending back to 2001, see War on Terror Facts

[12] Unlike the amount I put forth as the total U.S. spending this does not include spending on the VA, intelligence agencies and nuclear security.

[13] Since the U.S. Civil War the American way of conducting was has been to outspend and out produce whomever it is at war against. This has succeeded in the Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II and the Korean War. It has failed in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. It is difficult to see how it will succeed against ISIS or the government of Syria.

[14] On the Democratic side only Sen. Sanders has said anything definite on the topic, calling for “a major reform” on military spending. Gov. O’Malley has pretty much avoided the issue and Sen. Clinton wants to appoint a panel to examine the issue.

[i] Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Military Community and Family Policy), 2012 Demographics: Profile of the Military Community

[ii] [ii] Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Military Community and Family Policy), 2011 Demographics: Profile of the Military Community,

[iii] Shaping U.S. Military Forces: Revolution Or Relevance in a Post-Cold War World, Duane Robert Worley, Greenwood Publishing, 2006, P 19

[iv] http://www.globalfirepower.com/active-military-manpower.asp

[v]  Why The Chinese Military Is Only A Paper Dragon, The Week, 9/24/2014

[vi] http://www.globalfirepower.com

[vii] Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2013 Office Of The Secretary Of Defense

[viii] http://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/Nuclearweaponswhohaswhat

[ix] OMB, FY 2015 Budget, Table S-11

[x] Office of Management and Budget, 2015 Budget, Summary Tables, Table S-11, http://www.odni.gov/index.php/newsroom/press-releases/198-press-releases-2014/1026-dni-releases-budget-figure-for-fy-2015-base-appropriations-request-for-the-national-intelligence-program

[xi] http://www.globalissues.org/article/75/world-military-spending#InContextUSMilitarySpendingVersusRestoftheWorld

[xii] U.S. Spends $20 Billion A Year On Air Conditioning In Iraq and Afghanistan,  The Telegraph, 6/28/2011


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