Download PDF This latest Military Balance is replete with facts, figures, tables and maps analysing military organisations, inventories and defence spending throughout the world. 
Military Balance 2015 New Features

Remarks by Dr John Chipman, Director-General and Chief Executive, IISS

Welcome to the launch of The Military Balance 2015, the annual assessment of global military capabilities and defence economics from the IISS.

Joining me to answer your questions today are James Hackett, Dana Allin, Brigadier Ben Barry, Douglas Barrie, Virginia Comolli, Toby Dodge, Nigel Inkster, Giri Rajendran, Nick Redman and Eneken Tikk-Ringas.

This latest Military Balance is replete with facts, figures, tables and maps analysing military organisations, inventories and defence spending throughout the world.

Specialist essays focus on directed energy weapons, which we assess are closer to service entry than ever before; US military space systems, analysing the challenge to US space assets from a crowded space environment; and on the problems posed by hybrid warfare. Our wall chart this year focuses on Russian armed forces.

The Military Balance 2015 again confirms the decline in European defence spending and the continued rise in Asian defence expenditure. Debate in Europe is about whether that decline can be allowed to continue given the increase in security challenges in Europe and in Europe’s near abroad. The discussion in Asia is about ensuring that the economic growth that supports military modernisation remains the core national objective, so that countries will be self-deterred from allowing tensions to escalate to military conflict.

While in early 2014, the concern was about possible military conflict in Asia, the salient strategic reality of the year was the re-emergence of conflict in Europe and the ever complicating and widening nature of extreme Islamic terrorist groups’ activity in the Middle East and Africa.


The events in Ukraine over the last year and the erosion of virtually all trust between Western powers and Russia have challenged the post-cold war European settlement. Western countries are now having to devise a strategy – that would need to be a ‘whole of government’ strategy – to deal with an apparently revisionist Russia. As François Heisbourg, the Chairman of the IISS, states in an article in the current issue of Survival, the key components of that strategy would be dissuasion of Russian adventurism on EU or NATO territory, active support of the sovereignty of other European states, and a demonstrable readiness to be respectful of Russia’s non revisionist security interests.

In the meantime, the way in which the Ukrainian crisis is handled will set the tone for how the broader relationship with Russia unfolds. Civilian suffering in Ukraine has been profound, with both sides employing conventional military tactics reflective not only of their shared military heritage, but also of the increasingly bitter nature of the combat. These tactics have included the widespread use of artillery rockets and shellfire during operations amidst civilian population centres. The use of militias and volunteer battalions has raised questions over effective command-and-control and will complicate, when the conflict finally abates, any disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration initiatives that may be needed.

Present attempts at a political settlement appear unpromising. The military situation remains fluid, and therefore fixing ceasefire lines particularly challenging, even if there were a will of all parties to do so. It is not clear that the will is there.

While the Europeans now seem focused on a ceasefire, the other parties – the separatists and the governments of Ukraine and Russia – are thinking more strategically and have entirely incompatible aims. President Poroshenko seems determined to ensure that Kiev’s writ runs across the whole of eastern Ukraine and that it controls the entire south-eastern border. He is not willing to cede a veto over foreign policy to Donbas. The Kremlin, by contrast, appears to desire a fractured Ukraine, unable to move beyond Russia’s orbit and get closer to western institutions. Whereas the Kremlin might be content for the Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic to exist within their current borders, the separatists are not. They want to control all of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, to achieve a measure of economic viability, and they refuse to see their future within Ukraine.

There are further economic considerations: Kiev has imposed a blockade on the breakaway republics, in effect obliging Moscow to support them. Ukraine seems unable to win on the battlefield or at the negotiating table, but its adversaries cannot force it to resume fiscal responsibility for the East.

Finally, there is the issue that sparked the crisis: Crimea. Russia will not countenance returning it but neither Kiev nor the West can accept annexation. If the crisis in Eastern Ukraine is solved, Crimea will return to the fore. It is important for all parties that any settlement in Eastern Ukraine does not prejudice their positions and interests regarding Crimea, and this further complicates the task of arriving at a political settlement in Donbas.

Into this complex set of political considerations has been introduced the question of arms to Ukraine. The German government considers that there is no amount of arms that the West might give Kiev that would not potentially be matched by Russian support to the separatists and that therefore arms shipments to Kiev are not the answer. A growing body of opinion in the US Congress considers that the US has a moral obligation and a strategic duty to provide Ukraine with increased means to defend itself. Others consider the option of arming Ukraine has at least to be ‘kept on the table’ in support of the diplomatic process to end or at least freeze the military conflict.

Throughout this crisis, Russia has shown its determination to use force and support the use of force by others in Ukraine. Military modernisation in Russia is continuing, with investment in new ships, combat aircraft and guided weapons. Russia continues to test the Sukhoi T-50 fifth generation fighter aircraft, and may be finalising designs of a new long-range bomber. Russia has nuclear weapons very much at the centre of its military strategy, and there is increased emphasis on its rapid-reaction forces, while its air and maritime capabilities are often being deployed provocatively. Overall, Europe is facing a more belligerent Russia that appears intent on testing the resolve of the West.

Europe Real Defence Spending Changes 2010–14 by Sub-Region (%)

European defence spending continued the decline seen since the 2008 financial crisis, and was in 2014 cumulatively 8% lower, in real terms, than in 2010. There were signs that the more challenging strategic environment was shifting budgetary priorities, particularly in Northern and Eastern Europe, and amid unease about possible gaps in NATO’s capacity to counter Russia’s use of hybrid warfare techniques. However, defence allocations in Europe’s leading military players maintained their downward slide.

Military equipment across the continent also continued to reduce, with policymakers focusing instead on the advanced capabilities of future kit. Numbers have declined substantially since the Cold War. Between 1995 and 2015, main battle tank numbers in Europe dropped from around 25,000 to just under 8,000, while fighters and ground attack aircraft decreased from 5,400 to 2,400.

Appeals from the NATO Secretary General, including most recently at the Munich Security Conference, for member states to meet the pledge to spend 2% of their GDP on defence continue to be made. That goal will not be met soon. NATO has nevertheless agreed to enhance its NATO Response Force from 13,000 to 30,000 troops and signal its intent to become more agile. There will soon come a point when NATO declaratory policy on enhanced and more rapidly deployable forces to preserve the current security order will require increased investment by NATO members or a new burden-sharing agreement between them.

Syria, Iraq and ISIS

While a revisionist Russia has challenged the European security order, the threat from extreme Islamic terrorists strengthened during the year. The rise of ISIS and the flow of jihadists in and out of various Middle East theatres of war has become a major pre-occupation for European states. Intelligence services have to concentrate heavily on the threats posed to European societies by returning jihadists. Military successes on the part of ISIS galvanised a US-led coalition into launching airstrikes against the jihadi movement in Iraq and also in northern Syria.

The hybrid nature of ISIS – part insurgency, part-light infantry, part-terrorist group – proved key to its advances. Its campaigns in Iraq and Syria have shown ISIS to be an adaptable adversary, demonstrated by its tactical adjustment in late 2014 to reduce vulnerability to coalition airpower and ISR capacities.

Since launching an air campaign against ISIS in August 2014, the US-led Operation Inherent Resolve has met with mixed results in both Iraq and Syria.  The strategy of giving extended air support to local allies has certainly played a part in breaking the strategic momentum that ISIS created through the summer of 2014.  In Iraq, coalition airpower was crucial in the retaking of Mosul dam in August, as well as defending Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish Regional Government, from an ISIS onslaught. Iran also provided air support to Iraq. In Syria, the heavy use of airpower proved decisive in the defence of the Kurdish city of Kobane.  Still, the US Pentagon had to acknowledge in late January that the total gains made against ISIS in Iraq add up to only 1% of the territory it holds in that country.  It is clear that American allies on the ground, the Kurdish Peshmerga, the Iraqi army and the Free Syrian Army, are not yet strong enough, in spite of US weapons supplies, training and air support, to win sustainable victories against ISIS.  The upcoming push to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, will be a decisive test of whether President Obama’s strategy of giving extended support to proxy forces on the ground, can defeat, as opposed to contain, ISIS.

It is likely that long-term training and support for both Syria’s non-ISIS rebels and Iraq's security forces and broader government institutions will be required. That support will need to be combined with sustained political efforts to regain the trust of Iraq’s Sunni minority.

Coalition air operations may lead to tactical victories against ISIS – especially when they enable progress by fighters opposed to it – but they cannot inflict strategic defeat on the group. Military methods alone cannot successfully tackle the sophisticated means that ISIS uses to recruit and inspire its followers and sustain its operations. Countering ISIS’s information operations, designed in equal measure to intimidate and open seams in the coalition will also require lasting, whole-of-government and multilateral attention.

Complex security dynamics across the region meant that regional defence spending was already high, but growing insecurity and conflict have contributed to a further acceleration. Spending remains focused on air-defence and strike systems, particularly in the Gulf, though some states have invested in rotary-wing, airlift and tanker capacities, as well as armour and artillery. In 2011, average real defence spending growth in the Middle East and North Africa region was 3.5%. In each year since, we estimate it has increased by an average of 10%.

Asia’s militarisation continues

In contrast to the continuing decline evident in Europe, overall defence spending has increased in Asia – since 2010 by more than a quarter in nominal terms, growing to more than US$340bn in 2014. China’s defence spending continues to outpace its neighbours’ efforts. In 2010 China accounted for around 28% of the Asian total; by 2014 its share had increased to around 38%. In contrast, Japan’s share of regional military outlays fell from 20% in 2010 to just less than 14% in 2014.

China’s military procurement programme, supported by these budget increases, continues to attract attention. Following a flurry of new naval programmes, from the Liaoning carrier to destroyers, more are underway. Armament has also improved. The 60 frigates and destroyers in service in 2000 had less than 600 anti-ship and surface-to-air missile tubes between them; the current fleet has almost triple that number with only 20% more hulls. The November 2014 Zhuhai air show provided further insights into China’s military progress. Highlights of the show included the FC-31 combat-aircraft prototype, which might be intended for export, a large ramjet-powered supersonic anti-ship missile design, the CX-1, and a range of air-to-surface weapons being offered for use on UAVs.

Japan too has increased its defence budget, and continues to boost its military capabilities. Tokyo’s defence plans include acquisition of F-35s, tilt-rotor aircraft and an expanded submarine fleet, including the advanced Soryu-class. This boat’s advanced propulsion offers a substantial increase in the time a submarine could spend submerged at sea. Australia is assessing the Soryu-class as a possible replacement for its existing submarines. Submarines remain a key requirement for states across Asia. Vietnam has started to receive its Kilo-class boats from Russia, and India, South Korea, Indonesia and Singapore are also upgrading their submarine forces.

Military Balance 2015: Top Defence Budgets


The West still spent more than half of global defence outlays in 2014, though this was down from two-thirds of global totals in 2010. Given this trend, and even though some states have marginally increased their defence efforts amid heightened security concerns, European states will have to more seriously weigh the optimum balance between their defence ambitions, deficit reduction and discretionary spending, such as military outlays.

In contrast, emerging economies have continued to escalate their defence spending. In 2014 these increases more than offset Western reductions; overall, real global defence expenditure in 2014 rose by 1.7% after three years of reductions. However, this trend may moderate this year in light of falling oil prices, the stagnation of the Russian economy and slowing global growth.

Of course spending is only part of the picture. Military capability like that of the US - still the world’s largest defence spender – relates to more than simply the equipment a state might procure. It also relates to the quality of personnel and decades of accumulated military training and operational experience; factors like these inform a more rounded assessment of a country’s military capability. So while defence investment gaps are closing, Western states with global defence ambitions must try to retain that accumulated experience mindful that once a capability is lost, it is harder to rebuild.

Additionally, Western states will look to retain a technological edge while attempting to minimise the risks to their military power from the diffusion of previously select technologies to a broader range of state and non-state actors.

This time last year, we highlighted the challenge to defence planners from a fractured and complex security environment. As we enter 2015 this state of affairs is more threatening. Insecurity, violence and the use of military force are all increasing; the ‘arc of instability’ is widening, and military crises do not seem to end, but rather multiply. Meanwhile, armed forces remain involved not just on traditional military tasks, but also on missions as wide-ranging as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and pandemic response; these missions remain global in scope and complex in execution.

As policymakers grapple with these issues, the 2015 edition of The Military Balance provides the best available public information on military capabilities, trends and defence expenditure across the world. The facts and analysis concerning national military capabilities contained in The Military Balance will help significantly to inform discussions within government and the wider public debate.

Back to content list