South Africa’s military strength ranked in 2021

Military website, Global Firepower, has published its military strength ranking for 2021 featuring 138 countries, with the ranking utilising more than 50 different factors to determine a given nation’s PowerIndex.

However, the ranking does not simply rely on the total number of weapons available to any one country, but rather focuses on weapon diversity to provide a better balance of firepower available.

Nuclear weapons are not recognised directly but do receive an indirect score bonus, while geographical factors, logistical flexibility, natural resources and local industry influence the rankings.

The US is named as the most powerful country in the world in 2021 with 1.4 million active military personnel, 13,233 aircraft, more than 6,000 tanks and a defence budget of $740 billion.

In second place is Russia with one million active personnel, 4,100 aircraft, 13,000 tanks and a defence budget of $42.1 billion.

China, India and Japan round out the top five.

Note: Some vehicles can fall under multiple classifications.

# Country Active Frontline Reserve Combat tanks Air Force Naval Vessels
1 USA 1 400 000 845 500 6 100 13 233 490
2 Russia 1 014 000 2 000 000 13 000 4 144 603
3 China 2 185 000 510 000 3 205 3 260 777
4 India 1 445 000 1 155 000 4 730 2 119 285
5 Japan 250 000 55 000 1 004 1 480 155
6 South Korea 600 000 3 100 000 2 600 1 581 234
7 France 270 000 35 000 406 1 057 180
8 United Kingdom 195 000 80 000 109 738 88
9 Brazil 334 500 1 340 000 439 676 112
10 Pakistan 654 000 550 000 2 680 1 364 100

South Africa 

South Africa is ranked as having the 32nd greatest military strength in the world – behind Egypt (13th) and Algeria (27th) in Africa.

According to the ranking, South Africa has 66,500 active personnel and 15,000 reserve personnel.

It also estimates that the country has around 14,025,000 citizens who would be fit-for-service should it enforce conscription laws.

Notably, South Africa stands out for its land power, but has fallen behind other nations in recent years when it comes to air and naval power.


Air power

South Africa has a total aircraft strength of 221 assets.

This includes:

  • 17 fighter aircraft
  • 7 special mission aircraft
  • 22 transport aircraft
  • 88 trainer aircraft
  • 82 total helicopters
  • 12 attack helicopters

Army/Land power

South Africa has a total land strength of 3,360 assets.

This includes:

  • 195 combat tanks
  • 3,000 armoured fighting vehicles
  • 43 self-propelled artillery
  • 72 towed artillery
  • 50 rocket projectors

Naval power

South Africa has a total naval strength of 30 assets.

Notably, the country currently has no aircraft carriers, destroyers or corvette-class vehicles.

This includes:

  • 4 frigates
  • 3 submarines
  • 31 patrol craft
  • 2 mine warfare vessels

Financial troubles

In November 2020, the Department of Defence published its annual report for 2019/2020, with the data painting a bleak picture of South Africa’s military capabilities.

The department warned that the country’s defence force has lost a number of capabilities owing to successive budget cuts, noting that its core military capabilities “have been in decline for many years”.

“This is largely due to severe and crippling cuts to its baseline funding allocation and the resultant erosion of both the capital and operating budgets of the Department of Defence,” it said.

The department said that not only has this led to inadequate maintenance, repair and overhaul of the largely obsolete equipment inventory, but has also led to a significant reduction in the prime mission equipment renewal programme of the defence force with ‘devastating effects’ on South Africa’s sovereign defence industry.

It said that under the current funding regime, it has had very little room to manoeuvre and has had to continue where possible with the repair of its inventory.

“In most cases, the main equipment that it uses is more than 40 years old and is largely obsolete, and with almost no spares and maintenance support available from the original equipment manufacturers.”

While the department had developed a ‘South African Defence Review’ in 2015 which outlined the changes that were needed to bring South Africa’s defensive capabilities up to speed, the department said that the current funding allocation ‘dramatically reduces the level of defence ambition that can be sustainably pursued’.

“This reduction will inevitably lead to a reduction in operational output, introducing significant risks to South Africa’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as the ability to sustain enduring support to the development of South Africa and its people,” it said.


Read: At the rate we are going, South Africa will run out of money by 2042: economist

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South Africa’s military strength ranked in 2021