On measuring military power

Edward Gibbon, the British historian who became famous from studying and writing the history of "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," observed: "It has been calculated by the ablest politicians that no State, without being soon exhausted, can maintain above a hundredth part of its members in arms and idleness."

There are exceptions to any rule.There have been states which have over a considerable period of time maintained armed forces at higher levels than one percent of their population and managed to survive economically. In classic Greece Sparta is the prime example.

But Gibbon's rule is a safe and sound one to follow. Other things being equal, about one percent of the population under arms can usually be sustained. (Of course a larger percentage can be used in time of war without decisive damage -- provided the war does not last too long and is not an economic disaster itself.)

I find it interesting that as of today the United States, with a population of about 225 million, is currently carrying just over two million in its armed services, or slightly below the Gibbon ratio of one out of 100. According to that formula it would be safe, economically, for the United States to increase its manpower under arms to two and a quarter million.

The Soviet Union is over the safe ratio. Its total population is about 266 million. It has nearly four million persons in its regular military units, plus another half million in internal security forces and railway and construction troops. The Pentagon, in its current portrait of Soviet military strength, uses the figure of "more than 4.8 million men." Under the Gibbon rule the Soviets are overstraining their economy by keeping such a high percentage of their population "in arms and idleness."

But China is well on the safe side of the Gibbon rule. It is believed to have a total population of more than a billion, but the current Western estimate of numbers in the Chinese armed services is four-and-a-half million of whom half a million are in railway construction corps unit. In other words, The Chinese, with four times the population of the Soviet Union, have armed services of just about the same numbers as the Soviets.

The NATO allies of the US are also on the safe side of the Gibbon rule. The allies in West Europe plus Canada have a combined population of about 350 million but maintain armed forces numbering about 2.8 million. They could safely go a little higher.

So who has the greater military power, the Soviets at around four-and-a-half million under arms out of a population of 266 million or the US with two million out of 225 million, backed by the other NATO allies and enjoying the benefit of a Chinese army as big as the entire Soviet army over on the far side of the Soviet Union?

If one judges by raw numbers the Soviets are in a dangerous state indeed. The US plus NATO plus China can field forces today of nearly nine million or close to double the number the Soviets have in uniform at the moment. So who is in danger from whom?

Obviously, there are many other factors than just numbers. The quality and quantity of weapons is one. Another is the morale of the forces. Another is the cohesion of the various alliance systems -- NATO and the Warsaw pact.

Moscow's Warsaw Pact allies have combined armed forces of 1.1 million, which in theory gives Moscow well over five million armed men under its control. But the biggest of the satellite forces is the Polish at 318,000. As of today is that Polish force a plus or a minus to the Soviet Union? In the event of war would Moscow be able to use those Polish troops against NATO troops, or would it have to subtract several divisions of its own forces to keep the Poles from crossing over to the NATO side?

The Pentagon has just issued a catalog of Soviet armed forces which begins with the figure of 4.8 million of persons under arms. The figure is higher than the one usually used in Western military circles. It must include internal security forces and probably construction units working in military factories. It sounds alarming. So does the whole list in numbers of tanks, guns, etc. Its release this week is presumably done to bolster President Reagan's assertion in his budget speech of the previous week that it would not be safe to cut his military defense program any more.

If the Kremlin published a similar catalog of American and allied forces -- any normal Soviet citizen would have more than one sleepless night. But in military calculation raw numbers, without comparisons or efficiency ratings -- are about as meaningless as anything can be.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.