In 1946, Chairman Mao popularized the term “paper tiger” to describe things that seem overwhelmingly powerful, but aren’t able to withstand the wind and rain. His original use of the phrase was describing how he felt about the new atomic bomb to American journalist Anna Strong.
As time went on, he began to use “paper tiger” to discuss other aspects of the United States, including the U.S. military, saying “In appearance it is very powerful, but in reality it is nothing to be afraid of.” Mao would go one to describe many things as paper tigers, including Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, and (retroactively) Japan and Hitler.
Today, the term has come to represent anything that seems stronger than it really is. Which is a good thing, because that makes it much easier to describe how inherently weak the following armed forces might really be, despite what their strength on paper says.
Here are the 4 biggest ‘paper tiger’ armies in the world today
Admit that everyone was fairly certain Russia was going to top this list. The big, bad Russian bear is an armed force the entire world was quaking in their boots over for more than 15 years. They marched into South Ossetia, in 2008 and we said nothing because we didn’t want to provoke them. The same thing happened in th Crimea in 2014 when the Russians captured the Crimea. When the Russian armed forces came full force into Ukraine in 2022, well, the Ukrainians had had enough.
It turns out that if Russia can’t win quickly against an ill-trained, weak, or otherwise unprepared neighbor, they can’t win at all. Ukrainians, who had taken the time to train for the fight with anyone who would train them, fought Russian-backed rebels in its Donetsk region. When the Russians decided to mess around and find out, they found out they’re throwing conscripts into a meat grinder for the third time since World War II.
Yeah, it’s odd that the country that coined the term “paper tiger” has now lived long enough to become one of them. The People’s Republic of China does have the world’s largest armed forces by number of active personnel. With two million men and women in arms, China might seem like an overwhelming force, one that probably isn’t afraid to take Taiwan, the Spratly Islands, or even take the fight to a foreign rival’s home soil.
While two million is a staggeringly intimidating number of people, it’s important to remember that that total force number isn’t completely full of combat troops. It’s probably less than 50% combat ready, and their combat effectiveness is completely unknown. The reason for that is that China hasn’t been tested in a real fight lately, and if you go back for enough to when it has, things don’t look good for the People’s Liberation Army.
China’s Communist Party may have won its civil war, but it’s important to remember that happened in 1949, and they were fighting other Chinese forces. When the Chinese went toe-to-toe with the Americans, they got mauled pretty bad. Sure, overwhelming numbers may have pushed the U.S. to the 38th parallel in Korea, but a lot of people had to die to do it. Since then, China’s been whooped by Vietnam, India, and the Soviet Union.
The PLA’s biggest wins came against Tibet, Somali pirates and the Islamic State. Congrats, fellas. Call us when you need close-air support.
3. North Korea
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, also known as North Korea, also known as Hell on Earth to anyone who actually has to live there, can boast the world’s fourth largest army with 1.2 million men and women under arms. North Korea’s military suffers from a lot of things (malnutrition, stunted growth, lack of supplies), but it mostly suffers from the fact that it expends more bullets on its own troops than it does any enemy.
Like China, the DPRK’s million-plus soldiers haven’t fought a real war since the 1950s, with the bulk of its combat experience coming from shooting up South Korean islands and fishermen. On top of that, all its aircraft are either from the same time period as the Korean War, it’s Navy is of zero use to anyone but drug smugglers, human traffickers, and anyone who wants to Doordash Hennessy to Pyongyang.
If it weren’t for nuclear weapons and an increasingly far-reaching ability to deliver them, Kim Jong-Un’s black market hermit kingdom would have collapsed on itself like a house of cards by now.
It might surprise some people to learn that Pakistan has the world’s 6th largest armed forces. Even Pakistan might be surprised to discover it has the 6th largest armed forces. It might also be surprised to find that despite having over 650,000 troops in its armed forces, it’s still four spots behind its arch-nemesis, India. It’s probably better that Pakistan doesn’t get too big in the face of its Indian neighbor, because it tends to lose large chunks of its Army, Navy, and Air Force every time it does.
It’s hard to imagine what exactly these 650,000 troops actually do, considering they can’t control the sheer volume of terrorist groups in its tribal areas. The worst part about facing the Pakistani Army must be deciding what you’re going to do with all the prisoners of war. Historically, Pakistan’s military only sets records in the number of troops who surrender at one time.