Proportion of modern militaries that are actually in harm's way

Quick question about modern militaries like the United States, Russia’s and China’s: Around what % of the total number of military personnel would be people who’d actually be considered to be “in harm’s way” or in combat in the traditional sense of the term? Boots on the ground, fighter pilots and helicopter pilots in cockpits, bomber crews, drivers in tanks and APCs, etc.?

Is it maybe only 20%?

And the other 80% are support personnel - cooks, accountants, mechanics, technicians, doctors, nurses, drill sergeants, instructors, etc.?

(kind of a need answer fast - especially about China’s military; need it for leading a small group discussion)

How about all of them? Air bases, Logistics dums, communications nodes, supply convoys are high priority targets for the enemy and in this era of long range air power and guided missiles, are very likley to be attacked. The biggest mass casualty of the US military in 1991 was on non combat personnel, the Scud attack which killed 30.

Even in the olden days, in a rear post you ran the risk of being hit by a cavalry raid. Happened often enough in the US Civil War.
Hell this was basically Rome’s startegy against Hannibal.

Since the Chinese warplan explicity calls for massive missile attack salvos againt US bases in the Pacific, if you are a boot polisher Second Class at Andersen Air Force Base Guam, you are still fucked regardless.

RAF pilots during the Battle of Britain thought that the Radar Operators (often women) at the stations were much braver than they were, they had to continue to guide the planes even while their statioins were under attack.

And civilians get killed in modern wars too. Perhaps even at a greater rate than military personnel. Hey, those guys at least have guns!

Part of your question seems to be asking what % of the military is in “combat” roles. That’s going to be a relatively small %. This Quora question had some pretty good answers:

The other part of your question is about being “in harm’s way”, and in a modern war, that applies to pretty much everybody in the military. Even the drone operators at Creech AFB in Nevada would be potential targets if we were fighting China or Russia. You wouldn’t normally think of a processing center in Fort Hood as “in harm’s way” but it turned out to be exactly that in the “global war on terror”.

Thanks! Yeah, I think “in harm’s way” sidetracked my thread intent. I meant more about the ratio of actual combat troops (i.e., carrying M4 carbines in Baghdad) vs. MOS’s like vehicle maintenance and repair.

A more interesting question to me would be to ask, How many military personnel from any country are currently actively engaged on foreign soil or in foreign airspace as combat troops?

Again, it’s a weird question. Lots of guys who are in support roles, regularly get exposed to combat as a part of their jobs. The example you gave, vehicle repair, sure it might be done at a base (which might get regular mortar and rocket fire), but might have to be done in the field, where they might have to face fire from and engage enemy, in the course of their duties.
Hell, even the M4 was designed for use by non-combatants.

As great as living in Hawaii is, if you’re on the island of Oahu like I am, almost the entire island is a goner in the case of a massive attack. Here’s FEMA’s nuclear attack map: . I don’t know if it’s still published in the local phone book (haven’t opened one in years), but it used to be included along with the tsunami maps.

Right, and at least in my experience, military bases have to protect themselves, which means that all the drivers and cooks carry carbines for their periodic guard duty and to protect the base in case of attack.

That said, the Israeli army makes a clear distinction between regular soldiers and lochamim (warriors). I suppose it’s a matter of marketing: in a volunteer military, you want recruits to think that everyone’s a fighter, but when you’re already drafting all the people you need, you want people to volunteer for combat positions - which means that you have to make them feel special.

During the Vietnam era, my brother volunteered so he could be stationed in Germany, not sure exactly where. He was Airborne and spent most of his days hanging out in the motorpool. He said one morning they were called to deploy (not a drill) and got as far as sitting in the plane with engines running, before the deployment was called off. He never knew where they where the were supposed to be going.

Still doesn’t make much sense. Even the vehicle mechanics carry M4s. If you are specifically asking about combat arms MOS’s as opposed to combat support or combat service support, that is easier to answer but still inaccurate.

The reality is that it just isn’t that black and white. An infantryman might get assigned to be a drill sergeant or a recruiter, and an intelligence collector might be assigned to patrol with an infantry platoon.

There seems to be an inclination to insist the OP’s perfectly valid question is not what it is, so maybe we can define our terms.

The order of battle of a large military formation will generally divide the subordinate units into combat arms, comabt support, and service support (the terms may differ from country to country but that’s the jist.) Combat arms are what the OP is likely referring to - people whose speciality is actually engaging the enemy and taking and holding ground. Infantry, armor, reconnaissance units.

Service support are the folks the OP is definitely NOT talking about - logistics, supply, transport, medical, field kitchens, administration, and the like. Yes, most carry weapons and are trained in basic combat, but that is obviously not what the OP is asking.

Combat support, as the name would suggest, is where we have a grey area. Artillery, for instance, is grouped into combat support in some org charts, despite being rather obviously (to me) a combat arms role. Engineers are invariably classed as combat support though they’re often front line troops. Electronic warfare is combat support but is clearly not front line the way engineers are. So one could argue over units in that group.

I’d just add that even doing it on the basis of Tables of Organization, and not ‘who is in harm’s way’, you could slice it in two different though overlapping ways. Which units are ‘combat arms’, ‘combat support’ and ‘combat service support’, in US Army terminology, and which individuals have ‘combat MOS’ which is again US-centric, but the idea would apply roughly in general.

‘Combat arms’ units have some ‘non-combat MOS’ individuals though the other two classes of unit as a rule don’t have combat MOS individuals. The lowest % would focus on individuals. However as several have mentioned, it’s only in some range of conventional warfare against overmatched adversaries where there’s a bright line in risk between the types of units, and there’s practically never one among individuals in ‘combat arms’ units, only a spectrum of risk. In high intensity warfare against true peers everyone would be at risk to some degree, and likewise in strictly guerrilla warfare.

I’d add though that artillery is always considered a ‘combat arm’ although ‘supporting’ infantry and armor. Likewise aviation (ie helicopters), air defense artillery and combat engineers. Again it’s not the same as ‘who suffers most of the casualties’ which is infantry in other than very unusual cases. Armor might or might not suffer significant personnel casualties depending on technical factors of their vehicles’ protection and available enemy antiarmor weapons. US artillery has tended to suffer few casualties in modern wars as a rule but there have been exceptions and it’s less true still for some other armies.

As an aside, my father (who fought in the infantry in WWII) always contended that nuclear-tipped ICBMs meant that the politicians who start or end wars were “in harm’s way” for the first time, which he regarded as an entirely salutary development.

It’s really a risk management / threshold question. In the event of all-out global thermonuclear war against the Soviet Union, pretty much all troops are at risk. The percentage of this event happening in the near future is relatively low.

If you are a member of a carrier battlegroup on active duty supporting operations in Afghanistan, you have a very low risk of being attacked, unless you fly a combat aircraft.

Support personal in the same theatre of operations OTOH, have a high risk of being ambushed or hit by an IED.

In times of extreme, ongoing warfare, every adult male and sometimes boys (Hitler Youth) are called into frontline action and “in harm’s way”. Those with specialized skills (e.g. mechanics, engineers, weapons specialists, etc.) may remain in the rear, but will be called into action if the location they’re at is under siege.

No nation will provide percentile info about how many troops are “in harm’s way” are actually deployed in any given base around as that would give away their offensive and defensive strategy. Just because it’s called the 101st Airborne Division doesn’t mean there’s 100 other Airborne divisions. Best guesses are just that, best guesses.

If you really want to pee your pants, this site has some food for thought:

The Chinese military is estimated at ~2.7 million. The number "Fit for Service is 619 million and the Available Manpower is 715 million.


Imagine Space Invaders except with real people. Would make the WWII Eastern Front pale in comparision.

My cousin is a US Navy logistics officer. I know he has a sidearm but I very much doubt he’s any good with it, and his job description certainly doesn’t call for using it on a regular or even occasional basis.

He served a tour in Basra because the Navy oversaw the civilian contractors running the Iraqi oil platforms in the Gulf, and he lived on a British base. He showed me a picture of himself in full battle gear, hunkering down on the floor of the mess hall, because insurgents had launched a mortar attack during lunch. I asked him how often that happened. He said, “Every day.”

ETA, my uncle (this guy’s father) was a surgeon in the Navy. If he had a sidearm I sure hope it was never loaded. He was stationed at the base in Da Nang during the Vietnam War. He told me that when the VC would attack at night with mortars, he’d climb up on the roof of his residence and eat popsicles and watch the fireworks.