How Does Israel's Military Compare to Iran?

Relations between Israel and Iran are at breaking point. The multinational nuclear deal signed with Iran is on the verge of collapsing—partly thanks to Israeli lobbying against it. Iranian leaders have warned that if it fails, the country will resume its uranium enrichment program, a step Israel considers a threat to its very existence.

Meanwhile, multiple Israeli strikes have sought to dislodge Iranian forces from Syria, where Tehran enjoys increasing influence. Israeli leaders are fighting hard to stop Iranian soldiers deploying along its northern border.  

Though it would appear that neither nation wants a full-scale war, the potential for miscalculation and escalation remains. Both nations have considerable military clout, and any prolonged confrontation between them would be bloody.

RTS1IFO9 Israeli forces are seen near a border fence between the Israeli-occupied side of the Golan Heights and Syria, on November 4, 2017. Israel is wary of Iran's growing influence across its northern border. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

By sheer force of numbers

Iran is a much larger country with a far greater population than Israel, but numbers alone do not dictate military capability—combat technology and experience are vital factors too. Technological capability is even more important in an era where technology is changing the way war is waged, allowing nations to hit each other harder, from further away and with less human involvement.

A small nation with a population of just 8.5 million, Israel’s military punches significantly above its weight. Formed amid a war with seven Arab neighbors, the country’s short history is punctuated with conflicts fought for its survival. This tough history combines with a burgeoning technology sphere and close relations with powerful western nations to create one of the world’s most formidable fighting forces.

According to Global Firepower, Israel has approximately 170,000 active personnel with a further 445,000 in reserve. Conscription exists for all non-Arab citizens of Israel over the age of 18, giving the country a large and well-trained pool of fighters to call up in the event of war.

Though less sophisticated than Israel, the Iranian military is a force to be reckoned with. Its large population—around 82 million—enables Tehran to maintain a standing force of around 534,000 soldiers, with a further 400,000 in reserve, making it the largest force in the Middle East.

In a drawn-out engagement, national manpower becomes an important issue. Iranian available manpower is around 47 million compared with just 3 million for Israel. Of course, how important this is will depend on the nature of any war being fought.

RTXYQI5 Members of Iranian armed forces march during the Army Day parade in Tehran on April 18, 2013. REUTERS/Hamid Forootan/ISNA/Handout

In 2017, Israel spent $16.5 billion on its armed forces, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Iran was not far behind on $14.5 billion. Though this does not seem like a big gap, the fact that Israel is spending billions more than Iran on a smaller military indicates the gulf in the quality of equipment used.

"The militaries of Israel and Iran are very different," said Richard Baffa, a senior researcher at RAND Corporation. "In the conventional arena, Israel has the far superior military." Israeli military might is underscored by its "top notch military-industrial complex," he continued, "capable of producing high end, high-tech weapons."

By contrast, Iran’s conventional forces are "ageing and sub-par, due in part to long-standing sanctions and arms embargoes."

Air, land and sea

Israel fields more tanks than Iran—2,760 compared to 1,650. Israel wins this matchup on quality as well as quantity, the latest version of its Merkava tank being one of the best-designed and heavily armored in the world. Iran is mostly using second-rate tanks, though it has announced the development of the new Karrar platform, which it claims will be able to compete with top-class opponents.

The Israeli air force is one of the best in the world, equipped and trained to the highest level. Its pilots are experienced too, having regularly conducted missions against targets in Syria, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip and even Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Its 250 or so fighters include a handful of Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II aircraft, one of just four fifth-generation fighter planes in the world. Israel will eventually have 50 F-35s.

By contrast, Iran fields around 160 fighter jets, none of which are as advanced as the F-35. Much of Iran's air force is made up of American planes supplied to the country before the Islamic Revolution in 1979 toppled the U.S.-aligned Shah. The country also operates Russian aircraft such as the MiG-29 fighter and Su-24 ground attack jet. Iranian pilots are less well-trained and experienced than their Israeli counterparts, massively detrimental during a confrontation. 

RTX2UPSI An Israeli soldier sits inside a F-35 fighter jet after it landed at Nevatim air base in southern Israel on December 12, 2016. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Whatever warplanes take to the sky will have to contend with air defense networks. Israel’s air defense blanket includes the Iron Dome system, one of the best known in the world designed to destroy rockets and even mortars fired from the Gaza Strip.

The Iron Dome has also had success on a larger scale, proving its value during extended Israeli conflicts with Hamas in Gaza and fighting off a recent salvo of projectiles launched by Iranian-led forces from Syria. However, the system has also had its share of embarrassments, most recently firing missiles into an empty sky after Palestinian machine gun fire activated its sensors.

For enemy aircraft, Israel uses the U.S.-made Patriot system, which has a maximum range of approximately 43 miles and is used by many American allies. Israel also uses the Arrow anti-ballistic missile system to protect against threats the Patriot can't quite manage, and is also working on the Magic Wand missile interception system, used to take down short- and medium-ranged rockets.

For many years, Iranian forces relied on old American technology provided to the pre-revolution regime to repel aerial intruders. In the modern era, military leaders have created a new branch of the military responsible for air defense while weapon developers look to improve Iran’s domestic systems.

However, as Tehran and Moscow grow closer, more Russian weaponry finds its way into the country. In 2016, Iran took delivery of the Russian-made S-300 system, a deal originally blocked by the Kremlin after protests from Israel. The S-300 has a range of more than 100 miles, and its advanced radar would heighten the need for Israel’s newest and stealthiest aircraft.

RTS1AJCH An S-300 air defense missile system launches a missile during the International Army Games 2017 at the Ashuluk shooting range outside Astrakhan, Russia on August 5, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Neither nation is a significant maritime power. Iran has more than 30 submarines, five frigates, three corvettes and more than 200 patrol craft. Israel currently has five submarines, three corvettes, eight missile boats and 45 patrol boats. Considering the geography of the region, the naval theater is unlikely to play any significant role in a potential conflict. That said, the Israeli navy includes submarines that can launch nuclear missiles, making it a vital resource in the event of a conflict.

In the event of an all-out war, Israel holds the nuclear trump card. Notoriously secretive about its nuclear arsenal, the country is believed to possess between 75 and 400 warheads. The weapons can be delivered using Israel’s Jericho ballistic missiles, submarine-launched cruise missiles or even fighter planes.

Iran has no nuclear capability. Even if talks break down, it will take many years before Tehran joins the nuclear club. Iran is working hard to improve its ballistic missile arsenal, already one of the most potent in the region and well-able to hit Israel.

Working behind the lines

Both nations maintain elite special forces, well-versed in covert operations. The Mossad is one of the most famous intelligence services in the world, and is well-known for its audacious and brutal assassinations. In the event of war, Mossad agents would no doubt target high-value Iranian targets abroad. The Sayeret Matkal special forces unit would carry out foreign operations for the IDF. Sharing the same motto as the legendary British SAS—"Who Dares Wins"—the secretive unit conducts deep reconaissance, counter-terrorism and hostage rescue missions.

Iran’s Quds Force is responsible for the foreign operations of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Its name, and that of commander Major General Qasem Soleimani, strike fear into Iran’s enemies worldwide. It is widely accepted that the Quds Force was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American troops during the U.S. occupation of Iraq, arming local insurgents with sophisticated armor-piercing roadside bombs.

RTR4VNPB A portrait of Quds Force commander Major General Qassem Soleimani is seen during a demonstration in Baghdad, Iraq, on March 31, 2015. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

Such activities indicate one of Iran's most valuable non-conventional weapons. Financial and military support for anti-Israeli militant groups across the Middle East give it a way to hit its rivals in the event of conflict. The Shiite Lebanese Hezbollah group, especially, is a worry for Israeli leaders. Hezbollah has a well-trained and well-equipped military, far more powerful than the Lebanese army and able to operate freely.

Hezbollah's experience fighting alongside regime forces in Syria has given it vital combat exposure. The group maintains a huge rocket arsenal, and its weapons can hit anywhere in Israel. Iran also provides support to the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad groups in Gaza, which maintain smaller, but still significant, rocket capabilities.

The cyber frontier

Cyber warfare has emerged to become one of the most potent weapons of war. A nation’s entire power grid could be shut down without a shot being fired, inflicting as much damage as hundreds of rockets or laser-guided bombs.

Israel was an early adopter of this technology, and worked with the U.S. to develop the infamous Stuxnet virus which heralded the arrival of cyber warfare on a large scale. A 2010 Stuxnet attack on the Iranian Natanz nuclear facility destroyed around 20 percent of all centrifuges at the site.  

RTR1Z9PX Then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility, near Tehran, Iran, on April 8, 2008. The U.S.-Israeli Stuxnet attack crippled the plant. REUTERS/Presidential official website/Handout

Caught flat-footed in 2010, Iran has since invested heavily to close the cyber gap with its rival, and the two nations are now near-constantly engaged in probing attacks. According to IDF officials, Israel’s military fights off hundreds of Iranian attacks every day. Tehran has also used its increasingly sophisticated cyber arm to target the U.S. and other regional adversaries, stealing intelligence and conducting illegal surveillance.

The global context

No nation exists in a vacuum and no war is fought without the involvement of outside actors. Israeli and Iranian relationships with the world’s great powers would be hugely influential in the event of a conflict.

Israel and the U.S. have a historically close relationship that includes substantial American military aid. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, hastily arranged shipments of American arms helped Israel stave off imminent defeat by a coalition of Arab powers. Israeli leaders were so worried that the country’s nuclear weapons were readied for a last-ditch strike. Successive U.S. administrations have affirmed Washington's support for Israel against outside threats. 

Iran has grown increasingly close to Russia in recent years, and the two nations have stood firmly behind Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, even after American and Israeli strikes on the country. Iran and Russia form a counter-weight to U.S.-Israeli hegemony in the region, and have been bullish in implementing foreign policy.

Of course, a conflict between Israel and Iran would be significant enough to make all nations stop and consider the implications. It is unlikely—especially with President Donald Trump in the White House—that the U.S. would ever allow Israel to lose a war against Iran. Though of course, given the military, diplomatic and geographical realities of such a conflict, a traditional invasion and occupation-style war is not particularly feasible.

How the web of diplomatic entanglements would play out when missiles begin to fly is unclear. Baffa told Newsweek there would be a strong possibility that an Israeli-Iranian conflict could expand into a broader regional war. "If Iranian forces in Syria attack Israel, Israeli attacks against the Iranian mainland cannot be discounted."

He continued: "Possible Saudi covert cooperation that allows the IDF to launch air and missile strikes against Iran through Saudi air space might prompt retaliatory Iranian missile strikes and cyber-attacks against key Saudi targets, broadening the conflict into the Persian Gulf and threatening to draw in the U.S. in defense of its Gulf allies." The world's major powers would likely look to limit and contain a conflict, given its potential to set the entire region alight.

This article has been updated to include more information on the military capabilities of both Israel and Iran, to clarify the roles of Israel's different missile defense networks and special forces units, to include more information on Iranian air power and to add comments from Richard Baffa.

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