Iran vs Israel: Armies, air forces and nuclear weapons

Assessing statistics for the two regional rivals at the heart of the Middle East dispute over nuclear arms.

Yasser missile in Iran

Israel, the US, and some European powers have alleged that Iran aims to build nuclear weapons to complement its conventional arms, but Tehran says its current programme is for peaceful, civilian purposes.

Regardless, Western powers generally agree that Iran does not yet have a nuclear weapon and is at least many, many months away from having a deliverable warhead – if the development of one is indeed its goal.

While a military strike on Iranian nuclear sites is far from certain, the possibility of a confrontation looms nonetheless. A look at the comparative strengths of the Iranian and Israeli forces reveals discrepancies in both equipment, capabilities and numbers of enlisted troops.

Iran has a population ten times larger than Israel’s, from which to draw its armed forces, but much of its military hardware is of dubious condition – due to the arms embargo in place since in various forms since 1979.

Many Iranian tanks and planes use older technology with varying levels of maintenance and modernity, says David Roberts, deputy director at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). The country’s most recent major engagement was an almost decade-long war with Iraq in the 1980s, after which Iran has credibly maintained a “no first-strike doctrine” along with a code of “plausible deniability” for irregular military actions, he says.

“In a very general sense, it’s no secret or cutting-edge analysis that Israel’s military is the best-equipped and best-trained in the whole region,” says Roberts. “But some sections of [Iran’s military] are battle-tested.”

“Then again, it’s not Iran’s conventional forces which are the concern [for the US and its allies]. The Revolutionary Guards are better-paid and organised [than the rest of Iran’s military],” Roberts told Al Jazeera. “Their Quds Force and naval capabilities are a big unknown – especially the asymmetrical way that they would fight with these unusual weapons, in small decentralised units.” 

Roberts also says, while the two militaries are not likely to enter direct army-to-army combat any time soon, they may well end up squaring off via proxy forces in Gulf or Mediterranean states. Any direct confrontation between Israel and Iran would likely involve long-distance aircraft, air-defence weaponry, small naval craft and ballistic missiles.

“The way to best characterise the Iranian view of the Israeli military is to look from the point of view of geography,” says Kamran Bokhari, Vice-President of Middle Eastern and South Asian Affairs with Stratfor. “On a map, Israel may not appear too far from Iran, but in reality, they are too far from each other to be engaged in some sustained conflict.

“It’s not as though Iran has reach into Israel, and even though Israel has a far superior military, it is unable to wage a [long-term] campaign against Iran,” Bokhari told Al Jazeera. “Iranians know that, and aren’t concerned about Israel attacking as much are they are concerned about the US … with assets very close to Iranian borders.”

By the numbers

Military data
Total population78.9 million7.5 million
Males 16-49 23 million1.8 million
Active forces545,000187,000
Reserve duty650,000565,000
Defence budget$9.2 billion

$13.5 billion

The Israeli military, having fought repeatedly with several neighbours for the better part of its existence, is made up of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF, also known by Hebrew acronym Tzahal), Israel Naval Force (IN) and Israel Air Force (IAF). Service is compulsory for most Jewish and Druze citizens starting at 18 years old.

Israel has 176,500 personnel on active service, made up of 133,000 in the army, which includes 107,000 conscripts. The navy has 9,500 sailors on active duty and there are 34,000 in the air force, as well as a total reserve force of 565,000.

Iran reprotedly has more than 523,000 personnel on active service, comprising 350,000 in the army, including 220,000 conscripts. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, viewed as the most loyal guardians of the ruling system, has a further 125,000 soldiers.

Young Iranian men are obliged to serve 18 months in the military service when they turn 19 years old, and volunteers begin at 18 years old. A paramilitary volunteer militia, the Basij Forces (literally “Mobilisation of the Oppressed”), takes members from age 15.

Charged with defending the country’s borders and maintaining internal order, Iran’s military is comprised of the Islamic Republic of Iran Regular Forces (Artesh), which has ground forces, a navy, an air force (IRIAF) and Khatemolanbia Air Defence Headquarters. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enqelab-e Islami) consists of the Ground Resistance Forces, Navy, Aerospace Force and the Quds Force (special operations).

There are 18,000 Iranian naval personnel and 30,000 air force personnel, including 12,000 in air defence.

Tanks, subs and planes

The Israeli army has more than 3,000 tanks, reported to include 441 Merkava MkI, 455 Merkava MkII, 454 Merkava MkIII, 175 Merkava MkIV and 206 Centurion models.

Army weaponry
Towed artillery2,010456
Self-propelled guns865620
Multiple rocket systems200138
Mortars5,000 750
Anti-tank weapons1,400 900
Anti-aircraft weapons1,701 200
Logistical vehicles12,000 7,684

The Israeli military also has, according to Reuters, some 10,484 armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and 5,432 artillery pieces, including 620 motorised and 456 towed pieces.

Iran’s military reportedly has 1,613 tanks, including some 100 locally produced Zulfiqar, about 100 ageing British-made Chieftain Mk3 and Mk5 models obtained before the 1979 revolution, alongside 150 US-made M-60A1s – as well as 480 Soviet-designed T-72 tanks and 540 T-54/T-55 models, according to the Reuters news agency.

Tehran also has about 640 APCs, in addition to 8,196 artillery pieces – of which 2,010 are towed and more than 800 are motorised.

The Israeli navy has three Dolphin (German-made type 212 variant) tactical submarines – thought to be nuclear-armed in order to give Israel offshore second strike capability – in addition to 57 patrol and coastal combat ships, including three corvettes.

Iran, on the other hand, has a significantly larger fleet of naval craft, containing 23 submarines, including 15 tactical subs; three Kilo-class Russian-made Type 877 diesel-electric attack submarines, 12 midget submarines (Iranian-built Ghadir and Nahang shallow-water vessels made for the Gulf) and eight swimmer delivery vehicles.

The Iranians also reportedly have more than 100 patrol and coastal combat ships, including six corvettes, 13 patrol craft, four patrol boats, 21 semi-submersible boats and 56 various other patrol vessels.

Naval power
Total navy ships26164
Merchant marine74 10 
Major ports/terminals 
Aircraft carriers 
Submarines 19 3
Patrol craft 198 42 
Amphibious assault craft 26 

The Israeli Air Force established a reputation for its precision during the 1967 Middle East war, but was heavily criticised in the wake of thousands of civilian deaths in the West Bank, Gaza and Lebanon in subsequent decades. It has 460 combat-capable aircraft, with 168 fighters, including 27 Boeing F15A Eagle, seven F15B and 90 F16A Fighting Falcons. The fleet also includes 227 ground attack fighters and 65 attack aircraft, in addition to nine tanker/transport aircraft and 77 other transport aircraft.

Israel maintains 81 attack helicopters, including 30 Bell AH-1E/AH-1F Cobra and 30 Boeing AH-64A Apache gunships, as well as 200 transport helicopters. Its air defence capabilities include 48 towed surface-to-air missile launchers (SAM) and 920 guns, as compared with the 279 SAM missiles reportedly held by Iran.

Iran’s air force is believed to contain some 336 combat-capable aircraft, including 189 fighter aircraft such as 20 US-made F5B jets, 60 F5E Tiger IIs and Russian-made 35 Mig-29A jets. The force is also understoof to have 108 ground attack aircraft, among them both Iranian and Russian-built craft, many of which were reportedly taken from Iraq. The country’s 116 transport aircraft were made in China, Netherlands and the US, among other places. The IRIAF also has 30 Bell 214C maritime reconnaissance helicopters.

Missile power

Iran’s approximately 1,000 strategic missiles, believed capable of striking throughout the Gulf and beyond, are reportedly controlled by the Revolutionary Guards, and include around 300 short-range ballistic missiles, including Iranian-made Shahab-1 (Scud-B), Shahab-2 (Scud-C), as well as Tondar-69 (CSS-8).

Tehran has also domestically produced Shahab-3 strategic intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM), with a reported range of up to 1,000km, the Ghadr-1 with an estimated 1,600km range and a Shahab-3 variant known as Sajjil-2 with a reported range of up to 2,400km, according to Reuters reports. If true, Israel and much of eastern Europe would be within range.

Missile arsenal
Short-rangeShahab-2 (1,280km)Jericho-1 (1,400km)
Medium-rangeGhadr-1 (1,600km)Jericho-2 (2,800km) 
Long-rangeSajjil-2 (2,400km)Jericho-3 (5,000km)

In January 2009, Iran said it had tested a new air-to-air missile. Then on March 7, 2010, Iran said it had started producing short-range cruise missiles it described as highly accurate and able to destroy heavy targets. The Revolutionary Guards have 24 launchers – of which 12 to 18 are for the short-range Shahab 1-2, and at least six are for the Shahab-3, Ghadr-1 and Sajjil-2.

“All of this is shrouded in mystery and not really transparent,” says Bokhari of Stratfor. “We don’t have a very good understanding of what Iran can actually do. There is a greater likelihood of Iranian missiles accurately targeting Arab states in the Gulf, but Israel is far away.”

Bokhari suggests that Iran’s power lies in its “ability to disrupt the global economy” and keeping the other side from unleashing a military campaign via “associated costs that are too high … The issue right now is Iran’s asymmetric capabilities, and future nuclear capabilities”.

During war games in early January 2012, Iran tested medium-range surface-to-air missiles in the Gulf which were domestically designed and built. The launch coincided with increasing international pressure over the country’s atomic programme.

While Iran has denied it is in the process of producing nuclear weapons, Israel is widely believed to have nuclear capability, despite its policy of “nuclear ambiguity”. Delivery means include Jericho-2 intermediate-range ballistic missiles and Jericho-1 short-range missiles. It is believed to have in the range of 200 nuclear warheads that it can launch with intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM).

On November 2, 2011, Israel test-fired an ICBM thought to be an upgraded Jericho-3 from the Palmachim base, with a potential payload of 1,000kg and capable of reaching as far as South America or Oceania. The next day, Israel staged a mass civil defence drill simulating a missile attack in the centre of the country.

Despite the conventional military advantage to Israel, Roberts, the security specialist at RUSI, believes that “the Israelis don’t have enough planes and enough of the right bombs to significantly set back whatever is going on in Iran … I don’t think it’s a very sensible thing to do. There should be no [illusion] that Israel can unilaterally put an end to the Iranian nuclear programme”.

“The one absolute kind of certainty is that, subsequent to a strike, Iran would be guaranteed to be pursuing the bomb vigorously and clandestinely.”

Follow Ben Piven on Twitter: @BenPiven

Source: CIA Factbook, Reuters