Small, But Strong: Israel is the Middle East’s Military Superpower
Since 1948, the state of Israel has fielded a frighteningly effective military machine.
Here's What You Need To Remember: When considering the effectiveness of Israeli weapons, and the expertise of the men and women who wield them, it’s worth noting that for all the tactical and operational success the IDF has enjoyed, Israel remains in a strategically perilous position. The inability of Israel to develop long-term, stable, positive relationships with its immediate neighbors, regional powers, and the subject populations of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip means that Jerusalem continues to feel insecure, its dominance on land, air, and sea notwithstanding.
Since 1948, the state of Israel has fielded a frighteningly effective military machine. Built on a foundation of pre-independence militias, supplied with cast-off World War II weapons, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have enjoyed remarkable success in the field. In the 1960s and 1970s, both because of its unique needs and because of international boycotts, Israel began developing its own military technologies, as well as augmenting the best foreign tech. Today, Israel boasts one of the most technologically advanced military stockpiles in the world, and one of the world’s most effective workforces.
(This first appeared in 2015.)
Here are five of the most deadly systems that the Israeli Defense Forces currently employ.
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The Merkava tank joined the IDF in 1979, replacing the modified foreign tanks (most recently of British and American vintage) that the Israelis had used since 1948. Domestic design and construction avoided problems of unsteady foreign supply, while also allowing the Israelis to focus on designs optimized for their environment, rather than for Central Europe. Around 1,600 Merkavas of various types have entered service, with several hundred more still on the way.
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The Merkava entered service after the great tank battles of the Middle East had ended (at least for Israel). Consequently, the Merkavas have often seen combat in different contexts that their designers expected. The United States took major steps forward with the employment of armor in Iraq and Afghanistan (particularly in the former) in a counter-insurgency context, but the Israelis have gone even farther. After mixed results during the Hezbollah war, the IDF, using updated Merkava IVs, has worked hard to integrate the tanks into urban fighting. In both of the recent Gaza wars, the IDF has used Merkavas to penetrate Palestinian positions while active defense systems keep crews safe. Israel has also developed modifications that enhance the Merkavas’ capabilities in urban and low-intensity combat.
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Indeed, the Merkavas have proved so useful in this regard that Israel has cancelled plans to stop line production, despite a lack of significant foreign orders.
The Israeli Air Force has flown variants of the F-15 since the 1970s, and has become the world’s most versatile and effective user of the Eagle. As Tyler Rogoway’s recent story on the IAF fleet makes clear, the Israelis have perfected the F-15 both for air supremacy and for strike purposes. Flown by elite pilots, the F-15Is (nicknamed “thunder”) of the IAF remain the most lethal squadron of aircraft in the Middle East.
The F-15I provides Israel with several core capabilities. It remains an effective air-to-air combat platform, superior to the aircraft available to Israel’s most plausible foes (although the Eurofighter Typhoons and Dassault Rafales entering service in the Gulf, not to mention Saudi Arabia’s own force of F-15SAs, undoubtedly would provide some competition. But as Rogoway suggests, the Israelis have worked long and hard at turning the F-15 into an extraordinarily effective strike platform, one capable of hitting targets with precision at long range. Most analysts expect that the F-15I would play a key role in any Israeli strike against Iran, along with some of its older brethren.
The earliest Israeli nuclear deterrent came in the form of the F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers that the IAF used to such great effect in conventional missions in the War of Attrition and the Yom Kippur War. Soon, however, Israel determined that it required a more effective and secure deterrent, and began to invest heavily in ballistic missiles. The Jericho I ballistic missile entered service in the early 1970s, to eventually be replaced by the Jericho II and Jericho III.
The Jericho III is the most advanced ballistic missile in the region, presumably (Israel does not offer much data on its operation) capable of striking targets not only in the Middle East, but also across Europe, Asia, and potentially North America. The Jericho III ensures that any nuclear attack against Israel would be met with devastating retaliation, especially as it is unlikely that Israel could be disarmed by a first strike. Of course, given that no potential Israeli foe has nuclear weapons (or will have them in the next decade, at least), the missiles give Jerusalem presumptive nuclear superiority across the region.
Israel acquired its first submarine, a former British “S” class, in 1958. That submarine and others acquired in the 1960s played several important military roles, including defense of the Israeli coastline, offensive operations against Egyptian and Syrian shipping, and the delivery of commando teams in war and peace. These early boats were superseded by the Gal class, and finally by the German Dolphin class (really two separate classes related to the Type 212) boats, which are state-of-the-art diesel-electric subs.
The role of the Dolphin class in Israel’s nuclear deterrent has almost certainly been wildly overstated. The ability of a diesel electric submarine to carry out deterrent patrols is starkly limited, no matter what ordnance they carry. However, the Dolphin remains an effective platform for all sorts of other missions required by the IDF. Capable of maritime reconnaissance, of sinking or otherwise interdicting enemy ships, and also of delivering special forces to unfriendly coastlines, the Dolphins represent a major Israeli security investment, and one of the most potentially lethal undersea forces in the region.
The Israeli Soldier:
The technology that binds all of these other systems together is the Israeli soldier. Since 1948 (and even before) Israel has committed the best of its human capital to the armed forces. The creation of fantastic soldiers, sailors, and airmen doesn’t happen by accident, and doesn’t result simply from the enthusiasm and competence of the recruits. The IDF has developed systems of recruitment, training, and retention that allow it to field some of the most competent, capable soldiers in the world. None of the technologies above work unless they have smart, dedicated, well-trained operators to make them function at their fullest potential.
When considering the effectiveness of Israeli weapons, and the expertise of the men and women who wield them, it’s worth noting that for all the tactical and operational success the IDF has enjoyed, Israel remains in a strategically perilous position. The inability of Israel to develop long-term, stable, positive relationships with its immediate neighbors, regional powers, and the subject populations of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip means that Jerusalem continues to feel insecure, its dominance on land, air, and sea notwithstanding. Tactics and technologies, however effective and impressive, cannot solve these problems; only politics can.
Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to TNI, is a Visiting Professor at the United States Army War College. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.