There’s a patently false notion that Israel has the 4th or 5th largest military in the world (the implication being, I suppose, that Israel has no worries for its security). It’s true that Israel has had to maintain an inordinately large military for such a small country, and it is a major regional power. With Israel soon to observe another Memorial Day for its more than 20,000 war dead, coming on the eve of Independence Day, let’s examine this widely repeated claim.
Click here for a relevant Wikipedia entry. These are the countries listed with larger military forces than Israel (not in perfect size order): China, Russia, USA, India, Pakistan, North Korea, South Korea, Brazil, Iran, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Indonesia, Thailand, Turkey, Vietnam.
By this count, Israel’s military is 17th in size. If one discounts the Syrian and Iraqi armies, given the losses they’ve suffered in their current civil wars, it may be fair to rank the IDF as 15th.
I had thought that Israel might rank 4th or 5th in its air force, but no. According to this online source, Global Firepower, Israel is 16th in number of aircraft, fewer than Brazil and Italy. In another listing from that source, Israel ranks 35th in the size of its navy. In a ranking of overall conventional military strength (leaving out nuclear weapons), Global Firepower places Israel as 11th, just behind Turkey, but ahead of Canada and Indonesia.
Obviously, Israel punches above its weight, as the expression goes. We know it has a qualitative edge over a number of those countries with larger forces (especially in its air force). But we should keep in mind that Israel’s long, narrow shape gives it very difficult borders to defend, whether or not the West Bank is included.
And if you look again at that first list, you’d discover that all the other countries have much bigger populations, by at least multiples of three, and most have ten to twenty times Israel’s population, if not more. In other words, Israel is vulnerable geographically and lacks the population reserves that historically made it possible for countries to maintain massive empires, and to bounce back from costly defeats.
Aside from the obvious moral questions involved in dominating another people by force, as Israel does in its occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, these weaknesses should motivate Israel to do all it can to achieve peace on practical grounds.
I’ve had some disagreement with one of our PPI colleagues, Irwin Wall, on nomenclature. He argues: “With its nuclear weapons and the advanced technological state of its conventional weapons I regard Israel as a superpower, but in the end that becomes an argument over words.”
Still, I agree with Irwin that Israel’s main security challenge is entangled with
. . . its internal situation and policies. Neither its jets nor its nukes will be of use against another intifada in which its repression will take place with the world watching. In my estimation that is a bigger danger than any foreign army.