Asymmetric engagements: Israel’s technological supremacy versus Iran’s numerical might

According to a report in the New York Times, Iran’s main adversaries, particularly the United States and Israel, have refrained from direct military actions against Iran for years, preferring to avoid conflict with its formidable military structure.

The ongoing military conflict between Israel and Iran is turning into a serious concern. How ready is Israel to handle a war on multiple fronts against Iran and its partners? Iran’s main ally in the Middle East is Hezbollah in Lebanon. Additionally, the Houthi militia in Yemen and various Shi’ite militias in Iraq may also join, or support, Iran militarily. In the event of a prolonged military conflict between Israel and Iran, the former would need to consider several unpredictable factors.

A major concern is whether Iran’s unofficial partners would join in the conflict.

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“Israel has been preparing for the possibility of a multi-front war for a long time,” Arye Sharuz Shalicar, an Israeli army spokesperson, said to DW. He said they had concentrated on three key areas:

  • They have expanded their defence systems—especially air defences, such as Iron Dome, Patriot, David’s Sling (also known as Magic Wand), and the Arrow system
  • They are constantly improving their offensive capabilities. Defence, alone, may not be enough. But, under the principle, “attack is the best defence”, launching a counterattack may be inevitable.
  • Israel is building a wide-ranging regional and international alliance


Comparative Military Strengths

Iran’s GDP is $413 billion compared to Israel’s $539 billion. This economic difference extends into their military spending, as well, with Iran allocating about $10 billion to its military budget, while Israel spends approximately $24.4 billion—nearly 2.5 times more.

A significant advantage for Israel is the backing it receives from the United States. Annual US military aid to Israel amounts to $3.8 billion, enhancing Israel’s arsenal with more advanced weapons and greater force readiness. This support positions Israel as one of the most powerful militaries in West Asia.

Contrast  Between Military Personnel

Iran appears stronger in sheer numbers. With a population of approximately 89 million, Iran far outnumbers Israel, which has about 10 million residents. This numerical advantage extends to military size, as well. Iran’s military is one of the largest in West Asia, boasting around 580,000 active personnel and 200,000 trained reservists. In contrast, Israel has about 170,000 active military members and 465,000 reservists, making Iran’s active force more than three times that of Israel’s.

According to a report in the New York Times, Iran’s main adversaries, particularly the United States and Israel, have refrained from direct military actions against Iran for years, preferring to avoid conflict with its formidable military structure.

Afshon Ostovar, associate professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and an expert on Iran’s military, explained to an American news outlet that Iran had avoided being targeted not because its adversaries were afraid, but because they understand that a war with Iran would be extremely serious. This detail was also highlighted by Firstpost.

Iran-Israel Tank Strength Comparison

Regarding ground forces, Israel has 1,370 tanks, while Iran has 1,996. Iran manufactures its own tanks, such as the Zulfiqar series and Karar MPT, generally based on older designs. Additionally, Iran produces its versions of the T-72, T-54 and T-55 tanks, which are seen as less capable compared to Israel’s advanced Merkava Mark IV tanks, considered among the best armoured tanks available.

Air Power is the Key to Engagement

According to the Global Firepower Index, Israel has a stronger air force than Iran, possessing 612 fighter jets compared to Iran’s 551. However, the quality of the aircraft is also crucial, Hinz explained to DW. Israel Air Force includes at least 66 F-15s, 175 F-16s and 27 F-35 stealth fighters. It is considered one of the best in the world and also has around 63 F-4s and 26 F-14s.

Hinz mentioned that Iran did not, particularly, depend on its aircraft strength, as sanctions have largely prevented it from updating its fleet. He noted that Iran managed to buy some aircraft in the 1990s and is currently interested in acquiring Russian-made planes. Most of Iran’s aircraft, including the F-4 Phantom, F-5 Tiger and F-14 Tomcat fighter jets, feature outdated technology from the 1970s and 1980s.

Overview of Their Naval Capabilities

Although neither Iran, nor Israel, has a significant naval force, Iran is recognized for its capability to conduct small boat attacks. Global Firepower notes that Iran has a total fleet strength of 101 ships compared to Israel’s 67. Iran also has 19 submarines, while Israel has five.

And Now, Iran’s Missile Capability

Tehran has concentrated mainly on developing missiles and drones. Yet, it is uncertain how effective these would be against an Israeli air assault. According to a report from The International Institute for Strategic Studies, quoted by First Post, Iran possesses one of the biggest collections of ballistic missiles and drones in West Asia. This arsenal includes cruise missiles, anti-ship missiles and ballistic missiles that can travel up to 2,000 kilometres, capable of reaching any target, including Israel.

Iran has openly showcased its accumulation of drones and missiles in military parades, and aims to expand its drone export business. Iranian drones are currently being used by Russia in Ukraine and have also appeared in the conflict in Sudan. Alexander Grinberg, an Iran expert at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, told DW that recent Iranian drone and missile attacks have highlighted areas where Israel needs to strengthen its defences. He said these drones could be relatively easy to shoot down due to their slow speed, noting that even simple machineguns could do the job. However, the challenge lies in the vast number of drones—and not just their type.

Grinberg explained that the attack on Sunday (April 14, 2024) showed the importance of Israel being able to defend against attacks from many drones. He emphasised that Israel needed to be ready for such scenarios. Additionally, some of the missiles were intercepted by Israel’s allies—the US, UK and Jordan. He stated that, regardless of whether 300 or 3,000 missiles were launched, some would, inevitably, get through the defence shield. He emphasised the importance of having an effective civilian defence system, including an early warning system and air raid shelters, to handle such situations.

And a Look at Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal

Regarding nuclear capabilities, Israel holds an advantage. A report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), as mentioned by Firstpost, estimates that Israel possesses around 80 nuclear warheads. About 30 of these are gravity bombs, deployable via aircraft, while the other 50 can be launched using Jericho-II medium-range ballistic missiles. These missiles are reportedly stationed with their mobile launchers in underground facilities at a military base east of Jerusalem.

Comparative Regional Dynamics

According to the Global Firepower Index2024, the military strengths of Israel and Iran are quite close. Iran is ranked 14th worldwide, with Israel just behind at 17th. The index also provides a head-to-head comparison of the two militaries. It shows that Iran surpasses Israel in manpower, as well as in the number of tanks and armoured vehicles. The countries are divided by other nations—Iraq and Jordan—with about 1,850 kilometres (1,149 miles) separating Jerusalem and Tehran.

Fabian Hinz, a Middle East expert at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), told DW a conflict would likely not be a traditional war, but more of an exchange of long-distance strikes.  He further noted that any military conflict between Israel and Iran would mainly involve aerial engagements. However, considering their geographical positions, these factors may not be the most crucial in the event of a military conflict between Israel and Iran.

Iran’s Regional Reach through Proxies

Iran supports, and equips, a network of proxy militias across West Asia, known as the ‘axis of resistance’, including such groups as the Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, militias in Syria and Iraq and both Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza. Although they are not officially part of Iran’s military, these proxy militias are well-equipped, combat-ready and strongly committed to Iran—and ready to support Tehran, if needed.

Spanning from Lebanon to Pakistan, this network is crucial to Tehran’s security, durability and regional sway. These proxies give Iran a strategic advantage and broad influence across the region, while also shielding Iranian leaders from the direct consequences of their actions.

Hezbollah, Potential Game Changer: According to a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington report, Hezbollah is, possibly, the world’s most armed non-state entity—often described as Iran’s ‘spearhead’. The European Union has labeled Hezbollah’s military division a ‘terrorist group’ due to its numerous rocket attacks on Israel. Estimates suggest that Hezbollah has between 120,000 and 200,000 rockets and, according to a CSIS study, Iran could rapidly re-supply the Hezbollah militia if war breaks out, as reported by DW.

Most of Hezbollah’s weaponry includes unguided short-range projectiles. But the group has significantly enhanced its collection of long-range missiles, according to the IISS’s Hinz. Additionally, he noted that Hezbollah could launch attacks from Syrian soil.

Israel could deploy the Iron Dome system to counter missile strikes from Lebanon, Hinz explained. He added that, while these defence systems were, generally, always prepared and performed very well, the sheer volume of rockets presented the primary challenge.

(Views expressed in the article are of author’s own and do not reflect the editorial stance of Business Upturn)