The Arab-Israeli Military Balance in 2010

Major changes are taking place in the Arab-Israeli military balance. These changes are described in a new report on the balance called  “THE ARAB-ISRAELI MILITARY BALANCE: Conventional Realities and Asymmetric Challenges.” It is available on the CSIS web site at

The Trends in the Conventional Balance

Major changes have not taken place in the  conventional military balance. Syria’s conventional military capabilities have declined steadily due to a lack of arms imports, modernization of the Syrian force structure and training methods, and the steady politicization of Syrian forces. In contrast, Israel has benefited from Egyptian and Jordanian adherence to their peace treaties, the disappearance of Iraq as a potential source of outside military aid to the Arab forces, and the continuing weakness of Lebanon’s regular military forces. Palestinian Authority paramilitary security forces do not threaten Israel’s security --  in fact, they have steadily improved in reducing the threat of terrorism on the West Bank.

As the report shows, Israel has also benefited from continuing US aid and arms transfers – benefits that are substantially greater than the dollar figures show because Israel is able to draw on the most advanced US military technology, often on preferential terms, and integrate into its own advanced military industrial base. Israeli political claims that the Obama Administration has somehow distanced itself from a concern with Israel’s security have not been reflected in arms transfers and security cooperation.

There is yet another series of unconfirmed reports of massive Syrian arms purchases from Russia. There reports, however, have occurred regularly now for nearly 20 years. They have not had any meaningful impact in shifting the Israeli-Syrian balance in Syria’s favor since the mid-1980s. Even if confirmed, arms sales would take up to half a decade to actually be transferred to Syria and absorbed into Syria’s forces. Major shifts would also have to take place in Syria’s training and leadership to use such systems effectively. Israel does not face any meaningful threat to its decisive conventional “edge” of superiority so long as Egypt and Jordan adhere to their peace treaties.

The Asymmetric or Irregular Warfare Balances

At the same time, the balance is shifting in other ways. Iran, Syria, and non-state actors that deny Israel’s right to exist continue to pose a growing threat. Hezbollah has not only rearmed, it has acquired longer-range and more effective rockets, greatly improved its command and control capabilities, and has augmented the survivability of its power structure in Lebanon. There are no reliable unclassified data to document these trends, but it is clear that they are taking place. The key question is how much influence Iran and/or Syria have over Hezbollah, and the extent to which it will either be a proxy or partner in threatening or attacking Israel at any serious level of irregular warfare. Hezbollah may be more interested in political power and continued autonomy in Lebanon than posing a serious threat to Israel.

Hamas presents similar problems. It has rearmed with rockets and other light weapons systems, but no reliable unclassified data exist to measure the exact degree to which Hamas poses a threat. Hamas also has been steadily involved in a power struggle in Gaza in which it has focused on eliminating the remnants of the Palestinian authority’s power base and influence while preventing the rise of harder line rivals. It is not clear how much Hamas will continue to focus on strengthening its own power base, or turn back towards posing an active threat to Israel. It is clear that Iran and Syria can exploit arms transfers and support to Hamas for their own political ends, and continue to do so.

The balance of asymmetric capability is heavily dependent on how each nation and non-state actor manipulates local, regional, and global perceptions. In general, Hezbollah and Hamas have exploited Israel’s continuing lack of political skill and competent strategic communication to achieve gains in the balance of perceptions.  Iran and Syria have also shown they are able to achieve gains by exploiting their support of anti-Israeli non-state actors at little cost or risk. Moreover, Syria has steadily reasserted its influence in Lebanon through its ties to Hezbollah and other Lebanese allies.

It is far less clear, however, that this has gives Iran or Syria any equal advantage in shaping the balance of regional security or posing an active threat to Israel. In fact, Iran in particular may find putting this kind of pressure on Israel a way to win popular Arab support, and undercut moderate Arab regimes, while it expands its influence in the Gulf.

The Balance in Missiles and Long Range Strike Systems, Missile Defenses, and Weapons of Mass Destruction

Israel retains a major advantage in long-range missiles, long-range air strike capabilities, nuclear weapons, and missile/land-based air defenses. Syria and Iran are, however, improving their missile strike capabilities – albeit largely in terms of deploying systems that could be little more than inaccurate terror weapons, unless armed with a highly effective chemical or biological warhead, or with nuclear weapons.

Iran is a declared chemical weapons power, and Syria almost certainly has been developing and producing some chemical weapons for several decades. Iran and Syria have at least unitary warheads and bombs that can be armed with nerve gas, and may have warheads and bombs with cluster munitions. If so, the effectiveness and lethality of such weapons is unknown. Israel probably has at least some munitions with nerve gas, and Egyptian stocks of such weapons are possible. The status of the biological weapons efforts in Israel, Syria, Egypt, and Iran is unclear. It is probable that all four countries have at least conducted major research and preliminary development of such weapons – even if this is only part of a necessary defense effort.

Iran still seems several years away from a nuclear fission device, much less effective bombs or warheads. Syria’s effort to create a reactor that could produce fissile material has been destroyed by Israeli air strikes.

As even widely available open source material like Wikepedia shows, however, Israel, has probably had nuclear bombs and warheads since the 1960s, and has built up a stockpile of thermonuclear, boosted, and fission weapons. It has steadily improved its missile delivery capabilities, and deployed long range missiles capable of hitting any target in the Middle East and Iran in the form of the “Jericho 3.” This was probably directed more at Iraq than Iran, but has given Israel the capabilities it needs to target Iran in depth.

While Iraq may eventually pose an “existential threat” to Israel, Israel already poses an existential threat to Iran and every Arab power, and this threat is growing steadily because of hyperurbanization. The result is a quiet nuclear arms race where Iran may become an entry, but Israel has a decisive lead which it may expand by sea-basing nuclear-armed cruise missiles on its submarines and surface ships. Israel also has a decisive lead in anti-missile and land-based air defenses that will continue until Iran or Syria deploy mature and combat effective national defenses with advanced systems like the S300/S400. So far, procurement efforts to that effect have failed to materialize.

The wild card in this quiet race in weapons of mass destruction is biological warfare. All of the major states in the Middle East that affect the Arab-Israel balance are acquiring the technology and industrial base to produce advanced genetically engineered biological weapons. Such capabilities may also be within the grasp of non-state actors in the mid-term. There are no meaningful control or inspection options to prevent this, and no prospect that any weapons of mass destruction free zone agreement could deal even with this aspect of the arms race in the region.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy
Aram Nerguizian
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Burke Chair in Strategy