The Israeli and Syrian Conventional Military Balance

The armed forces of Israel and Syria have evolved in response to continued tension and the prospects for conflict between the two countries. The attached report summarizes the development of each country’s conventional military strengths and weaknesses in force strength, force quality, capabilities, and leadership. This report can be downloaded from here.

This report shows that there are significant uncertainties in the force counts of Israeli and Syrian forces available from unclassified sources. Israel's quantitative lead is matched by an even greater qualitative lead. This explains in good part why Syria is deterred from military adventures, rather than portraying what might happen in war.

Comparative Manpower Quantity and Quality

Total manpower is an uncertain measure when countries have such different force structures and set such different standards for manpower quality and training as Israel and Syria. Israel's active manpower has not changed radically over time, but has fluctuated according to fiscal and security pressures.

Israel remains heavily dependent on reserve versus active manpower, but it has now halted a recent trend toward force cuts and is rebuilding the training and readiness of both active manpower and reserves. If its high-quality reserves are added to its total actives, its force strength is far more competitive with its Arab neighbors.

Syria maintained extremely high manpower levels after its 1982 war with Israel, but then cut them back in the late 1990s, partly because of their cost and partly because it could not properly equip, train, and support such forces.

There is a serious gap in manpower quality between Israel and Syria, and Israel is the only country that has made major progress in developing a modern mix of "jointness" among its military services.

Israel also has modern and relatively well-trained reserves, many of which have had extensive practical experience in asymmetric warfare since 2000. Syrian reserve military forces are little more than "paper" forces with no real refresher or modern training, little or no exercise experience, poor equipment and readiness support, and little or no experience in mobility and sustainability.

Armor and Antitank Weapons

Israel has emphasized main battle tanks and armored personnel carriers (APCs) – many of which it has armed with light weapons.

Syria has supported its tanks with large numbers of other armored fighting vehicles (OAFVs) from the Soviet Bloc, but has much less overall armored mobility and far fewer armored personnel carriers. Syria’s forces seem to be deliberately tank heavy in an effort to provide enough tank numbers to try to compensate for the IDF’s superior tactics, training, leadership, and equipment.
Israel has a distinct lead in terms of armor with the Merkavas, and the M-60 series are still good tanks by regional standards. Israel also has a major lead in sheer numbers of all types of other armored vehicles, but many of these are open, World War II vintage armored, of which a large number are inoperable and in storage.

Many Syrian combat-capable armored fighting vehicle systems are worn and obsolete or obsolescent. Almost all, however, can play an important role in bringing infantry and weapons squads into the forward area and provide fire support.
Both sides have built up major stocks of antiarmor weapons. Israel has significant numbers of antitank guided missiles (ATGMs) and other antitank weapons, and it is steadily improving its ATGM and antiarmor submunition technology. Syria has exceptionally large numbers of ATGMs and has focused on importing the latest weapons from Russia in recent years. Syria has done so because Israel has forced it to react defensively against Israeli tank attacks.

Artillery Weapons

As might be expected from armies that have fought several major wars of maneuver, Israel and Syria all have large numbers of self-propelled artillery weapons – although the ratios differ and there are major differences in equipment quality.
Israel and Syria also have significant numbers of multiple rocket launchers (MRLs) and surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs). Israel has developed a family of highly sophisticated rockets for its MRLs, and Syria is dependent on conventional Soviet-Bloc rounds with limited accuracy and lethality.
Israel’s advantages in precision artillery extend to include the ability to acquire targets and observe fire in real time using unmanned aerial vehicles and long-range ground based and other aerial sensors. Israel also has a major advantage in processing such data, joint air-land targeting and operations, and battle damage analysis.

Air Force Aircraft, Weapons, and Technology

While the number of total combat aircraft is not irrelevant, high quality air assets are the ones that really count. Israel has done the best job of emphasizing overall force quality over numbers and of funding full mission capability with all of the necessary munitions, force enablers, and sustainability.

Syria’s lead in total aircraft numbers is driven in part by the large number of obsolete and obsolescent aircraft in the Syrian forces. Syria is also trying to train for, maintain, arm, and sustain far too many different types of aircraft. This puts a major – and costly – burden on the air force and dilutes manpower quality, and does so with little, if any, actual benefit.

Israel has a major lead in both the quantity and quality of the air battle management, intelligence, warning, and targeting systems critical to making use of modern airpower and precision weapons. This advantage is greatly enhanced by the use of other technologies such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and intelligence satellites.

Comparative Land-Based Air Defense Forces

Israel and Syria both have large numbers of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), but only the Israeli Air Force has truly modern medium and long-range systems, radars, and command and control facilities. Israel also has access to the latest U.S. weapons and technologies and can develop advanced weapons systems of its own.

Syria’s system has many obsolescent and obsolete weapons and sensors and is vulnerable to Israeli real-time targeting, precision air and missile attack, and electronic countermeasures. Many of Syria’s longer-range systems – particularly the SA-2, the SA-3, the SA-5, and the SA-6 – are now so old that electronic and other countermeasures, including anti-radiation missiles, can deprive them of much of their effectiveness.

Comparative Naval Strength

Syria and Israel still maintain significant naval forces, but only Israel retains significant operational capability, and the naval forces on each side are now more likely to be used for asymmetric warfare missions or amphibious raids than in conventional combat. The Israel-Hezbollah War in 2006 showed that a non-state actor such as Hezbollah could use anti-ship missiles to attack one of the Israeli Navy’s most modern ships.

Israel has relatively modern and effective submarines and surface forces, backed by effective airpower. Israel has effective anti-ship missiles, as well as superior systems and targeting/electronic warfare capabilities. Syria’s navy is largely obsolete, ineffective, and dependent on aging anti-ship missiles. Its main surface assets spend little meaningful time at sea, while its three Romeo-class submarines have been withdrawn from service.

Comparative Trends in Military Expenditures

Israel maintains a clear lead in military expenditures, although its spending efforts dropped significantly after 2001 in spite of the Israeli-Palestinian War, while other Israeli security-related spending increased to pay for such civilian programs as roads and settlements.

Syria’s military expenditures continued to decline over most of the last decade and have been less than one-third of the level needed to pay for the mix of manpower quality, readiness, and modernization it would need to compete with Israel in overall conventional force quality. It is striking that Syria’s military expenditures burden is so close to that of Israel. Syria’s slow economic development has been a major factor limiting what it can spend.

Comparative Trends in Arms Imports

Israel has continued to receive far more arms imports than Syria and has placed far more new orders. Israel also has had large-scale access to U.S. arms imports, including the most modern equipment. Syria did increase its new orders during 2003-2006 versus 1995-2002, but the total remained less than one-third that of Israel, and again, Israel has the additional advantage of a major military-industrial base while Syria does not.


Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy