5 Factors in Israel’s Rise as a Military Power

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Israel doesn’t have the resources to field a large military, given its population of only 8 million and a land area roughly the size of New Jersey. Yet Israel’s military is widely regarded as one of the finest in the world. According to GlobalFirepower.com, Israel has the 10th most powerful military in the world. The country created its Israel Defense Forces in May 1948 specifically with national defense in mind. Israel has a relatively small number of infantry, a small coastal naval force instead of a blue-water navy and no heavy bombers to project power over long distances. These limitations make it unsuited to take on much of a sustained offensive or expeditionary posture in the Middle East, let alone the globe. But factors such as training, technology, a tight partnership with the United States and high morale act as force multipliers that increase the IDF’s power far beyond its small numbers. Here’s a look at how this small country became an elite military power.


5. Israel Has a Proud Warrior Tradition

The Jewish people have a long history of prevailing against larger forces.

Israeli F-16I jets fly over Tel Aviv on the country’s independence day in 2011; Israel Defense Forces

Long before the formation of the modern state of Israel, Jewish people had a history of resilience. Perhaps the best example of their toughness came against the Romans in 73 A.D. A Roman army laid siege to the Jewish mountaintop fortress known as Masada, determined to crush a force of Jewish rebels. After a drawn-out campaign the attackers finally stormed the walls only to find that more than 900 men, women and children had committed mass suicide rather than surrender.

Since its inception in 1948, the Israel Defense Forces has fought in several conflicts against far larger and better-equipped forces and emerged victorious, most notably in the Six Day War in 1967. In that conflict, Israel faced an alliance that included Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Those Arab countries had a 2-1 advantage in troops and a more than 3-1 advantage in aircraft and tanks, yet Israel scored a decisive victory. Six years later, most of those same Arab countries launched a surprise attack on Israel during the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur. Once again, despite being heavily outnumbered in personnel and outgunned in tanks and artillery, the Israelis repelled the invasion. Israeli special forces also earned legendary status after their daring July 1976 commando raid at the Entebbe International Airport in Uganda. Terrorists held more than 100 Jewish and Israeli hostages from an Air France flight at the airport and threatened them with death. Israeli commandoes rescued the hostages in a hastily planned but well-executed operation.


4. Israel Has Compulsory Military Service

Israel has compulsory military service for both men and women.

Female IDF officers undergo field training; Israel Defense Forces

Not only does Israel have a conscription military in which all 18-year-old men serve, it also requires all young women to serve.  The one qualification is that service is voluntary for religious minorities such as Muslims and Christians. Israeli men and women serve a period of active duty — four years for officers, three years for men, 21 months for women — then are placed on reserve until age 24 for women, and age 51 for men. This reserve gives Israel an enormous pool from which to draw in times of conflict. Conscription allows a country of a little less than 8 million people to field an active duty military of approximately 176,000 and a reserve force of 445,000, according to the IDF. Universal military service has had a galvanizing and cohesive effect on Israeli society. Most citizens, regardless of politics, recognize the need for a strong and vigilant military to keep the country secure in an unpredictable and dangerous part of the world.


3. Israel Enjoys Great Political and Financial Support From the U.S.

Israel receives some $3 billion in annual foreign aid from the United States.

Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system intercepts a rocket from the Gaza Strip in November 2012; Israel Defense Forces

It’s impossible to put a price tag on the value of Israel’s close political relationship with the United States, but financial support is another matter. Since World War II, Israel has been the largest cumulative beneficiary of foreign aid from the United States, receiving about  $3 billion in financial assistance every year. The U.S. did not always have such a close relationship with the tiny Jewish state, but Cold War tensions in the 1950s and 1960s helped to solidify it. The Soviet Union built close ties with Israel’s Arab enemies, providing extensive funds for training and weapons. The U.S. responded by forging a relationship with Israel that continued to grow stronger even as the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s. The financial support has helped Israel develop numerous effective weapons systems such as the Merkava tank and the much-heralded Iron Dome anti-missile defense system. This anti-missile system is particularly important for Israel because the country’s small size means it does not have much time to respond to missile attacks launched close to its borders. Such is the advanced state of Israeli weapons technology that in recent years the U.S. has stepped up its purchase of weapons systems developed in Israel.


2. Israel Spends a Large Percentage of its GDP on National Defense

Israel spends a large percentage of its Gross Domestic Product on national defense.

Israel Navy patrol boat guards Haifa Bay; Israel Defense Forces

A quality military takes a serious financial commitment. Israel’s small but innovative economy has been able to support the IDF’s spending requirements. The military receives about $50 billion a year for things like training, research and development, equipment procurement and operations. In 2011, spending on the IDF was 6.5% of GDP, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. This ranks fourth in the world, but bear in mind that this is a relatively large percentage of a fairly small economy. This level of spending does not exactly equate to a war footing, but it does reflect the serious nature of the nation’s strategic position in the Middle East. Israel’s short history is rife with short, intense wars and smaller conflicts that have convinced its people of the necessity of maintaining a battle-ready military. Whereas larger nations can endure a military defeat and carry on, as the United States did after Vietnam, Israel’s very existence would be threatened by a defeat at the hands of an Arab neighbor.


1. Israeli Troops Endure Rigorous Training, But Have Great Leeway

Israeli forces endure rigorous training.

IDF combat officers practice guerrilla warfare techniques in Northern Israel; Israeli Defense Forces

A comprehensive training program is the foundation for an effective military. The Israel Defense Forces has recognized this from the beginning and strives to continually update both entry level and advanced training programs. Training is geared to the practical needs of the military while emphasizing cooperation and communication between the services to enhance their effectiveness. Regular training exercises, both large and small scale, are a staple of IDF training and help keep them ready to face asymmetric challenges like Hamas. The IDF has close operational ties with the U.S. military, but holds exercises and training events with other partners as well including France, India and Germany. The IDF also encourages a “whatever works” mentality from its enlisted men and officers. They cultivate a combination of high- and low-tech solutions depending on the needs of a particular mission. These training tactics, along with the other aforementioned factors, explain Israel’s basic philosophy of a “smaller, smarter army.”


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Mike Phelps earned a B.A. in history from the University of Connecticut and an M.A. in military history from Norwich University. He published a book about the War on Terror called A Short History of the Long War.