A ranking of military strength in the Middle East for 2021, released by Global Firepower, places the Turkish army at No. 1. It surprisingly places Israel fifth, and its arch-nemesis Iran third. The ranking of the top five based on Global Firepower’s formula may not be truly accurate, experts say, but the general trends it identifies are correct.
The popular ranking site Global Firepower, which orders the strength of 139 countries according to their military prowess, recently published its updated ranking of military might in the Middle East for 2021. Judging based on “values related to manpower, equipment, natural resources, finances and geography,” the site claims to present each country’s “potential war-making capability” when “fought by conventional means.”
The Middle East ranking follows its placement of the Turkish army first with Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel, as the region’s top military powers. Of these leading countries, the site claims that three have neither risen nor decreased in power, while Egypt and Israel have seen a reduction in estimated power.
The military strength of the United Arab Emirates, ranked sixth in the region, is on the rise, while No. 7 Iraq and No. 8 Syria – formerly prominent military powers in the region – continue their decline following years of crippling inner-country conflicts. Lebanon is last on the list at No. 15.
While the ranking site generates headlines every year when it is updated, its accuracy is often disputed. “It is all just playing with numbers – and it doesn’t mean anything,” retired Brig. Gen. Shlomo Brom, a former director of the Israel Defense Forces’ strategic planning division, and currently a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, told The Media Line.
Brom explains that these rankings invariably rely on limited data – only what is unclassified and available publicly – as well as on information that is numerical in nature, but limited in relevance. For example, the Global Firepower rankings point to the number of jets an army has in its possession to gauge its strength, but Brom says that the armaments carried by these planes are significantly more important.
“Does someone outside an intelligence service – that relies on unclassified information – have any idea?” he said, referring to the number of guided missiles stored by each army.
I think that there are many variables that are very difficult to measure. Some are social, some psychological and some logistical, and they focus on measuring quantity and not quality
Prof. Gabriel Ben-Dor, who heads the National Security Studies Program at the University of Haifa, also says that the information used to generate the rankings is not enough to make the placements accurate.
“I think that there are many variables that are very difficult to measure. Some are social, some psychological and some logistical, and they focus on measuring quantity and not quality,” he told The Media Line. “This means that there are many issues with these rankings,” he added.
However, while the specific rank of each country may not be accurate, Brom says that the larger trends Global Firepower highlights are probably correct.
It is “likely” that the top five countries indeed are the strongest in the region, he said, “but simply because there’s a very large difference between them and the rest of the countries as a result of the events of the past two decades.”
For example, according to Brom, “the Syrian army used to be a significant military force, but the Syrian civil war put an end to it.”
Brom called the ranking of the top five Middle East countries “an impossible task when you rely on publicly available information.”
Ben-Dor believes that Turkey, Egypt, Iran and Israel belong in the region’s top five, but says that Saudi Arabia is a different story. “I don’t think that Saudi Arabia belongs to this category at all,” he said, adding that “it belongs to it only economically.”
The professor points to Israel as a probable winner among the top five. “I would say that military experts would put Israel far ahead of the three or four other armies,” he said, explaining the IDF’s lead as stemming “from the technological advantages, from the quality of its manpower, because of its tradition and experiences in the battlefield.” And one must not forget Israel’s international relations and American support, he adds.
Global Firepower, however, puts the Turkish army first in the region. The Turkish Armed Forces are the only NATO members in the ranking, a fact that adds to their strength. The Turkish army is second in size in the NATO alliance, with the US being the largest. “They have a very large land force, on a global level,” Ben-Dor says of the Turkish army.
Notably, as part of its membership in NATO, Turkey is part of the nuclear-sharing policy, which means that it hosts nuclear bombs in its territory – although their use is supposedly contingent on NATO approval.
Nuclear capability does not figure into the Global Firepower rankings.
Despite their ailing economies, Egypt and Iran, which come in second and third respectively, maintain their positions by continuous investment in their armies. Egypt “is continuing to grow stronger all the time, they’re buying new weapons systems all the time, the army enjoys a large budget. And the same is true of Iran,” according to Brom.
Also included in the top five is Saudi Arabia, whose involvement in the Yemen civil war in recent years has brought its army into the limelight. According to an International Institute for Strategic Studies report released in 2020, Saudi Arabia’s spending in 2019 on defense was topped globally only by the US and China, and reached a total of $78.4 billion. With such a massive budget, it is no surprise that the country is ranked fourth in the region.
Last week, Saudi Arabia declared its plan to invest $20 billion in its military industry in the next ten years, in a move that will boost the local defense sector. In another change of policy last week, the conservative country’s defense ministry opened recruitment to the country’s women.
Still, Brom points specifically to the Saudi example as a test case proving the failings of rankings similar to Global Firepower. Numerical data such as the military budget has brought Saudi Arabia to the head of the rankings. Indeed, the Saudi defense budget is larger than Russia’s, but “does anyone think Saudi Arabia is stronger than Russia? No. Because the question is what’s being done with that budget, how efficiently is it being used,” he said.
The top three of the global ranking, in order, are the United States, Russia and China. Pakistan comes in at 10, Turkey at 11 and Iran at 14. Israel rounds out the top 20.