How has the gap in military power between Israel and the surrounding countries evolved over the years?

The gap is growing and shrinking at various times; it has been shrinking for the past 10 years or so, but is growing again. Keep in mind that there re basically two classes of Israel’s neighbors —  the “top tier” which is basically Egypt, Saudi Araba, and to a smaller extent Jordan; and the “hand-me-down” nations — Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and by distant extension, Iran.

Each of these countries (or rather, their collective tiers of military technology) can be compared to Israel. The top tier nations have modern military hardware. Let’s take a look at them.

Jordan flies advanced model F-16s (Block 15 and Block 40), but that’s basically the extent of their fighter fleet. The F-16 has evolved over the years, but in its current incarntion it is a multirole or strike fighter; it is strictly inferior in air-to-air combat to the F-15’s of the Israeli Air Force, purely based on the airframe.  For a country like Jordan with a relatively small military, this is OK — the F-16 is perfectly serviceable in an air-to-air role against most Warsaw Pact/Soviet Bloc aircraft, and is superb in the strike role, so having the flexibility of being based around a core multirole fighter is a smart choice for them. Jordanian fighters also use the AMRAAM missile, although only recently.   It’s highly likely that Israel’s own F-16s are equipped with homegrown ECM packages (this was one of the sticking points in the relationship between the DoD and the IDF at one point.)  On the ground, Jordan isn’t as hot; their best tank is the Challenger I, and a significant portion of their tank force consists of Chieftans and M60s; now 40 years out of date. Israel’s own Merkava tanks are contenders on the level of the Leopard 2 series or M1 Abrams series, though they’re significantly more defensively oriented than U.S. or Euro tanks are.   The gap with Jordan is certainly widening as Israel is beginning further rounds of defense acquisitions while Jordan is mostly trying to modernize what they have.

Egypt obviously has a much larger airforce; they’re the 4th largest F-16 operator in the world (though still behind Israel). Israel has carefully been spending the past 20+ years improving the bilateral relationship with Egypt, and the results have shown tremendously with Egypt’s non-interference with Israel’s recent conflicts. Though some of this has to do with Egypt’s own political instability, Egypt is simply tired of fighting militants in the Sinai and shoving with Israel, and one can expect this to continue in the future.  This has allowed greater exports from the US to Egypt (though hampered still by the political instability there in recent years) which has narrowed the technology gap between the two countries.  The vast majority of Egypt’s fleet are Block 40 F-16’s, with a small number of Block 52s. See Jordan for analysis, but with the note that more of the EAF F-16s are capable of using precision guided munitions (generally the Block 40 and later marks). Egypt also has 24 MiG-29 Fulcrums on order, the Russian multirole equivalent to the F-16. My understanding is that they have ordered the MiG-29M2 model, which is a two-seater, indicating either a trainer or a strike role for these aircraft.  The MiG-29 is an excellent multirole craft, but is inferior to the Block 52 F-16 in a strike capacity.  Egypt also utilizes several older aircraft, ranging from Mirage 2000s, to ancient MiG-21 Fishbeds (which are incapable of doing anything but dying horribly to anything in the Israeli arsenal) but these are being phased out.  On the ground, Egypt has a huge, but dated armor force. The backbone of this is roughly 1000 M1A1 main battle tanks; while capable, the odds are in favor of the late model Merkavas of the IDF.  Egypt also has a few T-80 main battle tanks, of similar effectiveness; and a ton of older tanks ranging from M60A3 Pattons, to T-62 and T-55s; all very much out of date.  The gap with Israel here is probably narrowing as Egypt gets more equipment like AH-64s, more M1s, and upgrades their air force (especially if they adopt the SU-27 or F-15SE).

Saudi Arabia, due to its status as a major US ally, has the strongest competitor air force to the IAF. The RSAF uses the Eurofighter Typhoon, F-15C and D fighters, and the F-15SA and S “Strike Eagle” strike fighters, all of which are serious competitors to the Israeli Air Force (probably superior in the case of the Typhoon). Saudi Arabia also has sufficiently advanced C4ISTR and AWACS aircraft to control the battlespace, and while their pilots lack the sheer air-to-air combat experience of much of the IAF leadership, they have extensive cross training with their U.S. counterparts. On the ground, the M1A2 and T-90 tanks are capable threats to Israeli armor, while advanced ATGM systems like the Javelin are also threats.  Saudi Arabia probably has the clearest technological advantage over Israel at the moment, though it is largely academic as to whether that could be applied militarily against Israel, as the minute Saudi does that, they’ll lose U.S. support.

I’ll stop the analysis here, because nobody else really compares in any way. Iran relies on their F-14s which are widely believes to have been thoroughly sabotaged by U.S. intelligence (especially their missile stocks); most everyone else uses MiG-21 Fishbeds or similarly outdated airframes. On the ground, it’s T-72s, T-62s, T-55s, and the like.

The real threat will come from watching what Russia does. Russia controls the keys to exporting technology like S-300 SAMs (comparable to the U.S. Patriot), late model T-64, T-80 and T-90 tanks; Mig-29 and SU-27 fighters, KA-50/52 or Mi-28 attack helicopters, late model Mi-24 attack helicopters, etc.  For instance, Russia tried to deliver to Syria’s Assad a shipment of S-300 SAMs. This would have had serious repercussions for the entire region had the transfer gone through, to the point that either the U.S. or Israel almost certainly would have interdicted the shipment. These kinds of deals are the places to look to see where the balance of power in the region is shifting.

I don’t have numbers, but ultimately this is the result, more than anything, of priorities. Israel was surrounded by enemy countries, whereas Jordan, Syria, and Egypt were not under constant threat of invasion (Lebanon is another story).

The Egyptian army got increasingly better after the ’48 war, that much I know. Their capacity in the the ’73 war was much better than their poor showing in the ’48 war… I don’t know about the rest of the armies…

Several of the other countries in the region have had wars with each other, and, for example, many believe the KSA would like to swallow up UAE, Qatar, and/or Bahrain. It is certain that a strong military plays an important role in the economic development of countries in the region.  Simply put, when the military is strong in the Middle East (and elsewhere – look at what the U.S. and Russia get away with!) , others do not seek military action as the first resort to dispute resolution, and the country can focus on the economy.