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Is Iran Currently an Existential Threat to the United States? A Side-By-Side Comparison of Military Capabilities

 

A side-by-side comparison of the two countries’ conventional military capabilities demonstrates the overwhelming superiority of the United States.

It is time to inject realism into discussions about U.S.-Iranian relations. Hyping the threat about Iran obscures the bottom line: Iran does not currently represent an existential threat to the United States or its allies, and there is still time to find a peaceful solution to Iran’s nuclear program.

UNITED STATESIRAN
Population303,824,646 (July 2008 est.)65,875,223 (July 2008 est.)
Gross Domestic Product (GDP)$13.8 trillion (2007 est.)$0.75 trillion (2007 est.)
Defense spending fiscal year 2009
(% of global total)
$711 billion (includes Iraq/Afghanistan)
48.4%
$7.2 billion
0.5%
Total troops2,580,875
(1,498,157 active + 1,082,718 reserve)
895,000
(545,000 active + 350,000 reserve)
GROUND FORCES
Main battle tanks8,023
(7,620 Army + 403 Marines)
1,613 Army
Reconnaissance vehicles348
(96 Army + 252 Marines)
35 Army
Armored infantry fighting vehicles6,719 Army610 Army
Armored personnel carriers21,242
(19,931 Army + 1,311 Marines)
640 Army
Artillery units8,041
(6,530 Army + 1,511 Marines)
8,196 Army
Helicopters5,425
(4,086 Army + 588 Navy + 603 Marines + 148 Air Force, excludes Coast Guard)
311
(223 Army + 30 Navy + 34 Air Force + 24 paramilitary)
NAVAL FORCES
Submarines71 Navy6 Navy
Principal surface combatants (includes carriers, cruisers, destroyers,

frigates)

106 Navy5 Navy
Patrol and coastal combatants157
(16 Navy + 141 Coast Guard)
320
(140 Navy + 50 Revolutionary Guard Corps + 130 paramilitary)
Mine warfare ships9 Navy5 Navy
Amphibious ships490
(124 Army + 366 Navy, includes both principal ships like the LHD/LHA/LPD and smaller

landing craft)

21 Navy
AERIAL FORCES
Fighter aircraft3,538
(9 Army + 1,365 Navy + 386 Marines + 1,778 Air Force)
286 Air Force
Long-range bomber aircraft170 Air ForceNone
Transport aircraft883
(235 Army + 98 Navy + 25 Marines + 525 Air Force, excludes Coast Guard)
136
(17 Army + 13 Navy + 104 Air Force + 2 paramilitary)
Electronic warfare/intelligence aircraft159
(9 Army +126 Navy + 24 Marines)
3 Navy
Reconnaissance aircraft134
(60 Army + 4 Marines + 70 Air Force)
6 Air Force
Maritime patrol aircraft197
(174 Navy + 23 Coast Guard)
8
(3 Navy + 5 Air Force)
Anti-submarine warfare aircraft58 NavyNone
Airborne early warning aircraft53
(16 Navy + 37 Air Force)
None
NUCLEAR FORCES
Nuclear warheads~5,400
(4,075 operational + 1,260 reserve)
None

NOTES: Equipment totals exclude reserve/National Guard.   This is significant because U.S. reserve/Guard capabilities for most platforms are greater than Iranian active and reserve capabilities combined.  A 40,000-strong Iranian paramilitary force, known as the Basij, performs auxiliary law enforcement and border security functions during peacetime. Basij forces report to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.  During wartime, somewhere between 450,000 and one million additional combat-capable paramilitary forces are estimated to be available, although the Iranian leadership estimates total Basij membership at 12.6 million.

There are a few things to keep in mind about this chart.  First, the figures above are not fully representative of the force each country could bring to bear because they do not take into account the capabilities of each country’s allies.  For example, America’s allies could assist in a potential conflict, and Iran could enlist support from Syria, Hamas, and/or Hezbollah.  Second, much of Iran’s arsenal is old or low-tech, so the equipment listed above does not indicate qualitative parity.  For example, the Iranian Air Force operates aging Northrop Grumman F-14 Tomcats; Russian-made MiG-29s; Chinese-built F-7 M jetfighters; and even older fighter-bombers such as F-4s, F-5s, Su-24s, Su-25s, and Mirage F-1s.  These combat aircraft are no match for an American air superiority fighter like the F-22 Raptor, not to mention the vast array of advanced sea and land-based planes operated by the U.S. military.

SOURCES: Population and GDP data is from Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook (updated March 2008). Defense spending data is from Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, The FY2009 Pentagon Spending Request: Global Military Spending (February 2008). Troop strength and conventional forces data is from International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2008 (February 2008).  Nuclear forces data is from Robert Norris and Hans Kristensen, “U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2008,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (March/April 2008).


Editor’s Note

Here’s another way to look at Iran: “we’re talking about a country with roughly the G.D.P. of Connecticut, and a government whose military budget is roughly the same as Sweden’s” (Paul Krugman, “Fearing Fear Itself,” New York Times, 29 October 2007).  Even compared with its neighbors’, Iran’s defense spending is quite modest.  See Kaveh Ehsani’s table below (“Iran: The Populist Threat to Democracy,” Middle East Report 241, Winter 2006).

Total Defense Spending
(in dollars)

Per Capita Defense Spending
(in dollars)

Percentage of GDP

Active-Duty Armed Forces
(thousands)

Iran

4.1 billion

60

2.7

420

Turkey

10.1 billion

146

3.3

514

Israel

9.7 billion

1,561

8.2

168

Saudi Arabia

21 billion

810

8.8

199

Kuwait

4 billion

1,770

7.8

15

UAE

2.6 billion

1,025

2.8

50

Pakistan

3.3 billion

20

3.5

619

Source: International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2005-2006 (London, 2005)


John Isaacs is the Executive Director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation where his work focuses on national security issues in Congress, Iraq, missile defense, and nuclear weapons. Travis Sharp is the Military Policy Analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation where he performs policy work on national security spending, military policy, and Iraq. This is an excerpt of an article published in the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Web site on 7 July 2008, and it is reproduced here for educational purposes.



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