August 20, 2012: Israel has the most powerful armed forces in the Middle East and manages to achieve this with a population of only seven million. One reason for this is the Israeli use of reserve troops. While only two percent of the population is in the active army, nearly five percent are in the reserves. There are former full-time soldiers who train regularly and can be called back to active service quickly. This is called the "reserve system" and it is a relatively recent development.
It all began some two hundred years ago, when several major European nations began conscripting civilians for the military on a regular basis. These soldiers served for only two or three years before being released. Shortly thereafter, clever staff officers in several nations came up with the notion of bringing some of these former soldiers back to the army in times of national danger. This was done by enrolling discharged soldiers in reserve units and often having them show up in uniform and with weapons for some training a few times a year. Thus began the "reserve system," which enabled enormous armies to be created quickly and relatively inexpensively. World Wars I and II would not have been possible without the reserve system.
Some nations, like Israel, Sweden, and Switzerland, took the reserve system to an extreme. These three nations enrolled a large portion of the adult males into the reserves. As a result, full mobilization calls up so much of the population that it severely disrupts the economy. Sweden and Switzerland are neutral and depend more on the threat of mobilization. Israel has had to mobilize many times in the past and will probably have to do it again. So Israel has to win quickly and her enemies know that. However, Israel has adapted its economy to full mobilization. Thirty years ago such a mobilization put 15 percent of the population in uniform but now it's half that. So Israel can keep fighting for a bit longer.
Israel, Sweden, and Switzerland all depend on reserve units, formed around reservists from the same area. While some reservists are used to reinforce active duty units, most mobilize and go to war with their local reserve units. In effect, reservists serve in units that will, quite literally, defend the homes and families of the reservists. That is a tremendous motivator to learn military skills and perform your duties effectively.
Israel is unique in that its reservists, especially those in combat units, are frequently mobilized in peacetime. About 30 percent of Israeli reservists are mobilized each year (for more than a few days), often for only a week or two. About two-thirds of those mobilized are combat troops. Not surprisingly, half of reserve troops are married. Some 14 percent of the reservists are women (up from 11 percent four years ago). About 16 percent of Israeli reservists were born overseas. Reservists serve until their early 40s, if physically able, and can continue until 51.