164. Memorandum From the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Wheeler) to President Johnson1


  • Israeli/Arab Military Balance


In response to the query posed by Walt Rostow, I am providing you my assessment of the relative military balance between Israeli and Arab forces now and 12 to 18 months hence.
At Enclosure A2 is a summary of present and projected Israeli and Arab equipment inventories. Except for aircraft, the Israelis probably have as much equipment now as at the beginning of the June war. The Soviets have not delivered fighter aircraft to the UAR since September [Page 323] or October of last year which places Egypt about 65 fighters short of the pre-war level. Deliveries to Syria and Iraq have increased those countries’ inventories above the pre-war level. Soviet arms shipments to the area are now continuing at about the pre-war level and no new-type materiel is known to have been delivered. Including total deliveries to date, the Arabs are at about 75% of the pre-war level. Eighteen months from now, Israel will have an aircraft inventory 15% to 20% above pre-war levels while the Arab inventory will remain essentially at its pre-war strength; however, a greater disparity in high performance aircraft numbers to the detriment of Israel will develop. Ground equipment inventories on both sides will remain at approximately pre-war levels. Israel’s relative naval capability will have improved due to the addition of guided missile patrol boats.
Our previous estimates on the Arab-Israeli balance have accounted for not only equipment levels, but the qualitative superiority of Israeli forces in such areas as training, intelligence, logistics, motivation and morale, and leadership. In these areas, the Israeli forces are still far superior to the Arabs and will remain so in the months ahead. In addition, the territory the Israelis control places them in better defensive position than they previously occupied, and they now have more combat-seasoned personnel. The Arabs do not currently possess the capability effectively to operate or maintain Soviet equipment. The Soviets, through their training and advisory efforts, (see Enclosure B)3 are attempting to improve the situation but face many drawbacks such as educational deficiencies and poor morale. The Soviets believe that at the present rate of progress, it will take the UAR at least until the Spring of 1969 to achieve any significant degree of combat readiness. No major qualitative improvements in Syrian capabilities are expected over the next 18 months.
While we note increased Soviet naval presence in the Mediterranean, it is our conclusion that the Soviets wish to avoid any direct involvement which could lead to a widening of a resumed Arab-Israeli conflict or confrontation with the United States. In this connection, there is still no Soviet air in support of their Mediterranean naval forces. A miscalculation on their part cannot be discounted, but we believe that Soviet efforts would be limited to materiel and advisory assistance such as we have seen in the past. In February we exchanged information on the Middle East situation with the Israeli Director of Intelligence. While there were several differences, we were in general agreement on our assessments of Arab capabilities and Soviet activity in the area. We plan to continue this intelligence interchange and any significant [Page 324] new developments will serve as basis for a joint reassessment of the Israeli position.
A significant factor in Israel’s growing imbalance of high performance aircraft, mentioned above, continues to be delivery of 50 French Mirage V’s. Although France is continuing in effect an embargo on these aircraft, there are indications that there is a fair chance that Israel will eventually get delivery. The French have now agreed to sell 54 Mirages to Iraq; however, the delivery of these aircraft, not scheduled to begin until late 1969 or early 1970, would not affect the relative balance in the period under discussion. Non-delivery of Mirage aircraft to Israel handicaps Israel’s air-to-air capability now and in the future as discussed below.
At Enclosure C4 is a comparison of the current and projected high performance aircraft (MACH 2) capabilities of Israel and those Arab states likely to participate in a resumption of hostilities. This disparity in high performance aircraft inventories is the principal cause of Israel’s concern. The comparison shows that the inventory of these aircraft for the contiguous Arab states will increase over the next 18 months by close to 70% (230 to 390) while the Israeli capability of 55 Mirage IIIs remains relatively constant. Thus, Israel would be handicapped in the battle for air superiority unless early bombing attacks on Arab airfields were exceptionally successful. Arab experience last June is not likely to allow the Israelis the degree of success in destroying aircraft on the ground that they enjoyed at that time. If Algeria’s capability of 29 aircraft by the end of the estimate period is added to the Arab total, numerically, Israel would face a potentially unfavorable ratio of about 8 to 1. This raw ratio must be adjusted by the aircraft ready status, 50% to 70% for the Arabs versus 80% to 85% for the Israelis, and the qualitative factors such as skill, leadership, and command and control mentioned above. Delivery of the French Mirages to Israel would reduce the unfavorable raw ratio to 4 to 1 with further balance being approached through use of the same adjustment factors.
Considering all these factors, it is my judgment that Israel currently, and probably for the next 18 months, has the capability to defend itself effectively against the Arab forces. This judgment is based on an estimate that the outlook for significant overall improvement in Arab military capabilities, despite Soviet assistance, is only poor to fair. The most imprecise element in this judgment is the relative high performance air strength, hinging in part on actions by the French. Even [Page 325] here, the time at which an imbalance would become critical, in the event of a continued French embargo, allows us to continue to withhold a decision on additional aircraft sales to Israel until late this year. A decision can be made as late as 31 December 1968 and delivery of F-4E aircraft started in January 1970 at the rate of approximately 4 per month from production presently scheduled for the USAF. This would get the F-4E aircraft in the hands of the Israelis at approximately the same time Iraq would receive Mirage aircraft. Necessary training could be commenced as late as 1 January 1969 in order that Israel would have a capability to maintain and operate the aircraft upon delivery.
I consider that we should keep the matter of numbers of high performance aircraft in Arab inventories under continuing review. Should the USSR or other sources provide additional high performance combat aircraft to the radical Arab states during the next 6 to 12 months, should deliveries of such aircraft be expedited, or should the French definitely back out of their agreement to provide 50 Mirages to Israel, the relatively favorable forecast set forth above would be invalid.
Earle G. Wheeler
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Israel, Vol. IX, Cables and Memos, 3/68-5/68. Top Secret. A copy was sent to Secretary McNamara. Rostow forwarded the memorandum to the President on May 3 under cover of a memorandum in which he noted that “the JCS remains relatively complacent about the balance even after taking into account the French decision on the Mirages for Israel.” (Ibid.)
  2. Not printed.
  3. Enclosure B, not printed, is a 1-page assessment of “Soviet Training Assistance to the Arab Bloc.”
  4. Not printed. Harold Saunders also prepared an assessment of “The Arab-Israeli Air Balance” on May 3. His conclusions closely paralleled those put forward in Wheeler’s memorandum, although he put the projected ratio between Arab and Israeli high performance aircraft by mid-1969 at 3 to 1. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Israel, Vol. IX, Cables and Memos, 3/68-5/68)