179. Memorandum From Harold H. Saunders of the National Security Council Staff to the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs (Battle)1

SUBJECT

  • An Updated Look at Phantoms

In the last two months, there have been at least five new studies of the Arab-Israeli military balance and its relation to our Phantom decision. After going over these new papers, I did the attached summary to bring together their main conclusions. Since I intended this mainly as a summary that would not go beyond recent papers, I hesitated to add the last section on policy questions. But I succumbed to temptation and tried to wrap them up too.

What this seems to add up to is the Israelis have some legitimate basis for concern. I don’t see how, on the basis of our own studies, we can flatly dismiss their concerns. What we do is a big question, but it [Page 352] might help us as a start to be absolutely clear about the nature of their problem as our most recent round of studies presents it.

You suggested a meeting soon to go over this, and I think that would be a good idea. Perhaps something like the attached could serve as a chopping block in sharpening our conclusions on where we stand.

Harold H. Saunders 2

Attachment3

THE ARAB-ISRAELI AIR BALANCE

On the basis of several recent studies of the Arab-Israeli military balance, the following seems to be the USG’s current view:

I. Israel has no problem in 1968.

A.
Arab and Israeli inventories of combat aircraft are in just about the same balance as before the June war.
B.
Despite intensified training, the UAR forces will not complete their general reorganization until the spring of 1969. Even then, we judge it unlikely that overall combat-readiness will go beyond that of June 1967.
C.
Even Nasser and the USSR seem to be thinking in this time frame.
D.
The Israelis are quick to point out that their present boundaries provide far greater security than their pre-June 1967 borders. Their aircraft are closer to Arab targets, and they would have additional warning and defensive room to meet an Arab attack.

II. While we estimate that the overall balance in mid-1969 will remain at least as favorable to Israel as it was in June 1967, elements of uncertainty begin to creep in:

A.
Will France deliver Mirages? Our estimates assume so. But the Israeli Ambassador in Paris, after talking with Pompidou, claims that there is no chance of French delivery, and lower level information we have suggests that a change in the embargo is possible but not envisaged. The point is crucial. If France does not deliver, JCS judges that an “unacceptable” ratio of high-performance aircraft (e.g. Mirages or Phantoms) would exist. By end of 1969 the Arab-Israel ratio in this category will have risen to 8:1. If either France or the US delivered 50 planes in this [Page 353] category, the ratio would remain 4:1. If both delivered, it would fall below 3:1. The ratio in June 1967 was about 4:1, and that remains the ratio today. It is impossible to say at what precise point the ratio becomes dangerous, but JCS judges that continuation of an 8:1 ratio over any period would be “unacceptable.”
B.
What will be the Soviet aid pattern? Our estimates of the future balance are based on the fact that there is no evidence that the USSR intends to go substantially beyond pre-June levels in building up Arab equipment inventories. Those estimates assume that, once war losses are replaced, the Soviet program in the UAR will return to a normal flow of deliveries for replacement and modernization within roughly the present force levels. However, that assumption is subject to change. Our intelligence studies point out that, given the cyclic nature of the Soviet arms aid program, new arms agreements are expected to be concluded this year as deliveries under existing agreements are completed. A new round of arms discussions began in March when Soviet Defense Minister Grechko visited Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo. Until results of these talks become known, we cannot be sure about the extent of modernization over the next 12-18 months.
C.
Will Arab forces expand in size? We have no evidence that the UAR is significantly expanding its pool of trained manpower. However, Ambassador Rabin says that the UAR is now increasing its total number of pilots at the rate of 50-60 per year. In addition, we know that the increase in the number of UAR airfields and hardened targets will spread any Israeli attacking force thinner.
D.
What is the offsetting effect of the sharp improvement in Israel’s attack capability? In the field of medium performance attack aircraft (e.g. Skyhawks), the ratio will drop over the next 18 months from 3.1:1 today to 1.7:1, and this purely numerical ratio does not reflect the fact that the 88 Skyhawks will have increased Israel’s bomb-carrying capacity and gained range and payload advantages. To what extent this would offset a possible increased Arab advantage in high performance aircraft is unclear. But it is clear that the Phantoms with their dual attack and interceptor capability would not only affect the ratio in high-performance aircraft but would further increase Israel’s advantage in attack aircraft.
[Page 354]

III. This seems to add up to the conclusion that, if Mirages are not delivered, Israel beginning sometime in the last half of 1969 will at least face an unacceptable ratio of high-performance Arab aircraft. In addition, Israel will be unable to support and maintain US aircraft to reduce the ratio until about 18 months from the time of a US decision to provide them.

A.
As noted above, the ratio of high-performance aircraft by October-November 1969 would, by our estimates reach about 8:1. Despite expected deficiencies in Arab performance, JCS considers that high a ratio unacceptable. Thus, Israel would be handicapped to some degree—our papers don’t examine the extent in detail-in the battle for air superiority unless early attacks on airfields were exceptionally successful. It seems unlikely that the Arabs would allow the same degree of success that Israel achieved in June 1967.
B.
Israelis would not be fully trained to support and maintain Phantoms until about 18 months from the date of decision to begin training. A cadre of Israeli personnel could be trained within 13 months, provided they already had English language and basic electronics training. However, that program would provide only a marginal capability since another 6 months would be needed to bring other personnel up to a level where they could function on their own. The six-month gap could be bridged by USAF or contract technicians if necessary.

IV. These conclusions do not differ much from Israeli conclusions, and Israeli intelligence estimates do not differ greatly from ours. The main difference is in interpretation. The Israeli judgment comes from measuring these conclusions against three objectives:

A.
Not only to be militarily stronger than the Arabs but to be able to defeat quickly and without suffering much damage in return. The Israelis are convinced that if their own armed forces were badly defeated or if their small country suffered serious physical damage, it would mean the end of Israel as a state. Their objective seems to be to have enough strike aircraft available to incapacitate Arab air forces on the ground while minimizing Arab counterstrikes even from widely dispersed Arab bases.
B.
To modernize their air force. In maintaining clearcut military superiority, air power is crucial. Eshkol’s request for Phantoms is not based on a desire just to increase the size of his air force. It is based on a projection of what kind of air force he believes Israel needs 2-5 years hence and assumes some modernization. This accounts for some difference in our judgments of Arab-Israeli ratios because we count all aircraft now in Israel’s inventory; the Israelis assume that some older planes will have been retired (and that the French Mirages will not be delivered).
C.
To possess an absolute deterrent. The Israeli philosophy of peace is that Israel must be so strong that the Arabs will realize they have no prospect whatsoever of winning back their lands by force.

V. The policy questions for us are how large a margin of security we want Israel to have and how Israel’s strength affects other interests:

A.
Israel’s security. Given Israel’s objectives, they see their margin becoming too thin by mid-1969. They point out that their margin was uncomfortably thin in June 1967, yet they won a decisive victory with virtually no damage to Israel proper. Even if Arab aircraft are better dispersed in hardened revetments and on better alert, that only means by our estimates that Israel will need more time and perhaps suffer greater losses in gaining air superiority. What losses are too great?
B.
Political settlement. Given Israeli tactics, they believe they can only achieve peace when the Arabs recognize their unmistakable military superiority. We assume that most of the Arabs will refuse to make peace as long as it looks like abject surrender. It may also be true that Israel would be more willing to risk compromise if it were sure of its strength. But the reverse is possible-that greater strength could encourage the hawks who seem insensitive to Arab psychological and political needs. Now that the US appears to be Israel’s only source of supply would assurance that our door is open be an important factor in increasing Eshkol’s flexibility?
C.
Arms limitation. Given the longer range purpose of limiting the arms race, we are leery of improving Israeli capability too sharply, especially now that Soviet shipments have levelled off. However, it is possible to argue-and CIA estimates-that the USSR will go on modernizing Arab forces, even though there is now no indication it intends to go substantially beyond pre-June levels in building up Arab equipment inventories. If we provided Phantoms, could we justify our decision in terms of modernization (given, for instance, the unavailability of French aircraft) after having told everybody it would be escalation?
D.
NPT . We and the Russians both want Israel to sign the NPT. Israel’s near-term security concern is not with the threat of nuclear weapons but with the possibility of an unacceptable imbalance in conventional arms. Meeting Israel’s concerns on this point relates both to our guaranteeing Israeli access to needed conventional weapons and to limitation of Soviet shipments to the Arabs. It may also relate marginally to the atmosphere for peace talks and to Israel’s desire for an absolute deterrent. Is there any sort of sophisticated trade-off in this area?
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, NEA/IAI Files: Lot 80 D 102, NSSM 81. Secret. Copies were sent to Davies, Atherton, Sober, Director of the INR Office of Research and Analysis for Near East and South Asia Granville S. Austin, and Katzenbach’s Executive Assistant Philip B. Heymann. Saunders also sent a copy to Walt Rostow under a May 21 covering memorandum. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, United Arab Republic, Vol. VI, Memos, 8/67-7/68)
  2. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.
  3. Top Secret; sensitive.