38. Telegram From the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson in Texas1

CAP 80169. Herewith Secretary McNamara’s views on Israeli aircraft.

I shall have with me today a copy with statistical tables attached.2

Subject: Aircraft for Israel.

In response to your request of yesterday, here is my assessment of the threat Israel faces, Israel’s aircraft requirements, and my recommendations with respect to the Israeli request for A-4 and F-4 aircraft.

The threat to Israel and Israel’s response.

Air superiority is crucial to military success in the Arab-Israeli environment. Israel knows this, and assumes the Arabs have learned this lesson. General Weizman, Israeli Air Force, argued here last September that the Arabs are acquiring more and better aircraft from the Soviet Union, and will continue to do so into the 1970s; that they will now be providing better protection for aircraft at existing airfields and will be building new airfields and improving techniques and training; and that the Arab states will now cooperate more efficiently in their military and political efforts against Israel. Israeli representatives continue to press these points. Weizman concluded that Israel needs additional versatile aircraft in order to confront successfully a growing Arab capability, and also to make up Israeli war losses (43 combat aircraft) and to replace certain of Israel’s order aircraft. Weizman projected an air force of 250 combat aircraft by the end of 1968 and 350 aircraft in the early 1970s. (Comparisons of Arab-Israeli aircraft capabilities and inventories are attached.)

We agree, by and large, with the Israeli data on current Arab air inventories and on post-war Soviet resupply. And although uncertain, the Israeli numerical projections of Arab (including Algeria and Saudi Arabia) inventories for 1970, totaling 924 aircraft, appear reasonable. The number of aircraft in Arab inventories has never been, however, the principal factor in the Arab-Israeli military equation. Israel always [Page 76] has been numerically inferior. But despite their large numbers of aircraft, the Arabs have never been able to maintain or use these effectively; thus the numbers of aircraft which can be brought to bear effectively against Israel is much smaller than the totals of their inventories. The offensive (attack) capabilities of the Arab aircraft are limited, and considerably inferior to those of Israel. Also, not every Arab state is militarily relevant to the conflict. Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Algeria, for example, cannot bring effective power to bear against Israel. The decisive factor is the superior overall quality in the maintenance, command and control, training, equipment and, especially, personnel of Israel. Their training, organization, technical competence, and will to fight is far superior to the Arabs. This will remain so for the foreseeable future. Although Arab aircraft losses will undoubtedly be fully replaced by the Soviets in coming months, the Arab military forces were decimated and their morale shattered; it will take them a number of years to exceed their pre-war capabilities. Arab territorial losses will make it more difficult in the future to conduct air or ground operations against Israel-the Sinai will surely be demilitarized, even if returned to Egypt.

In sum, the Israeli military position has improved markedly since 4 June. I am sure that the Arabs will learn some lessons from the recent conflict, and that there will be improvements in Arab air forces. They have shown some modest evidence of this already. They are unlikely, however, to make dramatic gains. And Israel’s air force is itself improving: the supply of 48 A-4H aircraft is underway, and we have recommended to you the sale of an additional 27 A-4s. Israel would thus be adding over the next 18–24 months at least 75 new attack aircraft to its inventory, more than overcoming, quantitatively and qualitatively, Israel’s June losses. Israel will have by the end of 1969, an inventory of over 225 combat aircraft. I believe this is presently adequate for Israel to maintain its security. The Joint Chiefs have stated: “The Israeli capability to prevail in any renewal of hostilities, even without the Mirages, is considered assured for at least the next 18 months. Release of the 27 additional A-4s would further raise this level of assurance.”

Further, although the delivery of the 50 new French Mirage V remains uncertain, there is a reasonable possibility that France will deliver these as earlier promised. Israel would then be able to phase out some older aircraft, and have an air force clearly superior to the Arabs. This would preserve Israel’s margin of superiority into the 1970s without further aircraft from us. Israel further hopes to buy or fabricate 100 F-1 French aircraft when this airplane is produced (1972–4).

A-4H Skyhawks.

We agreed in March, 1966 to accede to the Israeli request of the previous October for attack aircraft, to supplement its inventory of [Page 77] high-performance French fighters and fighter-bombers.3 On 2 June 1966 a specific agreement provided for the sale of these 48 new production A-4 attack aircraft, plus support, for $70.6 million to be credit-financed over ten years at 3-1/2 percent interest.4 Delivery was to be in Israel in flyable condition, commencing with four in December 1967 (which have been delivered), and completed by December 1968. These terms and delivery schedules are being adhered to. The agreement was to be secret. The Israelis agreed to look primarily to Europe for arms and noted our expectation that they would request no additional US military aircraft for at least five years.

Israel now wishes 27 additional A-4H Skyhawks and I recommend we accede to this request. To minimize the possible impact, we propose to amend the 1966 agreement to increase the number sold by 27 (for a total of 75 A-4H’s). We prefer to sell these for cash. Military sales credit funds have been sharply curtailed and Israel’s financial position permits a straight cash sale. If some credit seems desirable, however, we suggest offering to finance up to $20 million of the A-4H program (which will probably total between $30 and $35 million for the 27 aircraft plus support) at 5-1/2 per cent interest. If necessary, we could finance the whole sale, but at the cost of reducing the credit available for other sales, including any for Israel.

Delivery of the additional 27 A-4H’s cannot start before June 1969. This is because certain components peculiar to the Israeli version of the A-4 have a long production leadtime. Delivery would be completed in April 1970 under normal conditions. We could shorten this to December, 1969 without much difficulty, by diverting from U.S. military requirements.

The Israelis have repeatedly pressed for speedier delivery of the 48 Skyhawks ordered in 1966 and will surely urge quick delivery of the additional 27. The present schedule for delivery of the 48 A-4H’s by the end of CY 1968 cannot be expedited without curtailing production for Navy requirements; even by diversion, delivery could not be completed until September, 1968, only three months ahead of schedule.

More importantly, the least costly and most efficient way to meet Israel’s request for the 27 additional A-4H’s, is to delay the delivery of the last of the aircraft in the existing order of 48 until the production of the additional 27 can begin, thereby preventing a break in the production line.

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We could deliver F-4 aircraft to Israel beginning 24 months from date of contract, provided Israel did not want extensive modifications made to the aircraft or on maintenance and support procedures. This would be the normal delivery. If necessary we could, by diversion from U.S. force requirements, deliver F-4’s to Israel in 12 months.

Israel is arguing that the production leadtime of 24 months or longer from decision to first deliveries of F-4’s, coupled with the uncertainties about Soviet/Arab and French intentions, requires some positive decision now. The Israeli Defense Attache has proposed that we at least agree to undertake joint engineering studies on possible configuration changes and permit Israel to finance advance procurement of long leadtime components.

There are persuasive arguments against the sale, or even the promise of a future sale, of the F-4. The history of the Arab-Israeli arms race is a long one. The Arabs (particularly Egypt) and the Israelis have competed with one another, at very high cost, in maintaining modern armaments. The acquisition of a superior aircraft by one has stimulated the other to acquire a yet more superior airplane. The F-4 would clearly be the most sophisticated aircraft in the Middle East and its delivery there would risk the beginning of still another cycle in the arms race, contrary to your June 19 call for an end to the arms race.

The Soviet Union hastily replaced most Arab aircraft losses from the June war but these aircraft losses have not been fully overcome, and Soviet supply activities have returned to their pre-war level. The supply of F-4’s to Israel would cause a sharp reaction from the Arabs and may bring irresistible pressures on the USSR to supply more, or more sophisticated, aircraft to them.

F-4 aircraft are not militarily required by Israel to assure its security. Although Soviet and French intentions, and the speed with which the Arabs can overcome their considerable military disabilities, remain uncertain and require close and constant scrutiny, there are no indications that Israel’s advantageous security position will be upset for the foreseeable future. Should conditions change, we are able to deliver F-4’s to Israel from new production within 24 months, even 12 months if we divert from U.S. force requirements. There is no need at this time, as has been suggested by Israel, to insure our ability to deliver these aircraft quickly by advance procurement of long leadtime items. (We could, if necessary, use our own funds to buy these items, without informing Israel, and reduce the leadtime to about 18 months.)

Finally, it is my view that implicit or explicit agreements now for the sale of these aircraft may jeopardize the Jarring UN mission seeking a comprehensive Arab-Israeli settlement, upon which Israel’s long-term security more clearly depends.

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I recommend you approve the sale of 27 additional A-4H aircraft, preferably for cash but, if desirable, for credit at 5-1/2 per cent with amounts and terms to be subsequently determined, and with the important condition that the transaction be kept secret until the United States determines otherwise.

I recommend against expedited delivery of any of the A-4H aircraft and recommend that you refer any questions about this subject to me. I will, with your approval, discuss this subject with Eshkol when I see him in New York on 10 January; or we could discuss the problem in Washington with Israeli military representatives.

I recommend against any commitment to sell, or to buy long leadtime items in anticipation of a future sale, of F-4 Phantom aircraft. I suggest you assure the Prime Minister that we will follow closely the activities of the Soviets and the French supply policies. We will continue to scrutinize the situation in the coming months. You may assure the Prime Minister that, if significant changes require it, we could deliver the F-4 promptly—if necessary, as soon as Israel would receive them if we made an agreement today.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Israel, Vol. VIII, Cables and Memos, 12/67–2/68. Secret.
  2. A copy of McNamara’s January 7 memorandum to the President includes a 2-page attachment providing a comparison of aircraft held or sought by Israel and the Arab states. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, NEA/IAI Files: Lot 80 D 102, Arms Deals with Israel)
  3. Regarding the March 1966 agreement, see Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. XVIII, Document 283.
  4. The text of this agreement is in the National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, NEA/IAI Files: Lot 80 D 102, Arms Deals with Israel.