129. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon 1

SUBJECT

  • Thoughts on Soviet Response to Nasser’s Arms Requests

[5 lines of source text not declassified] This raises the question of what specifically the Soviets might have in mind. To answer this question it is necessary to look at both the current state of the Egyptian military forces vis-à-vis Israel and the realistic options open to the Soviets.

The Egyptian Military Situation

The most basic fact about the Egyptian forces is that, despite all the equipment the Soviets have provided since the 1967 war, they are still no match for the Israelis. This is particularly true of the Egyptian air force and air defense system. The Israelis have systematically knocked out the Soviet-provided air defense positions along the Suez [Page 381]Canal almost as fast as they have been set up and have proved that they can now fly their aircraft against targets almost anywhere in the Nile Valley, including around Cairo. Moreover, the Egyptian air force, with a severe shortage of trained and qualified combat pilots, is unable to either challenge the Israelis effectively in the skies over Egypt or to launch significant retaliatory attacks against Israeli targets. The situation is so bad in fact that Nasser even admits it in public. Nasser must have pressed the Soviets very hard for the means to combat Israel’s air supremacy during his secret trip to Moscow January 22–26.

What Can the Soviets Do?

Assuming that the Soviets wish to avoid a major escalation of the hostilities that would risk a confrontation with us, they do not seem to have many options.

Their easiest choice would be simply to replace Egyptian losses by rebuilding radar and SA–2 installations. This would carry the least risk of further Soviet involvement, but would not significantly improve Nasser’s position either, since the Israelis have the capacity to keep knocking them out.

More and better planes—there has been speculation on an improved MIG–21 or so-called MIG–23—will not alone help Nasser, although there may be pressure to provide them. The Egyptians are unable to employ effectively what they already have. Nasser admitted this at the Rabat Summit [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] in an interview reported earlier this week. Moreover, it would take too long to train the necessary Egyptian pilots and technicians to operate the aircraft, related ground-control facilities and air defense systems necessary to make an appreciable impact on the present situation.

If the Soviets were to provide Nasser with effective means to offset Israeli supremacy, it would seem that they would have to begin inserting their own people into more exposed combat positions, perhaps billed as “volunteers.” The consensus developing at CIA is that they would begin to do this in defensive areas, perhaps providing more sophisticated radar and air defense systems run by Soviet operators. The low altitude SA–3 system, currently deployed outside the Soviet Union only in Eastern Europe and even there only operated by Soviet personnel, would seem to be the most likely candidate.

The Soviets could also begin to supplement Egyptian pilots with their “volunteers.” This would also probably require the use of Soviet ground controllers, since the Egyptians are not very effective in this area either, the language problem would seem to necessitate this and Soviet pilots have never been known to fly missions without using their own people for ground support.

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The Soviet aircraft-pilot-ground control option, however, while real, runs a greater risk of significant escalation than providing and operating more and new air defense facilities. The Israelis, among the best and most experienced combat pilots, would surely be tough game for the Soviet “volunteers” especially if they were inadequately supported from the ground. The thought of Soviet pilots and planes being shot down in Egypt and Israel must certainly give the Soviet pause for thought. CIA thinks that if Soviet pilots were employed, they would be used for defensive missions only. This would cut the risks some.

Another possibility is that the Soviets could help the Egyptians to develop an air defense system similar to that employed by North Vietnam. This would involve saturating areas to be defended with SA–2 missile sites and more conventional anti-aircraft defenses for the lower altitudes.2 The present Egyptian MIGs could also be used to backstop this arrangement or improved versions could be employed if necessary. While this would involve equipment such as that the Israelis have already destroyed, this approach would involve quantities and concentrations not tried before in Egypt which might increase the cost to Israel as they did to us in Vietnam. There are, of course, differences in terrain which might make this harder to do in the UAR. Soviet personnel would have to be used but in less directly exposed positions on the ground.

There are other actions which the Soviets could take to buttress Nasser militarily, but for now they seem less real. Short range missiles for example are a possibility. Such a move would run the strong risk of serious Israeli retaliation and do nothing about Israeli freedom to strike any and all Egyptian targets, military as well as industrial. Unless preceded by an improved air defense ring of some kind, even short range missiles with conventional warheads would be vulnerable to Israel preemptive attacks. They would, of course, also raise the possibility of escalation of the hostilities beyond a point where the Soviets might be able to maintain some control over events.

Conclusion

Therefore, the situation is difficult for Moscow because the Soviets seem to have little middle ground between involving their own pilots to make Egyptian defense really effective and resigning themselves to what would probably be a less than effective effort by ground technicians manning anti-aircraft defenses. It is true that they did a creditable job in North Vietnam and might try that approach. But if they [Page 383]once involve their pilots, their prestige would be directly engaged, and someone would have to lose—either the Soviets or the Israelis.

I have called a meeting of the Washington Special Action Group for Monday3 to examine these possibilities and to refine our contingency plans in response to them.

It seems clear that the Soviets feel compelled to make some move in Nasser’s support. The first question is whether they will confine that move to a token gesture or attempt to do something effective against Israeli attacks. If the latter, this would almost certainly seem to involve Soviet personnel. The second question, therefore, is whether they insert Soviet personnel into direct combat situations or leave them, as they are now, in defensive ground positions where they do not bring Soviet prestige into face-to-face confrontation with Israel.4

  1. Source: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box SCI 17, Memoranda to the President, January–April 1970. Top Secret; Codeword. Sent for information.
  2. Nixon highlighted this part of the paragraph and wrote “Most likely. It worked in Vietnam against us!” in the margin.
  3. See Document 130.
  4. Nixon wrote the following comments at the bottom of the page: “K—I think it is time to talk directly with the Soviet on this—Acheson’s idea—‘let the dust settle’ won’t work—states ‘Negotiate in any form’ won’t work. We must make a try at a bilateral talk to see if a deal in our interests is possible.”