266. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon1


  • Military Balance in Middle East

In view of the recent public statements and reports concerning the military balance in the Middle East and the role of the Soviets, I thought you might be interested in the conclusions reached in recent intelligence studies on this subject.

Following the Egyptian-Soviet communiqué from Moscow,2 Secretary Rogers in New York said we would “reconsider” the military balance. Then last week in an interview with US News November 11 he said, “Up to now, the military balance has not shifted” and noted that the Soviets had operated “with some restraint” in shipments over the [Page 949] past four or five months. A few days after that the State Department noted the arrival of TU–16 missile-carrying bombers in Egypt.

I thought you would be interested in the conclusions of the State Department study which, in consultation with CIA and DIA, reviewed and assessed the current balance of Arab and Israeli military forces.3 The two main conclusions of this study were:

—Israel’s military superiority has been reduced because of Egypt’s much improved air defense system that would make impossible a pre-emptive air strike such as that in 1967 and make very costly resumption of deep penetration attacks such as those in early 1970. But even larger numbers of additional aircraft would not enable Israel to attack deep into Egypt without suffering “unacceptable” losses.

—Israel does retain the ability to defeat Arab attacks without sustaining “unacceptable” losses, the ability to break up an Egyptian invasion force at the Suez Canal and a “definite edge” in attack capability. Israel is “qualitatively” superior on the ground and at sea and its air force is capable of inflicting “far more damage” on its Arab neighbors than they can inflict on Israel.

Some of the more important facts that went into the above conclusions were:

—The Israelis have fewer aircraft but they are superior in terms of performance and the Israelis have more and better combat pilots. Thus, for instance, Israel’s jet fighters have an average range-load superiority of about 4:1 over the comparable Egyptian aircraft. While Israel has about three qualified pilots per supersonic jet aircraft and more than one pilot for each jet aircraft in their total jet inventory, it is estimated that it will be as much as two to five years before Egypt has one available or qualified pilot per jet aircraft.

—Even in the question of absolute numbers, the Israelis received 119 new jet aircraft from the US in 1970 and 1971 while Egypt received 125. While Egypt retains overall numerical superiority, the increase in numbers of aircraft over the past two years has been almost even, and the Israelis have the capacity to put the entire increase to military use while the Egyptians do not.

—Aircraft overhaul and maintenance capabilities of the Egyptian Air Force are such that only 50–65 percent of its aircraft are operationally ready at any time. The Israelis keep about 85 to 90 percent of their aircraft operational and measure their combat turn-around time in minutes compared to hours for the Egyptians.

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—The Arabs have always outnumbered, out-tanked, and out-gunned Israel but they have never been able to defeat it in battle. The poor record stems from qualitative differences in organization, matériel, manpower and leadership which from “all indications” continue to give Israel a “decisive advantage” today and for a “considerable time” into the future.

—There has been a “dramatic” improvement in the Egyptian air defense system since early 1970. Determined to deny the Israelis the freedom to fly with impunity in Egyptian air space, the Soviets have deployed extensive air defense equipment including as many as 10,000 Soviet personnel to man air defense units and five of their own fighter squadrons.

—Israel’s air defense system has also improved since 1967 by the installation of new equipment and procurement of additional HAWK launchers and, most important, by retention of the occupied territories which provide strategic depth, added warning time and permit deployment of interceptor aircraft nearer to Egyptian bases.

—The Arab navies pose no significant threat to Israel whose own navy is capable of interdicting Arab naval forces, conducting limited anti-submarine warfare and supporting amphibious operations.

This boils down to three main points:

1. The shift in the balance that has taken place as a result of the Soviet-installed defense capability mainly affects Israel’s pre-emptive strike capability. Israel’s own defensive capability remains adequate and not in jeopardy. This loss of ability to make a decisive pre-emptive strike is important to Israel because it deprives Israel of the ability to impose a short war. It enhances the Arab ability to prolong a war of attrition, but the Sinai buffer, Israel’s defenses and Egyptian offensive inadequacy make it difficult for Egypt to direct such a war at Israel proper. Hence the effect of a war of attrition might be limited.

2. The other important element in the picture is the continuing buildup in the USSR’s own position in Egypt. Despite a decline in Soviet shipments this spring—perhaps simply because the massive missile buildup was completed—the Soviets have this year introduced the SA–6 mobile missile system, the Flagon-A supersonic interceptor, the Foxbat reconnaissance aircraft and now the missile-carrying TU–16s. All these improve Soviet capability against the US and even, in an extreme situation, against Israel. While Soviet shipments have declined comparatatively in numbers or tonnage, there seems to be a steady qualitative improvement in the Soviet position rather than any significant “restraint.”

3. When all the studies of the military balance are complete, the decision now to provide another complement of Phantoms is political—in both the Egypt-Israel and the US-Soviet contexts. Everyone here admits [Page 951] that Israel will need more planes over a 1–3 year span to continue normal modernization and upgrading of its air force. The main question is when those planes will be provided and in what political context.4

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 647, Country Files, Middle East, Middle East (General), Vol. VIII. Secret; Nodis. Sent for information. A stamped notation on the memorandum indicates the President saw it.
  2. See Document 235.
  3. The study, entitled “Arab-Israeli Military Capabilities,” was produced by the Bureau of Intelligence and Research on November 1. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 647, Country Files, Middle East, Middle East (General), Vol. VIII)
  4. On November 23, the Senate voted 81–14 to provide Israel with $500 million in military credits for Israel, half of which was earmarked for the purchase of Phantom jets. (New York Times, November 24, 1971, p. 1)