36. Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs (McGiffert) to Secretary of Defense Brown 1


  • Ethiopia

Attached are a “think-piece” (Tab A), an analysis of alternative overflight/transit routes (Tab B), and a summary of regional attitudes toward the Ethiopia/Somalia conflict (Tab C).2 None have been reviewed outside ISA.

My comments are:

(1) Tab A does not analyze consequences. If any of the more militant ideas have threshold merit—which I doubt—a lot more analysis will be necessary.

(2) The idea that we should directly confront the Soviets/Cubans over Ethiopia is misbegotten: (1) The Horn is a poor part of the world in which to operate; (2) Direct confrontation ignores the logical preliminary step of establishing a military supply relationship with Somalia in an effort to keep the confrontation on a proxy basis; (3) It is difficult to perceive a degree of US interest in the area sufficient to gain support of the US public for direct action; (4) Quite possibly, Ethiopia will turn out to be a quagmire for the Soviets; in short, it may be in our interest to let them wallow.

David E. McGiffert 3

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Tab A

Memorandum 4

This memo addresses hypothetical courses of action to further our policies on the Horn, including the full range of military options to serve our objectives. It only lists possibilities; it does not purport to discuss feasibility, risks, or advisability.

We assume US policy continues to be to promote an end to fighting and a peaceful resolution of the dispute between Ethiopia and Somalia, i.e., to remain neutral in the dispute and not support either Ethiopia or Somalia. (We would need to assess the continued validity and viability of maintaining this neutrality at the same time we greatly activized our resistance to Soviet efforts.) At the same time we seek to end Soviet and Cuban military support—arms and personnel—to Ethiopia. Moreover, we assume that direct use of Soviet or Cuba personnel in a combat role is something we especially want to prevent.

We further assume we would continue (and expand) our diplomatic efforts with other African states rallying their active support to resolve the conflict and oppose Soviet counter intervention either individually or collectively as part of the Organization of African Unity. However, the receptivity of key nations to those appeals has been limited so far, and their ability directly to stop either the fighting or Soviet intervention is limited. It is therefore further assumed that these “African” initiatives fail.

Political/Diplomatic means to end Soviet/Cuban support

1. With the USSR itself, we could protest far more strongly than we have5 and make the issue of further military supply to Ethiopia a matter of serious concern and a potential threat to continued good relations in other areas, particularly if Cuban or Soviet combat forces were introduced. The US could go so far as to threaten to terminate ongoing arms control negotiations (SALT, Indian Ocean, CTB); to restrict further Soviet-American trade, etc. We could also threaten to abandon our neutrality and support Somalia militarily unless the Soviets stop their aid to Ethiopia.

2. With Cuba, the US has very little leverage and limited access, but we could make an improvement in relations dependent upon an end to Cuban military support for Ethiopia.

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In each case, we could stress that direct Soviet or Cuban combat involvement would be a step of the utmost gravity.

3. With the “overflight states,” the US could go beyond our previous relatively low-key, factual presentations and seek to put strong pressure on the countries over which the Soviets must fly to refuse overflight rights, notably Yugoslavia and Turkey. In that context, we would want to seek Arab support for similar pressures on Syria and Iraq. To block the cross-Africa route, we would need to be prepared to use similar pressure methods on African states, notably Zaire, Kenya (most likely to resist), and Tanzania. Our pressure resources obviously vary greatly from case-to-case. The Egyptians, Saudis and Iranians would presumably back us up. Turkey is a difficult case, given their dependence on Bulgaria for overflight rights, since their dispute with Greece.

Military measures to cut Soviet/Cuban support

Generally, the US could move naval forces into the Red Sea and Indian Ocean to demonstrate the seriousness of US interest in the resolution of the conflict and the end of Soviet and Cuban support—and to provide forces in the area for later actions. Moving air or ground forces would require land bases not immediately available, except perhaps for the 3000 man Marine Amphibious Unit embarked with the Sixth Fleet.

—We could also or alternatively expand the scope of the problem for the Soviets and Cubans, e.g., by actively backing UNITA in its continued resistance to the increasingly troubled Neto regime in Angola.

Anti-Aircraft: (Currently by various overflight routes, often through Aden, to Addis for the Soviets, through Africa for the Cubans.)

—The US could unilaterally or through third countries act with military force to close the Addis airport, the Aden staging airport, or other airports being used for Soviet or Cuban refueling. However, other fields may be available.

—Assuming US aircraft assets are moved so as to be available, the US could attempt to force down or, in the extreme, shoot down Soviet aircraft enroute to Ethiopia—or indicate a willingness to back third country efforts at an air blockade, e.g., by providing intelligence.

—There may also be more limited covert (or overt) options, e.g., interference with refueling operations enroute.

Anti-Sea Lift: (Assab, just north of Djibonti, is the only available Ethiopian seaport for Soviet and Cuban military aid by sea.) To prevent further supply by sea, the US could

—put pressure on Egypt to deny the Soviets use of the Suez canal.

—unilaterally or through third countries seek to deny the Soviets the use of the part of Assab—through mining, blockade, or the introduction of military forces to occupy the town or routes from it.

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With respect to Cuba, the US could seek to interdict the logistics support to Cuban forces in Ethiopia, either coming from Cuba or Angola.

—We could use naval forces to seek to stop Soviet vessels headed for Assab at sea.

—Finally, there may be feasible covert/sabotage actions.

Caveat: As noted, we have only sought to list the logical possibilities, not to evaluate them. Most are no doubt infeasible.

All involve risks of direct military confrontation with the Soviet Union that may not be commensurate with possible benefits. For all there would be problems of coordination with:

—Our Arab (and Iranian) friends who support Somalia—especially to maintain any distinction between the US opposing the Soviets and backing the Somalis.

—Israel, which continues to back Ethiopia.

—European friends, who, broadly if uneasily, support Somalia.

—Other African states, who broadly support Ethiopia. (Kenya is a special problem here.)

Finally, close consultation with Congress would be essential, as would clear exploration and justification of our actions to press and public.

  1. Source: Library of Congress, Harold Brown Papers, Box 8, Horn of Africa. No classification marking.
  2. Tabs B and C were not found.
  3. Printed from a copy that indicates McGiffert signed the original.
  4. No classification marking.
  5. Toon met with Gromyko on December 12 to discuss Soviet actions in the Horn of Africa. See Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. VI, Soviet Union, Document 65.