53. Briefing Memorandum From the Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (Saunders) to Secretary of State Vance1

Combat Assistance to Somalia

In this memorandum we review briefly the capabilities (not the intentions) of Egypt, Iran, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia to provide combat assistance to Somalia and give some indication as to the impact that various levels of assistance would have on the military balance in the Horn.


The Egyptians undoubtedly have the best troops available for an expeditionary force. Egypt’s Army is combat seasoned and displayed unexpected flexibility in moving from its normal Suez Canal positions to the Western Military District in the fighting against Libya last July. It is also large enough to spare a few brigades without jeopardy.

The Iranian Army is well-equipped and trained but has had less combat experience than the Egyptian. Iran is, however, in a far better position than any other state in the area to provide a wide range of air support. It would need, however, to use its American equipment.

Sudanese forces are less capable in all aspects than either the Egyptians or the Iranians. The small Sudanese forces are poorly trained and marginally equipped.

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Any Saudi Arabian forces would be strictly symbolic. Saudi support would probably be restricted to political, financial, and material assistance.

Impact of Advisors and Technical Assistance

A few hundred technical and military advisors from Iran and/or Egypt with special emphasis on air defenses, communications, and security. Such a force would be mainly symbolic, with little military impact.

A specific, well-qualified technical support package from the same states to perform tasks such as defending Berbera from air attacks or providing air defenses for several important installations. Such a force would require possibly as many as a thousand advisors.

A larger number of technical and military advisors covering a wide spectrum of activity, such as training and assisting the Somalis in using air defense weapons. Together, Egypt and Iran have significant numbers of trained, reasonably qualified personnel. The Egyptians would be best in areas such as air defenses and defensive tactics. The Iranians would probably perform better in supply, communications, and other non-combat roles. An advisory group of such a magnitude would release Somali troops for front-line service, raise the quality of training throughout the Somali armed forces, and provide a timely psychological boost.

Impact of Air-Related Expeditionary Units

SAM forces to protect major Somali towns and installations from Ethiopian air attacks. While these could protect Somalia, they would not provide air security for their forces in the Ogaden.

SAM forces with mobile elements, such as the SA–7 and ZSU–23/4 radar controlled gun. A dozen or so such units could make Ethiopian/Cuban air attacks so costly that they would no longer play a significant role in the fighting.

A similar SAM force, but backed up by a few squadrons of combat aircraft. This would give the Somalis air superiority. Egypt, Iran, and possibly Saudi Arabia could embark on such a venture. However, the deployment of even two-three squadrons would seriously erode Egyptian air defenses and have serious logistics and support restraints. Iran could provide a squadron or two of highly effective combat aircraft for operations in Somalia and has had experience in limited deployment operations. Saudi Arabia could provide aircraft for operations in Somalia but only a dozen or so because of its limited support infrastructure.

Impact of Ground Combat Units

Introduction of a commando brigade or mechanized brigade. Egypt has a commando brigade, six or seven mechanized brigades, and several [Page 118] infantry brigades that would be well-suited to such a task. Egyptian forces have significant combat experience and would probably at least match an equivalent number of Cuban forces—and be clearly superior to Ethiopian forces. It would require 5,000 men to support a combat brigade adequately.

Introduction of Egyptian brigades and of combat forces from Iran—totaling about 20,000 men. Support and logistics for such a large force would be a nightmare and would require enormous investments. If these problems could be solved, the well-equipped Iranians and the experienced Egyptians would give the Somalis clear superiority over their opponents for some months, even if Ethiopian mobilization and re-equipment continued at the current high pace, and of course assuming that the Cuban build-up does not go beyond 5,000–10,000 men.

Airlift Assets

Both Egypt and Iran have adequate transport aircraft to ferry men and equipment to Somalia and could start deployments very quickly. Sudan has no real airlift ability, and if it were to participate would require airlift assistance. Airlift assets available to the Egyptian, Iranian, and Saudi Air Forces include:

Egypt Iran Saudi Arabia
6 C–130 (100 troops or 75 tons of cargo) 51 C–130 24 C–130
20 An–12 (75 troops or 40 tons of cargo) 6–747 (400+ troops or 125 tons of cargo)

Between the air forces of Iran, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, the resources for a successful airlift are present. With the augmentation available from their national airlines and from charter air cargo companies, there is no reason to doubt their capability to get men and material to Somalia expeditiously, should the political decisions be made to do so.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 21, Ethiopia: Aaron (David) trip, 2/78. Secret; Noforn. Drafted by Randall T. Elliott (INR/PMT).