The US Arms Supply to Israel during the October War
"I fought Israel for eleven days but I was not ready to fight the United States."
President Anwar Sadat of Egypt, October 31, 1973
"If the United States had faltered and delayed and if the people of Israel had not received the needed equipment in time, we might have witnessed a catastrophe"
I.L. Kenen, Chairman of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, November 5,1973
The massive transportation of arms by sea and air to Israel while the fighting was still continuing had an undeniable effect on the outcome of the war, and, according to President Sadat, on Egypt's decision to accept the cease-fire. The most comprehensive and explicit statement on the subject from the American side came when President Nixon sent a message to Congress on October 19 requesting the authorization of "emergency security assistance of$ 2.2 billion to Israel."
President Nixon said that the United States was making every effort to bring an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict, but pointed out that "prudent planning also requires we prepare for a longer struggle." He added that:
To maintain a balance of forces and thus achieve stability, the US government is currently providing military material to Israel to replace combat losses. This is necessary to prevent the emergence of a substantial imbalance resulting from the large-scale resupply of Egypt and Syria by the Soviet Union. The cost of replacing consumables and lost equipment for the Israeli Armed Forces has been extremely high. Combat activity has been intense and losses on both sides have been large. During the first twelve days of this combat the United States has authorized shipment to Israel of material costing $ 825 million, including transportation.
Major items being now furnished by the United States to the Israeli forces include conventional munitions of many types, air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles, artillery, crew-served and individual weapons and a standard range of fighter aircraft ordnance. Additionally, the United States is providing replacements for tanks, aircraft, radios and other military equipment which have been lost in action.
In his message Nixon indicated that the $ 2.2 billion request was based on the possibility of a prolonged war, but suggested that the amount could be reduced if the fighting was brought to a quick end. However, despite the war's quick end, two top administration officials (Deputy Secretary of State William Rush and Deputy Defense Secretary William Clements, Jr.) said that the total $2.2 billion requested in emergency military aid would be used to replace Israel's combat losses and build up her forces to a greater strength than before the war.
Mr. Clements said that "within three days [of the commencement of the resupply effort] the airlift reached an average flow of approximately one thousand tons of critically needed weapons, ammunition, spare parts and supplies. In addition Israeli transport aircraft played an important role in the transportation of critical supplies, especially in the early days. Israeli ships were also loaded with ammunition, vehicles and other supplies."
Clements said that the effort helped to prevent "a serious shift in the balance of power in the Middle East" and added that the "dollar value of the defense material that we have approved for sale, and have either shipped or are in the process of shipping to that country [Israel] since October 6, is approaching $ 1 billion."
Israel had indicated a need for $ 3 billion worth of military equipment. Rush said that this figure was somewhat "squashy" and added that an American military team was already in Israel to determine the extent of combat losses and to draft recommendations on military aid. Rush added, however, that "it may well be that the United States should provide equipment whose total value will be slightly over $ 2 billion." I. L. Kenen, a well-known pro- Israeli lobbyist, told the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, also on November 5, that the $ 2.2 billion figure would meet Israeli needs, provided it all came in the form of outright grants.
Both Mr. Rush and Mr. Clements said that because of the "severe financial problems" facing Israel, which already owes the United States about $ 1.2 billion on pre-war defense supplies and equipment, it would probably be necessary to grant rather than sell Israel the arms. The equipment purchased since the beginning of the war has been on a cash basis, with payment required within 120 days. Whether Israel would instead be given the equipment or be allowed to pay on credit was not stated by the Administration.
There is little doubt that the matter of resupplying Israel with speed, and the quantity and quality of arms was, as described by a well-informed military analyst one week after the fighting began, something that "conceivably could become a matter of life and death for Israel."
This American aid to Israel began as it became apparent in the first days of fighting that the Israelis were paying a heavy toll in men and equipment. On the ground considerable losses in tanks had impaired the efficacy of her armoured forces; in the air, a large number of planes, particularly Phantoms and Skyhawks, had been destroyed, and Israel consequently lost the supremacy in the air which had been such a decisive factor in the 1967 war.
An important factor in the ground war was the successful use of the anti- tank wire-guided missiles carried by Egyptian troops as they crossed the Canal, which worked with a devastating impact. Snapper and Sagger mobile guided missiles accounted for the majority of the tanks put out of action on the Syrian and Egyptian fronts, a number estimated by Pentagon sources at the time for the duration of the war as around 840 tanks out of a total inventory of between 1950 and 2000. In the air, similarly serious results were obtained through the Arabs' successful deployment and operation of SAM-2, SAM-3, SAM-6 and SAM-7 anti-aircraft missiles.
With such mounting losses, it became clear to American officials that Israel's military situation was becoming gravely endangered, and Western staff officers were wondering whether Israel could absorb another fortnight of high losses without massive outside aid. Without such aid, Israel would be forced to restrict her operations to air, armoured and artillery harassment of the Egyptians after - hopefully -neutralizing the Syrians, in an effort to conserve equipment. The airlift gave the Israelis the assurance that at least they would not run out of planes, tanks and ammunition.
American aid to Israel took place in two stages. The first stage, before the seriousness of the Israeli situation was fully realized, was a relatively small, secret operation which involved mainly the meeting of Israeli needs for artillery shells and anti-tank ammunition. This operation was reported to have begun on October 9 and may have commenced as early as the 7th. On October 10 the Norfolk Ledger Star reported that a Boeing 707 with Israeli markings on its tail section was loaded with missiles and bombs at the Oceana Naval Air Station in Norfolk, Virginia. While the arms were being put aboard, sailors covered the Israeli markings with paper and masking tape, then painted the covering. A C- 141 aircraft from the United States Military Airlift Command landed at Oceana and taxied to a point near the Israeli plane, pulling alongside of it, and began to unload bombs to be placed directly in the Israeli plane. The Associated Press reported on October 11 that shipments were being moved from remote bases in the US by Israeli planes, and on the same day the Israeli airline El Al announced that it was suspending passenger services across the North Atlantic.
The second stage of the airlift was the more serious one since it began with the aim of replacing Israeli losses in planes and tanks, and supplying Electronic Counter Measures equipment, as well as other weapons - some classified - which had not been given to the Israelis before.
This decision appears to have been made on October 13 and the resupply began on October 14. The decision to offset Israel's losses of heavier equipment was said to have been deferred for several days, in the hope that such action would become unnecessary, as a result of political or military developments. For instance, a top administration official said on October 12 that "the level of fighting, Israeli losses, and the scale of Soviet arms shipments to the Arabs will determine whether to send planes and tanks" to Israel.
Many senators and congressmen supported the decision to give Israel the jets and other equipment it might need to "repel aggression," but the Senate virtually unanimously opposed any direct military intervention in the Middle East and it was felt that the President would have to come before the Senate for approval before such action could be taken.
To dramatize the potential of the airlift to Israel, Deputy Secretary of Defense William Clements, Jr., and Secretary of the Air Force John McLucas summoned 20 airline executives to the Pentagon for a total review of the United States civilian capability to augment the overall transport capabilities of the Military Airlift Command. General Paul Carlton, Commander of the Military Airlift Command, was reported to have briefed the executives on the overall logistical situation. He informed them that the United States was operating through the Lajes Field in the Portuguese Azores islands, and using Lockheed C-5As and C-141s and C-130s. He added that some help might be needed in providing the capacity to fill the gaps left by diversion of some of these aircraft to the airlift to Israel.
The US airlift was reported to be drawing material from several bases in the United States and overseas so as not to dent stockpiles in any one unit. There were reports of planes leaving from several bases in the US. In the first week of the war one American analyst had said, "At this loss rate of aircraft the United States resupply effort cannot sustain a credible Israeli air power for long." Dozens of planes now had to fly over or refuel in Portugal. The refusal by Britain and Spain to allow similar facilities appears to have had a slowing effect on the airlift, because the planes had to be refuelled in the air and therefore some planes had to carry fuel instead of ammunition. This was especially the case with the Phantoms, which had to be refuelled four times during flight. A base was also needed for crew rotation.
For a while the American Ramstein air base in Western Germany was the major European staging area for the American resupply effort to Israel, as well as the Schweinfurt base in Bavaria. Agence France Presse quoted military sources as saying that large quantities of US war material, including anti-aircraft missile warheads, were withdrawn from the US base at Schweinfurst to be sent to Israel. Israeli ships were seen loading arms, including tanks, from the port of Bremerhaven, an incident which later created an uproar and led to West Germany asking the United States to halt all arms shipments to the Middle East from her territory. A German Foreign Ministry statement said that the government "is relying on America to halt finally deliveries from and over" Germany. The US charge d'affaires in Germany, Frank Cash, was told that "weapon deliveries using West German territory, or installations from American depots in West Germany, to one of the warring parties cannot be allowed." Germany's strict neutrality forbade any arms shipments. However, the note requesting an end to arms deliveries was not delivered until October 25, when a major portion of the weapons and ammunition had already been sent to Israel.
By the fourth day of its second stage the airlift was reported to be ferrying roughly 800/950 tons of supplies in about twenty plane loads per day. This figure was to reach a thousand tons and higher on twenty to thirty-one flights a day, and was maintained at this level for several days. American supplies to Israel by early November were estimated to have reached 23,000 tons. This figure does not include material carried by Israeli planes and cargo ships; nor does it include the F-4 Phantoms and A-4 Skyhawks flown directly to Israel.
Other material received by Israel included 2,000 Hughes TOW anti- tank missiles, which are endowed with a 3,000 metre range, targeted by eye and then guided electrically by a wire trailing the missile, considered one of the new "smart weapons." Israel, which used to believe that the tank itself was the best anti-tank weapon, now appeared to feel that anti-tank missiles might help hold down the huge costs in men and equipment that resulted from the armour duels.
Israel's total losses have been estimated at between thirty-five and fifty F-4s, about eighty A-4s, between eight and ten Mirage-3s, about five Super Mysteres, and a very small number of helicopters, in addition to between five and ten planes in non-combat situations. The United States was generally reported to have sent to Israel between forty-eight and fifty-six Phantoms, although the most conservative estimate was around forty Phantoms.
Among the planes sent to Israel were included some different types of Phantoms. which were not already in her arsenal. The reason given for this was that the US did not have sufficient numbers of the Phantom F-4E, the model Israel had before. A small number of F-4B and F-4J models were dispatched from the Sixth Fleet attack carriers, USS Independence and USS Roosevelt, in the Mediterranean. Support systems for these planes would have to be transferred from the carriers to Israel or supplied directly from the US if these planes were to remain in Israel for a prolonged period of time. The United States also sent about eighty A-4 Skyhawks to Israel. Some of these were shipped by sea while some were flown in by American pilots.
It was also at this time that the United States reported sending military technicians and communications experts who were described by a Pentagon spokesman as "necessary to meet the needs of our aircraft wherever they go, be it in military crisis or in a flood relief." There were also reports that some leaves were cancelled at Travis Air Force Base since air force mechanics were going to be sent to Israel to handle the equipment and supervise its delivery.
Another major effort in which the US was engaged was the sending of tanks to Israel. Israeli losses were heavy, and reports said that the United States was sending about 150 M-60 tanks to Israel. However, Senator Henry Jackson in a House-Senate Conference Committee action attached $ 100 million to the army's budget for tanks because, he said, they would eventually be needed by Israel. Since each M-60 tank cost $ 350,000, this would pay for about 300 tanks.
This figure does not reflect the true significance of the number of tanks sent, since it is more than the number of M-6Os Israel originally had. Further- more, this does not take into account the fact that many tanks were not totally destroyed, and could be repaired or used to rebuild other tanks. It also does not take into account the number of partially-damaged tanks which the Israelis captured and could put into use. So the overall picture could well emerge as one of an Israeli armoured force stronger than before the fighting broke out.
The weapons the US sent to Israel, it is believed, included some advanced avionics equipment and electro-optical "smart" or TV-guided weapons, whose export to the Middle East until now was reportedly barred by the State and Defense Departments on security grounds. These smart weapons are reported to be very effective in moistureless weather such as the desert, where the absence of trees and foliage makes it easier to pinpoint a target.
One of these is the Maverick air-to-air missile. Israeli F-4 crews were- reported to have fired dozens of these air-to-air missiles with a fair amount of success, even though they lacked training to use them. This missile was employed in the last days of the Vietnam war with a great deal of success against tanks, trucks and other ground targets. The Maverick is apparently one of the first missiles to have been released for sale to other countries while it was being concurrently manufactured for use by American troops. Before its sale to Israel it was given only to Iran (which was the first country to buy it in the spring of 1973) and to a few NATO countries.
Another weapon sent to Israel for the first time in this war was the electro- optical Target Identification System (TISEO), at $85,000, a device which can identify the target as friend or foe. It uses a TV camera with a zoom lens, mounted on the front edge of an F-4 Phantom wing. This device is able to identify other fighters at a distance of about 3.6 miles (the maximum range for the naked eye is about one mile). This weapon is also able to identify ground targets at greater ranges. Only a few NATO countries have it, because of security risks, and the Israelis were not briefed on its use before the recent fighting.
The Israelis were also reported to have been sent TV-guided glide bombs which include the homing bomb system (HOBOS) and the Walleye 1, a TV-- guided air-to-surface glide bomb, first introduced in Vietnam in 1967. The Walleye can be locked onto the target by the pilot before it is dropped, and after its release the TV eye continues to direct the bomb towards its target, without the help of the pilot. This was a great advance in accuracy and efficiency. The Israelis got the MK 84, a 2,000 pound TV-guided version of the HOBOS but allegedly not the more sophisticated infra-red and the growth warhead and guidance versions of it.
The TISEO was said to assist in avoiding enemy defenses while HOBOS glide bombs were delivered. It also serves as a cueing aid for the HOBOS TV camera which can, as soon as the target is detected and identified, lock onto it and home automatically to the target.
Other missiles which were reported to have been sent are the Sparrow radar-guided air-to-air missile and the improved Hawk, a low/medium altitude air defense missile, along with its radars.
There were different reports on whether or not Israel received the "smart bomb." Some sources say that confusion arises between the definition of a "smart bomb" and a "smart weapon." The smart bomb was said to be a regular bomb with a laser receiver on the nose. The plane's pilot points the laser beam at the target and the bomb rides the reflected beam to the target, making the system very accurate. The smart weapons are TV-guided, rather than laser- guided. The US reportedly is not yet ready to send smart bombs to Israel although other, unconfirmed, sources say that it has already done so.
FUTURE US OPTIONS
The October war succeeded in destroying a number of apparent truths upon which Washington policy-making had been based since 1967. The Arabs have shown themselves to be of far superior military potential than was generally credited, and the United States' reliance upon Israel not only to look after herself but to act as a substitute for an American military presence has been jeopardized.
Another significant point is that the United States found itself isolated in its commitment to Israel, with a great strain put upon the NATO alliance. Portugal was the only country to permit the US to use its territory and air space to transfer supplies to Israel, forcing the US to reopen the Azores base, which had been scheduled to close. Britain, France, Spain, Greece and Turkey proclaimed their neutrality in the war. West Germany, where the US used its bases and ports to transfer shipments to Israel, refused to allow the United States to continue the arms aid from its territory. The United States was further irritated by reports that one of its allies, Pakistan, had sent ammunition to troops fighting on the Syrian side (presumably to Jordan).
All of this narrows down the future options of the US in the region to either direct military intervention or diplomacy. Direct intervention may prove militarily difficult, for the number of military facilities in the area controlled by countries friendly to the US has diminished sharply in the past 15 years. This has greatly reduced US flexibility in deploying its units while Arab capability has at the same time dramatically increased. During the early 1960's, sixty US support installations and airfields were available in the Arab world. All but a few - numbering less than ten - have been lost in the intervening years. Meanwhile, the increased military capability of the Arabs has created the risk of Arab counteraction in the event of a direct US intervention. Diplomacy is now a much more likely means of settling disputes in the area.
Edmund Ghareeb is a former journalist now completing his Ph.D. in history at Georgetown University, Washington, DC. This article is based both on published sources and interviews conducted by the author.