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John F. Kennedy Administration: Summary of U.S.-Israel Talks on UAR Military Capability

(November 14, 1963)

This is a memorandum for the record covering a meeting with Israeli officials to summarize November 12-13 1963, talks on Israeli and UAR military capability.

General Rabin, Major Ron and Minister Gazit came in November 14 for a recap on the week's US-Israeli talks on UAR military capability. The discussion began around a 1:250,000 map of Israel, with General Rabin describing probable UAR offensive tactics. He said the Egyptians slavishly follow Soviet tactical doctrine (partly because this minimizes need for individual initiative). So they would use a set-piece attack learned from the Soviets, which relies on an initial heavy artillery barrage followed up by mechanized and infantry units to breach defenses, then by armor to exploit. He expects the main Egyptian thrust across the border immediately south of the Gaza Strip around Korem Shalom, with perhaps a secondary push farther south near Quezio't. He didn't think Nasser would dare deploy units in the Gaza Strip itself; they would be too vulnerable. He discounted an Egyptian attempt to link up with Jordan across the Negev. If they tried to link at all, he thought it would be in the narrow southern tip near Elat. This would give Israel little problem because it was so far from Israel's "heart".

In response to my questions, he ranged over some of the AT weapons Israel would rely on. Certainly they would employ AT mines but only to defend certain fixed positions. Defense of the whole border this way required too many mines, and anyway the Egyptians can easily breach mine fields. (I said I thought he over-estimated the courage of Egyptian soldiers.) The Israelis hadn't had much luck marrying the SS missile with the helicopter. They found that perfect accuracy requires the helicopter to hover within range of ground machine guns. The SS-10 wasn't much good, although Israel had "several hundred"; they would get more SS-11s, however, and mount them on half tracks, rather than jeeps as we did, because they thought the gunner needed a little protection. He also compared the limited fuel capacity of Israeli tanks (about five hours) with the Soviet T-54, which has a 15-hour range. He said they needed increased fuel capacity to exploit the greater maneuverability of their tanks compared to those of UAR.

I then told General Rabin I wanted to summarize informally my impressions of our two-day session. Despite Ambassador Harman's masterful summation, I felt there was still a substantial difference between our estimates of UAR capabilities (Rabin nodded agreement). I said I regarded the Israeli intelligence estimates presented to us as typical high side, gross capabilities estimates which our own services often tended to make, especially when confronted with evaluating a new order of threat, e.g. missiles. I cited our own experience of miscalculating Soviet intentions in our original estimates of our "missile gap." We recognized that the Egyptians could achieve the kind of force goals the Israelis forecast, i.e. the Israelis were in the ballpark, but we didn't think they would.

For instance, we doubt that the UAR now has an operational missile capability with 80-100 missiles or would spend the more than $500 million it would take to build a 1000-missile inventory by 1968. We don't have convincing evidence that UAR is going ahead with that kind of production, or can achieve a militarily effective system even if they do. Since Rabin agreed with us that these missiles would have no value against military targets but only in terrorizing urban population and perhaps disrupting mobilization, why couldn't the UAR get the same psychological effect with 100? In sum, don't differ much on the present technical evaluation--but chiefly on where the Egyptians are headed. Rabin interjected that this is the crucial question because he has to order hardware now to meet the 1966-7 threat.

I then chided Rabin about the way in which Israeli intelligence seemed to be overselling the top political level of the Israeli Government about UAR unconventional capabilities. The way in which PM Eshkol and FM Meir spoke had conveyed the impression that Israel had much harder evidence in the nuclear, RW, CW, and now missile fields than turned out to be the case. I cited Eshkol's letter as flatly describing a serious military threat against Israeli airfields, which Rabin and Yariv then dismissed. In sum, while we do see the possibility of a gradually widening deterrent gap, we question Israel's estimate of its likely size; we hope the talks have narrowed our difference.

Rabin countered by describing the problem in psychological terms. The danger, he said, would be Nasser's overconfidence (as a result of having a big missile force) that he might pull off a successful quick strike. The question is not how militarily effective Egyptian missiles are (though the Egyptians are improving their accuracy), but what the Israelis must have to deter an attack. Nasser has apparently decided to put missiles into production, even though his R&D hasn't yet achieved military desirable accuracy. It is obvious he believes the simple fact of having them is a major asset. I asked if this alone was sufficient to justify Israel investing in a very expensive counter-deterrent, of marginal military value compared to what else could be bought for the same money. Rabin admitted that, in purely tactical and monetary terms, the Israelis might do better by investing in armor rather than in missiles. But that judgment, he argued, didn't take account of the psychological deterrent value of missiles. Moreover, while he as a military man might accept some civilian casualties, the political leaders couldn't think in these terms.

I then told Rabin we had a much lower opinion of UAR naval capabilities than they. In general we doubted UAR technical and tactical proficiency would be sufficient to exploit properly the Soviet vessels they'd gotten. Anyway, what good did all those destroyers and subs do in a quick 3-5 day campaign? Rabin said we couldn't escape the Navy question by arguing numbers. He cited the threat of Komar-based cruise missiles to Israeli power plants, all of which were near the coast, and to coastal cities. When he talked with Admirals Ricketts and Taylor this very day, they hadn't seemed to know of any very effective answer to the Komar. Attack from the air seemed the best answer, but Israel couldn't spare aircraft for this purpose.

He then launched into a description of Nasser's master plan as depending heavily on surprise and on a crippling initial blow. Nasser realized he didn't have the logistical base to support a sustained military effort. Also he knows the international situation won't permit local wars to go on more than few days. So he's counting on a quick early success.

I granted that this was the most militarily sensible rationale for making the most of Nasser's capability, if indeed he were contemplating attack. But if Nasser thinks this way, why does he waste his money on things like destroyers and submarines that don't fit this concept? Rabin countered by acknowledging that Nasser probably decided on this sort of naval force shortly after Suez when he saw the need of blocking the sort of limited landings that Britain and France tried. Moreover, we didn't think a big surprise attack with the kind of weapons Nasser had could be decisive in the short period cited. I reiterated General Quinn's argument that if the UAR sought maximum strategic surprise for a missile/jet attack, it would not jeopardize this surprise by bringing such substantial forces forward into Sinai as would maximize the risk of Israeli discovery. Even if the UAR could bring three divisions forward secretly, as in February 1960, was this force enough to permit a decisive thrust, or would it have to pause after a few days till substantial reinforcements could be brought up, thus permitting an Israeli counter-offensive? In any case, after the 1960 experience, the Israelis were taking precautions against being surprised in this manner again; I noted their overflight program (which General Quinn had pointed out).

I reminded Rabin that we did not accept Yariv's argument that the UAR had a blank check for anything it wanted from the Soviets. We had indications this was not wholly the case. But the best evidence was the fact that Nasser was going in for a "home-grown" capability in several key categories--missiles, jet fighters, and APCs. Didn't this indicate he feared he might not be able to get all he wanted from the Soviets? Wasn't it reasonable to assume Nasser felt the same way about Soviet support as Rabin felt about US help? Moreover, we doubted that the UAR would become "dangerously overconfident" about the military effectiveness of its homemade weapons. The Egyptian scientists surely could draw their own conclusions about the accuracy, reliability, and salvo capability of the Victor and Conqueror. Would they really think they could fire off 1000 or even 500 of these within twelve hours, or even 48? So I hypothesized that, instead of directing all its efforts toward an effective striking capability against Israel, the UAR was seeking generalized prestige and psychological advantage through being the only Arab country which could produce its own rockets and jets. Why should it build 1000 primitive missiles to prove this point? This would be an extremely expensive operation for a country so poor in hard currency. Rabin disagreed that Nasser was only after prestige. He warned against assuming Nasser would act on the same military assessment of the value of his weapons that we have.

Rabin noted that I had not mentioned their tank estimates. He alleged that our attempt to dispute numbers yesterday had been an evasion. I countered that it seemed to me to be simple misunderstanding--they had counted SU assault guns as tanks, and we had not. He granted that their last year's figures had not done so, but they had found out that the UAR was going to use the SUs as AT weapons rather than artillery, so they'd switched to including them with the tanks. I granted that the USSR could provide 600 additional tanks by 1967-68 but said neither we nor they had any firm evidence; their estimate was a strict TO&E projection. So I felt we could neither accept nor reject their estimate. I conceded that they had a problem about modernization of their armor, but the risk was that if they bought more tanks this would simply egg on the UAR to buy more Soviet models than otherwise likely. In sum, we did not see the conventional deterrent gap as becoming so wide as to create the serious additional risk of UAR attack they seemed to see. Moreover, we felt they weren't taking adequate account of the inferiority of the Arab soldier as compared to the Israeli.

When Rabin emphasized that Israel must have sufficient strength in every key category to deter UAR attack, I switched to the US role in such deterrence. Citing Phil Talbot's point that the Arabs almost certainly believed that the US would intervene immediately if they attacked Israel (Rabin shook his head), I argued that even if Nasser could achieve an initial advantage he could count on losing it rapidly as we and others got into the fray. So what would surprise attack get him, unless he could eliminate Israel by such a blitzkrieg that our intervention would be too late? We did not see him, even under the worst case assumptions just presented by the Israelis, as being able to do so. Nasser could see that we had tactical air as close as Adana, the Sixth Fleet was nearby, UK Bomber Command was on Cyprus. Having just reviewed our own capabilities before the recent meetings, we were confident we could meet any need. Why did Israel always seem to question our will or ability to react, which we had underlined again and again both publicly and privately?

Rabin said he would give me three candid reasons why Israel regarded US assurances as not being comparable to our commitments to NATO and other allies. First, they were not against a Communist enemy. The US would fight if their chief opponents attempted aggression, but it might be a different matter where no Communist enemy was involved. Though Communist influence certainly affected Nasser, he could not honestly claim that the UAR is Communist. Second, we had open formal treaty commitments to our other allies but not to Israel. These open commitments were a stronger deterrent. Third, we did joint planning under our other alliances, and this was essential to make them militarily effective. He illustrated this last by saying that in the desert dust it was very hard to tell friendly tanks from enemy without pre-arranged recognition signals. They'd shot up a lot of their own tanks in 1956. Without prior staff consultation, how could our intervention be militarily effective? He very much doubted that we'd bomb Cairo, for example. But even so, what would happen if US and Israeli planes arrived over a target simultaneously without ways of recognizing each other?

I strenuously objected that these were differences of form, not kind. The primary reason why we questioned the value of formal bilateral security arrangements with Israel was that, without adding anything to our existing determination to act, these would drive the Arabs to seek compensatory arrangements with the Soviets, thus bringing the USSR right back into the Middle East. They would stimulate further Arab demands for Soviet arms. Why make such a counterproductive gesture?

Our chief policy aims in the Middle East were (1) to forestall Soviet penetration of this strategic area; (2) protect Israeli independence; and (3) maintain access to Middle East oil. Keeping the USSR blocked out of the area directly served the other two objectives, and was at least as much in Israel's security interest as ours. And it was Soviet arms sales to the Arabs beginning in 1955 which created the military threat to Israel. So here was the real problem--how to prevent a competitive arms race. We ourselves had contributed to this situation by our policy in the mid-fifties vis-a-vis Nasser. It was in reacting to US/UK policy that he turned to Moscow, and we didn't want to make this mistake again. Indeed we felt the Soviets had lost considerable ground in the area (Rabin agreed); it was emphatically in Israel's interest as well as ours to forestall a polarization of forces in which we backed Israel exclusively and the USSR backed the Arabs. Then Israel would truly have to become a garrison state.

Why, after our consistent support of Israel over the years, our extensive financial aid, and our repeated declarations since 1950 (most recently the President's 8 May statement and letter to Eshkol), did Israel still question our reliability? Rabin cited the 1947-48 experience as making Israel wary. When the Arab armies invaded, no major power helped them and the US actually embargoed arms shipments. They only beat back the Arabs because of the Czechoslovak arms they got. I retorted that much had happened since 1948, and we certainly supported Israel as a going concern. He said he had a long memory. (Obviously, his personal experience in Jerusalem weighed heavily here.)

Gazit interjected that Israel felt it could depend on us, but that it couldn't let its own margin of safety become too thin. Because of the increasing threat, Israel needed either stronger security guarantees or a stronger deterrent posture. Rabin added that Israel could not depend solely on assurances of outside support. It must be able to defend itself come what may.

I rejoined that we did not feel they should rely solely on outside assurances either. We recognized their need for a reasonable deterrent posture. We had helped subsidize it and even contributed directly to it, most recently via the Hawk sale. Where the difference seemed to lie was between their estimate that the threat was becoming so great as to require major defense add-ons and our more confident estimate that they remained quite superior to the Arab states. As we saw it, this plus our assurances seemed to fill the bill. They and we should think hard before Israel embarked on such major new programs as acquiring 500 new tanks, 100 SSMs, and a much larger navy.

According to General Rabin, Israel greatly appreciated our private assurances of help, but couldn't rely solely on them, or expect them to be effective without the sort of joint planning allies must do. Furthermore, the deterrent value of vague public statements and private assurances was significantly less than that of a formal alliance. The only long run hope for Israel was to kill the last cell or Arab hope for the destruction of Israel. Until that hope disappeared, he saw no chance for normal Arab-Israeli relations. I said I was sure Nasser understood our determination to defend Israel every bit as clearly as if we had a formal alliance. Rabin disagreed.

I told Rabin we hoped for more information on Israel's own plans. We had heard, for example, that they were interested in a French solid fuel missile being developed by Marcel Dassault. Did they intend to buy these or develop their own? Rabin said they were interested in this missile, but had made no decisions on what to go for or how many yet. They were still studying the possibilities. When I suggested they seemed to have decided not to build their own missiles but to buy them elsewhere, he denied this. However, I took the occasion to underscore Talbot's point that if they deployed superior missiles with good accuracy, Nasser would almost certainly seek Soviet SSMs; he'd know his own homegrown missiles wouldn't suffice to counter such a threat to him. Thus Israel would have spurred the UAR toward acquiring the kind of capability which might be quite dangerous. What would also spur the UAR on would be its likely knowledge that Israel had a breeder reactor which could, if Israel so chose, be turned to weapons material production, and provide warheads for Israeli missiles. In one sense, this capability might seem to give Israel a real deterrent against the Arabs; in another sense Israel would be opening Pandora's box to a new and unpredictable escalation of the arms race, with new opportunities for Soviet exploitation. We were opposed to such escalation, and above all to nuclear proliferation. If the UAR's so-called "missile capability" seemed so utterly marginal in military terms, why run these risks?

Gazit said that Israel was determined to get missiles somewhere. General Rabin took this up to say that even if their military saw only a "psychological" threat from UAR missiles, it was Israel's political leadership which had to face the country, and to demonstrate that it was taking adequate measures to deter an Arab second round. I was left with the distinct impression that Israel intended to go ahead on SSMs.

Our discussion ended with Gazit's complaint that the intelligence exchange had been "abstruse and academic"; the real question was where did we go from here. Instead of answering, I bridled at his characterization of the talks. We had found them highly useful in clarifying our impressions as to how Israel viewed the Arab military threat. But we still had points of obvious difference in threat assessment, which might need further clarifying. Instead of giving us credit for honest disagreement, the Israelis often seemed to regard us as being evasive. Quite candidly, we on our part often felt that we needed to know more about Israeli plans and programs than we'd been told. So we appreciated the Rabin/Yariv talks.

Walking out the door, I mentioned the advantages of soft shelters for aircraft and of dispersal as complicating enemy attack and reducing losses. Israel had underground revetments for its aircraft, but what about dispersal? Rabin said they planned to build another airfield, probably costing $15-20 million. I asked about using existing airfields; he smiled.

R.W. Komer

Sources: Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963: Near East, 1962-1963, V. XVIII. DC: GPO, 2000.