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The Arab Military Threat


Figure l3. Comparison of Military Forces of Israel and Neighboring Countries, 1987

Source: Based on information from International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance, 1987-1988, London, 1987, 96-114.


Israeli forces withdrawing from occupied area of southern Lebanon, June 1978
Courtesy United Nations (Y. Nagata)

As of 1988, experts considered the IDF superior to any combination of Arab forces that was likely to be massed against it in a future conflict. The total manpower and firepower that could be directed against Israel far outweighed the battlefield resources that Israel could muster, yet Israel's dynamic military leadership, troop proficiency, and sophisticated weaponry still promised to be decisive, as they had been in previous wars. The Arab nations remained deeply divided over a host of issues in mid-1988, including their postures toward Israel. Although the Camp David peace process between Egypt and Israel failed to achieve normalization of relations, Israel no longer considered Egypt part of the circle of hostile states. Nevertheless, Israeli planners did not rule out an upheaval in Egyptian politics that would renew the risk of military confrontation. With the Sinai region effectively demilitarized, the element of surprise that had initially worked in Egypt's favor in the October 1973 War would not be available. In any future conflict, Egyptian forces would have to cross 130 kilometers of desert exposed to Israeli air power. Jordan's military weakness vis--vis Israel and its exposure to Israeli retaliation seemed to rule out military action except as a reluctant ally in a larger Arab coalition. The modernization of Jordan's army and air force was continuing, however, with the help of the United States and France. Many important Israeli targets were within the range of Jordanian artillery and rockets.

Syria posed the paramount threat. The Syrian armed forces had pursued a massive build-up of offensive and defensive manpower and equipment in an effort to maintain parity with Israel. Although the inflexibility of their military strategy had resulted in crushing defeats in engagements with the IDF, the Syrians had proved to be skillful and stubborn fighters during the Lebanon conflict. The concentrations of Syrian troops facing the Golan Heights probably could make initial gains in a thrust against the IDF, but would absorb heavy punishment once the Israelis mobilized for a counterattack.

Like other Arab states, Saudi Arabia had upgraded its naval and air arms, improving its capability to defend its air space and control activities in the Red Sea area. Saudi Arabia's outlook and strategic doctrine were primarily defensive, and its primary objective was stability in the Middle East to minimize the danger to its oil facilities and other vital installations. Nevertheless, from Israel's perspective, that country had the potential to undertake offensive air operations in conjunction with other Arab air forces. In the eyes of Israeli strategists, Saudi Arabia's 1988 purchase of long-range missiles from China and its acquisition of Tornado fighter-bombers from Britain enhanced its role in a future conflict.

The Iraqi army had not played a decisive role in previous wars. During the October 1973 fighting, two Iraqi brigades were quickly overcome in the IDF drive toward Damascus. If Iraq again attempted to advance its forces to support Syria and Jordan, they would, like those of Egypt, be vulnerable to Israeli air strikes. Nevertheless, as of late 1988, Israeli officers were less confident of their ability to neutralize Iraq's armed potential. During the war with Iran, the Iraqi army had expanded to more than twenty divisions and had acquired combat experience and skill in the use of sophisticated weaponry. Iraq also had demonstrated the capacity and willingness to resort to chemical weapons. On the other hand, Iraq was economically drained and presumably tired of fighting after the eight-year struggle with Iran. Israeli military analysts felt, moreover, that tensions would persist in the Persian Gulf and that Iraq's armed forces would be unlikely to welcome military involvement elsewhere.

The buildup of the Arab armies between the October 1973 War and the mid-1980s was both qualitative and quantitative. Egypt, Syria, and Jordan had expanded the total of their divisions from twenty to twenty-five during this period. Of these, the number of armored and mechanized divisions rose from ten to twenty-two. Israeli planners estimated that Iraq could contribute another ten divisions, increasing the Arab disparity over Israel even more (see fig. 13).

The lifting of restrictions on arms sales by the Western powers, combined with the increased resources at the disposal of oil-exporting countries, enabled the Arab powers vastly to expand their sophisticated weaponry between 1973 and 1988. The tank inventories of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria rose by 60 percent, while their stocks of aircraft, helicopters, and armored personnel carriers roughly doubled. Both Syria and Iraq had acquired high performance aircraft of Soviet design. To the Arab countries' primary land weapons had been added more self-propelled artillery, guided antitank missiles, new munitions--including cluster and homing shells--improved fire-control systems, and laser rangefinders. Previously vulnerable air defenses now could be shielded using advanced mobile missile systems acquired from both East and West. Most of the strategic sites in Israel were exposed to Syrian striking power in the form of Soviet-supplied SS-21 SSMs, with a range of 120 kilometers and far greater accuracy than the earlier generation FROG-7 (70 kilometers) and Scud-B (300 kilometers).

Israel could draw only tentative conclusions regarding the improvement in Arab military leadership and manpower resources. Arab field commanders had not yet demonstrated the successful adaptation of modern command and control systems to battlefield situations. Arab forces had in the past shown greater effectiveness in static defense than in mobile offensive operations. The paucity of qualified technical personnel in the Arab armies, attributed to deficiencies in education and training, continued to detract from the ability of the Arab armed forces to employ modern weaponry with full efficiency. The superior skills of Israeli pilots had been decisive in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon and in earlier engagements. Although the rising level of weapons technology presented more of a problem to the Arab nations than to Israel, the Arabs' Soviet systems were simpler to use and maintain than their more sophisticated United States counterparts. The improved performance of the Iraqi air force against Iran after 1985 offered some evidence that the disparity in pilot skills and experience might be narrowing.

Data as of December 1988

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