Had it not been for U.S. economic assistance, Israel might not have weathered the crisis. Before 1967, U.S. aid to Israel, mostly for civilian projects such as building the national water carrier, had been limited to no more than perhaps $50 million annually.
Between 1968 and 1973 it quintupled, reaching an average of $250 million (to which should be added the much-augmented proceeds of the bonds sold by the government of Israel to American Jewry).
In 1973-1974 it was increased to $2.2
per year—and even this sum later grew to $3 billion. Of the $3 billion, $1.8 billion consisted of outright military aid that, much to the IDF’s sorrow, could only be spent by buying weapons in the United States.
The rest was provided in the form of loans for civilian purposes and could be converted into Israeli pounds and shekels; however, in 1984 the loans were converted into grants that were renewed by Congress in October each year. Thus the Israeli lobby in Washington has been spectacularly successful—never did so few receive so much free aid for so long.
As Rabin in particular never tired of saying, in part the U.S. assistance to Israel’s defense may have been based on genuine sympathy for an embattled ally. In part it was governed by considerations pertaining to the so-called Second Cold War, and in part it was designed to prevent Israel from raising its nuclear profile (in plain words, endangering world peace by using unconventional weapons to defend against much more powerful enemies). In any case it made possible a very great increase in defense spending, which rose from $1.247 billion in 1972
to $4.27 billion in 1977
and as much as $7.34 billion in 1981.
In fairness, the increase was not paid for only by the Americans, who accounted for no more than just under half of Israel’s military outlay.
The remainder was obtained by starving the civilian economy of funds, bringing growth to a near halt, a nightmarish balance of payments problem, and an exceedingly heavy tax burden on its own population—including the introduction of a new value-added tax that started at 6 percent and rose to 19 percent. The magnitude of the effort may be deduced from the fact that the share of defense out of gross domestic product (GDP) shot up from an average of 8.7 percent between 1957 and 1966 to 21.3 percent in 1968-1972 to 26.3 percent in 1974-1981—this after having peaked at a whopping 32.7 percent in 1973.
In 1973, even after the reserves had arrived, on each of the fronts the IDF had found itself outnumbered 2.5-3:1.
Early in the war only three divisions had stood between the Egyptians and Tel Aviv; of those, one had been badly attrited, whereas another received a beating on October 8. Accordingly GHQ’s first priority was to increase the size of the army, the twin objective being to maintain the balance of forces vis-à-vis the Arabs and to have more formations available for maneuver. The two main methods were to increase the size of the regular forces (
plus conscripts) and to reclassify all manpower in the country. Results came soon. By the best available figures the regular army increased from 115,000 in 1973 to 164,000 in 1977 to 170,000 in 1982.
The total force (including reservists) expanded even faster, going from somewhat more than 300,000 to 400,000 to 540,000 during the same period. Since the number of divisions is a closely guarded secret, it had to be calculated on the basis of brigade equivalents, as they are listed in internationally published sources. It seems to have gone up from seven to thirteen to about sixteen—though the latter figure also includes a number of brigades suitable for local defense only. By comparison, the U.S. Army in 1982 also had sixteen divisions and the Bundeswehr, the second strongest army in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), had twelve. But then again Israel’s Jewish population was only around 3.5 million, its per-capita GNP perhaps one-third of that of the developed states.
In point of doctrine there was little change from the period before 1973.
Although some ground had been lost both in the north and the south—on the Golan Heights, this amounted to only a mile or so—compared to the period before 1967 the borders remained much easier to defend. Accordingly the IDF prepared to “absorb” and “brake” an Arab first strike by means of the enlarged standing army and the air force. Next, as reserves arrived, it expected to go on the offensive, smash as much of the opponent’s armed forces as possible before the UN Security Council arranged for a cease-fire, and seize territory that could be used as a bargaining chip. Owing to the availability of strategic depth, the doctrine was more easily applied in the south than along the River Jordan and on the Golan Heights; on both fronts a heavy investment was made in building strongholds, minefields, antitank ditches, and the like so as to hold off the initial assaults and buy time. Finally, to placate those who still insisted on using settlements for defense (in 1973, the Golan settlements had been evacuated before the first shot) a plan was hatched to revive
by fortifying them and providing them with antitank weapons.
In practice, though, little came of this; indeed it is hard to envisage women and children slugging it out with invading Syrian and Jordanian forces while their menfolk were presumably away serving in the reserves.
Organizationally speaking there were several changes in the ground forces. The divisions were organized into permanent corps. The latter stood under front commanders; however, the IDF avoided inserting another rank between that of division commander and front commander, with the result that, in 1982, an
acting as CO Northern Command commanded another
acting as corps commander. Elite infantry brigades apart, practically the entire ground forces now consisted of armored divisions. The jettisoning of the all-tank doctrine was reflected inside each division by providing each armored battalion with a company of APC-riding infantry; they in turn were equipped with machine guns, mortars, and antitank missiles and were ready to support the tanks as they went into battle. Another change was to abolish the divisions’ organic reconnaissance battalions, the rationale being that the task would be carried out by new technology then under development and that whatever remained of it could be entrusted to
battalion. This move was regarded by many officers as an error,
and indeed it may explain some of the IDF’s ham-handedness during “Operation Peace for Galilee.”
Reflecting the IDF’s origins in prestate days, traditionally its General Staff had also acted as headquarters of the ground forces, but after the October War this arrangement came under critical fire. Some argued that the burden on the chief of staff was excessive and that the ground forces needed their own headquarters parallel to those of the air force and navy; others argued that new headquarters was needed in order to overcome problems in interarm cooperation. After several plans for resolving the problem had been proposed and rejected, in August 1977 Ezer Weizman asked Major General (ret.) Tal, who was then in charge of developing Israel’s home-built tank, to present a detailed blueprint. It was promptly turned down by the General Staff, which discerned an attempt to reduce its own authority, and by the remaining ground arms, which suspected Tal of attempting to subordinate all of them to his beloved armored corps.
In the event neither Gur nor Eytan saw any need for organizational reform. Consequently the bickering went on throughout the late seventies and early eighties; it was not until after the invasion of Lebanon, which brought to light glaring shortages in the cooperation of armor, artillery, infantry, and engineers, that the scheme finally found favor. In 1983 the slot of CO of the armored corps was reduced from major general to brigadier general, thus depriving the corps of its status as first among equals, which it had enjoyed since the midfifties, and putting it on a par with the remaining ground arms. A new headquarters known as MAFCHASH (Mifkedet Kochot Ha-sadeh, Ground Forces Headquarters) and commanded by a major general was established.
Even so, the hopes of those who had advocated a ground forces headquarters similar to the semi-independent headquarters of the air force and navy were disappointed. MAFCHASH remained a mere inspectorate, responsible for coordinating peacetime organization, force development, and training but without an operational function in war.
Between 1967, when it suddenly burst on the world scene, and 1973 the IDF was widely admired for its fighting qualities. In spite of the modernization that took place, however, equipment-wise it was still the army of a comparatively small and poor country and was wanting in many respects. Since it was able to draw on 50 percent of the total military budget the IAF was better armed than the rest, but even here the order of battle still included obsolescent aircraft left over from the 1967 war, and there was a shortage of modern ground-to-air missiles and air-to-ground missiles. The situation of the land forces was much worse. Some of the armor consisted of upgraded Sherman tanks, and the majority of troops rode World War II-vintage M-3 half-tracks; for antitank work the IDF still relied on jeepmounted recoilless rifles as well as limited numbers of 1950s-vintage, French-made SS-10 and SS-11 missiles. Some of the shortcomings were due to the financial constraints affecting a small country with a comparatively huge military establishment. Others reflected the IDF’s obstinate refusal to adopt a combined arms doctrine as well as the kind of organization that this implies.
Already during the October War America’s arsenals began to open as Pres. Richard M. Nixon and his principal advisers, Henry Kissinger and James Schlesinger, organized a massive air-sea lift. Its importance in raising Israeli morale is undoubted; bonbons were literally dropping from the sky. Yet its significance in assisting the IDF’s war effort became moot. During the ten days that passed from the time it got under way until the cease-fire came into effect, only about 200 aircraft were able to make the journey and land. Though a handful of tanks and self-propelled cannons were flown in by way of demonstrating capability, clearly there could be no question of the airlift replacing hundreds of major weapon systems lost and tens of thousands of tons of ammunition expended. Of the total number of sorties flown by the U.S. Air Force Transport Command, about two-thirds took place after October 24; even so the bulk of the aid was sent by sea and thus arrived weeks after the war was over. Yet there is no denying that certain critically important items arrived during hostilities. The list included some fifty Phantom fighter-bombers, which, with midair refueling, could be flown in on their own power. It also included 155mm and 175mm artillery rounds—of which there was a shortage
—as well as air-to-air, air-to-ground, and antitank missiles and electronic equipment for radar jamming and the like.
Once the buildup began in earnest the results were nothing short of dramatic. According to internationally published figures, between 1973 and 1982 the number of main battle tanks went up from 1,700 (which may have been an underestimate)
to 3,600; armored fighting vehicles (AFVs) went from 3,000 to no fewer than 8,000. Of those about one-quarter consisted of the new M-113Æs,
meaning that Israel now had a truly mechanized army instead of one that was merely motorized, as previously. The old Super Shermans were finally discarded, and the ground forces received additional M-60 tanks of the most advanced model. They in turn were joined by Israeli-made Merkava tanks (for details, see Chapter 15), as well as additional T-54, T-55, and T-62 tanks, which had been captured during the war and reconditioned.
In keeping with the diminished status of the tanks the artillery if anything benefited even more, the total number of barrels rising to 2,000 or so.
The M-107 and M-109 guns that had been available before 1973 were joined by Israeli-made 155mm pieces, some U.S.-made M-110 heavy 203mm pieces, and multiple rocket launchers ranging from 122mm to 290mm in size. Still not content, the IDF paid its enemies the compliment of imitation by purchasing modern TOW (tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided) and Dragon antitank missiles. They replaced the old junk, thereby providing Israeli infantry with an effective antiarmor capability that could be deployed from the top of light vehicles or, if necessary, by small groups moving on foot. As numbers of U.S. M-16 rifles arrived and the production of the Israeli Galil gathered steam, for the first time in history all IDF troops could be issued first-rate personal arms. Finally, the engineering corps received new equipment such as bridge-laying tanks and minefield crossing systems.
The IAF’s order of battle, which in 1973 was somewhat more than 400 first-line combat aircraft, expanded to almost 700. Previously the most powerful platform had been the F-4 Phantom, allegedly the best fighter-bomber ever built; for all its speed and ordnance payload, however, it was difficult to maintain, heavy, and, owing to its lack of maneuverability, not really suitable for air-to-air combat. Now the Phantoms were supplemented by growing numbers of the nimble new Kfirs, the Israeli-built version of the French Mirage V to which several refinements had been added. By the early eighties, though, pilots considered having to fly the Kfir almost as an insult. Instead all eyes were turned to the new generation of U.S.-built F-15 fighters and F-16 fighter-bombers. Introduced in 1977, their maneuverability and electronics (i.e., target-acquisition and weapon-guiding capabilities) outclassed anything the Arabs had; when the first arrived, Chief of Staff Gur went on record as saying that “a state with F-15’s no longer resembles one without them.”
To help these aircraft locate and track opponents the IAF received six EC-2 Hawkeyes, a U.S.-built airborne electronic warfare (AEW) platform to which the Arabs also had no answer. Properly integrated into the chain of command, it was to prove very effective during the Lebanon War.