Interesting video shows the restoration of IrAF MiG-25 Foxbat found buried in the sand during Operation Iraqi Freedom

The Myth of Soviet Arms and Tactics in the Middle East, Part Five: why Soviet arms perform so poorly in Arab service

By Tom Cooper
Oct 3 2019
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The available technology and know-how just couldn’t keep up: by the time the MiG-23 ‘had to enter series production’, it was incomplete, and its weapons system not ready either. The Soviets couldn’t cope with US-led high-tech race and the emergence of micro-technologies…

Concluding this ‘write-up’ here is the first part of an analysis of why did – specific, though crucial – Soviet arms perform as poorly in Arab service as they did.

Surely, one can start considering the backgrounds of most of modern-day Arab militaries. Armed forces like those of Egypt, Iraq, or Syria were originally established by ‘colonial’ British and French administrators for the actual purpose of quelling internal revolts, not for defending ‘nations’ that emerged as result of the Sykes-Picot Treaty from outside threats, and even less so for fighting high-intensity ‘modern’ wars. After all, the British and the French considered themselves as ‘defenders’ of places like Egypt or Syria. Secondly, both British and French were carefully hand-picking future officers of such militaries for their ethnic, religious, and political backgrounds. They were selecting minorities for military services, de-facto destroying centuries old traditions and often pre-programming unrest for decades in advance – all along the well-known motto, ‘divide and rule’.

Long way further down that road, it cannot be denied that Arab militaries spent most of the second half of the 20th Century with ‘catching up’: striving to convert from medieval- and local-style of thinking about warfare (see: ‘fierce threats’ aimed to find solution through negotiations, fighting foremost in style of raids, instead of long-lasting, material battles, followed by negotiations), to the modern warfare. In essence, they were ‘starting from the scratch’ (or even less than that), yet had only a few years to catch. Unsurprisingly, that process was anything else than easy: foremost, it was frequently interrupted by the military meddling into the politics, resulting coups and all sorts of non-military-related issues.

…and, hand on heart: it’s not as if that process was any easier anywhere else in the West or the East. Let us not start discussing such issues like British and/or French problems in trying to find out how to make and then how to use a tank on the battlefield – ‘just for the start’…

The Myth of Soviet Arms and Tactics in the Middle East, Part Four: why Soviet Arms Performed so Poorly in Arab Service

I’ve discussed some of ‘starting points’ regarding the Soviets in the previous parts of this analysis. Here the next major issue: context of times.

In 1959, the USSR launched Sputnik and two years later sent Gagarin into space. Both were awe-inspiring achievements. The resulting hype created the impression of the Soviet scientists being decades ahead of their counterparts anywhere else – and that no matter in what field. Keep in mind the hype about all the possible Su-30s, Su-34s and Su-35s of our times, multiply that by about 1000 times, add public holidays and flower parades all over the world, and you’ve got the picture.

So, the ‘Soviet scientists’ were widely considered ‘the best’, no matter what, no matter where, for all of 1960s.

In reality, the USSR could simply not afford the ‘scientific revolution’ it pretended to be leading: it not only lacked the money, but the know-how and high technologies, too. Furthermore, the more time lapsed since the end of the WWII, the less fresh combat experience the Soviets had. On the top of all of this, there was ‘that issue’ with the GenStab, the uppermost body of the Soviet military: this was de-facto its own branch of the Soviet armed forces (and is still such of the Russian armed forces). Often (mis)explained as the ‘Soviet/Russian equivalent to the Joint Chiefs of Staff’ in the USA, or oversimplified into the ‘Soviet military theoreticians’, the GenStab is far more than all of that. It consists of ‘brightest minds’, officers drawn from all branches of the armed forces, people supposed to be able to think well outside the limits imposed by their ‘parent-service’, 10-20 years ahead of their time, and thus determine the future requirements for the doctrine, strategy, operational art, and tactics. Now mind: the GenStab is also the only authority in Moscow (until this very day) to determine what kind of equipment is the military going to need and thus to acquire – and that from strategic intercontinental missiles armed with nuclear warheads, down to every single bolt and screw – and how are all the branches supposed to be trained.

As the computers (then still the size of an average family home) slowly found their way into ‘widespread use’ with the military, the GenStab of the late 1950s came to the idea of fighting wars per ‘remote control’. Nowhere was this more obvious than in regards of aerial warfare: facing the threat of hundreds, then thousands of US and British strategic bombers, and then ‘additional thousands’ of US and NATO’s tactical fighter bombers – see F-104Gs, F-105s, then F-111s, all armed with nukes – the GenStab concluded there is no margin for error, no space for tactical finesse, no time to mess around. Regardless the circumstances, time of the day or else, all of these had to be intercepted and destroyed – and that at earliest possible opportunity, with minimal but optimal effort, and deadly effectiveness.

The Myth of Soviet Arms and Tactics in the Middle East, Part Four: why Soviet Arms Performed so Poorly in Arab Service

Correspondingly, the GenStab began envisaging ‘extended range SAMs’ in form of ‘manned interceptors’: aircraft to be scrambled and vectored to an ideal interception course (calculated by computer in order not to waste time and fuel), brought into a position to use on-board sensors to acquire the target and then use on-board weapons – preferably: missiles, so not to waste time with manoeuvring necessary for gun attack – and to kill the target with the first and only blow. Such aircraft needed not carry any kind of (expensive and weight-adding, thus fuel consuming) extra equipment: all the data necessary was to be provided by a comprehensive network of ground-based sensors, integrated with computer support, which fed the general’s battle station: the general could then upload the task-relevant info to the interceptor with help of a data-link. That way, targets could be detected on time, and interceptors needed not carrying extra equipment: only basic elements of their weapons system and a good data-link.

To make one thing sure: the Soviets were no exception in regards of such ideas. The USA and the NATO have introduced to service precisely such systems already at an earlier date. Thus, came into being so-called ‘automated tactical management systems’.

Theoretically, no problem with all of this: that’s ‘warfare brought to its core essence’. You try to nuke us thousands of times? We kill your thousands of your nuke-carriers, one by one, with thousands of our cheap and simple but fast interceptors before you can reach your targets.

Along this line of thinking, the GenStab designed an entire generation of new interceptors ‘steered per remote control’ – and that’s how the designs like Su-11, MiG-23, Su-15, MiG-25 etc. came into being. Every one of these was just another improved version of a ‘missile carrying only the most necessary in terms of on-board sensors, missiles… and a pilot’: aircraft equipped to accomplish their core task and nothing else.

The logical result was that the pilot became a sort of a train driver: somebody expected to know how to take-off and land the aircraft, but otherwise just to monitor the work of on-board systems, perhaps follow orders from ground control if one of these failed. I intentionally write ‘train driver’, because it’s obvious that ‘even’ a bus driver has lot more to do while navigating the vehicle through the road traffic.

So much about theory. In practice, the result was an entire decade of stagnation: the Soviet defence sector simply couldn’t deliver what the GenStab demanded it to deliver. Requirements for projects like MiG-23 were re-written several times, causing massive delays (and cost-overruns). Then the GenStab attempted to adapt what was available to first combat experiences from Vietnam and Middle East, causing further postponements. The available technology and know-how just couldn’t keep up: by the time the MiG-23 ‘had to enter series production’, it was incomplete, and its weapons system not ready either. The Soviets couldn’t cope with US-led high-tech race and the emergence of micro-technologies. Thus, such types like MiG-23 regularly entered service as semi-finished products, nearly 10 years late, and had to be re-designed dozens of times. Instead of abandoning them, the GenStab rushed them into mass production because there was no alternative on hand.

Finally, there was the issue of ideology. Any Soviet advisors sent abroad had to be ‘true, convinced, and loyal Communists’. Considering themselves ideologically superior to anybody, they tended to damn ‘the Arabs’ for their ‘wrong/obsolete/reactionary /conservative’ ideology, indeed ‘feudal mentality’, and lots of other things absolutely not related to any kind of military affairs – even more so considering they all quickly had to realize (even though they never admitted this in the public), that they had nothing to teach: not only that they had no useful tactics for local circumstances (if at all, they could merely teach Arab pilots to fly fast and high), but ‘the Arabs’ actually already had their own air forces, with their own – usually British-related – traditions. Foremost, ‘the Arabs’ had far fresher and far more realistic combat experience than the Soviets.

…and now combine all of these factors: no useful tactics, no combat experience, armament not suited to local requirements, and plenty of arrogance.

Unsurprisingly, when any of ‘feudal’ Egyptians, Syrians or Iraqis ‘came to the idea’, ‘dared’ to complain and say, ‘But Sir, the Israelis are flying low and turning hard’, ‘logical’ Soviet reaction was always, <strong Russian accent>‘You not me Sir, comrade: you know nothing’.</strong Russian accent>

Sounds absurd? Such were the times. Net results? The list is nearly endless. Not only the European fans of Soviet weapons systems – and their jets in particular – but their veteran pilots and ground personnel too, are going to damn me for some of the following, but, keep in mind: they never flew/operated MiGs or Sukhois in combat against Mirages and F-4Es.

The Myth of Soviet Arms and Tactics in the Middle East, Part Four: why Soviet Arms Performed so Poorly in Arab Service

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

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Tom Cooper

Tom Cooper

Tom Cooper is an Austrian aerial warfare analyst and historian. Following a career in the worldwide transportation business – during which he established a network of contacts in the Middle East and Africa – he moved into narrow-focus analysis and writing on small, little-known air forces and conflicts, about which he has collected extensive archives. This has resulted in specialisation in Middle Eastern, African and Asian air forces. As well as authoring and co-authoring 560 books and over 1,000 articles, he has co-authored the Arab MiGs book series – a six-volume, in-depth analysis of the Arab air forces at war with Israel, in the 1955–73 period. Cooper has been working as editor of the five @War series since 2017.
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