The huge 1974 arms deal between Tripoli and Moscow resulted in several – outright ‘nightmarish’ – experiences with Soviet arms. ‘Worst example’ of all were MiG-23s, which the Soviets advertised as something like ‘single-engined F-14s …’
Single-Engined F-14s and the Iran-Iraq War
Here’s the third part in a series of posts about another of countless myths on Arab armed forces that remains widespread – not only in the West, but even in the Arab world: the one along which all those operating Soviet equipment were ‘Soviet trained’, indeed, ‘fighting Soviet style’ – which should mean using the Soviet doctrine, strategy and tactics.
This series of posts reviews the story of the ‘Soviet Arms and Tactics in the Middle East’ of, say, 1940s-1990s period.
In part 2, I mentioned South Yemen as the only exception in regards of having not only Soviet-equipped, but indeed Soviet trained armed forces, that were applying ‘Soviet tactics’, too. Ironically, the experiences of that short-lived country and its armed forces are the least-studied, no matter where. The South Yemeni military was originally created by the Cubans (in 1970-1973), and then taken over by the Soviets: the Cuban mission to South Yemen was re-deployed to Ethiopia in 1977, leaving Soviets ‘alone’ in the country. The influence of Soviet advisors and arms (in that one case, nearly always provided free of charge) were such that the South Yemeni armed forces could’ve been described as ‘Soviet Armed Forces South’. This went so far that even the aircraft of its air force were usually marked with mere ‘translations’ of their Soviet ‘bort numbers’ – always faithfully applied in red. ‘And still’: that military easily defeated – the poorly-trained, poorly equipped and de-facto ignored even by its own government – North Yemeni military during a short war in 1979. That conflict stunned and alerted the Saudis to a degree where they sponsored the USA providing F-5Es and M60 MBTs (between others), plus convinced the Taiwanese to serve as advisors in North Yemen for an entire decade in 1980s.
Moreover, although de-facto abandoned by Moscow after the terrible coup attempt and civil war in 1986, its reconstituted remnants proved a though nut to crack for North Yemeni armed forces during the Civil War of 1994.
But I digress, or at least jump well ahead of the chronology in this story.
Meanwhile, Libya joined the ‘Club of Soviet clients’, in 1974: while originally buying French (Mirages) and Italian arms (the latter were often of US-design, see such examples like M113 APCs or CH-47 Chinook helicopters), Tripoli found out that the USSR is able and ready to deliver immense quantities within shortest periods of time – which was ‘perfectly fine’ for a government running a ‘Million Man Army’ programme.
The huge 1974 arms deal between Tripoli and Moscow resulted in several – outright ‘nightmarish’ – experiences with Soviet arms. ‘Worst example’ of all were MiG-23s, which the Soviets advertised as something like ‘single-engined F-14s’, but turned out to be poorly manufactured, unreliable, poorly armed, and provided in combination with terrible technical documentation. Even the quality of conversion training provided to Libyan pilots in the USSR was assessed as ‘abysmal’ by the Libyans. To utter disgust of the Soviets, the Libyans not only discontinued the practice of sending their pilots for training there but went as far as to recruit two US pilots (both former F-4-drivers with combat tours in Vietnam under their belts) to flight-test the MiG-23 and write them new flight manuals for the type (this is really anything else than ‘rumour’: I’ve actually found and briefly interviewed one of them).
Furthermore, they entered close cooperation with Yugoslavia (the Yugoslavs built their Air Force Academy in Misurata); contracted Czechoslovaks to establish three flight schools for jet pilots in Libya (these turned out over 1000 pilots over something like 6-7 years); contracted Poles to run a school for helicopter pilots, and Italians to run a school for transport pilots… Certainly enough, huge orders for arms of Soviet design (like T-72s and BMP-1s) were placed – but in Czechoslovakia and Poland, not in the USSR – while even Libyan MiG-21s were overhauled in Yugoslavia, not in the USSR.
Only the threat of an US invasion, in 1985-1986, prompted Libya into purchasing Soviet arms again (T-72s, MiG-23MLDs, MiG-25PDS’ and similar). By then, parts of the air force were completely retrained to fight along their own doctrine (which was a mix of US, British, French, and Libyan own experiences, just no ‘Soviet’ stuff). Rather ironically, the LAAF was never permitted to put all of its new capabilities to a serious test – even when there was more than enough opportunity to do so, in March-April 1986 – and that by its own generals: even after several positive experiences from February that year, they didn’t trust the air force could stand the might of the USN. They preferred the ‘retaining the force in being’ solution. Ironically, the generals in question were educated in the USA and Great Britain of the 1960s, just not in the USSR.
The Syrian Army did apply the ‘Soviet tactics’ in Lebanon of 1982, but it was hopeless. On the ground, two divisions faced five, then six Israeli divisions, and in the air…Once again, just like in Egypt of 1973, the air force was so far behind the US-provided high-tech operated by the IDF/AF, and then so much weakened by purges of early 1982, that its efforts were entirely pointless. Unsurprisingly, they are widely ridiculed, simply because the people ridiculing them either do not know the Syrian ‘performance’ of 1982 is not related to ‘Soviet tactics’, or because the same have diverse other agendas.
Of course, the Soviets got shocked by ‘Lebanon 1982’ to a degree where they not only scrambled to ‘provide additional aid’ (as far as 30-years old SA-5s and belated deliveries of MiG-23MLs were such): actually, Moscow became at least as busy white-washing the Syrian defeat of 1982 with all sorts of fabrications and fantasies, as it ignored any attempts at serious analysis for that defeat. Unsurprisingly, the arms it did deliver were simply ‘too little, too late’: over 10 years behind what the West was providing to Israel in regards of air-to-air missiles and electronic warfare alone. Finally, through 1985-1986, it became obvious that the Syrian economy couldn’t support the effort to reach ‘strategic balance’ in arms with Israel. Under the given circumstances, the Soviets had no means of answering – bitter – Syrian complains about the poor quality of their arms. The show-down was unavoidable: when Moscow officially stopped supporting Syria, in 1989, Damascus stopped servicing its debts, meanwhile worth between US$13 and 15 billion, most of this for arms supplied since 1955. Official explanation was (I’ve heard this multiple times from different Syrian officers, independently from each other), that the Soviet arms were ‘always obsolete’, ‘didn’t help them win any war against Israel’, and thus ‘why pay for Soviet rubbish’…? Even Putin’s decision to write-off over 70% of Syrian debts, almost 30 years later, changed noting in regards of such standpoints.
Iraq meanwhile continued buying Soviet arms in ‘big style’ – simply because these were affordable and cheap, and also because Baghdad was facing the US-supported, Shah-ruled Iran of 1970s – and not because the Iraqis would’ve been big fans of communism, or their armed forces ‘fighting Soviet style’. These were still (and strongly) influenced by their ‘Britain-related traditions’ – even if there were no British advisors in the country since around 1967. That’s little surprising considering even as of mid-1970s, majority of Iraqi military officers underwent at least one training course in the UK.
As next, Saddam embroiled Iraq into a massive war with Iran, during which its military proved unable to find enough troops to properly secure seemingly endless frontlines, not to talk about enough arms. To add salt to the injury, it was the Soviets who failed upon Iraq: attempting to court Tehran, in 1980 they imposed an arms embargo. Surely enough, this was lifted already in May 1981, and then the Soviets – for once – really tried to deliver their ‘best ‘. Iraq got ‘everything it wanted and more’: better arms than even most of members of the Warsaw Pact could dream about getting (short of nukes, of course), or could afford. But, there was no way of recovering the Soviet image in the eyes of the local military decision-makers any more: the ‘Sukhoi clique’ – which dominated the Iraqi air force of early 1980s – fell out of favour with Saddam. In 1984, he appointed former Hunter-pilot and the crucial figure for ordering Mirages in 1970s as the commander of the IrAF: Major-General Sha’ban.
Thus, for most of that war, Baghdad was buying whatever it could, wherever it could, and – after bankrupting itself in late 1981 – whatever and whenever the Kuwaitis and Saudis were ready to pay. What happened after around 1984-1986 with Iraq, its armed forces, the IrAF, and the Iraqi performances in the war with Iran etc., all had nothing to do with anything like ‘Soviet tactics’ any more.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy and Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force