Cold War Era

The Myth of Soviet Arms and Tactics in the Middle East, Part Two: The Six-Day War, the War of Attrition and the Yom Kippur War

Syria accepted about 32 Soviet advisors, but especially officers of its air force just couldn’t stand the Soviets: one of their advisors ended being face-slapped by certain Major of the SyAAF, and another became a drunkard and committed a suicide shortly after returning to the USSR.

Here’s the second 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.

The Six-Day War, the War of Attrition and the Yom Kippur War

Egyptian-Soviet relations began changing in 1966, when Nasser infuriated Johnson into stopping provision of wheat to Egypt, bringing Cairo to the verge of bankruptcy: Egyptians then requested aid from Moscow, and the Soviets wrote off something like 50% (if not more) of Egyptian debts. Even then, the Soviets deployed exactly 36 of their advisors to Egypt. Syria meanwhile accepted about 32 Soviet advisors, but especially officers of its air force just couldn’t stand the Soviets: one of their advisors ended being face-slapped by certain Major of the SyAAF, and another became a drunkard and committed a suicide shortly after returning to the USSR (BTW, just a few years earlier, the poor soul served as replacement for Gagarin, though the latter never became ill).

F-104 Starfighter

Similarly, in Iraq, most of governments that coupped themselves to power during some 20+ putches of the 1930s-1960s, were buying British arms. An exception from this ‘rule’ was the government in power from 1958 until 1963, which included Communists (like its C-in-C air force), and which was buying MiGs and T-55s from Moscow. As soon as this government was out, in 1963, the new one placed bigger orders for Hunters than ever before, and even considered buying Lightnings.

Like in Egypt, the situation in Iraq began to change in 1966, and then for reasons not related to the Cold War, and even less so to ideology: namely, by then Iraq was fighting a war against a four-years old Kurdish insurgency. Iraqis negotiated and placed a big order for Mirages in 1967-1968, but such efforts failed due to protesting in pro-Israel France and then the Ba’athist coup. Thus, Baghdad was left without solution but to buy MiGs, Sukhois and additional T-55s (plus plenty of other stuff) from Moscow.

Even then, and although these three ‘major’ Arab armies of 1967 were all predominantly equipped with Soviet arms, their doctrine, strategy and tactics were a mix of British origins, with some US and French ideas, but especially their own experiences. I.e. anything else than ‘Soviet’. Indeed, the Jordanian army was still ‘purely British’, though about to change to the USA as it primary source of arms and advice (Jordan was already operating M47s and M48s, and about to get F-104 Starfighters when the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War erupted).

It was the catastrophic defeat of the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War that changed a lot – but then in Egypt, and in the Egyptian Army, only. As much as the Soviets concluded it was them who is to blame for that war – and thus quickly replaced Egyptian losses on 1-for-1 basis, free of any cost (that was the only such case in the entire history of Egyptian-Soviet relations: i.e. all the other arms were sold to Egypt and Cairo had to pay for them) – Moscow exploited that opportunity to launch a major effort to firm its position of influence in Egypt. Correspondingly, and with Nasser’s approval of course, the USSR deployed about 900 military advisors to Egypt, and launched the work on re-forming the entire Egyptian ARMY along Soviet lines. Nothing similar was possible in the case of the Egyptian Air Force: not only that this got its losses replaced already by late June 1967, but, its officers simply didn’t listen to the Soviets (the few times they did during the War of Attrition, they every time suffered heavy losses).

Certainly enough, in 1970, the Soviets then deployed a full air defence division to Egypt (7000 troops), but these were troops of the Soviet armed forces, paid for by Egypt, and never acted as ‘advisors’. With exception of few Soviet SA-3 sites during the summer of 1970s, they also never directly cooperated (i.e. fought) with Egyptian armed forces.

Overall, yes, the Egyptian military was completely re-equipped with Soviet-made arms in period 1967-1973: however, only its army and air defences were was fighting ‘Soviet style’. The air force had its own formations and its own tactics, and – even after renaming its ‘Air Groups’ into ‘Soviet style’ air brigades – still retained ‘squadrons’ as basic units and a host of ‘RAF-based’ traditions. Thus, at most it’s only partially truth that the Egyptians fought the October 1973 ‘Soviet style’.

Meanwhile, nothing similar happened in Iraq, Syria, Jordan or anywhere else – except former South Yemen. Yes, sure, Iraq and Syria of early 1970s did continue buying Soviet arms, but their militaries continued developing their own doctrine, strategy and tactics. If at all, both Iraq and Syria (especially Syria) sought advice from Czechoslovakia only, not from the USSR (especially Syrians were quick in concluding that the Czechoslovaks were providing far better services in this discipline, than the Soviets did). Things changed in Syria only in spring 1973, when Hafez al-Assad realised he had to left the Soviets in for the simple reason of being in need of much more arms than he had – if he wanted to try liberating the Golan Heights: correspondingly, Moscow rushed to re-equip the Syrian military (the Soviets even established an entirely new branch of the same: the air defence force), in exchange for – rather temporary by nature – deployment of ‘thousands’ of its advisors in the country.

MiG-23 Flogger

After the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War, and contrary to usual ‘impressions’ in the West, the Soviet military influence in the Middle East de-facto vanished. Egypt was already out of the ‘Soviet camp’ (it kicked Soviets out already in 1972). Moreover, Syria soon followed in fashion: not only that Assad was a staunch anti-Communist, but in 1975 there was a rift between Damascus and Moscow caused by differences in regards of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. Result was a Soviet arms embargo for Syria. This was total and to last until 1978.

In that year, Assad – who had meanwhile managed to ruin the economy of his country and cause a big-style (yet: little-known) insurgency – went to Moscow to plead for help. Soviets not only agreed to re-start arms deliveries, and then even some ‘slightly advanced arms’ (like MiG-23MFs and MiG-25s), but launched an outright military intervention in Syria, deploying around 8,000 troops. (Yup, this happened about a year before Afghanistan.)

The insurgency went on, nevertheless, and began attacking not only the regime, but the Soviet advisors in Syria, too. By 1981, all of these had to be withdrawn from their usual positions and concentrated at such bases ‘in the desert’ (Hamad), like T-4. By early 1982, even the air force turned against Assad and began plotting a coup that was to take place simultaneously with the uprising in Hama. It was uncovered, and hundreds of involved officers either executed or purged.

MiG-25 Foxbat

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

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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