While the United States has long been willing and able to support its allies, with a massive debt and prosperous friends refusing to sufficiently fund their defense, the costs have become unreasonable. For many American partners, several generations without experiencing armed conflict has set a low standard as to what should be expected of them in both their own security and that of the broader Western world. Israel has been a bright spot in America’s pursuit of like-minded nations who pay their fair share and play a constructive military role in safeguarding mutual interests.
Currently responsible for over one-third of the world’s military expenditures, Americans have grown restless with the financial outlays expected of them in maintaining global order. Though representing 35 percent of NATO’s population, and under half its GDP, the U.S. accounts for 70 percent of its defense spending. This has amounted to roughly 3.5 percent of GDP in America while other NATO members have collectively spent below 2 percent since 2000. This is to say nothing of the non-NATO European states that are granted de-facto protection given their location, or that several NATO allies still profit greatly from their arms industries (which for instance, together exported more equipment than the United States between 2007 and 2011). America is also treaty-bound to defend Japan – which is the world’s third-largest economy yet spends only 1 percent of its GDP on security.
Unlike so many other allies who have thrived under American patronage while refusing to adequately contribute to their defense, Israel has long sacrificed to ensure it can protect itself. Its military spending was 9 percent of GDP between 1957 and 1966, 21 percent between 1968 and 1972, and 26 percent between 1974 and 1981. Throughout the 1970s, its defense commitment was four times the rate NATO countries and five times that of Warsaw Pact countries. Though able to relax its spending since then, Israel’s 5.5 percent defense allocation is today still the highest in the Western world. While over one-fifth of all U.S. service personnel were stationed abroad between 1950 and 2014, and Israel was heavily outnumbered in all four of its major wars, its compulsory military service has ensured that no American soldier would ever be called upon to fight on its behalf.
Though a large beneficiary of American aid, Israel is not at all alone. Beginning with the Marshall Plan, which provided over $103 billion to Europe between 1948 and 1952, the United States has used aid as a strategic means to retain alliances. The United States has given more than $109 billion to Afghanistan and over $70 billion to Pakistan, while Arab countries combined received 50 percent more aid than Israel between 1946 and 2013. These figures do not include (and indeed pale in comparison to) the trillions spent all together on military operations within those countries. Further, with Israel’s aid from the United States between 1946 and 1966 representing one-fourth of Turkey’s, one-third of Pakistan’s, and less than either Egypt or Iran, substantial American support did not arrive until the late 1960s when Israel had proven itself to be the region’s focal anti-Soviet actor.
Military Capabilities Matter
Beyond the reasonable expectation that an ally properly finance its defense, America needs battle-tested partners. While initially refusing to sell Israel meaningful weapons, as Egypt, Syria, and Iraq gravitated toward the Soviet Union, America became its primary supplier and accounted for 94 percent of its imported arms between 1967 and 1988. The Soviets accounted for 86 percent of Egypt’s imported arms between 1955 and 1976, 93 percent of Syria’s between 1955 and 1988, and 77 percent of Iraq’s between 1958 and 1988. By 1982, Israel had as many tanks and jets as West Germany – a country then with fifteen-times its population and thirty-times its GDP.
Between 1966 and 1982, Israel played an essential – if not the principal – role in the Cold War’s battlefronts and its many victories were of great strategic importance for America and the West. As several vital American weapon systems first saw real combat with Israel (including the HAWK surface-to-air missile [SAM], both the F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, and AWACS [Airborne Warning and Control System Aircraft]), it was able to provide valuable lessons – particularly during American peacetime.
As the Soviet Union could not compete with the West’s civilian technology or economic aid, military exports to underdeveloped allies were its fundamental avenue for projecting influence, and that process was greatly hindered by Israel’s repeated success with Western weapons. Meanwhile, American arms exports grew eight-fold between 1968 and 1974, accounted for half of global sales between 1966 and 1976, and were twice that of the Soviets in 1973. Israel’s aerial dominance with F-15s (those sold to Israel represent less than 5 percent of the total produced but account for over half of the jet’s flawless 104:0 air-to-air kill ratio) and F-16s in the late 1970s and early 1980s played an important marketing role that helped make aircraft 39 percent of all U.S. foreign military sales during the 1980s.
Between 1964 and 1967, America’s cumulative military allotment was 26 percent larger than that of the Soviet Union – and the disparity was over twice as large between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. As American spending was greater than Soviet, the continual rearming of Syria and Egypt following their various defeats was that much more costly. Over one-third of all Soviet military aid to the Developing World between 1956 and 1978 went to Syria and Egypt (68 percent went to Arab countries). Not only did Syria, Egypt, and Iraq each receive more during those pivotal years than any other non-aligned state, their aid even exceeded that given to fellow Communist states such as Cuba, North Korea, and North Vietnam.
These expenditures represented money, arms, and training that could have gone to Soviet allies elsewhere. For example, as the Vietnam War continued to rage between 1968 and 1972, Soviet military aid to Syria and Egypt was 60 percent larger than that given to North Vietnam. Between 1955 and 1978, Arab states accounted for half of the Developing World’s 44,000 military personnel trained in the Soviet Union, and by 1978, over 57 percent of all Soviet military advisors in the Developing World were stationed in Arab countries. The Soviets often delivered state-of-the-art weaponry to their Arab allies before even arming Eastern Europe – including SA-3 SAMs to Egypt in 1970, and T-72 tanks, MiG-25 jets, and SA-5 SAMs to Syria in the early 1980s.
Along with undermining Soviet-built arms in battle, Israel captured fully-intact weapons and introduced them to Western analysts. It seized over three hundred tanks from Syria and Egypt, including the T-62 in 1973 when it was the mainstay of the Soviet army and comprised 75 percent of the tanks in East Germany facing NATO forces (several were transferred to NATO). The MiG-21 was the most widely produced supersonic fighter jet ever and was exported all over the world – including as the most cutting-edge fighter facing American pilots in Vietnam. In 1966, after an elaborate Mossad operation seeking him out and securing safety for his family, an Iraqi pilot defected to Israel in what became the first MiG-21 in Western hands. Israel subsequently loaned it (along with two MiG-17s obtained from Syria) to the United States in 1968.
The SA-2 SAM famously shot down American U2 spy planes over the Soviet Union in 1960 and over Cuba during the 1962 crisis, and also brought down 205 American aircraft during the Vietnam War – including that of Senator John McCain. Israel’s troops seized nine SA-2s in the 1967 War – along with a complete set of blueprints and operating instructions which they later lent to the United States. In December 1969, Israeli commandos even managed to acquire a complete P-12 radar station (typically used in conjunction with the SA-2 SAM), and later sent it as well to America. Surely the opportunity to study both the actual SA-2 SAM and its P-12 radar played a major role in reducing North Vietnam’s SA-2 hit-per-launch ratio from 1:15 in 1965 to 1:50 in 1972. Israel also captured several advanced SA-6 SAMs in the 1973 War and passed them along.
In the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel was outspent by 55 percent and outnumbered 15:1 in population, 2:1 in troops, and 3:1 in tanks and combat aircraft. In under 130 hours, it destroyed over four hundred Arab aircraft (while losing less than fifty), meted out a 25:1 casualty ratio, and obtained $2 billion worth of Soviet-built weapons. Of particular importance considering its small geographic size was that after seizing control of the Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula, Israeli soldiers were closer to Damascus and Cairo than either Syrian or Egyptian troops were to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.
Throughout its many battles between the 1967 and 1973 wars, Israel killed over 12,000 enemy fighters – 17 times the number of Israeli causalities. In one audacious mission in September 1969, Israeli forces crossed the canal and (masquerading as Egyptian forces in captured tanks) handily destroyed military installations for some 10 hours and over a 50 mile stretch – the news of which gave then 51-year-old Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser a heart attack. Its air force shot down roughly 160 planes while it lost around a dozen – including the July 30, 1970 air battle in which Israeli pilots took on Soviet pilots in Egyptian-marked jets and downed five without losing any of their own.
In the 1973 War, Israel was outnumbered roughly 2:1 in troops, combat aircraft, tanks, and naval vessels. After suffering a severe blow from the surprise attack on its holiest day of Yom Kippur, Israel ejected the Syrians from the Golan Heights within five days, began a successful counterattack against Egypt within 10 days (which included the largest tank battle since World War II), and won the war within three weeks with its troops 63 miles from Cairo and 25 miles from Damascus. In what became the first missile-to-missile naval battles in history, Israel’s sailors (while facing missiles with twice their range) introduced electronic countermeasures to naval combat, prevented all of the fifty-two Soviet-built Styx missiles fired at their ships from making contact, and destroyed or commandeered some 48 Arab vessels without any losses.
To assist their Arab clients, the Soviets conducted the largest airlift in their history, and the Americans soon followed and resupplied Israel. Having a destination nearly four times farther away, and flying 40 percent fewer missions, the Americans delivered 50 percent more cargo than the Russians. This showcased America’s far superior ability to quickly transfer heavy supplies over long distances. Perhaps it was not coincidental that Egypt’s first major purchase of American military equipment in 1976 was six transport planes.
With a material loss double that of their 1967 defeat, Arab forces lost twice as many tanks and four times as many aircraft as Israel. All but a handful of Israel’s 105 lost planes were destroyed by SAMs rather than Arab jets and even then, Israel’s loss-per-sortie ratio actually declined compared to the 1967 War. As only about one-tenth of the Arabs’ 395 lost aircraft were destroyed either on the ground (as the vast majority in 1967 were) or by SAMs, this meant that Israeli pilots shot down approximately 350 Arab planes while Arab pilots shot down roughly five Israeli planes.
The SA-6 SAM first saw combat in 1973 and accounted for the majority of Israel’s 50 lost jets in the first three days of the war. The following years left Western states reasonably fearing that their planes would not be able to gain superiority against an integrated Soviet SAM network. In the initial phase of the Lebanon War in June 1982, Israel’s air force destroyed all 19 Syrian SA-6 SAMs in the Bekaa Valley while simultaneously shooting down 64 Syrian jets without any losses in the largest air battle the Middle East has ever seen. With the SA-6 stationed throughout Eastern Europe and exported to more than 20 countries outside the Warsaw Pact, this defeat challenged a system deployed to protect Soviet allies and clients around the world. On July 1, 1982, the Soviets felt obliged to take the rare step of publicly denying that their weapons supplied to the Arabs were inferior to Israeli and American arms. Israel then shared with the United States its lessons from battling Soviet-built equipment in the Lebanon War.
America’s Path Forward
Israel is a global military power that today has the 15th largest defense budget, exports the eighth-largest amount of military hardware and the second largest number of cyber-security products, and alone accounted for a majority of drone exports between 1985 and 2015. As the U.S. continues to grapple with rising competitors and complacent friends, Israel’s combat effectiveness and defense investment can continue to serve as a positive blueprint for other allies. America would be wise to maintain the vital support that it has given Israel so that many more strategic benefits can be gained.
Jonathan Honigman is an educator in Washington, DC.