20th – 21st Century Military
|Map Middle East / North Africa, 1995|
In the aftermath of World War II the Arab nations of the Middle East became independent and acquired their own military establishments, and further they have been involved in wars with outside powers and with each other. The results have been less than impressive. Despite up to date training, equipment etc., Arab armies have been repeatedly thrashed.1
I am not talking about thrashings like the First and Second Gulf Wars, in which the superiority of the Americans and their allies was so great that victory for them was inevitable. Further this sublime incompetence applies mainly to their conventional armed forces. Arab Guerrillas and Terrorists have frequently been very effective.2
You get war after war in which Arab armies get thrashed and thrashed badly by opponents that were less well equipped or equally equipped. Thus you get disasters like the various wars against Israel. Even the most “successful” one the so-called Yom Kipper war (1973), was although a political success, (To a large extent because the super powers imposed a ceasefire has Egypt and Syria were losing badly on the battlefield.), was filled with tactical disasters for the Arabs. Both Syria and Egypt suffered significantly greater casualties than Israel, in both men and material and in the end Israel had badly damaged their armies. Especially disconcerting was the fact that the Syrian and Egyptian Air Forces were no match for the Israeli Air Force. In fact it appears that once combat became fluid the Egyptians and Syrians were lost.3
However the various Arab-Israeli wars have been analysed to death by military analysts perhaps it is better to look at two much less well-known and studied wars. The two wars were the Iranian – Iraqi war (1980-1988), and the various Libyan invasions of Chad, (1978-1987). Both of these wars are embarrassing to the particular Arab power involved for in each case they should have been cake walks. That is cake walks if the only thing that mattered in war was material.4
Iraq had for example more than three times the number of planes and more than 5 times the number of tanks than the Iranians at the beginning of the war. The superiority was the same with artillery. All this equipment was quite up to date. Further much Iranian equipment was obsolete. Further Iran had just gone through the overthrow of the Shah, (The Iranian Revolution), and her armed forces much like her society was in complete disarray and confusion. Further the revolution had isolated Iran from her usual sources of military supply and Iran was basically unable to find easily alternative military supply sources. The result was that has the war progressed the imbalance between Iran and Iraq in terms of number and quality of military hardware only increased. At the end of the war Iraq had 7+ times the number of aircraft and 7+ times the number of tanks. For unlike Iran Iraq had open access to western and Soviet military hardware and supply, further it had massive financial backing of various Arab states like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, who poured billions into Iraq for her war effort. Iran had no such sources of financial support.5
Iran may have had 3 times the population of Iraq, but it still had huge logistical and other problems bringing this superiority of numbers to bear, because it lacked the outside resources to restore its highly degraded logistical base. The revolution had greatly disarrayed the support systems and the virtual international boycott severely inhibited efforts to correct and remedy that. The result was that the Iranians suffered from shortages of everything and never had enough trucks, ammunition etc. The Iranians were able to get for much of the war superiority in numbers, but they were always technically, in terms of armaments and supplies greatly inferior to the Iraqis. The war should have been a one sided cake walk.6
Instead it was a bloody war of attrition in which Iran had the upper hand for most of the war. And even at the end when there was a series of successful Iraqi offences that drove the Iranians from Iraqi territory, mainly because the Iranians were running out of military hardware and finally approaching military exhaustion because of the boycott, (Also because the Iranians feared that the Americans were about to intervene overtly on the side of Iraq.), a final last minute Iraq offensive was stopped cold by the Iranians and a large military force of Iranian dissidents sent deep into Iran with considerable Iraqi military support was simply annihilated by the Iranians.7
Thus despite huge material superiority the Iraqis were only able to get a draw or slight advantage by the time the war was over.
The case of Libya’s interventions in Chad is even more extreme. The Libyans between 1978 and 1987 militarily intervened 4 times. They had heavy artillery, tanks, planes massive logistical support. In terms of fire power they completely outclassed their opponents. Their opponents were local Chadians, who were very lightly armed, had virtually no artillery of any kind, no planes or tanks and very poor logistics. Again it should have been a walk over. Instead it turned out that the Libyans were heavily dependent of local Chadian allies for infantry support, and without it they soon encountered serious problems.8
The Chadians were a people divided into different tribal groupings. Although there was an educated elite it was small and the bulk of the population was poorly educated, largely illiterate and quite unfamiliar with much of modern life. The society was divided into numerous factions with at any one time several groups competing for power. This gave the Libyans a chance to support one of more of the factions in order to gain an advantage and get allies.9
The Libyan aim was twofold to secure control of a disputed bit of territory in the north bordering on Libya called the Aouzou strip. The second aim was to secure in Chad a government that was a virtual puppet of Libya.10
Colonel Gaddafi of Libya was a man with highly ambitious aims and he thought he could secure them by military efforts and diplomacy in Chad. His aims were repeatedly thwarted by bad political moves, French intervention in Chad and eventually by military defeat.
Libyan intervention in Chad had always been a sore point in Chad for even Libya’s Chadian allies distrusted Libya’s aims in Chad. Still given the huge disparity of firepower Libya should have had no particular problem dealing with the very lightly armed Chadian forces that opposed them.
After all the Chadians, has mentioned above, did not have any planes, tanks, armoured personal carriers, heavy artillery etc. They were lightly armed men with at best some light artillery that was totally outclassed by the Libyans. Also the Libyans had a logistic system that ensured that they would have copious amounts of ammunition etc. The fire power disparity was of at least one order of magnitude between the two.
Instead the Libyan fire power advantage counted for very little in the end.
First Libyan diplomatic bungling lost them their Chadian allies in the last half of 1986. At the same time the Chadians had worked out some solutions to the problems created by Libyan air supremacy and to deal with tanks. They adopted some relatively simple anti-aircraft weaponry, and anti-tank weaponry. Further they started using Toyota trucks and armoured cars to give them greater mobility. Despite the fact that the Libyans were in heavily fortified strongholds backed by massive firepower the Chadians were able to storm one after the other while inflicting very disproportionate casualties on the Libyans. It was a through humiliating debacle.11
So why was this the case? Why did Arab conventional military forces tend to do so badly? In fact so badly that they are thrashed, and thrashed badly by forces that were significantly inferior in armaments and firepower?
Cowardice and bad Generalship can be dismissed. So can lack of training and inferior equipment. In fact Arab Military forces frequently had substantially superior equipment than their enemies and their forces were frequently well trained.
More substantially Arab Military forces seemed to have, quite frequently serious problems with using their advanced equipment to full capacity. Further Arab Military forces have moderate to severe problems with maintenance of their equipment. It appears that in regards to routine / preventive maintenance carried out by the soldiers themselves of their equipment any ability to do so is at best mediocre and usually terrible to horrible. The result is that a very high percentage of the equipment at any one time is not fit to be used. This includes tanks and planes.12
Also training although rigorous, is rote and heavily preplanned. It looks great on a parade field but doesn’t do much to train for combat. In fact unexpected moves in training exercises are strongly discouraged for everything is choreographed ahead of time. The training field exercises are just like rehearsed plays. Everything goes off, exactly has planned beforehand.13
Another problem is information analysis and accumulation. There is a tendency to tailor information to protect ones or a groups Honor. The result is that information given to a higher up may be misleading and or devoid of details that the person giving the information thinks reflects poorly on him or his associates. This is especially true if things go wrong, resulting in a tendency to cover up and obfuscate.14 Needless to say during a combat situation this is a recipe for disaster; for how can a High Command give sensible orders if it being given reams of erroneous info from down the command chain?
Finally what is the worst problem of the Arab conventional militaries? It is small scale tactical manoeuvring in a fluid combat situation in which the unexpected happens. Bluntly speaking Arab conventional military forces are simply not that good at a scrambling fight. They tend to be rigid, doctrine, inflexible, manoeuvre relatively little, and have a hard time adapting. The results are disastrous all too frequently.15
In fact perhaps the most outstanding example of recent Arab military competence, the crossing of the Suez Canal during the first few days of the Yom Kipper War, shows the problems in abundance. The whole thing was planned meticulously to exclude has much as possible the need for flexibility and initiative from junior officers. Everything was rigorously rehearsed ahead of time. It was when things began to depart from the carefully worked out High Command plan, that things began to go wrong. Thus the Egyptian attack on October 14th 1973 was a hash in which the Israeli were easily able to cut the attacking Egyptian tanks to ribbons. Further once the Israeli crossed the canal themselves the Egyptians started to go to pieces. In the end it didn’t matter, in that Sadat was able to secure his diplomatic / political aims. Still although the Egyptians had staged a clever even brilliant plan of attack, once things became unpredictable and fluid the results were very bad for them and in fact a near catastrophic.16
Other examples of Arab inflexibility are the fact that although out-numbering the Iranians in during much of the Iran / Iraqi war, and through most of it out gunning by a wide margin the Iranians, the Iraqi were frequently out manoeuvred by the Iranians, despite the fact due, to less of and inferior equipment, the Iranians were in fact less mobile. The Iranians were able to manoeuvre despite equipment problems. Further it appears that their junior officers, tank crews and even fighter pilots were more flexible and willing to take the initiative. The results were that even during something has successful as the Iranians walking into a three sided ambush by a greatly superior force of Iraqi tanks, the results were a less than a crushing Iraqi victory. The Iranians were still able to inflict severe casualties on the Iraqis before withdrawing in defeat. The reason being that the Iranians in a situation of an ambush tried to manoeuvre, whereas the Iraqis did not. Fortunately for the Iraqi the muddy conditions on both sides of the road severely limited the ability of the Iranians to manoeuvre.17
Another example is how Libyan forces, heavily armed, with tanks, artillery and jet aircraft, where crushed by Tanzanian forces, who had no heavy weapons at all in Uganda in 1979.18
The bottom line is that junior officers in Arab military forces, lack initiative, and flexibility, they tend to be rigid, doctrine and incapable of dealing with unexpected fluid situations. The result is that in a fluid open ended combat situation Arab military forces just cannot cope and end up tactically defeated all too often.19
Why this is so is an interesting question. It has been suggested that the various rules that govern hierarchical structures in Arab societies, discourages initiative among junior offices and encourages rote thinking, and a lack of flexibility. Thus initiative and thinking outside the box is discouraged. Further the Arab mindset that guarding one’s personal and or group Honor also as a negative impact As an example of the sort mindset is the frequent observation by American instructors in Arab Military schools that asking questions of individuals in class is frowned on. It is viewed as a personal attack and a deliberate attempt to humiliate especially if the person does not know the answer. The result could be that the person so humiliated bears a serious grudge against the instructor.20
What makes this doubly fascinating is that these problems, of lack of flexibility etc., do not exist or exist at a very much lower level of seriousness in unconventional Arab forces. Thus for example the coalition was able crush Saddam Hussein’s military in both 1991 and 2003, with relative ease, at the cost of only a few hundred casualties. In each case the two Coalition’s main problem was logistical not military. However in the aftermath of the Second Gulf War in 2003, the Americans faced an insurgency which proved very difficult to put down, (And was in fact not entirely put down.), and inflicted far greater casualties on the Americans than the conventional forces of Iraq. The insurgents simply proved to be vastly better in tactical combat, certainly more flexible, aggressive and willing to show initiative than conventional Arab forces. The result was a costly and brutal counter guerrilla operation for the Americans.21
It is also interesting to point out that Arab forces tend to show one area of competence. That is in logistics. Basically Arab conventional logistic support military units are at least competent and in the case of Libya outstanding in making sure that their men are fed, and fully supplied with all the accouterments of war. Why this is so when in other areas such as dealing with tactical fluidity they tend to be mediocre to just plain terrible is a good question.22
One can perhaps postulate that simply because insurgency or unconventional warfare is indeed unconventional that it does not attract the “typical Arab”, so that the people who engage in such warfare would not tend to follow the rules of their society regarding “proper” behaviour in a hierarchy. The result being greater initiative and tactical flexibility in combat or combat like situations. Or perhaps the rules governing Arab behaviour in unconventional hierarchies are different. Or maybe it is a combination of the above.
One of the most interesting examples of this is the failure of conventional Egyptian forces against Royalist guerrillas in Yemen, (1963-1967). The Royalists were able to run tactical circles around the Egyptians. Thus on a purely tactical level Arab guerrillas beat out the conventional Arab military and displayed the sort of military virtues that the conventional forces lacked.23
There have been recently only two “conventional” wars in the Arab world. In the case of Libya, (2011), the civil war displayed the awesome, amateur incompetence of the insurgents, who at least learned as they went along, and the even greater incompetence of the government, who didn’t seem to learn anything. The ongoing civil war in Syria, (2011- ), also doesn’t show the regime having much in the way of a tactically competent military. The fact that insurgents are a ragtag group of fighters with little training or coordination and yet the Syrian military has difficulty defeating them doesn’t say much for the Syrian military. 24
It is possible that the incompetent features of Arab conventional military forces will dissipate with the arrival of democracy. But until then it is probably best for Arab Armies to avoid conventional warfare.
1. Pollack, Kenneth, Arabs at War, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln NB, 2002, pp. 1-13.
2. IBID, pp. 588-590.
3. IBID, pp. 98-137, 478-513, and Dunstan, Simon, The Yom Kipper War (1) The Golan Heights,[a] and The Yom Kipper War (2) Sinai,[b] Osprey, London, 2003, Cordesman, Anthony, & Wagner, Abraham, The Lessons of Modern War, v. 1, The Arab Israeli Wars 1973-1989, Westview, Boulder CO, 1990a.
4. Pollack, pp. 282-335, 375-412, Cordesman, Anthony, & Wagner, Abraham, The Lessons of Modern War, v. 2, The Iran – Iraq War, Westview, Boulder CO, 1990b, Farrokh, Kaveh Dr., Iran at War, Osprey, London, 2011, pp. 344-415.
5. Pollack, p. 3, 209-211, 229-232.
6. Pollack, pp. 182-193, Farrokh, pp. 346-355, Cordesman et al, 1990b.
7. Both the books Arabs at War by Pollack and The Lessons of Modern War, v. 2: The Iran – Iraq War, by Cordesman et al, contend that Iraq “won” the war. They do this by completely leaving out the failure of the last Iraqi offensive. Both books conclude their discussion with the Iranian acceptance of a ceasefire in July of 1988, and ignore Iraqi, (Saddam Hussein’s), effort to score a crushing offensive win over Iran and his renewed dream of getting everything he had planned to get when he started the war in 1980. The offensive failed so Saddam was forced to accept the ceasefire. That Cordesman et al, who have written what is the best book in English about the Iran-Iraq war have “forgotten” this failed offensive is by far the most glaring weakness of their book. For this failed offensive see Farrokh, pp. 412-415, and Operation Mersad, Wikipedia Here.
10. Pollack, pp. 375-376.
11. Footnote 8.
12. Pollack, pp. 565-568.
13. IBID, pp. 570-572, De Atkine, Norvell B., Why Arabs Lose Wars, Part 1, American Diplomacy Here, Part 2, American Diplomacy Here.
14. Pollack, pp. 561-563, De Atkine, Why…, Part 1.
15. Pollack, pp. 575-578. 581-582, De Atkine, Why…, Part 2.
16. Dunstan, b, pp. 58-90, Pollack, pp. 111-123, 127-129.
17. Farrokh, pp. 357-358, Pollack, pp. 193-195.
18. Pollack, pp. 368-375. See also Avirgan, Tony, & Honey, Martha, War in Uganda, Zed Press, London, 1982.
19. See De Atkine, Why…, Parts 1 & 2, Pollack, pp. 552-583.
21. See Cordesman, Anthony H., Iraq’s Insurgency and the Road to Civil Conflict, (Two Volumes), Praeger Security International, Westport CT, 2008.
22. Pollack, pp. 56-57, 374-375, 406-408, 465-467.
23. Pollack, pp. 47-57, O’Ballance, Edgar, The War in Yemen, Archon, Hamden CT, 1971.