By Dr Alan Stephens
It was the 19th century British prime minister Lord Palmerston who famously remarked that in international relations there are “no eternal allies … only interests”.
Palmerston’s hard-headed world view has particular relevance for small- and medium-nations that find themselves drawn into high-intensity warfare. The October 1973 war in the Middle East and the 1982 war in the Falklands illustrate the point.
The 1973 war began on 6 October when Egypt and Syria launched a sudden attack against Israel. Over-confident Israeli commanders were shocked when their previously dominant air force found itself unprepared for the quality and tactical disposition of the Arabs’ ground-based air defence system.
The IAF started the war with about 290 frontline F-4 and A-4 strike/fighters and within days some fifty had been shot-down. It was an unsustainable loss rate.
A week later, as the war in the air began to turn and the Israelis started to assert their expected dominance, it was the Arabs’ turn to experience unsustainable losses.
Now, both protagonists faced the same urgent problem: neither had the reserves nor the local capacity to rapidly reinforce their fighting units.
There is a limit to how much a nation can spend on otherwise non-productive war industries and stockpiles. Governments have to make fine judgments regarding how many weapons – which represent stranded assets until they are used – they can afford to have parked on ramps or stored in warehouses against the possibility of a contingency that might never arise.
That economic imperative is especially pronounced in the war in the air, in which platforms and weapons are exceedingly expensive. And in high-intensity fighting, extreme unit costs are accompanied by extreme loss and usage rates.
Thus, during the nineteen days of the October War, the Israelis lost 102 strike/fighters and the Arabs 433, and the Arabs fired 9000 surface-to-air missiles. Those numbers alone amounted to thirty aircraft and $560 million per day.
What that meant was that neither the Israelis nor the Arabs was capable of fighting a high-intensity air war for more than about a week without direct assistance from their American and Soviet sponsors.
And that’s precisely what happened.
On 9 October, the Soviets started a massive airlift to resupply the Egyptians and Syrians with missiles, ammunition, SAM components, radars, and much more; shortly afterwards, the US did the same for Israel. The US also made good the IAF’s aircraft losses by flying-in about 100 F-4s, A-4s and C-130s, some of which arrived still carrying USAF markings.
Without that resupply, Israel and the Arab states could not have sustained such a high-intensity conflict.
This point bears emphasis. Israel was far superior militarily to the Arab states, and its excellent indigenous industry enabled it to develop important capabilities (such as electronic warfare counter-measures) during the conflict.
Nevertheless, it is not unreasonable to suggest that, had Egypt and Syria been resupplied and Israel had not, the war would have ended differently.
Sustainment in the form of aid from an external source was again crucial during the 1982 Falklands War between the United Kingdom and Argentina.
The UK’s armed forces are among the world’s very best, and the nation is one of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful. Argentina in 1982 was a dysfunctional, second-world nation led by an incompetent cabal of military dictators.
Yet according to both the key foreign affairs advisor to prime minister Margaret Thatcher, Lord Charles Powell, and the assistant US defense secretary,
Richard Perle, “Britain probably would have lost the war without American assistance”. That assistance extended to providing vital intelligence, and to “stripping part of the frontline US air forces” of the latest version of the Sidewinder air-to-air missile.
Argentina, by contrast, and to its dismay, found itself the subject of Lord Palmerston’s unsentimental characterisation of alliances, when it was abandoned by two nations which, until the day the shooting started, it had believed were its friends. The first, the US, cut-off intelligence and diplomatic assistance; and the second, France, which had sold the Argentine Navy Super-Etendard strike fighters and Exocet missiles, withdrew the technical support needed to make that capability fully effective.
In the event, the Argentines managed to fire five Exocets, sinking two ships from the British war convoy and severely damaging a third. It is feasible that, with better targeting information and only a half-dozen more operational missiles, the Argentines might have inflicted sufficient damage on the convoy to have compelled it to turn back before it got within 100 kilometres of the Falklands.
Should Australia become involved in a high-intensity conflict in the next ten years, we can confidently expect that our air power would be well-trained and well-equipped.
Those attributes would be insufficient in themselves, however, if they were not under-written by a strong and reliable alliance.