U.S. Has Wasted Billions of Dollars on Failed Arab Armies
By Kenneth M.
January 31, 2019
The United States has spent 70 years and tens
of billions of dollars training Arab militaries—with almost nothing
to show for all the effort.
Time and again, America’s Arab allies have failed to live
up to martial expectations. The U.S.-trained Egyptian Armed Forces performed
miserably in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm. If anything, they did somewhat
better under Soviet tutelage in the 1973 October War. The U.S.-trained Iraqi
Army collapsed when attacked by a couple thousand Islamic State zealots in 2014.
The U.S.-trained Saudi military fell flat on its face when it intervened in
Yemen in 2015, and it has become badly stuck there.
If the United States is going to stay involved in the
Middle East, it has to rethink the way it engages with Arab militaries.
Ambitious dreams of engaged, modernized militaries must be replaced with more
realistic plans that build on the real strengths of allies, instead of forcing
soldiers into a mold that their societies and culture have left them grossly
unsuited for. Otherwise Washington will keep pouring money down the drain—and
its Arab allies will keep failing.
This is not just embarrassing. For decades, U.S. military
training was a critical element of alliances with allies in the Middle East,
designed to demonstrate commitment to their security and give them the ability
to help America protect their countries. In recent years, Americans have begun
to eye an exit from the Middle East, but few want to walk away and have Iran,
Hezbollah, the Islamic State, al Qaeda, or other U.S. enemies take over as the
United States departs. In an ideal world, America would leave behind strong Arab
allies, able to defend themselves from their common foes. But that seems as far
away today as it did when the United States first started training Arab armed
forces back in the 1950s.
On the U.S. side, the effort to train Arab militaries has
been sincere, persistent, and doomed. The U.S. Air Force has been trying to
train the Egyptian Air Force (EAF) to fly the F-16 for decades. However, well
into the 21st century, the EAF’s standard pattern of attack has called for two
planes to approach nearly simultaneously from either side of a target, on a
collision course. Consequently, even in training exercises, one plane out of
every pair has to swerve at the last minute to avoid a midair
collision—causing that pilot’s bombs to go far from the target.
Because the Egyptians don’t record their missions or
debrief, let alone actually critique their own performances, and no one at
operational levels wants to rock the boat by pointing out that their tactics are
suicidal and their training rigged, all of these practices have become
institutionalized elements of EAF training, and U.S. pilots have reported
constant frustration trying to convince the EAF that its school solutions are
not only wrong but potentially fatal. One American pilot who had trained with
the EAF told me that it was “probably good” that the Egyptians didn’t use
live ordnance in practice because if they did, they would lose a lot of their
aircraft and pilots to these ridiculous tactics and distorted training
The Egyptian pilots and tacticians involved in devising
this absurd practice were prisoners of a series of problems that have haunted
Arab armies throughout the modern era and that have grown out of contemporary
Arab society itself.
The fraught civil-military relations of the Arab world mean
that many Arab rulers are so frightened of being overthrown by ambitious
generals that they purposely hobble the armed forces to keep them weak. Whenever
that has happened, it has typically led to poor strategic leadership and
communications and, on occasion, poor morale and unit cohesion.
The Arab world never really industrialized, and this
relative underdevelopment meant that many Arabs came to the military without
much understanding of advanced machinery. As a result, Arab personnel often
failed to get the full potential out of their weapons and invariably failed to
maintain them properly, with the result that the real numbers of tanks, planes,
and artillery pieces they could field were far fewer than what they had
But the most critical factor is that Arab
cultural-educational practices conditioned too many of their personnel to remain
passive at lower levels of any hierarchy and to manipulate information to avoid
blame. In modern combat—where the difference between victory and defeat is
often aggressive, innovative junior officers able to react to unforeseen
circumstances and take advantage of fleeting opportunities—these tendencies
proved devastating time and again.
Generations of U.S. military personnel who went off to the
Middle East to try to teach one or another Arab army to fight like the U.S.
armed forces can attest to the stubbornness of these problems. I personally
experienced their frustration time and again, on training ranges from the Nile
Delta to the Mesopotamian river valleys. And because the problems they were
trying to supposedly fix stemmed from these societal factors, I heard the same
complaints over and over again, from country to country and decade to decade.
The Russians had identical frustrations because they faced
the same issues derived from the wider Arab society. For instance, in the run-up
to the October War, the Egyptians adopted Soviet tactics to a greater extent
than ever before. At that time, Soviet doctrine was to have the commander of a
tank platoon designate a single target, at which the entire platoon (three
tanks, including the commander’s) would fire until it was destroyed, and then
the commander would designate a new target. The Soviets calculated that, given
the gunnery skills of their crews, it normally would take three salvos from the
platoon (or nine shots) to kill an enemy tank. Rather than see this as a general
guide for planning, the Egyptians turned it into a hard-and-fast rule and taught
all of their tank platoons to fire three salvos at the designated target and
then move on to the next target.
Egyptian tank gunnery turned out to be considerably poorer
than Soviet marksmanship, and as a result, during the October War, it was often
the case that none of the shots fired in the three salvos of an Egyptian tank
platoon hit the Israeli tank it had targeted. Nevertheless, because the
Egyptians had been taught to fire three salvos and then move on, they would
shift their fire to the next target even though they had not actually destroyed
the first one. In this way, the Egyptians drove their Russian advisors to
distraction trying to convince them not to take their guidelines as unbreakable
laws. It was also one of the many reasons that the Egyptians lost so many tank
duels to the Israelis in 1973.
Despite this history of both Soviet and U.S. failure, it
has been possible to improve the combat performance of Arab militaries, but it
has also been very difficult. It requires considerable effort to better
structure the forces themselves and the operations they will undertake and has
proved exceptionally hard to help them acquire more than modest capabilities,
even with enormous exertions. (My friend, Mike Eisenstadt, has
offered similar recommendations elsewhere.)
One of the most successful approaches has been to keep the
forces trained small, gaining the benefits of eliteness and maintaining an
unusually high proportion of soldiers and officers with non-culturally regular
The advantage of relying on small, elite formations is
that—done right—it allows an army to pick the best troops and officers from
the wider force and concentrate them where they can have the greatest impact.
Cultural proclivities are nothing but tendencies, averages around which
individuals cluster and diverge. In other words, not every Arab soldier or
officer evinces these same tendencies to the same extent. The more that those
with the right skills and abilities from the wider force can be picked out and
concentrated in elite formations, the more capable those formations are likely
to be. This is effectively the approach that the United States took in Iraq
after 2014, investing heavily in its small, elite Counter Terrorism Service
(CTS), helping the Iraqis to identify (and then train) their best people, move
them into the CTS, and then use that force to spearhead every major Iraqi fight
against the Islamic State.
But the elite approach is limited and hard to sustain. An
alternative approach that the United States might employ in other circumstances
would be to encourage Arab militaries to focus on doing what they do well and
avoid those areas of warfare that societally derived limitations render
difficult or impossible. Arab armies perform well-scripted and rehearsed
set-piece offensives or static defensive operations, often fighting with
exceptional bravery. But they perform poorly at fluid, maneuver warfare; ad hoc
operations; combined arms warfare; air-to-air and air-to-ground operations
(especially when they can’t count on precision-guided munitions to do most of
the work); and anything that requires flexible, accurate information management.
These need to be left to more capable Western forces.
The United States employed this approach to some extent in
the war against the Islamic State too, relying on coalition air power and
special forces to do as much of the scouting and killing as possible to minimize
the demands on the Iraqi security forces. A better example, however, would be
the way that the United States tried to structure Arab operations as part of
Operation Desert Storm. There, capable U.S. Army and Marine formations were
responsible for the main diversionary attack into Kuwait and the great
enveloping maneuver (the “left hook”), while Arab allies were asked only to
cover the flanks of the U.S. assaults.
Where and when it is possible, there are other ways to
achieve this. To the extent that the United States can influence officer
promotions and command assignments, as it did in Iraq in 2006-2010 and
2014-2017, that can help diminish the impact of politicization and empower
commanders with much-needed but non-culturally regular skills.
At an even deeper and harder level, the more that the
United States can do to affect the education of future Arab soldiers and
officers from the earliest ages, the more likely that there will be larger
numbers of those with the right skills available. No one is born with cultural
proclivities. Culture is learned behavior, and the more that Arab educational
processes change from the autocratic emphasis on rote memorization and
consumption of knowledge (rather than its creation), the more they will produce
men and women with the skills to survive and thrive on the modern battlefield.
The U.S. failure to improve Arab militaries wasn’t unique
or America’s fault. But the United States should have learned long ago that
attempting to make Arab forces a carbon copy of the Marines wasn’t going to
Instead of Americans trying to force Arab military
personnel to do things their way, they should look for ways to help them do what
they do somewhat better. They won’t get to U.S. levels of effectiveness that
way, but then again, trying to force them to think and act like Americans has
not succeeded so far either and probably never will.
And in the long run, the picture may be very different.
Arab society is changing dramatically—politically, economically, and
culturally—as witnessed by the wave of revolts in 2011. So, too, is warfare.
Someday, a new Arab society may be better attuned to whatever the demands are of
the wars of the future. When that happens, maybe Americans won’t need to train
their armies. Hell, maybe they will be training America’s.