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Operation NICKEL GRASS: Decision Strategy and Execution

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Operation NICKEL GRASS: Decision Strategy and Execution

J. Robert Kane

The 1973 War between Israel and the Arab states is largely regarded as an intelligence failure by the US Intelligence Community. Not predicted by either the Israeli or US intelligence services, the 1973 War quickly advanced into a well sieged Arab attack that was supported by the Soviet Union (USSR). Arab forces quickly gained an upper hand on the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and moved into a more offensive position that largely put the IDF on the defensive track. It soon became clear to the US national security apparatus that Israel could not risk becoming defeated without US intervention. At the request of the Israeli government, US aid was requested in such an intervention that would become necessary to Israel’s survival. This intervention came in the name of a resupply airlift that would become known as Operation NICKEL GRASS. This paper outlines the initial need for American assistance to Israel with regard to the debate that ensued as to the mission’s theory and execution as well as the military effect that was achieved by the US Air Force in the service’s perhaps most ambitious and meaningful foreign intervention ever achieved.

But before military intervention came, political debate in the US national security apparatus was foremost. To add to the debate and implications that intervention would have, the idea of a US airlift was both unconventional and politically charged. To come to Israel’s aid was necessary for the allied country’s survival but US intervention would prove seriously debilitating to both overt and shadow diplomacy between the Arab states and the larger Soviet Union (USSR). In a secondary context, US intervention in the 1973 War involved America in a proxy war with the USSR which beheld serious political implications as US-Soviet relations were on the verge of exhaustion. Serious debate among staffers and government officials in the Washington Special Activities Group (WSAG) consisted of the operation’s applicability, effectiveness, and execution in a way that was no less than integral to the Israeli success in the 1973 war. [1]

But before the Arabs gained the upper hand, Israel was more optimistic about the 1973 War’s outcome. Israeli assessments and assurances to the US prior to the conflict indicated that the IDF would win without the need for resupply until after the war. The US government was thus convinced by their counterparts and relieved to not be placed into a problematic diplomatic spot between Israel, Arab nations, and USSR. US intelligence service by and large produced their products based on Israeli assessments, which generally have been (and are) the best cases of reporting in the Middle East. As a result, the US intelligence was dependent on Israeli assessments.   

By October 1973, those assessments were wrong and the US was blindsided. Because of Israeli group think, the US Intelligence Community underestimated the Arabs’ strength and capability for effective fighting against the Israelis. [2] There was a fast and urgent need for US intervention through an emergency resupply that would determine whether or not the Israelis would live to fight another day.

Nevertheless, the idea of an American resupply airlift conflicted with American policy as described by deliberating members of the WSAG who knew of the diplomatic repercussions of the action with both the Arabs and Soviets. [3] In early October 1973, Israel asked for US assistance with more urgency than before and with the understanding that, if not provided, Israel would lose the war. It was concluded that if the Arabs won, it would shatter the myth of Israeli invincibility and larger Jewish security. [4] To this note, it would mean that part of Israel’s unspoken strength that discouraged attack from Arab neighbors would be rendered false and make the Israelis a sitting duck for Arab occupation. To lose this war could have very well meant the end of Israel—and those in Washington knew this.

Members of the Nixon national security team were largely hesitant of US intervention for numerous reasons in the beginning due to the implications already described that such an intervention would create. WSAG members from the DoD (Admiral Thomas Moorer, Chairman of JCS and James Schlesinger, SecDef) and CIA (William Colby, DCI) opposed the action due to the tensions it would raise with the USSR who at the time was conducting its own airlift campaign on behalf of the Arabs. Political members (including Brent Snowcroft) were concerned of the tense diplomatic pressure that would be demonstrated to Arab leaders and, to a lesser extent, the tension that would be further amplified with the Soviets whose relations with the US were already deteriorating. [5]

Most Arab states had already developed both public and private negative perceptions to the US resupply of Israel. [6] The Arab perception of a US resupply of Israel and a decisive turn in the battle against the Arab forces would cause a magnified anti-US reaction. [7] While the Arab reaction to the airlift as a symbolic action was more important than its contents, certain resupplied products such as the F-4 Phantom would produce a maximum Arab reaction as the F-4 had become seen by the Arabs as a symbol of the technological superiority of the Israeli military as mediated by the US. [8] Various Arab responses to the US resupply would be marked. States such as Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Libya would augment force engagement against the Israelis and even US persons or interests. The fedayeen would increase US targeting in terrorist operations. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, among others, would cut back on oil production and exportation to Western countries. North African countries in addition to Lebanon and the Persian Gulf states would likely sever diplomatic relations, either formally or not. [9] The Arab perception of the success or failure of the war was independent of Soviet support and heavily dependent on US intervention on behalf of Israel. They will blame the US for Israel’s successes, blame the Soviets for Arab failures, but not credit the Soviets in any significant Arab success. [10]

As considered by members of the WSAG, an Arab oil embargo would pose a more serious threat to European countries rather than the US. [11] In particular, the impact of an all-Arab embargo of oil would place a heavy strain on Western Europe and Japan, which were more heavily dependent on Arab oil shipments than the US was. [12] At the time of the debate, Baghdad had already called for suspending oil exports to the US. [13] Intelligence indicated that some interruption of oil supply to the West was likely, whether through direct Arab government action or through sabotage of oil facilities. With high confidence, Libya was almost certain to retaliate first against Western oil interests. In the case that the fighting did not end soon, Saudi Aribia and the Gulf states were likely to limit oil production and may have joined in a general oil embargo. Though this would most hurt Western Europe and Japan in the beginning, the Arabs hoped that these nations would press the US to curb Israel and their resultant aggression. [14]

Kissinger, as Secretary of State, held a fundamentally different position that would ultimately succeed in the debate. He saw the US as an integral force in the conflict that should serve as a mediator in some extent to achieve the best of all possible options. He said that the worst possible option was for the Israelis to feel as though they were let down by the US and the Arabs to feel as if they achieved success entirely on their own. [15] Kissinger viewed the airlift as clear way to achieve a ceasefire between the IDF and Arab forces—a motive that was shared by President Nixon. [16] Soon enough, Kissinger’s advocacy for the airlift won Nixon’s support and then became the operational target of the WSAG. In a telephone conversation between Nixon and Kissinger, both parties agreed on the decision for an airlift and the extent of its operations, both in terms of planes provided and supplies to be delivered. [17] The airlift by the US military became codenamed Operation NICKEL GRASS, conducted by the USAF.

Upon receiving Nixon’s approval for a US airlift, the matter became a question of how to implement the strategy—to create a feasible execution for the operation’s implementation. Kissinger was dominant in the planning and wanted a US airlift to resupply Israeli forces without obvious US military involvement. [18] But as dissenting WSAG members found, an attempt to reduce the visibility of the resupply effort using civil rather than military aircraft would have a very temporary effect if any effect at all. [19] Israeli desired to use El Al for the resupply although it was too limited, and the operation thus demanded USAF to provide the operational capability.

The diplomatic measure to use the airlift to achieve a ceasefire quickly became a dominant force in the national security apparatus and the Nixon administration wished to communicate this publically to conflicting parties outside the government. The WSAG agreed that the US should stop their airlift once the ceasefire was achieved and the Russians suspended their own airlift. [20] To combat a Russian military airlift that the WSAG wished not to conflict with for fear that doing so would aggravate Soviet leadership, the WSAG and Kissinger reiterated that the US was prepared to stop the airlift as soon as a ceasefire was achieved. [21]

In a 14 October 1973 letter that was sent via telegram 203672 to Jidda, Kissinger asked for the King’s understanding that the US airlift to Israel was not intended as anti-Arab nor pro-Israel, noting that it “became inevitable when the Soviets moved to take advantage of the situation instead of using their influence to work for a ceasefire which would end the fighting and it became necessary if we are to remain in a position to use our influence to work for a just and lasting peace.” Kissinger concluded: “I want to assure you that as soon as an effective ceasefire has been achieved, we are prepared to stop our airlift promptly provided the Soviets do the same.” [22] Nixon indicated to Arab leaders who were concerned about the US airlift that their perception of it was simply incorrect. He noted that the US desired to avoid war before it even started and only initiated an airlift when an exhaustive Soviet airlift to the Arabs was engaged against the Israelis and the US felt the need to mount a counteroffensive in order to achieve a balance. [23] Kissinger believed that the diplomatic effect of the airlift to Israeli would demonstrate to the Soviets that the IDF was still viable and would continue fighting. As such, the Soviets would be interested in wrapping up their involvement in the conflict as quickly as possible. [24]

It was concurred that Israel was not interested in gaining new territory but rather was concerned with displaying force towards the Arabs. Kissinger asserted that this was integrally important for US-Soviet relations such that the USSR cannot be found to be anti-US nor anti-Israeli as doing so would negate their diplomatic positions in the UN and jeopardize other things such as Most Favored Nation status. [25] Diplomatic reporting found that the Israeli goal was not to achieve control of new territory but rather to inflict the maximum degree of pain on the Arabs. [26] Intelligence found that it is unlikely that Israel would want to increase its occupation burden by taking on more territory and only wanted to display power in the view of the Arabs. [27]

Being outsiders, the US and USSR were the most vulnerable actors and had the most at stake in the conflict. [28] In the case of the superpowers (US and USSR) being in a major military resupply to the combatants (Israel and the Arabs), the chances of a US-USSR confrontation were seen as highly probable to increase. [29] Both CIA and DIA believed that Moscow wanted to steer clear of military involvement in the fighting. [30] It was found that the USSR would be more hesitant of resupplying the Arabs due to the priority Moscow attaches to relations with the US, suggesting that the Soviets would be more cautious on this front than was exhibited in the 1967 resupply. [31] In this case, the Soviets would continue to support the Arabs but would remain cautious and probably be willing to concert with the US to alleviate tensions. [32]

It was argued that a US resupply of Israel would pressure the USSR to come more directly to the aid of the Syrians and Egyptians. [33] A direct US intervention in the fighting would force Egypt to accept a ceasefire on account of the fact that, while Egypt could defeat Israel in the coming period of time, the Egyptian troops could not continue the war against the US. [34] Egypt asserted that the US, as a sponsor to the ceasefire resolution, had a special responsibility for curbing Israel in its actions and aggression as it perceived was the case. In this sense, Egypt evidenced the US military resupply to Egypt as the main cause of Israeli aggressiveness. [35]

Kissinger argued that the principle reason for why the airlift was started was to show that the US could strategically match anything that the Soviets put in the Middle East and that the US could put airlifted materials into more capable hands, Israel. As the war continued to last longer, it would have to be the Soviets rather than the US who would have to ask for a ceasefire. [36] The agreements made by the WSAG meeting indicated that the airlift of equipment to Israel should be increased until the rate of delivery is 25% ahead of Soviet deliveries to the Arabs. [37] Kissinger was impressed by the material extent of the airlift to the point of being rather proud of its implementation and execution. Operation NICKEL GRASS had become a success. [38]

Operation NICKEL GRASS permitted an Israeli victory over the Arabs. The post-mortem assessment of the US role in the 1973 war revealed general Israeli dependence on the US in the conflict. [39] And while Operation NICKEL GRASS was integral for an Israeli victory, the WSAG discussion and debate to its national security imperative was heavily contested.

End Notes

[1] US Department of State. Foreign Relations, 1969–1976. Volume XXVI, No. 23. (08 February 1974). pp. 113-114.

[2] CIA Intelligence Report, “Arab-Israeli Hostilities: Two Scenarios,” 13 October 1973, portions redacted, pp. 2.

[3] US Department of State. Foreign Relations, 1969–1976. Volume XXVI, No. 23. (08 February 1974). pp. 113-114.

[4] CIA Intelligence Report, “Arab-Israeli Hostilities: Two Scenarios,” 13 October 1973, portions redacted, pp. 7.

[5] Minutes of the Washington Special Actions Group Meeting, Washington, 19 October 1973, 7:17-7:28 PM., pp. 1-2.

[6] CIA Intelligence Memorandum, “Reactions to Resupply of Israel by the US,” 14 October 1973, portions redacted, pp. 1.

[7] CIA Intelligence Report, “Arab-Israeli Hostilities: Two Scenarios,” 13 October 1973, portions redacted, pp. 8.

[8] CIA Intelligence Memorandum, “Reactions to Resupply of Israel by the US,” 14 October 1973, portions redacted, pp. 1.

[9]  Ibid., pp. 2-4.

[10] Ibid., pp. 6.

[11]Ibid., pp. 5.

[12] US Department of State Briefing Memorandum, “Actions in the Event of an Arab Oil Embargo Against the United States, Western Europe and Japan,” 14 October 1973, pp. 4.

[13] CIA Intelligence Bulletin, “Arab States-Israel,” 11 October 1973, portions redacted, pp. 2.

[14] Special National Intelligence Estimate 35/36-73, “Arab-Israeli Hostilities and their Implications,” 06 October 1973, portions redacted, pp. 1.

[15] US Department of State. Foreign Relations, 1969–1976. Volume XXV, No. 173. (13 October 1973). pp. 483-484.

[16] National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, Kissinger Telephone Conversations, Transcripts (Telcons), Chronological File, Box 23, Printed in Kissinger, Crisis, pp. 238–239.

[17] US Department of State, Foreign Relations, 1969–1976. Volume XXV, No. 182. (14 October 1973). pp. 517.

[18] US Department of State, Foreign Relations, 1969–1976. Volume XXV, No. 181. (14 October 1973). pp. 511.

[19] CIA Intelligence Memorandum, “Reactions to Resupply of Israel by the US,” 14 October 1973, portions redacted, pp. 6.

[20] US Department of State, Foreign Relations, 1969–1976. Volume XXV, No. 183. (14 October 1973). pp. 520.

[21] US Department of State, Foreign Relations, 1969–1976. Volume XXV, No. 173. (13 October 1973). pp. 513.

[22] National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 630, Country Files, Saudi Arabia, Vol. IV.

[23] US Department of State, Foreign Relations, 1969–1976. Volume XXV, No. 195. (17 October 1973). pp. 568, 570.

[24] US Department of State, Foreign Relations, 1969–1976. Volume XXV, No. 186. (15 October 1973). pp. 532.

[25] Minutes of the Washington Special Actions Group Meeting, Washington, 06 October 1973, 7:22-8:27 PM., pp. 10.

[26] CIA Intelligence Report, “Arab-Israeli Hostilities: Two Scenarios,” 13 October 1973, portions redacted, pp. 3.

[27] CIA and DIA Intelligence Report, “Arab-Israeli Conflict: The Next Several Days,” 08 October 1973, portions redacted, pp. 3.

[28] CIA Intelligence Report, “Arab-Israeli Hostilities: Two Scenarios,” 13 October 1973, portions redacted, pp. 7.

[29] Ibid., pp. 8.

[30] CIA and DIA Intelligence Report, “Arab-Israeli Conflict: The Next Several Days,” 08 October 1973, portions redacted, pp. 11.

[31] Ibid., pp. 7.

[32] Special National Intelligence Estimate 35/36-73, “Arab-Israeli Hostilities and their Implications,” 06 October 1973, portions redacted, pp. 1.

[33] CIA Intelligence Report, “Arab-Israeli Hostilities: Two Scenarios,” 13 October 1973, portions redacted, pp. 9.

[34] CIA Intelligence Bulletin, “Arab States-Israel,” 27 October 1973, portions redacted, pp. 3.

[35] CIA Intelligence Bulletin, “Arab States-Israel,” 24 October 1973, portions redacted, pp. 3.

[36] US Department of State, Foreign Relations, 1969–1976. Volume XXV, No. 250. (23 October 1973). pp. 694.

[37] US Department of State, Foreign Relations, 1969–1976. Volume XXV, No. 191. (16 October 1973). pp. 545.

[38] US Department of State, Foreign Relations, 1969–1976. Volume XXV, No. 186. (15 October 1973). pp. 535.

[39] CIA, DIA, and State INR Intelligence Memorandum, “Another Arab-Israeli War: Motives and Capabilities,” 18 December 1973, portions redacted, pp. 3.

Categories: Israel

About the Author(s)

J. Robert Kane studies intelligence and terrorism. He is an intelligence officer and researcher who has worked on Middle Eastern targets. In addition to research funded by the U.S. Government, he has conducted studies at New York University, Northwestern University and the University of Chicago. He can be found on Twitter at @jrobertkane.