The U.S. Has Wasted Billions of Dollars on Failed Arab Armies
Military cooperation with Middle East allies can work—if Washington rethinks its premises.
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 practices.
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 purchased.
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 skills.
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 work.
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.