‘There are numbers that count, and numbers that don’t’- Armed Forces Journal
There are numbers that count, and numbers that don’t. Andrew Marshall has spent a lifetime trying to assess which ones are which. In October 1973, Arab states attacked Israel with overwhelming numerical dominance. The Egyptians deployed some 650,000 soldiers — a massive military force in its own right. Syria, Iraq and other Arab states added another quarter of a million troops. Against these 900,000 enemies Israel could muster no more than 375,000 soldiers, and 240,000 of those were from the reserves. But the war was really a battle of tanks, and on this score, the numbers looked even more daunting. Israel’s 2,100 tanks confronted a combined Arab fleet of 4,500. On the northern front when the war began, Syria massed 1,400 tanks against 177 Israeli vehicles — a crushing ratio of 8 to 1. Given the extraordinary disparity of force, after Israel recovered from initial losses and decisively won the war, most Western observers interpreted the conflict as proof of Israel’s unbreakable will to survive. Yet when Marshall analyzed the numbers, he saw something else entirely.
Tucked into a nondescript section deep within the Pentagon’s labyrinthine rings, the Office of Net Assessment had been created just months before. As ONA’s director, Marshall, a mathematical whiz kid from Rand, quickly set about his mission: to assess the military balance between competing militaries. Studying the war’s less-glamorous details and drawing on the substantial research of others, Marshall and his team discovered an Egyptian army with a Soviet-style flaw. The entire military was astonishingly short on maintenance capabilities. When one of its tanks became damaged in battle, Egypt had no effective means for repairing it. Israel, in contrast, had well-trained technicians able to make rapid repairs. It turned out that on average Israeli tanks returned to battle three times, but Egyptian tanks were used only until damaged. In other words, the initial number of tanks was not the number that mattered.
Superior force, by standard measures, did not win. The number that truly counted was the one that revealed a tank’s likely longevity. Counting tanks before the war was a necessary but insufficient exercise. It didn’t tell you what you needed to know for assessing the net strength of each side in the conflict.
“What impressed me about the ‘73 war,” Marshall explains, “was how asymmetric it was. Israel was not only much better prepared to recover and repair its tanks, it also dominated the battlefield, making recovery possible.”
When Marshall and his analysts next looked at the Soviet Union’s capacity for repairs, they found that the U.S. had a distinct and meaningful advantage. The bulk of the Soviet forces were composed of conscripts, young men compelled to serve for two years in the army or three in the navy. Most were poorly trained and lacking technical know-how. American soldiers conversely were given better, longer and more specialized training. Each U.S. unit working on ships or aircraft contained men able to perform some repairs when necessary. The Soviet military didn’t work that way. Most of the time, when an engine or other critical part of an aircraft, tank or ship malfunctioned, the Soviets had to send that part back to a depot or factory for repair. The Soviet Air Force, for example, purchased six engines for each engine position on its aircraft. The U.S. bought only 1¼ — a dramatic cost-saving measure when multiplied by thousands of planes. Those costs, of course, counted not just in rubles, but in time. The Soviet delays in servicing aircraft parts meant that American planes would be available more of the time when needed most.