During the Cold War, Israel and it's Arab neighbors often came into conflict with each other and fought a number of wars during which Israel often used weaponry from the West (USA, UK and France) while the Arab nations often used Soviet weapons and equipment. So were these conflicts in the Middle East the testing grounds (if that is the term) for the new equipment that NATO and the Warsaw pact could field against each other?
Were Israeli-arab conflicts in the Cold war testing grounds for NATO and Warsaw Pact equipment?
Mostly no, but in the end yes.
More Detailed Answer:
The cold war lasted from 1947 – 1991. The Arab Israili wars during that time period were
- 1948–49: Israel’s War Of Independence - No US Military Aid
- 1956: Suez Crisis - US made France, UK and Israel withdraw
- 1967 Six Day War - Israel was not primarily a US ally (Israel mostly did not use American Weapons in 67)
- 1973: Yom Kippur War - US all in.
- 1982: Lebanon War
While the United States was one of the first countries to recognize Israel when they declared independence and gave aid that first year, it was economic aid not military aid. The US had an arms embargo on all beligerants in the 1948 war. From 1948 through 1958 the United States gave no military aid to Israel at all. In fact the United States forced Israel to withdraw from the Sinai after the Suez Crisis. How Eisenhower Forced Israel to End Occupation After Sinai Crisis In the 1967 Six Day War, Israel did receive US military aid but not at the scale we are familiar with. In 1967 for example the Israeli's flew French Mirage fighter planes, not American Phantoms. Israel didn't fly US made Phantoms until the 1968 It was really after the 1967 six day war when the United States really stepped up it's aid to Israel and saw the Middle East as a theatre of the cold war. In 1968 and 1969 the US increased it's overall aid to Israel by 400% and 600% relative to 1967 aid. see Total US Foreign Aid to Israel
six day war
The small Royal Jordanian Air Force consisted of only 24 British-made Hawker Hunter fighters, six transports, and two helicopters. According to the Israelis, the Hawker Hunter was essentially on par with the French-built Dassault Mirage III – the IAF's best plane.
I would argue the Yom Kipper 1973: Yom Kippur War was the first war in which Israel predominantly used modern American government supplied weapons. Then in the 1982 lebanon war Israel again used American Weapons matched against the Syrian military sponsored by the Soviet Union. In 1982 however unlike 1973, the major innovation was Israel's innovative use of their home grown drones. An Innovation the US military was quick to mimic. So I would suggest that the Israeli's proved their own technology in 1982 to the US rather than visa versa. (although Isreal in 82 did make extensive use of American weapons.)
During the War of Attrition (1967-1970) Israel used US supplied equipment. During that period the Soviet Union invested considerable resources in support for the Egyptian regime. The Soviets provided MiG and Sukhoi aircraft to the Egyptians, and during 1970 Soviet pilots took active part in operations (e.g. Rimon 20) and suffered casualties. The Soviets also operated SAM batteries that shot down Israeli aircraft.
Soviet-supplied SAM batteries played a significant role in the Yom Kippur War, as well.
During the First Lebanon War the Israeli Air Force demonstrated overwhelming superiority over the Syrian anti-aircraft defenses and Air Force (see here, for example).
It seems that during the late 60s the Soviet Union provided more advanced support for Egypt and Syria, but by the 80s Israel had far superior equipment. It would seem a stretch to claim that at any point the Soviets used the Middle East as a testing ground for its most advanced equipment, except possibly in the cases where Soviet troops operated the equipment themselves.
A short answer to slightly qualify the detailed answer from JMS. The equipment that was being supplied by the Warsaw Pact and NATO powers to the various parties in the Middle East during the Cold War was usually not the most modern available technology and often borderline obsolete, so the implication of the original question that the Middle Eastern conflicts were being used as a "testing ground for new equipment" does not seem to be correct for the most part.
At times there may be some truth to the statement with respect to some select technologies, but even then it would hardly be sufficient reason to explain the support being provided. In general weapon sales were strategically intended to improve the diplomatic position of the respective Bloc in the region, either as a symbolic gesture of support for a particular regime or cause, or as a means to favorably shift the relative balance of power between regional powers (with the sophistication of newer weapons systems rarely exceeding what was necessary to provide a useful advantage).
Both the West and the East had good reasons to limit the scale and quality of arms transfers to the Middle East; the West had no interest in destabilizing the region in a manner that would threaten their access to oil reserves, and the Soviet Union were reluctant to embolden their allies in the region to the point where they might be dragged into any direct involvement themselves.
- The World Since 1945 (T.E. Vadney) 1998
- The Czech-Egyptian arms deal of 1955 : a turning point in Middle Eastern Cold War history. (Thomas Michael Shaughnessy Skaggs) 2015