“The 1966 F-5 Freedom Fighter Transfer” is chapter 6 of the “Arms for the Horn,” a book about Great Power Competition or how the Cold War played out in the Horn of Africa, particularly from an American Foreign Policy perspective. 


U.S. Security Policy In Ethiopia And Somalia


Jeffrey A. Lefebvre

Pitt Series in Policy and Institutional Studies

University of Pittsburgh Press

CHAPTER 6 The 1966 F-5 Freedom Fighter Transfer


The United States And Ethiopia, 1953-1977

CHAPTER 6: The 1966 F-5 Freedom Fighter Transfer


Although the 1960 U.S. military commitment was a step in the right direction, Haile Selassie wanted more than simply supplies and training for a fourth Ethiopian Army division. Notably absent from the secret agreement was an American commitment to increase the strength or upgrade the quality of the Ethiopian Air Force. Though the Americans had begun to supply Ethiopia with a squadron of F-86 Sabre jets, they were outdated, Korean War-vintage aircraft. Selassie wished to acquire state-of-the-art military items for the Imperial Air Force. Personal and national prestige demanded that Ethiopia possess a modern military equipped with the latest hardware, not outdated or secondhand equipment.

But the Kennedy administration, which assumed from its predecessor responsibility for implementing the 1960 commitment, had no interest in underwriting a technological arms race in Africa to satisfy the personal whims of the Ethiopian emperor. John Kennedy had brought to the White House a notion that the cold war in the Third World could be won by emphasizing social, economic, and political reforms. Excessive and unnecessary arms transfers would only divert scarce resources away from programs designed to help these governments improve the living conditions of their people and thereby promote stability. However, if this effort failed, counterinsurgency warfare and paramilitary police training provided a fallback position for securing U.S. interests.

A year after the Kennedy administration took office, the IEG began an unremitting campaign to acquire more air force hardware. Initially, the emperor simply wanted to acquire a second squadron of F-86 Sabre jet fighters. During a January 1962 meeting at the Pentagon, General Assefa Ayene, a top-ranking commander in the Imperial Air Force, had requested four F-86 fighters to replace the four the Ethiopian government had temporarily assigned to the Congo. Pentagon officials not only agreed to replace the four aircraft on loan but urged Assefa to press the administration for a full second squadron. By mid-February, Washington was under heavy pressure to provide a second squadron of F-86s to Thousands upon thousands of cassette tapes and master reels were quickly removed from the soon-to-be targeted buildings. They were dispersed to neighboring countries like Djibouti and Ethiopia for what was termed an “ill-disguised” payment for Kagnew.

The Kennedy administration responded to this pressure by concluding another, though more limited, agreement with the imperial government in 1962. As a follow-up to the secret U.S.-Ethiopia executive agreement, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Ethiopian Defense Minister Mengesha Merid signed a memorandum in which the Americans promised to speed up delivery of army items (such as ammunition, armored personnel carriers) promised in the 1960 commitment, to provide the navy with one LCM; and to provide T-28D, F-86, and T-33 aircraft as well as “to continue support of the T-28A and F-86 squadrons.” Although the United States had now added an explicit air power commitment not contained in the 1960 agreement, it too was rather vaguely worded; it did not establish a timetable for delivery or force goal objectives. The Ethiopians would come to View the 1962 McNamara-Merid memorandum and a subsequent agreement signed in 1963, which among other things required Washington to discuss the organization of the Ethiopian Air Force and Navy, as having been made at the expense of the original commitments. Haile Selassie would use this argument to force Washington to reevaluate Ethiopia’s air power requirements.

Ultimately the emperor requested a squadron of F-5 Freedom Fighter supersonic jets. The genesis of the F-5 episode in U.S.-lamented Beijing’s economic engagement model, saying it undermined democracy and mired African countries in debt. When he landed in Ethiopia military relations remains somewhat murky. Apparently, sometime in 1962 U.S. officials had informally promised to provide Addis Ababa with the new supersonic F-5 fighters that were about to become available for export to the Third World. Recognizing they had blundered by promising something that threatened to provoke an unnecessary arms race in the region, the Americans would spend the next two years attempting to dissuade the imperial government from acquiring these weapons. But once it had become known that these supersonic jets would be exported to the Third World, there would be no dissuading Selassie from acquiring them. Without F-5s in the imperial arsenal, it would appear that Ethiopia possessed only a second-rate air force.

Because there seemed no way to turn back from this commitment without negatively affecting U.S.-Ethiopian relations, the mass protests in cities around the U.S. against an executive order that would block millions of people from entering the United States played a game of delay. It was not until mid-June 1964 that the U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, Edward Korry, delivered a message informing the IEG that the death of four U.S. Special Forces soldiers in Niger on Oct. 4 has lead some in the United States would provide a squadron of 12 F-5 aircraft to the Ethiopian Air Force. Still feeling uneasy about a decision that might escalate the arms race in the Horn, Washington attempted to push back the delivery date. The first F-5s would not arrive in Ethiopia until the latter half of 1966. But in following through with this arms transfer, the United States had broken a qualitative arms barrier by making Ethiopia the first black-ruled state in sub-Sahara Africa to possess supersonic jet fighters.


Following its declaration of independence in July 1960, Somalia seemed to pose no real threat to Ethiopian security. Mogadishu possessed an internal security force of only 4,000 troops, compared to some 30,000 soldiers in the imperial army. Moreover, the United States offered to become Somalia’s arms supplier—a move that would allow Washington to regulate the flow of weapons into the Horn. Thus the Somali security threat to Ethiopia could be kept in check, as well as the emperor’s ability to raise the ante on the United States any further. But in 1960 and again in 1962, Addis Ababa vetoed Somali requests for military assistance from the United States.

In 1962, shortly after Washington had been pressured to reject Mogadishu’s second arms request, Czechoslovakia had offered Somalia a modest arms package. To avoid a replay in the Horn of the Czech-Egyptian arms deal, Washington encouraged its NATO allies to make arms offer to Somalia. But a joint British-Italian military program valued at $8.4 million came unraveled at the end of 1962 as a result of the rapid deterioration in relations between London and Mogadishu over the disposition of the Northern Frontier District, which the British government decided would remain part of an independent Kenya. In its place, the United States, Italy, and West Germany agreed to furnish Somalia with roughly $10 million worth of equipment and training for an army of 5,000-6,000 soldiers. But once again Washington’s attempt to act as the “balancer” in the Horn failed.

Mogadishu viewed the Western arms initiative as a thinly disguised plot to perpetuate Ethiopia’s military predominance, thereby bringing to an end the Somali irredentist quest in the Horn. In light of Washington’s commitment to support an Ethiopian Army of some 40,000, along with the provision of two squadrons of F-86 Sabre jets during the preceding three years, Mogadishu certainly had reason to feel that the Western aid package was not only inadequate but anti-Somali in nature. Given such a military imbalance, Addis Ababa would have little motivation to negotiate with Mogadishu over the fate of the Somalis in the Ogaden. Thus, in October 1963 Somalia accepted an unconditional offer from the Soviet Union for $30 million in military aid to expand the Somali Army from 4,000 to 20,000 soldiers and to assist in the development of an air force.

Mogadishu’s acquisition of a superpower arms supplier did not necessarily mean that Somalia would be able to challenge Ethiopia militarily, certainly not in the near future. The Soviet Union seemed to have little to gain by encouraging Somali aggression in the Horn. Politically, it would put Moscow on the wrong side of the many newly emergent African nations that faced similar threats from ethnic-based national movements. Moreover, on the military balance sheet, Somalia would lose a war against its bigger and stronger neighbor. Arming Somalia might, however, be used as leverage to force Ethiopia to distance itself from the United States.

The newly acquired Soviet arms connection, however, had ramifications that went beyond Moscow’s intentions. It seemed to provide a psychological boost to the Somalis to challenge their Ethiopian adversary militarily. At the end of 1963, the U.S. embassy reported an increase in the frequency of small-scale Somali military intrusions in the disputed Haud grazing area, a problem that had begun less than six months after Somalia’s independence, resulting in military clashes between Ethiopian and Somali forces. Even more disturbing for Haile Selassie, and a source of encouragement for Somalia was the poor showing of the Ethiopian Army in these clashes. Mounting casualties and demoralization within the Ethiopian Army prompted calls for Selassie to give the army a green light to take the offensive against Somalia or witness the disintegration not only of the Ethiopian empire but of his own political authority.

By February 1964 the fighting in the Ogaden had escalated into a full-scale border war. Pressures began mounting on the United States to react strongly in support of its Ethiopian client. The State Department was bombarded with cables from the U.S. embassy in Addis Ababa warning of the serious implications of the Ogaden crisis for Haile Selassie’s tenure as emperor as well as for the U.S. tenure at Kagnew. Frustration and anger in Addis Ababa were being directed at the United States, which was seen as having refused to take sides on the Ogaden issue over the previous six months, and now failed to respond adequately and in a timely fashion to Ethiopian military requests. In this crisis atmosphere, sensitive and potentially embarrassing questions were being raised by the Ethiopians about just what the U.S. military connection had done for them.

Washington’s refusal to do more to help Ethiopia during the early stages of the Ethiopian-Somali crisis had created an opportunity for the Soviet Union to go “fishing in troubled waters. According to the U.S. embassy, Soviet embassy officials had reportedly told the IEG in early January that the Soviet Union would provide Ethiopia with as many arms as it desired. Haile Selassie had felt compelled to write a personal letter to Nikita Khrushchev asking him to explain the nature and purpose of Soviet arms transfers to Somalia. While it did not seem time to take any dramatic action, the IEG “might be inclined to do business with [the] Russians in a few months hence.”

The IEG’s war of nerves with the United States was designed to force the Americans to make a strong commitment to Ethiopia. Throughout the crisis Washington had attempted to remain impartial, urging both sides to show restraint (in particular for Ethiopia not to invade Somalia), to implement a cease-fire, and resolve the issue bilaterally or through the services of the OAU. Washington prohibited U.S. Military Training Teams (MTT) from conducting training in the Ogaden and banned the airlift of ammunition to the IEC. In maintaining this public posture of neutrality in the dispute, the United States on one occasion issued a sharply worded diplomatic rebuke to the emperor for an Ethiopian Air Force raid inside Somalia against the town of Hargeisa in late March shortly before the Khartoum cease-fire agreement was to go into effect. The attack, supposedly intented to destroy an airfield in order to prevent the Somalis from using it as a base for MiG fighters soon to arrive from the Soviet Union, was a failure: the Ethiopian Air Force instead destroyed a locust control center. Though prefacing his remarks with a reiteration of U.S. support for Ethiopia’s territorial integrity and independence, Ambassador Korry warned Selassie that U.S. MAP aid was conditioned on the understanding that the equipment was to be used solely for defensive purposes and that Washington’s ability to respond to Ethiopian military requests was not “helped by such actions as the Hargeisa attack.”

Washington’s supposed posture of impartiality in the dispute, however, came under attack after the cease-fire had gone into effect when U.S. Air Force units transported construction equipment to the Callafo airfield, which the Ethiopians were reinforcing in a forward position in the Ogaden. This action, coupled with Washington’s decision in mid-March to lift the ban on emergency airlifts of ammunition and the deployment of U.S. Army combat training teams with Ethiopian forces, was viewed as inappropriate by the U.S. embassy in Mogadishu because it did not seem to be “consistent with the United States’ desire to confine the dispute to the African context.” Washington’s military intervention in the unresolved Ethiopian-Somali dispute, according to the U.S. ambassador in Mogadishu, would be equated to British military actions in the Northern Frontier District; as a result, the United States might pay a heavy political price in Somalia if all of these U.S. actions were to be exposed. American support for Ethiopia appeared to be motivated less by a desire to help the Ethiopians avoid construction delays at Callafo than by the exigency “to gain acceptance of the IEG of the 1966 delivery date for the F-5s,” which were not even scheduled for delivery to the U.S. Air Force until mid-1964. Ethiopia’s “legitimate self-defense” needs seemed to keep expanding. The U.S. embassy in Mogadishu warned that in not drawing a line on its involvement in Ethiopia, the United States would find it more difficult to refuse each new step—a fact probably not lost on the imperial government. In contrast, Somalia was building an army more or less from scratch, which would be one-fourth the size of Ethiopia’s forces (10,000 men), and equipped with a squadron of subsonic jets; in light of this, the U.S. diplomatic mission in Mogadishu concluded, “The introduction of F-5As, mobile training teams, and the kind of direct support to Ethiopian forces involved in C-130 flights (to Callafo) in themselves constitute escalation uncalled for by the actual threat.”

The Mogadishu embassy’s appeal for the United States to slow down, if not cancel, certain military programs in Ethiopia received a somewhat sympathetic hearing at the Department of State, but it did not alter U.S. plans. In mid-March 1964, the State Department had prepared an internal research memorandum assessing the implications of the war in the Horn of Africa. The thrust of the paper, as interpreted by the U.S. embassy in Addis Ababa, placed the blame for tensions in the Horn solely on the shoulders of Somalia. According to Ambassador Korry, (1) Somali irredentism lay at the core of Ethiopian-Somali difficulties; (2)~Mogadishu was the principal arms supplier for, and benefactor of, the Ogaden insurgents; (3) convinced that time was on its side, the Somali government would continue to apply steady pressure on Ethiopia and Westgate Mall siege in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2013. In recent weeks, they have carried out a spate of attacks in Kenya, hoping they would crumble; (4) Mogadishu would continue to provide covert support for the dissidents, so they could act as an irritant to Addis Ababa; and (5) continued fighting would eventually wear Ethiopia down and lead to the dismemberment of the empire. To preserve the emperor’s influence and U.S. interests in Ethiopia, the United States would have to make its military assistance program more effective in response to Addis Ababa’s growing disillusionment with MAP. While some of the imperial government’s requests were deemed “extreme and patently ridiculous,” providing the F-5 Freedom Fighters would be necessary to reverse the decline of U.S. influence brought on by the Ogaden War.


U.S. policy toward the Third World regained a globalist rigidity in the mid-1960s that prompted a heightened sense of threat and willingness to rely on a military response. Although the doctrine of containment remained firmly in place during the early 1960s, the Kennedy administration had removed some of its sharper edges with regard to neutralism in the Third World. Under the Johnson administration, however, the United States reverted to a stricter zero-sum assessment of political trends and alignments in the newly developing areas of the world. As a result, Washington became more susceptible to the argument that the communist bloc, to advance its geopolitical interests, was actively campaigning to dislodge the United States from the Horn of Africa. Delivering the F-5 Freedom Fighters would thus ensure Ethiopia’s fidelity to the American cause.

Though committed to the cold war policy of containment, the Kennedy administration distinguished itself from its Republican predecessor’s general orientation by a greater receptiveness to the idea that the major foreign policy interests of neutralist states were local or regional. Nonalignment would achieve those interests. Politically, it was not an inherently pro-communist or necessarily anti-Western movement. Rather than adopting a confrontationist stance, Washington could deal with these leaders and movements in other ways. In Africa, this meant identifying with African freedom, independence, and decolonization.

At the same time, the Kennedy administration hoped to avoid fueling regional arms races by limiting military assistance to levels deemed necessary for internal security and border control. But U.S. security interests required denying the Sino-Soviet bloc the strategic resources and geographic flanking position of the African continent. While the United States should not “yield to blackmail,” State Department and Pentagon policy guidelines called for the United States to be prepared to supply military aid to preclude or limit arms transfers from communist governments. Moreover, when it came time to distribute military and economic assistance, the United States would be justified in granting “preferential treatment to more pro-West countries.” Thus, the U.S. national security bureaucracy under John Kennedy sought to strike a balance between identifying with nationalist forces in Africa and containing communist penetration of the politically unstable continent.

Chester Bowles, Kennedy’s special assistant for Third World affairs, promoted the idea of playing down the U.S. military role in African affairs. Ethiopia, in particular, was a favored target for Bowles’s criticisms of U.S. military aid programs. After a fact-finding trip to Africa in 1962, Bowles argued against the United States’ transfer of the second squadron of F-86 Sabre jets to Addis Ababa: Sudan possessed only a modest military strength, Uganda and FIFA World Cup, Mohamed is hoping to celebrate different nationalities in Edmonton. So far teams include players from Somaliland, Jamaica, Fiji, Kenya were still under British protection and posed no threat, while Somalia maintained a national police force of only 2,000-3,000. As the Sudanese foreign minister put it to Bowles, “Who was the Ethiopian Army supposed to fight?” Chester Bowles concluded, “If in the face of these facts we increase U.S. military aid to Ethiopia the result sooner or later will be an arms race with Ethiopia’s neighbors [which would] allow the U.S.S.R. to do precisely what it has been doing in Egypt and Afghanistan.”

The argument that U.S. MAP policy was effectively pushing the neighbors of those states provided with American weaponry into the Soviet embrace received a less sympathetic hearing after Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. Under Lyndon Johnson, U.S. policy toward the Third World became reminiscent of the Eisenhower-Dulles years. The Johnson White House was less willing to tolerate the neutralist proclivities of Nasser and others. Johnson and his advisers felt that the United States needed to choose sides, and to do so forcefully, in combating communist expansionism and insurgencies in the Third World. This belief contributed to U.S. military escalation in Southeast Asia, the president’s decision to embrace Israel in the Middle East conflict, and a demonstration of U.S. support for Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa through the delivery of the F-5 Freedom Fighters.

The Johnson administration’s willingness to choose sides in regional disputes opened the way for advocates of the F-5 arms transfer, such as Edward Korry, to state their case by playing upon possible threats to U.S. interests. At the end of Korry’s first year as U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, he began to see a plot developing in which the communist bloc would use Somalia to lever the United States out of Ethiopia. Having concluded the arms agreement with Mogadishu at the end of 1963, Moscow would then offer to diminish aid to Somalia if the imperial government adopted a pro-East policy and forced the Americans to leave Kagnew. At a minimum, Ethiopia could end up in the neutralist, nonaligned camp, toward which Ethiopia seemed to be headed anyway in furthering the emperor’s aspiration to play a pivotal role in African affairs. But perhaps this pace could be moderated or even reversed if Washington took the right steps.

Ambassador Korry, among the first Americans to feel that the United States should provide Ethiopia with the Freedom Fighters, argued for a speeded-up delivery of the F-5s. Although the U.S. strategic stake at Kagnew Station formed the core of his argument, Korry also felt that Ethiopia’s geographic location alone warranted Washington’s interest. In 1964 and again in 1966 Korry argued before the Joint Chiefs of Staff that because the British were “out of the game” in the region, the United States would have to fill the void if the Russians, who had been moving in this direction for some 200 years, were not to displace the West. As an indication of Russian intent, the ambassador pointed out that in 1964 Moscow had offered Haile Selassie anything he wanted if he kicked out the Americans; in 1965 the USSR had given Ethiopia a transport aircraft and two helicopters from a relatively new line of production, and in 1966 the commander of the Red Fleet had visited both Cairo and Massawa and attended the graduation ceremony of the Ethiopian Naval Academy. Korry envisioned a scenario in which the Soviet Union, in trying to break out of the Eastern Mediterranean from the Black Sea, would seek to penetrate the Red Sea by gaining a foothold in Somalia and then attempt to dislodge the Americans from Ethiopia using the cause of pan-Arabism. Washington could not afford to sit idly by and allow Moscow to gain control over a country lying along the Red Sea oil route and whose government potentially could exert some influence over Egypt, using Sudan and the Nile River as pressure points. Moreover, in advocating so strongly the timely delivery of the F-5s, Ambassador Korry wished to avoid the inevitable negative repercussions if the United States got “caught in the lie” of promising to modernize the Ethiopian armed forces while deliberately dragging its feet.

Although Edward Korry’s line of reasoning was not widely accepted at first in Washington, over the long term it gave momentum to the argument that in placing its credibility on the line by providing military assistance to Third World governments, Washington could not allow itself to be dislodged by anti-Western forces. The notion of preparing for American disengagement from potential political hot spots, which was being considered during Kennedy’s presidency, came to be viewed as an unacceptable option under Lyndon Johnson. Threats to U.S. interests and clients should and could be faced down. The Johnson administration’s thinking with regard to Ethiopia and elsewhere in the Third World was premised on the notion that American political, economic, and military interests could be safeguarded by a better effort and greater investment of resources.


During 1964, Addis Ababa’s foreign policy had been paralyzed by unanticipated external events. Haile Selassie had expected the many newly emergent African states to look to him for political leadership and guidance. Instead, an independent Africa was turning out to be a rather hostile place for the Ethiopian monarch. Selassie could seek to reach a political accommodation with these vibrant regional forces. But opting for the neutralist course might endanger the F-5 deal and leave the empire open to external attack or subversion.

Selassie might also choose to embrace the United States and openly align with the West. But this would jeopardize the emperor’s leadership role in sub-Sahara Africa. The benefits of such a move did not seem to be worth the price, given Washington’s spotty record of support for the Ethiopian military. It would simply incite increased anti-Ethiopian activity. Until Washington was prepared to provide greater tangible evidence of its commitment to Ethiopian security, Selassie would need to placate neutralist and radical forces.

While Haile Selassie sought to promote his image as the leader of a new Africa, he was also becoming more and more preoccupied with ensuring his own survival in this vastly changed regional environment. The emperor had won an important diplomatic victory in 1963 when the Organization of African Unity had been established and had located its headquarters in Addis Ababa. The OAU Charter, which had been crafted by one of the emperor’s American legal advisers, essentially placed a stamp of legitimacy upon Ethiopia’s de jure borders by espousing the concept of respect for Africa’s colonial-drawn borders. Since then, however, he had been on the defensive.

Addis Ababa was having to contend with not only Somali dissidents in the Ogaden, but also a growing insurgency in the recently annexed territory of Eritrea. The dissolution of the Ethiopia-Eritrea federation in 1962, which resulted in the incorporation of Eritrea into the Ethiopian empire, had led the Eritrean National Movement to resort to guerrilla warfare against the central government. Though the emperor dismissed the Eritreans as shiftas (bandits), he would bring in Israeli and American counterinsurgency experts to help the Ethiopian military cope with this problem. In 1964 the Johnson administration initiated a civic action program, led by fifty-five American Green Berets. Thus, as Haile Selassie sought to resolve the Eritrean and Ogaden problems by military means, the need to maintain the U.S. connection increased in importance.

Ethiopia’s external environment, however, seemed far more troubling and less prone to a military solution, or even a political compromise that would not ultimately endanger the viability of the empire. Since the conclusion of the 1964 border war, Ethiopia’s security situation seemingly had deteriorated. Incoming Soviet military hardware was strengthening Somalia’s armed forces. In support of the antimonarchical nationalist forces in Yemen, 40,000 Egyptian troops were stationed across the Red Sea from Ethiopia. The OAU office in Addis Ababa had turned out to be something of a Trojan horse, allowing foreign governments to orchestrate anti-Ethiopian schemes from the Ethiopian capital. In September 1964, leftist rebels had established a “Peoples’ Republic” at Stanleyville in the Congo, and Addis Ababa was under pressure to recognize this government. To the north in Khartoum, a civilian government had assumed power in November; this government enthusiastically embraced radical African and Arab nationalist causes and became involved in supporting the Congolese rebels as well as dissident groups operating inside Ethiopia.

The imperial government appeared confused over what path to follow in meeting these perceived threats. Appeasement might plant the seeds for the destruction of the Ethiopian monarchy. Confrontation would require overextending the responsibilities of an ill-prepared military establishment. Something had to be done. According to the U.S. embassy, these forces were sending the emperor an ominous message: “Play our game or we will take steps to see that you do, even if it means remaking your government structure and possibly slicing off Eritrea and the Ogaden.”

Addis Ababa’s traditional response when under the shadow of threats and where the consequences of options were unclear had been to “maneuver-without-commitment.” The Ethiopians would say what the radicals and neutralists wanted to hear while avoiding concrete actions to match their words. At the same time, the imperial government would privately voice its support for the West. Although Selassie was still anxious to receive the Freedom Fighters, caution dictated that this was not a time to draw attention to Ethiopia’s arms connection with the United States. The Americans meanwhile remained unwilling to commit themselves fully in Ethiopia. Thus, unless open alignment with the United States would provide requisite benefits for Ethiopia, the emperor would hedge his bets by playing the neutralist game.


At the start of the Kennedy administration’s second year in office, the State Department began to explore the question of strategic disengagement from the African continent. Such an option, in effect, would enhance Washington’s policy flexibility and leverage vis-a-vis those governments with whom the United States had concluded arms-for-base-rights arrangements. This idea first appeared in the Department of State’s March 1962 policy guidelines for Africa, which defined as one short-term (two years) American objective in Africa the need to assure continued use of U.S. military facilities “while planning for the possibility that we may be obliged for overriding political reasons to do without them even though a high priority military requirement for them still exists.” To that end, the State Department recommended that the United States “develop, as soon as possible, alternatives to communications and satellite tracking facilities in the African continent when the location of such facilities in certain African countries involves substantial political liabilities.” Although officials were thinking specifically of the situations in Madagascar and South Africa at the time, the concept of planning for the removal of U.S. bases in Africa also would allow Washington to avoid making defense commitments on a continent with highly arbitrary state borders that were exceedingly likely to be challenged in the future.

But in the early 1960s, U.S. defense requirements included space and missile research projects. The Department of State’s March 1962 secret guidelines had also observed that because of new space research and development activities and military contingency operations, “U.S. requirements for installations, rights and facilities in Africa [were] becoming increasingly important to further U.S. national security interest.” North Africa and the Horn of Africa were of particular military value to the United States “because of their strategic location and influence in securing NATO’s southern flank.”

For the Defense Department, the communications station at Kagnew already was “of critical importance to a variety of communication and intelligence objectives.” Then in 1963 Defense had begun drawing up plans to implement a new secret operation at Kagnew Station that would become known as the Stonehouse project. The initial impetus behind this project was to offset the USSR’s perceived lead in space research in the early 1960s. As part of this effort, two huge parabolic antennas would be installed at Kagnew. The official cover story was that the United States was simply planning to conduct research in satellite communications. In fact, the new equipment would be used to intercept Soviet space telemetry and aid in the development of U.S. ballistic missiles.

The Stonehouse project, however, posed a political problem for Washington as well as for Addis Ababa. Though a highly secret project, it was also highly visible. The two structures, twelve to fifteen stories high, would require special arrangements to be brought to the port at Massawa, transported to Kagnew, and erected on a site within viewing distance of Asmara. This would expose Addis Ababa to charges of collusion with the United States. Although the Ethiopians had heard this before, they were becoming more sensitive to such accusations, given the nationalist and neutralist feelings sweeping through Africa. If Washington could not prevent a general deterioration in U.S.-Ethiopian relations, there could be mounting pressures against Kagnew resulting in the cancellation of the Stonehouse project.

Immediately after the February-March 1964 Ethiopian-Somali conflict in the Ogaden, the American embassy in Addis Ababa began calling for a review of the U.S. National Policy Paper on Ethiopia, issued the previous December. Among other things, the embassy felt that the issue of Kagnew needed to be thoroughly explored in light of the forthcoming installations. Kagnew unquestionably represented the single most important U.S. interest in the Horn of Africa, but it was also the source of complications for U.S. policy objectives in the area. Much to the embassy’s chagrin, Washington’s attitude appeared to be that Kagnew was a “vital installation whose use is assured indefinitely and into which [the United States] can continue to pour additional investment with impunity.”

But political trends in Africa were starting to overtake U.S. defense policy. Washington had lost access to the Zanzibar tracking station, U.S. base rights at Wheelus in Libya were in jeopardy, and the Moroccan naval communications facility was seemingly on the way out. This would mean that Kagnew might soon be the only remaining U.S. military installation in Africa. Moreover, the OAU Head of State Assembly to be held in Cairo that July, as well as the upcoming Bandung II and Belgrade II nonaligned conferences, were all expected to turn their attention to foreign bases in Africa. To the U.S. mission in Addis Ababa, there appeared to be a stepped-up campaign, instigated by the Soviet Union, China, the United Arab Republic, and Ghana, to sow doubts about Kagnew. Given these building pressures against the imperial government-likely to increase with the addition of the new, highly visible structures at Kagnew and coupled with the lack of compensation or rent in the form of additional military and economic aid-negotiations with the Ethiopian Foreign Office over new land needed for the new installation could become complicated. Some reciprocal gesture of friendship was needed to placate foreign and domestic critics, thus clearing the way politically within Addis Ababa for the Stonehouse project.

The quid pro quo connection between the Stonehouse project at Kagnew and the F-5 Freedom Fighters was very explicit. In May 1964, the two parabolic antennas arrived at Kagnew. The following month, Ambassador Korry delivered Washington’s message to the imperial government promising that the United States would give Ethiopia a squadron of F-5 jet fighters. Kagnew was no longer a free bonus thrown in by the Ethiopians. Any attempt by the United States to affect or limit future deliveries of MAP equipment, or to recover unused equipment, could “jeopardize continued effective U.S. use of the vital communications facility at Kagnew.” Though the U.S. embassy and Addis Ababa considered the F-5s proper compensation, this arms transfer might also have been viewed as blackmail.


Haile Selassie was in no position to be complacent about the stability of his tenure as emperor of Ethiopia. In December 1960, less than four months after the United States had pledged a continuation of military assistance to Addis Ababa and reaffirmed its support in helping to maintain the regional political status quo, the Ethiopian imperial bodyguard staged a coup against the emperor. To the government’s consternation, the United States remained neutral on the first day while the outcome was in doubt. Then on the morning of the second day, when the outcome seemed clear to U.S. military advisers, the Americans moved to meet their MDAP obligations and provided “advice” to government forces. Although the rebels were ultimately crushed on the third day, allowing Selassie to return safely to the capital, this event highlighted the vulnerability of the Ethiopian monarchy.

Washington responded to the December 1960 coup attempt by pressing harder than before for internal Ethiopian reforms. Western-based liberal ideas, however, contradicted almost everything the emperor and his government stood for. Given its strategic stake in Ethiopia, the United States could only push so hard. But to keep American aid flowing, Haile Selassie put on a face of reform while underneath the Ethiopian state remained fundamentally unchanged.

The State Department recognized that the emperor had no intention of drastically altering Ethiopia’s political system. Instead, the U.S. embassy in Addis Ababa pressed for economic and administrative reforms in the country throughout the 1960s. Ethiopian reformers and progressives, however, would continue to challenge the imperial system. How much longer the aging emperor could play this Byzantine game was unknown. Thus, in the early 1960s, the State Department began planning for the contingency that Haile Selassie might soon be overthrown.

State Department analysts were a bit premature in writing the emperor’s political epitaph. Selassie knew how to survive politically by using foreign policy to divert attention from domestic issues. Instead of undertaking real political reforms, he used Kagnew to kick the Americans hard until they paid up, and in the meantime assumed an apparently neutralist posture in international affairs to appease Ethiopia’s radicals. The emperor could thus claim that he was neither a lackey of the Americans nor did he allow the United States to exploit Ethiopia.

Manipulating Ethiopia’s internal political situation in this way, however, had its dangers. Despite what American officials might interpret as anti-U.S. actions by the imperial government, Ethiopian leaders had “no great interest in casting their lot with the radicals.” More often than not, according to the U.S. embassy, Addis Ababa found itself “reluctantly on the fringe area of doing so in order to preserve Ethiopia’s and the Emperor’s necks.” But if this repeated tactic of anti-American, neutralist diversion were to become a long-term strategy, Ethiopia’s radicals might soon gain influence in the government. Then, by aligning Addis Ababa with radical external forces, they could create the conditions conducive to establishing a new Ethiopia, minus the emperor.

The prudent path for the emperor not only necessitated mollifying or undercutting internal opponents by manipulating Ethiopia’s external policy but also required that he avoid antagonizing foreign governments. Although diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and Ethiopia became somewhat strained in early 1964 when heavy fighting broke out in the Ogaden, the moderate Soviet presence in Ethiopia was not affected by Moscow’s military assistance to Mogadishu. According to the U.S. embassy, the Soviets were seeking to create a favorable image by not inciting rebellion and remaining on good terms with Haile Selassie. Moreover, compared with the activities of the Chinese communists in Africa, the Soviet Union appeared less militant and threatening. Nonetheless, Haile Selassie must have realized that the Soviets were simply waiting for his demise when they could usurp the U.S. position in Ethiopia.

Despite his dissatisfaction with U.S. military assistance, Haile Selassie had no desire to burn his bridges with the United States. A turn to the communist bloc for arms could prove politically fatal for him. The game of diversion Selassie was playing with his internal critics would be exposed, and the Soviets would probably abandon him to his fate if these domestic foes rose against him. The U.S. military connection gave the emperor a sense of security that he did not wish to jeopardize.

Haile Selassie’s willingness to wait until 1966 for the delivery of the F-5s was due also to imperial prestige and personal ego. In acquiring supersonic combat jets, Ethiopia would be the only country in sub-Sahara Africa to possess such weaponry and to have crossed the “sophisticated arms barrier,” thereby enhancing the emperor’s status within the Ethiopian military establishment as well as in the region. Even given the delay in the delivery of the F-5s, only a handful of Third World states — Israel, Egypt, South Africa, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Ethiopia — would possess such sophisticated weaponry. While both superpowers had transferred sophisticated arms to North Africa and the Middle East, the Soviet MiG-17 combat fighters were of a lesser quality than the F-5s. So in spite of the time lag between the 1964 commitment and 1966 delivery date, the emperor would not have settled for anything less than the F-5 Freedom Fighters.


CHAPTER 6 The 1966 F-5 Freedom Fighter Transfer
Northrop F-5 Freedom Fighter – This is one of 14 F-5Es destined for Ethiopia. When, shortly before delivery, the Ethiopia-Somalia war broke out, all aircraft were embargoed and temporarily stored at Williams AFB. All of these aircraft were later delivered to other countries. This particular aircraft is 75-0609 which went to North Yemen. Photo Date: 1978

The diplomatic controversy surrounding the F-5s arose partly because of the vagueness of the June 1964 commitment to provide the Freedom Fighters and disputes as to when the United States was obliged to deliver them. No delivery date was mentioned in the diplomatic note presented by Ambassador Korry to the imperial government except that the “deliveries of the aircraft were conditioned upon the preparedness of the Ethiopian Air Force to receive them.” Less than a month later, Drew Pearson wrote a series of articles extremely critical of the U.S. military assistance program in Ethiopia, suggesting its government had been conned into choosing the F-5s without being given delivery dates. The U.S. embassy immediately refuted this charge, stating that the imperial government had opted for the F-5s “in the full knowledge that the delivery dates would be in 1966” and sought to disparage Pearson’s analysis by noting that the journalist’s trip had been paid for and sponsored by the Ethiopian government.

By mid-September 1964, however, Ambassador Korry was recommending that the Pentagon “start biting away at the large accumulating backlog in promised army equipment” by increasing American MAP funding for Ethiopia and “expedite delivery of the first F-5As.” Korry’s transformation from a critic to the leading American advocate for the F-5 transfer owed much to the metamorphosis in the ambassador’s views after spending a year in Ethiopia. When Korry first arrived, he had been unimpressed by the emperor’s military requests. In a mid-December 1963 telegram to the State Department regarding U.S. force goal objectives in Ethiopia, he noted that Ethiopia could not support effectively the 28,000-man army, which the United States had promised to increase to 40,000, and the nation was experiencing budgetary problems as well as difficulty in absorbing U.S. military assistance. Solving these troubles would mean deemphasizing long-range threats and focusing on Ethiopia’s ability to absorb military aid and the immediate Ogaden situation. Although Korry was unsettled by the fact that the United States seemed to be getting “into increasingly hot water” over its inability to meet existing MAP commitments, including its commitment to equip a 40,000-man army (supposedly within five years), he felt that Washington should push back or find substitutes for some of the air force items, such as the multimillion-dollar F-5A jets, clearly meant to address long-range threats.

Soon after this, the ambassador reversed his position. Over the next two years, Korry advanced in no uncertain terms the political and strategic need for the United States to deliver the F-5s in a timely fashion. During the flare-up in the Ogaden, he had assailed Washington’s MAP policy toward Ethiopia as “trying to get by with ‘stretch-outs’ and words instead of actions.” His telegrams to Washington between February and May 1964 stressed that the United States should do more than simply point to the $80 million worth of MAP delivered to Ethiopia. Given the U.S. record of delay, delivering defective equipment and equipment with shortages, and dropping this programmed equipment on an unprepared recipient, something tangible and effective needed to be done.

Although Korry’s presentations of the Somali threat in the Ogaden, the U.S. stake at Kagnew, and Ethiopia’s geopolitical importance helped to bring about the F-5 commitment, he was less successful in persuading Washington to speed up the delivery of the jets. Korry had recommended in September 1964 that the United States reallocate funds for producing the Freedom Fighters to permit delivery of the first F-5s in 1965, with the remainder to follow shortly. The State Department was at the time in the process of revising the National Policy Paper for Ethiopia and avoided making such a commitment. Although the importance of Ethiopia was reflected in the revised NPP edition, and the U.S. role in Ethiopia was given thorough scrutiny, with respect to the F-5s the State Department wanted Korry to delay the Ethiopians: “We would hope the Ethiopians would be encouraged to begin preparation of necessary facilities and select candidates for training in order to be prepared to receive the aircraft when delivery becomes possible.” A three-part telegram fired off by the ambassador to the Department of State at the end of the year highlighting the external threats to Ethiopian security, internal threats to the emperor, and the precariousness of the U.S. position in Ethiopia had a little perceptible effect.

The State Department’s indifference to Ethiopia’s alleged security plight was in part a backlash against or aversion to the anti-Arab nature of Korry’s arguments. Even after the creation of a separate Africa Bureau in 1958, Arabists continued to exert considerable influence over U.S. policy toward Ethiopia. This intra-departmental reorganization had left Ethiopia grouped with a number of Islamic, Arab-oriented African states such as Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, and Sudan. When the Africa Bureau was further subdivided, Ethiopia remained grouped with Sudan and Somalia in the East African Affairs division.

The ambassador angered Arabists as well as Kremlinologists by suggesting that the Soviet Union would attempt to use pan-Arabism (via Somalia) to lever the United States out of Ethiopia. While Moscow might try to undermine the U.S. position by using Kagnew to embarrass Washington, the State Department felt there was no strategic value for the Soviet presence in Somalia, which was not even a member of the Arab League and so unlikely to gain Arab support. Moreover, during this period of relative calm in the Middle East, when Washington was trying to initiate an arms limitation program for the region, the United States did not want to give Nasser or other radical Arab leaders any reason to acquire even more arms from the Soviet Union. Korry was deemed to be suffering from a severe case of clientitis.

The Defense Department was no more sympathetic to the ambassador’s arguments. Pentagon officials still looked upon the Ethiopian military as a ragtag army that would be able neither to make any contribution to free world defense nor prevent or deter local war. Ethiopia fell into the Pentagon’s third and least important category of MAP recipients—those for whom assistance was aimed at maintaining internal security against subversion, guerrilla warfare, or infiltration. The CINCMEAFSA (Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, Africa, and South Asia), in whose area of command Ethiopia fell, opposed a speeded-up delivery schedule for the F-5s.

Moreover, the Pentagon apparently gave little thought to what the U.S. MAAG mission in Ethiopia should accomplish. When Edward Korry received his briefing at the Department of Defense shortly before assuming his new post in Addis Ababa the briefing officer had told him that the United States would give the emperor his $10 million in military aid in “solid gold Cadillacs” if he wanted it that way. Following a visit to Ethiopia in early 1962, John Kenneth Galbraith, U.S. ambassador to India, reported that the U.S. MAAG in Addis Ababa tended “to look on the Ethiopian forces much as its private army without regard to its impact on our regional and national policies.” The idea that the United States need provide only enough military aid to maintain access to Kagnew Station, without regard for its impact or effectiveness, dominated Pentagon thinking.

Thus, Korry’s geopolitical warnings, which were linked to the need to upgrade the Ethiopian armed forces, fell largely upon deaf ears even at the Department of Defense. The idea that Soviet activities in the Horn of Africa were related to the strategic situation at the eastern end of the Mediterranean struck a responsive nerve only within the navy, which, because of its predisposition to think in Mahanist terms and foreseeing the worldwide mission of nuclear submarines and the need for forward basing, supported Korry’s line of argument. As for the rest of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, they felt the ambassador was reading too much into it. Washington’s strategic position in the Horn of Africa was not being threatened, so there was no urgent need to alter the F-5 delivery schedule for Ethiopia.

Washington’s attitude toward the F-5 delivery began to change during 1966. Although the aircraft were due to be delivered anyway, two premises upon which the United States had based its stalling policy were no longer operable. First, the notion that the Soviets would not acquire bases in Somalia became suspect; construction at the port of Berbera begun by the Soviets in 1964 was nearing completion, suggesting that Moscow might strike a base deal with Mogadishu. Second, the idea that Moscow would not put any heavy armament into Somalia began to crumble in 1965-1966, as Moscow executed a rapid buildup of the Somali Air Force, including delivery of six MiG-15s, twenty Yak-IIs, and twelve MiG-17s. Although none of these Soviet-supplied aircraft fell into the category of “sophisticated” (supersonic jet fighter) weapons, delivery of the F-5 squadron assumed a heretofore unappreciated diplomatic-military urgency.

The State Department now felt that the F-5s had to be delivered in 1966 as promised, in order to preserve American credibility. If Washington failed to respond visibly to the Soviet-Somali MiG deal, it would create a negative perception of the United States within Ethiopia, and possibly throughout the rest of the region. Moreover, Washington had run out of stalling tactics as the Ethiopian Air Force was ready to receive the jets. Thus, the Johnson administration proceeded with the delivery of the F-5 Freedom Fighter squadron during the latter half of 1966 and completed the transaction in 1967.


The F-5 arms transfer broke new ground, not only militarily but also politically, in the U.S.-Ethiopia arms relationship. Washington’s decision to provide Addis Ababa with the F-5 Freedom Fighters meant crossing a military threshold in sub-Sahara Africa, bringing Ethiopia into a select group of Third World states possessing sophisticated weaponry. But for Haile Selassie, the arms transfer meant crossing a political threshold as well. By giving Ethiopia the F-5s, the United States had proved that it had a long-term interest in maintaining Ethiopia’s security. U.S. officials also recognized the political implications of the F-5 deal, which was why sending the Freedom Fighters aroused such resistance in the first place, and their delivery was stalled.

The F-5 episode was a classic example of a weak client state manipulating the weakness and vulnerability of its arms patron. Although Ethiopia’s vague threat of defection hung over this episode, first the Soviet and then the neutralist threat, owing to Washington’s lack of responsiveness, it was U.S. plans to expand intelligence-gathering, research, and communications operations at Kagnew that allowed the Ethiopians to blackmail the United States. Moreover, with the Johnson administration reverting to a mid-1950s stance of viewing the Third World through a zero-sum lens, and since Somalia had brought the Soviets into the Horn, Ethiopia’s pro-Western alignment had to be rewarded to prevent Moscow from scoring a geopolitical victory in the Horn of Africa. The fact that from early 1964 the U.S. embassy vehemently advocated the F-5 transfer also aided the emperor’s cause.

The United States was in a no-win situation; the best it could hope to do was control the damage caused by its blunder in first offering the F-5s to Ethiopia. Damage control in this instance meant delaying the transfer. Following the 1964 border war with Somalia, which had exposed Ethiopia’s military vulnerability, Selassie could not afford to lose the American military connection. Whereas accommodation with the neutralist camp might mean losing the Ogaden and Eritrea, or lead to the emperor’s own political demise, the United States could give Haile Selassie what he needed to keep his empire intact. Still, the American decision to cross the sophisticated arms export threshold in Ethiopia and end its game of delay exposed the fact that the United States had no option but to deal with Addis Ababa because of Kagnew. Despite the negative attitudes held toward the role of the U.S. military mission in Addis Ababa, the State Department viewed Ethiopia as an important actor in the African arena whose friendship should be retained.

Again a tangible exchange had taken place between the United States and Ethiopia. In this case, however, Addis Ababa seemed to get the better of the deal, while Washington absorbed the greater risk. Certainly, Haile Selassie gave the Americans greater privileges at Kagnew. But there was no additional risk for Selassie because he was already seen as being in league with the Americans. Washington, on the other hand, was forced to up the ante again by crossing a qualitative threshold. Moreover, in the long term, the F-5 arms transfer exacerbated the arms race in the Horn and forced the Americans to pour even more arms into Ethiopia in order to protect their investment at Kagnew and credibility with the IEG.

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