The 'Science' of Projecting Body Counts in War

Declassified U.S. documents and experience suggest that Ehud Barak's projection of 'fewer than 500' dead in a war with Iran is likely an underestimate.

Room 620 in the King David Hotel was placed at the disposal of the high-ranking American diplomat. Not just a room, it was a whole series of rooms, suited for both sleeping and work. The guests had brought with them an electronic device known as a babbler, which was intended to disrupt any possible eavesdropping that would gain Israel vital intelligence data that could prove useful in negotiations.

The diplomat was Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and it was the summer of 1975, at the height of efforts toward a second disengagement agreement in Sinai. Revelation of Kissinger's use of the babbler may be found in a volume of recently declassified U.S. Department of State documents. For whatever reason, the publisher of the volume - which happens to be the current administration - elected not to censor this highly instructive detail, which reveals that the Israelis were suspected of conducting espionage, with Kissinger as the target.

Below are verbatim excerpts from a conversation held among seven American officials from the State Department, the National Security Agency and the embassy in Tel Aviv, including U.S. Ambassador to Israel Malcolm Toon:

Kissinger: [turns on the babbler] What is the situation here now? Toon: Not good. The public is upset, the press is very nasty. Rabin thinks he can do it.

Kissinger: You think there is doubt he can?

Toon: If you are prepared to pay the price.

Kissinger: What price?

Toon: Aid, political commitments you might not be prepared to give.

What Kissinger did not want was for Rabin and his colleagues to know what the Americans were saying about them. The babbler that Kissinger himself switched on in the Jerusalem hotel suite was an anti-bugging device used in what is called counter-espionage.

In the realm of intelligence gathering, the Americans had amassed - and there is no reason to believe they have ceased to do so - abundant data on the Israel Defense Forces, and on Israel's society, politics and economy. The data was, in part, useful to them in calculating the national balance of power (advantage to the Arabs ) and the military balance of power (advantage to Israel ) in advance of discussions on procurement requests.

Present tense

In January 1975, and again a year later, senior Ford administration officials held a series of fascinating consultations on the question of the IDF's ability to win the next war against the Arab armies - how long the war would last, what equipment Israel required, and what the cost of the war would be.

Besides Ford and Kissinger, the sessions were attended by other officials who went on to lead American diplomatic efforts in the administrations of both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, White House Chief of Staff and subsequently Vice President Richard Cheney, and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft.

The material is not historic, it is very present-tense: retired general Scowcroft, now an affable and vigorous 86-year-old who continues to school the younger generations from his office at the end of Connecticut Avenue in Washington, not far from the White House, is one of the more prominent signatories to a document of expert opinion that warns against American entanglement in a war against Iran.

In 1975, the CIA experts were asked to estimate the number of IDF casualties in the next war. The outcome, of course, depended on the scenario, on the armies that would join in, on the duration of combat. At one meeting, CIA director William Colby cited a figure of 7,500 casualties.

Kissinger: Do you mean killed?

Colby: Killed and wounded.

Kissinger: That's more than the last war. You mean against Syria alone? That's pretty heavy. That's 750,000 by American standards.

Colby: They can't face the attrition of a war every year or two. It would be pretty traumatic.

At another session, Colby offered an update on the projected casualty figures, but it remains classified. He estimated that should the IDF move closer to Damascus in a war against Syria, this would lead to intervention by the Soviet army, with two airborne divisions being flown to the Syrian capital, linking up with previously stockpiled materiel, and direct engagement of IDF forces.

Rumsfeld: The figures you project would be the equivalent of 500,000 Americans. They were badly hurt in the October war.

Colby responded by suggesting that his colleagues consider the rate of American losses as compared to the number of those serving in the army, on the one hand, and the total population, on the other. "The subject of comparative casualty figures is morbid but interesting. For World War I we had two percent casualties of the total number in the armed services, about one percent of the total population. It was about the same for World War II. Israel suffered less than one percent casualties of those in the armed services during the October 1973 war, and about one percent of the total population. Our projections for a future war are about 1.6 percent casualties of those who serve in the Israeli armed forces. This is substantial, but not unusual in wars."

1.6 percent, meaning one out of every 60 men in uniform.

Nearly 6,000 Israelis were killed in the War of Independence, roughly one percent of the 600,000 civilians and soldiers in Israel at the time - although the division between these two groups was not as clear then as it is now. At the end of the past decade, Maj. Gen. Herzl Shafir, who headed the personnel division in the Yom Kippur War, made public an eye-opening chart that presented IDF losses in the three wars that followed the War of Independence (not counting the War of Attrition ) - the Sinai Campaign, the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War.

Increasingly lethal

According to Shafir's study, the IDF suffered 231 dead in 1956, 771 in 1967 and 2,656 in 1973 (which essentially extended until January 1974 on the Egyptian front and early June 1974 on the Syrian front ). The number of wounded: 814 in the Sinai Campaign, 2,444 in the Six-Day War and 7,251 in the Yom Kippur War. Total casualties: 1,045 in Sinai Campaign, 3,221 in the Six-Day War and 9,907 in the Yom Kippur War.

The number of IDF POWs: three in the Sinai Campaign, 15 in the Six-Day War and 301 in the Yom Kippur War (in which there were also MIAs - at first count 1,085, although this number was eventually reduced to 17 ).

Shafir draws two important findings from the numbers. The first is the ratio of dead to wounded. The ratio is similar in all of the wars, but gradually declines, from 3.5 wounded-to-dead in 1956, to 3.15 in 1967, to 2.73 in 1973. What this means is that the warfare became more lethal - the armaments became more precise and destructive; the chances of survival for the soldier who was hit decreased. True, the circumstances were different - one time there was a single front, another time three, another time two (in the south, there were approximately 1,600 casualties, in the north less than 900, and another 180 deaths stemmed from air force operations, traffic accidents and other events ); the wars lasted between one and three weeks (as well as several months of attrition ). If the Yom Kippur War had ended after one week, it would have seen 900 dead; 1,700 lives would have been saved.

On the eve of Yom Kippur 1973, the IDF had 114,834 regular soldiers in compulsory service and in the career army, plus another 4,004 soldiers called up in the active reserve. On Yom Kippur day, nearly 160,000 additional reserve soldiers were called up. At the war's height, on October 16, the IDF had approximately 388,000 soldiers under arms, of which 268,000 were reservists. Evidently, CIA Director William Colby was referring to the average of this order of battle when he said the ratio of IDF dead to the number of men serving in the army was less than one percent (to be exact, two-thirds of one percent of the highest recorded number of men in uniform ).

The ensuing wars were waged mainly against terrorist organizations, except for clashes with the Syrian army in June 1982 (and then, in a single week, the IDF suffered about 200 dead, many from friendly fire ). In the summer of 2006, in warfare against Hezbollah, Israel suffered 164 dead - 119 soldiers and 44 civilians. The number of IDF wounded - 628 - reflected a reverse trend: a ratio of wounded to dead of greater than 5:1, representing an improvement in the chances of each wounded soldier to survive. But in too many instances, the treatment was delayed for reasons beyond the control of the medical crews.

Two major lessons from 2006's Lebanon II may be drawn. The first is that the number of dead at the front is liable to be much higher - as much as three times higher - than the number of dead in the home front. This should be borne in mind when Ehud Barak and others speak of "fewer than 500" dead in a war with Iran. They are referring to a home front attacked by missiles from the east and rockets from Lebanon and Gaza. Even if there is some validity to this conclusion, which is based on past experience, it is certainly erroneous because it builds on the assumption that there will be no need or will for a ground operation against Hezbollah or Hamas. Since the IDF's working assumption is that fighting on a single front is liable to spread to additional fronts, and that it would not be enough to intercept missiles and employ aerial, ground-based and naval firepower to silence enemy launching sites, it would be worthwhile also taking into account the potential casualties of a ground assault. This would no doubt quickly be labeled Lebanon III, even though 2006 wasn't really a war. Using 2006 as a guide, if there were 500 dead on the home front, many hundreds more would be liable to get killed on the front itself.

Preventing catastrophes

The second lesson is that evacuation of casualties - as well as minimizing the exposure to harm (preventing the repetition of catastrophes such as the one that took the lives of 12 reservists at Kfar Giladi in the summer of 2006, who had no shelter ) is a tactical concern of the first rank. Early planning of evacuation routes, which would also serve as supply routes, is hardly a secondary matter that a commander can leave to the logistics officer; he has to be personally involved in it and assume full responsibility. And evacuation, as important as it might be, is less critical than saving lives in the field. Therefore, the forward medical units must include trauma specialists, and must be prepared to carry out emergency operations in the field.

This is one of the missions of Maj. Gen. Kobi Barak, who heads the IDF's Technology and Logistics Branch. He is an experienced armored corps officer who until six months ago headed the General Staff's Operations Directorate and is currently also responsible for the Medical Corps. He knows that there is no way to separate logistics from operations, or operations from medical care. He aspires to create a revolution in the way that the IDF equips and arms itself and hauls itself to the front, and how it treats its casualties there.

The IDF has a numerical formula for calculating the number of casualties on the front. Unlike the home front's 500, this projection is not intended for publication. Prior to Operation Cast Lead, the army feared six dead per brigade and was happy to be proven wrong, but the Gaza model does not apply to Lebanon.

Meanwhile, the secret CIA projections of body counts and bereavement statistics will only be made public in another four decades.

Soldiers evacuating an injured comrade during the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
Nachum Guttman