In Nasser and the Missile Age in the Middle East, Sirrs, an analyst at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, offers a detailed case study of Egypt's foray into the ballistic missile business during the Cold War. While the book lacks invaluable Arabic and Hebrew-language sources—no fault of the author, as such material remains largely inaccessible—it provides a much-needed window into Egypt's missile program under Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak.
In the work's opening pages, Sirrs suggests that Cairo's infatuation with ballistic missiles arose from its perceived need for a guaranteed deep-strike capability against Israel in the 1950s. Enamored of their utility on the battlefield—missiles could evade Israeli air defenses—Nasser also viewed the weapons as the ultimate propaganda tool, one that not only "appealed to Cairo's sense of regional leadership" but could bolster Nasser's personal prestige as well.
Despite Egypt's lofty ambitions, Sirrs describes a missile program riddled with technological setbacks and bureaucratic ineptitude. Cairo's paucity of indigenous talent would lead to the influx of German rocket scientists, whom Sirrs refers to as the program's true "center of gravity." This cadre of experts would prove to be the program's most vulnerable pressure point.
Later chapters document the frenetic Israeli response—ranging from the assassination of scientists to diplomatic démarches in Bonn—sparked by Egypt's "successful" missile tests in 1962. Israel's concern was augmented by the rift in U.S.-Israeli intelligence reports. "We were ships passing each other in the night," stated one CIA analyst who downplayed Jerusalem's assessments. It is within these contexts that Sirrs traces the genesis of Israel's nuclear program in the 1960s.
After his missiles turned in a dismal performance during the 1967 war, Nasser scrapped Egypt's indigenous and crude rocket program. Technical problems aside, Sirrs asserts that Bonn's repatriation of German scientists and Israeli coercion ultimately brought the program to its knees. However, Cairo would soon turn its sights elsewhere.
In the 1970s, Egyptian-Soviet cooperation soured. Sirrs recounts—at times in too much technical detail for the average lay reader—how Egypt turned to collaboration with North Korea, Iraq, and Argentina on advanced missile projects during the 1980s and 1990s. While these efforts have since fizzled, Cairo's appetite for a ballistic missile remains undiminished.
It is here where Sirrs envisions a greater role for the considerable diplomatic leverage that Washington wields over Cairo. But as Egypt continues its rapid arms buildup with billions in U.S. aid, this notion appears lost on most U.S. policymakers. They would do well to read Sirrs' book and remember such a lesson.