The Israeli Air force is the most modern in the Middle East, and arguably the most respected in the world. Its training regime and professionalism is rarely equaled and its accomplishments are unmatched by other air powers. Yet despite its legendary status the IAF (Israeli Air force) is not infallible and has not always been successful in advancing Israeli military and political goals. The IAF has been consistently successful in conventional warfare, has had mixed results in asymmetrical warfare and a questionable record regarding strategic bombing and targeted assassinations.
The IAF was born in battle during Israel’s War of Independence when Israeli paramilitary forces fought against the Palestinians and neighboring Arab countries for the control of Palestine. At first the Arabs had control of the skies and harassed the Israelis and bombed Tel-Aviv. However, the Israelis soon acquired aircraft by setting up front companies to purchase an ad-hoc collection of aircraft including Czechoslovakia equivalents of World War 2 fighters such as Messerschmitt 109s and Super-submarine Spitfires. Though outnumbered and not as advanced as the Arab planes, the Israelis recruited veteran airmen to pilot their aircraft and used them to good effect to help turn the tide of battle. The newly created IAF quickly scored notable victories including stopping an Egyptian column advancing north from Gaza and shooting down Egyptian bombers that until recently had been bombing Tel-Aviv with impunity.
The IAF was also used to re-supply Jewish settlements in the Negev Desert that had been cut off by the Egyptian advance. Additionally, it acquired B-17 bombers and P-51 Mustangs, giving it the ability to bomb Arab capitals and compete with the more technologically advanced Arab fighters. The Israelis even managed to humiliate the RAF (Royal Air Force) when they shot down several British Spitfires without loss in dogfights over the southern front.
Though it had been conceived to stop the Arabs from bombing its cities and harassing its soldiers the IAF quickly moved to the offensive, helping the Haganah (the predecessor of the IDF) secure its territorial ambitions during the war. As such it was used predominantly in a tactical role to attack the Arabs’ conventional forces in the field. This allowed the Israelis to conquer significantly more territory than was originally allotted to them by the U.N. partition plan. However, it did not prevent the Arabs from seizing the West Bank, the Gaza strip, and the Golan Heights which gave them excellent positions to threaten Israel’s narrow borders and would lead to considerable trouble in the future. Fortunately for the Israelis by the end of the conflict the IAF had gained aerial superiority in the region (which it has kept to this day).
The next test for the IAF came during the Suez conflict during 1956 between Egypt on one side and France, Britain and Israel on the other. Israel was worried by Egypt’s new arms deal with the Soviet Union that among other things gave the Egyptians more modern planes than the Israelis. Egypt had never signed a peace treaty with Israel and occasionally helped Palestinian militants attack Israel from the Gaza strip. France and Britain were angry by Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal and wanted to retake the Canal Zone and overthrow the Egyptian leader.
The operation started when Israeli P-51 Mustangs used their wings and propellers to cut Egyptian telephone lines in the Sinai Desert, crippling Egyptian communications between its front and rear echelons. The IAF also dropped Israeli paratroops behind enemy lines at the Mitla pass to hold it until the IDF arrived and to give the French and British a casus belli to occupy the Canal Zone. Besides these actions the IAF was used in a tactical role to aid the army’s advance, conduct reconnaissance and fly med-evacuations. There were dog fights with Egyptian planes, in which the Israelis shot down 7, but it was an unfair fight for the Egyptians as they had to fight the French and British, who bombed their airfields, as well as the IAF.
It took the Israelis only four days to conquer the Sinai Peninsula but international pressure forced the French and British to withdraw from the Canal Zone in ignominy. Despite being bested by the Israelis, Nasser became a hero for refusing to back down to the Europeans. However, even though the Israelis later had to withdraw from the Sinai they secured maritime passage through the Strait of Tiran and the establishment of U.N. peacekeepers in the Sinai desert and Gaza strip gave the Israelis relative peace on their southern border for the next decade.
Arguably the most impressive operation the IAF launched occurred on the morning of June 5th, 1967 when it destroyed most of the Egyptian Air force on the ground in a surprise attack that initiated the “Six Day War.” In the weeks preceding the conflict Israel’s neighbors mobilized their armies, threatened to destroy Israel and Egypt declared a blockade of the Strait of Tiran. Surrounded by hostile armies on all sides and faced with the prospect of being quickly overrun due to its considerably narrow borders Israel’s best option was to pre-empt the Arab armies and conquer buffer zones to improve its strategic situation.
The establishment and maintenance of aerial superiority is a prerequisite of modern conventional warfare and no conflict illustrates this point as poignantly as the “Six Day War.” According to Michael Oren in “Six Days of War” the Egyptian Air force was the “linchpin of the Arab war effort” and with its elimination the Israelis were able to rout the Egyptian army in the Sinai and Gaza, eliminate the smaller air forces of Jordan and Syria in their turn, and conquer the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights with relative ease.
In what was named “Operation Focus” the Israelis flew the majority of their planes under the Egyptian radar often only 15 meters above the Mediterranean to the West or the Red sea to hit more than a dozen Egyptian airfields simultaneously from behind. The Israelis were blessed by the fact the Egyptians were not on alert and incredibly had shut down their anti-aircraft defenses in the Sinai because the head of the army was in the air and was afraid of being shot down by his own troops. The Israelis had also timed the attack to coincide with when they thought the Egyptian pilots would be having breakfast (this assumption turned out to be correct). The Israelis had such an accurate picture of the Egyptian Air force that they knew the location of every Jet, as well as the name, rank and voice of each of its pilots.
The first thing the Israelis pilots did when they found an airfield was use rocket assisted bombs known as “durandal anti-runway warheads” to disable the runways. These were dropped by parachutes and then at a set altitude the rockets would drive the warheads into the pavement of the runway and create massive craters and sinkholes which prevented the Egyptian planes from taking off. Even worse for the Egyptians was the fact they had not constructed concrete bunkers (or any significant shelters at all) for their aircraft so that once the runways were crippled they were effectively sitting ducks. The first wave of the Israeli onslaught was particularly brutal as the Egyptians had yet to reactivate their anti-aircraft defenses.
Operation Focus succeeded beyond all expectations. In three waves during the assault the Israelis managed to destroy 286 out of Egypt’s 420 combat aircraft on the ground. The Syrian and Jordanian air forces, believing absurd claims of success against the Israelis by Nasser, launched ineffective air strikes against Israeli infrastructure and civilian targets rather than against Israel’s exposed airfields. In turn the IAF struck at the Syrian and Jordanian airfields (as well as an Iraqi airfield in western Iraq) and crippled the combined Arab air forces in a matter of hours.
During the war the Israelis destroyed approximately 450 out of perhaps 600 of her adversaries’ combat aircraft while losing roughly 45 out of their 200. This is all the more impressive because not only did the Arabs outnumber the Israelis in aircraft, but their Soviet designed planes were generally better than the French designed planes the Israelis had as well. Most of the Arab planes were hit on the ground (Moti Hod, the Commander of the IAF often said “A fighter jet is the deadliest weapon in existence — in the sky,” but on the ground it is utterly defenseless.”) and the few that managed to take off were no match for the better trained Israeli pilots. Perhaps nothing illustrates the difference in quality between the Arab and the Israeli air forces than the fact that the turn around time (how long it takes a plane to be re-fueled and re-armed and take off again once it has landed) for the Israeli planes was 8 minutes while the Egyptian planes required 8 hours!
However, if the Israelis thought the Arabs were any closer to making peace following the pummeling they received during the “Six Day War” they were mistaken. Thoroughly humiliated by their poor conduct during the conflict, unwilling to make peace with the Israelis and unable to challenge the IDF in open battle the Egyptians launched an on and off campaign of artillery, air barrages and raids during the next three years which would later become known as the “war of attrition.” The objective of the campaign was simple: Inflict enough casualties on the Israelis to force them to withdraw from the Sinai. Even though it was expected that the Egyptians would suffer much greater casualties themselves, they had a much larger population and were not as sensitive to losses as the Israeli public.
There were many events during the protracted conflict from 1967 to 1970 but it mostly followed the same formula. The Egyptians would launch an artillery barrage, air strikes, or a commando raid, and the Israelis would respond with disproportionate force (as they felt they needed to establish deterrence due to their inability to take the same amount of casualties as the Egyptians), usually with their air force. The Israelis would mostly respond with the IAF because their lack of an adequate amount of artillery compelled them to use their planes as aerial artillery. This over-reliance on aerial artillery did not prove detrimental for the Israelis during the “war of attrition” but nearly proved fatal during the “Yom Kippur War” in 1973.
During the “war of attrition” the IAF was used to hit Egyptian infrastructure, military positions, SAM (surface to air missile) sites, air defenses and other strategic targets. The Egyptians had some success inflicting casualties on the Israelis, including a notable event when they sunk the Israeli destroyer Eilat with anti-ship missiles launched from the Assuit (the first time in modern warfare a vessel had been sunk by a missile instead of a ship’s guns). To shield their troops from constant bombardment in the Sinai the Israelis built the Bar-Lev line (named after the IDF Chief of Staff). While this minimized casualties, the Egyptians kept up the pressure and the IAF struck deeper and harder against various targets inside Egypt to pressure Nasser to accept a cease fire.
While the Soviet supplied SAMs managed to shoot down some Israeli aircraft the IAF eventually managed to destroy 80% of the Egyptian air defense system which allowed them to target much of the country with impunity. The IAF’s air supremacy became so dominant that Israeli helicopters were allowed to strike deep inside Egypt and capture a Soviet ground control and interception radar without any interference. It was also said that the Israeli air strikes contributed to one of Nasser’s heart attacks. In the air itself the Israelis continued to dominate dogfights between Egyptian and Israeli fighter pilots. The Soviets became so dismayed with their allies that they decided to send up Soviet pilots against the IAF to show the Egyptians how to fight. The Soviets themselves were humiliated when they lost 5 planes to no losses for the Israelis when they clashed in early 1970 near the Canal.
In August 1970 the combatants, both exhausted and pressured by the Soviets and Americans (who were afraid of the conflict escalating out of control) agreed to a cease fire. Nasser died a month later to be replaced by a seemingly unimpressive individual named Anwar Sadat. Sadat immediately quashed any ideas of fighting the IDF in the immediate future and even sent some peace feelers to the Israeli leadership. However the Israelis, buoyed up by their military achievements, and confused by Sadat’s seemingly contradictory behavior (Sadat used bellicose language against the Israelis on the world stage at the same time he was sending out peace feelers) did not take his offers seriously.
While the “war of attrition” seemed like a victory for the Israelis, who thoroughly humiliated the Soviets and Egyptians and did not have to give up one inch of territory, the Egyptians learned more from the conflict than the Israelis. While the IAF had dominated the conflict it did not do so without cost. Indeed, while American supplied electronic warfare countermeasure pods supplied to Israeli planes in 1970 effectively jammed Soviet SAM 2s, they were less effective against other the other types of SAMs. During the conflict the Egyptians had not had the time, or numbers of SAMs and anti-aircraft guns to build an effective Air Defense system to protect Egypt. However, during the Cease fire Sadat moved scores of SAM batteries and AA defenses to the Canal Zone and by 1973 had built up perhaps the most comprehensive and concentrated anti-aircraft defense zone in the world (with approximately 100 SAM batteries operating in the area). The next time the Israelis and Egyptians went to war the IAF was in for a big shock.
On October 6th, 1973 the Egyptian army launched a well coordinated attack to re-take the East Bank of the Suez Canal (while the Syrians sent 1000 tanks to re-conquer the Golan Heights), initiating the Yom Kippur War. This war would bring the IAF to the breaking point and shake Israel to its foundations.
Sadat’s plan was to launch a limited war to re-gain the East Bank of the Suez Canal and hold it against Israeli counter-attacks until the U.N. brokered a cease fire. To do so the Egyptians would have to cross the Canal, breach the Bar-Lev line and dig in before the Israelis mobilized in the Sinai. The Egyptians had learned the painful lessons of the “Six Day War” and the “War of Attrition,” and had devised their battle plan accordingly. Sun Tzu, the author of the much venerated “The Art of War” wrote that “if you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the outcome of a hundred battles,” and in the lead up to the Yom Kippur War the Egyptians heeded this advice more than the Israelis.
Due to the prominent part the IAF and the Israeli armored forces played during the Suez conflict and the “Six Day War” the Israelis had continued to build up these forces at the expense of their infantry and artillery branches. In the event of war the Israelis assumed, due to their legendary intelligence capabilities, they would have a 48 hour warning before the commencement of hostilities. This, in theory, would give the Israelis time to mobilize, let the IAF to launch a devastating pre-emptive strike (as in 1967) and allow the Israeli armored forces to mop up the Arabs at leisure.
Thus, in order for the Egyptians to succeed they had to strike first and find a way to neutralize Israel’s advantage in armor and airpower. For the former the Egyptians devised an effective deception plan that lured the Israelis into a false sense of security. Israeli intelligence also dropped the ball because they believed the Egyptians would not go to war until they acquired scud missiles and fighter bombers and would not risk initiating the kind of limited war Sadat had in mind. For the latter the Egyptians equipped their forces with an unprecedented number of SAM batteries and anti-tank missiles that they hoped would counter-balance Israel’s superior armored and air forces.
In the event the Israelis learned about the attack a few hours before it began and whatever advantage they could have reaped by pre-emptying the Arabs with their air force was lost when the Americans told the Israelis they would not send them aid if they attacked first. The Egyptians made steady gains, overrunning the Bar-Lev line and establishing a significant military presence on the East bank of the Suez Canal while the Syrians came close to conquering the Golan Heights and breaking out into Northern Israel. In the early days of the war the IAF was used to attack Egyptian bridges across the Suez Canal, limit the Syrian advance, attack Egyptian air fields, and to neutralize the Arab SAMs. Most of these attacks were ineffective due to the comprehensive nature of the Arabs anti-air defenses, and because of the many roles the IAF was forced to play simultaneously.
The Arabs had Surface to Air Missile batteries composed of SAM 2, 3, 6 and 7s, all of them effective at different altitudes and ranges (alongside countless anti-aircraft guns and artillery) concentrated along the Canal Zone and the Golan. The different SAMs and AA defenses complemented each other as they effectively allowed the Arabs to target the Israeli planes at different ranges and heights. Thus to avoid the SAMs at a certain height, the Israeli planes would go higher, or lower, only to have to deal with SAMs designed to strike at another height. As mentioned earlier the Israelis had acquired electronic warfare countermeasure pods from the Americans, but these only worked against the SAM 2s. Additionally, given the many roles the IAF was asked to play, and given that they still had to fight the Arab air forces, it is not surprising the IAF had a rough time during the conflict. It has been estimated that the IAF lost 50 out the 100 planes it lost during the war in the first 3 days.
The IAF slowly turned the tide by a combination of persistence, a change of tactics, and the arrival of a massive amount of ammunition and spare parts for the IAF airlifted in from the United States. It first turned against the Syrians on the Golan. After taking significant losses by initially attacking the SAMs head on the Israelis struck them in flank by flying through Lebanon and Jordan. The Syrians also had a far smaller number of SAM batteries, 36 compared to Egypt’s 147, and quickly began to run out of missiles (one of the reasons the Russians launched a massive air and sea lift to re-supply the Arabs during the war).
It should be pointed out that despite such a concentration of missiles the Arabs had to shoot at least 50 (some sources say 100) missiles to hit one Israeli plane. This was due to the evasive maneuvers and electronic counter measures employed by the Israelis, as well as mechanical failures in some of the missiles and the simple fact that shooting down a fast moving small object in a big sky with a single projectile is no small feat. At least half of the Israeli planes lost during the war were actually destroyed by anti-aircraft fire when the Israeli pilots flew into their range by trying to avoid being hit by SAMs at higher altitudes.
Either way the Syrian advance on the Golan was checked by the 9th of October, where upon the IDF launched a counter-attack that not only re-conquered the territory that was lost but advanced to within 15 miles of Damascus itself. With the Syrian threat reduced, the Israelis were free to devote more of their scarce air resources to the Sinai. However, while the Israelis eventually reduced the Syrian SAM threat on the Golan they did not defeat it outright. It would be another ten years before the IAF would get its revenge on the Syrian SAMs.
Defeating the Egyptians in the Sinai proved to be a much longer and costlier ordeal. Unlike in 1982 when the Israelis destroyed Syria’s SAMs in Lebanon, the IAF did not have the technological means (specifically the most modern electronic warfare countermeasures pods, remotely piloted vehicles and anti-radiation missiles) and adequate intelligence to find and destroy the Egyptian SAMs without suffering substantial losses. In fact, much of the success in neutralizing the SAMs belonged to the IDF ground forces that took out many of the SAM sites after it crossed to the west side of the Suez Canal. This punched a significant hole in the Egyptian’s air defense grid that protected Egypt’s 3rd army.
The IAF itself eventually managed to inflict significant damage on the SAMs (suffering heavy casualties in the process) due to several factors. Once fighting began to lag on the Syrian front the Israelis shifted most of its air power to the Sinai. Additionally, after the Arabs advances had been checked, the IAF was not forced to be used as a fire brigade to respond to multiple threats and could focus more on attacking the SAMs (of which they eventually destroyed 32 and damaged another 11). Finally, as mentioned above, the Israeli ground forces managed to raid several of the SAM sites after they crossed to the west bank of the Suez Canal. The end result was that the IAF managed to gain air superiority over the southern part of the battlefield on the Sinai front and did much to facilitate the cutting off of the 3rd Egyptian Army, which forced Sadat to agree to a cease fire which effectively ended the war.
The Israelis won the Yom Kippur in a military sense, but the cost was significant. The Israeli armored forces and the Air force suffered high casualties. The IAF itself almost reached the red line (the point at which it would be unable to effectively execute air operations) and probably would have reached it without the American airlift that brought in much needed spare parts and supplies. Despite entering the conflict unprepared to deal with the Arabs’ anti-aircraft systems and taking significant losses, the IAF preformed admirably during the war. It did much to stop the Arabs’ advances, dominated all aerial battles against the Arab air forces, and significantly dented their SAMs.
However, the IAF was rattled by the war and feared the growing prominence that SAMs now played in modern warfare. The former head of the IAF, General Ezer Weizman even gloomily remarked that “the missile bent the plane’s wing.” Of the 100 or so planes the IAF lost during the war nearly half were downed by SAMs. A similar number were lost due to AA fire when Israeli planes dived low to get below the SAMs range, and only a handful were destroyed in dogfights against Arab planes. The Arabs lost over 400 planes, two thirds of which were destroyed in dogfights, once again showing the superiority of the IAF over its Arab counterparts.
Ironically, in the aftermath of the war and in stark contrast to 1967 it was the Arabs (Syria in particular) who grew complacent, placing too much faith in SAMs in the event of renewed warfare. The IAF for its part spent the next decade developing ways to combat SAMs. This would prove decisive when the Syrians and Israelis fought again in 1982.
Perhaps the next triumph for the IAF was the destruction of the Iraqi Nuclear reactor in June 1981. The Nuclear Reactor was called Osirak and was purchased from the French. The Israelis were worried that the Iraqis would use the reactor to build nuclear weapons (ironically the French had also helped the Israeli nuclear program which gave Israel the bomb). Given Saddam Hussein’s open hostility to the Jewish state Menachem Begin, the Israeli Prime Minister, was worried about the potential use of nukes against Israeli cities (Saddam’s use of chemical and biological weapons against Iran and even his own people was hardly reassuring). Some critics claim the reactor was built specifically not to allow the building of weapons and was for peaceful purposes. Interestingly enough, a similar debate surrounds the current Iranian Nuclear program.
Whatever the case the Israelis were unwilling to risk the chance of Iraq acquiring nuclear weapons and decided to destroy Osirak before the reactor would be allegedly loaded with nuclear fuel in June 1981 to avoid the potential of nuclear fallout. The challenges were significant given the distance of the facility from Israel (over 1000 miles) and the fact the IAF would have to travel over several Arab countries (Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq) and then back again.
To avoid radar detection the Israeli force of 8 F-16s and 6 F-15s flew close to the ground as they had done during Operation Focus in 1967. Due to the fact they had to fly so low to the ground and inside hostile territory the Israelis were unable to use mid-air refueling. However the problem of having sufficient fuel for both the attack and the return journey was solved by a number of innovations. Firstly, the Israelis were supplied with external fuel tanks for their fighters by the Americans (who had no idea the Israelis were planning the attack). Secondly, the Israeli planes were continuously fueled even as they were warming up their engines and finishing pre-flight checks to give them as much fuel as possible when they took off (a risky move that could have destroyed the planes). Finally, the Israelis tried to make the route to Osirak as direct, and therefore as short, as possible.
June 7, 1981 was chosen as the date for the attack because it was a Sunday and it was hoped that most of the facility’s workers would be off for the day. In the event there were still many at the facility and at least 1 civilian, a French technician, was killed in the strike. As the Israeli planes left the Etzion airfield in the occupied Sinai Peninsula and headed over the Gulf of Aqaba they unknowingly flew yacht the yacht of King Hussein of Jordan, who corrected predicted their target and sent a message to warn the Iraqis. Fortunately for the Israelis, and much like what happened in 1967 when the Jordanians sent a warning to the Egyptians that the IAF was launching an attack, a communications failure prevented the message from being received.
On the way to the facility the Israelis flew just south of Jordan (due to Jordan’s sophisticated radar network) and into western Saudi Arabia. They nearly hugged the ground to avoid radar detection but U.S. supplied Saudi AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) could have tracked them. Israeli intelligence assured the pilots that the Saudis would have few AWACS airborne at the time and that if they were they would probably be patrolling the eastern part of the country. In the event the Israelis made it through Saudi airspace without being detected.
The Israelis managed to approach the reactor without interference, climbed several thousand feet and dropped more than a dozen 2000 pound bombs through the reactor dome. The attack took the Iraqis completely by surprise. Just like in 1967 when the Egyptian air force was caught on the ground while its pilots were having breakfast, so it was in Iraq in 1981 that the Iraqi AA and SAM crews were having dinner when the Israelis began their attack. Even more incredibly the Iraqis had shut down the radar systems before going to dinner and did not have time to warm them up during the attack and were forced to manually aim at the Israeli planes. In their attempts to fight back the Iraqis failed to shoot down a single Israeli plane but did manage to kill or wound 10 Iraqi soldiers by shooting AA fire at extremely low altitudes.
After completing their mission the Israelis rose to over 38,000 feet and flew at full speed back to Israel via the most direct route through Iraq and Jordan. The Iraqis belatedly scrambled some MIGs which turned back after a half hearted pursuit. The Jordanians did not even try confronting the Israeli planes. Either they failed to detect them or the rumors that the Israelis fooled them by pretending to be off course Saudi pilots are true. The Israelis landed back at the airfield with barely any fuel but did not lose any planes and completely destroyed the Osirak reactor. The whole world, including the United States, condemned the raid, though many would change their tune after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990.
Just over one year later the IAF scored its most one sided victory when it fought the Syrians during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. After King Hussein had banished the P.L.O. from Jordan during the early ’70s it had made southern Lebanon its new sanctuary. Efforts to expel, or at least restrain the P.L.O. by putting the pressure on the Lebanese government ultimately failed due to the weakness of the regime in Beirut and Syrian support for the Palestinians. Other efforts to damage or deter the P.L.O. by raids, air strikes and even a limited invasion of southern Lebanon in 1978 had some success but in the end the Israelis would either have to begin negotiations with the P.L.O. or try to kick them out of Lebanon. Given the hawkish and uncompromising nature of Prime Minister Begin and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon it was not surprising that Israel would attempt the latter.
The goals of the invasion were ambitious and included kicking the P.L.O. out of the country, installing a Pro-Israeli government in Beirut, and replacing the Syrians as the power brokers in Lebanon. To accomplish these objectives the Syrians had to be separated from Beirut and the P.L.O. To do this the Israelis had to cut the Damascus-Beirut highway (thus allowing the Israelis to surround Beirut which was both the Lebanese capital and housed the H.Q. of the P.L.O.). However, cutting the highway involved clashing with the Syrian army in the Bekaa valley in eastern Lebanon.
The Bekaa valley is unfavorable terrain for offensive operations, consisting of mountains and narrow, winding roads. To effectively defeat the Syrian ground forces the Israelis would need significant air support. However, before they could deal with the Syrian ground forces the Israelis would have to neutralize Syria’s SAM batteries stationed in the Bekaa valley. The Syrians had perhaps 19 SAM batteries in the area (which was the densest deployment of SAMs anywhere in the world at the time) and assumed that given the destruction the SAMs had reaped upon the IAF during the Yom Kippur War that they would either deter the Israelis from attacking, or neutralize the IAF in the event that they did so.
Unfortunately for the Syrians the Israelis had learned from the Yom Kippur war and had prepared accordingly. The Israelis had trained against mock Syrian SAMs in the Negev desert and had done extensive aerial reconnaissance over Lebanon. They also acquired better electronic countermeasures, developed a more sophisticated command and control system for their air force, and devised a subtle plan to destroy the SAMs.
Meanwhile the Syrians did not help themselves by ignoring standard Soviet doctrine for deploying SAMs. Instead of putting them in the hills they placed them in the valley (apparently because the Syrians did not want to dig latrines). Instead of moving the SAM batteries periodically to make them harder to track they kept them in the same locations (which the Israelis did not fail to notice). And instead of camouflaging them the Syrians used smoke to try to conceal them (which ironically made them easier to locate). They also did not bother to make dummy sites to serve as decoys.
The story of the destruction of the Syrian SAM batteries in Lebanon is a short and simple one. Like the surprise attack against the Egyptian Air force in 1967 and the raid against the Iraqi Nuclear Reactor in 1981 its success was a combination of Israeli professionalism and ingenuity and Arab incompetence and stagnation. After the Israelis invaded Lebanon on the 6th of June 1982 the IDF and the Syrian forces in Lebanon soon engaged in skirmishes which by the 9th had escalated into heavy fighting. Determined to occupy the Beirut-Damascus highway and thoroughly defeat the Syrian ground forces the IAF was ordered to destroy the SAM batteries to gain aerial supremacy over the battlefield.
Thanks to the Syrian practice of not moving the location of their SAMs the Israelis already had a general idea of where the 19 or so batteries were in the Bekaa valley. However in order to track and destroy them effectively the Syrians had to turn on their radars to give the Israeli planes an electronic signature to attack. But in order to get the Syrians to do so the Israelis would have to fly their planes within the range of the SAMs and risk getting shot down. Yet instead of sending their planes into the most dense concentration of SAMs in the world the Israelis sent several RPVs (remotely piloted vehicles), the precursors to UAVs (un-manned aerial vehicles) into the valley instead as decoys, which made the Syrians activate their SAM radars and gave the IAF their targets.
Having located the SAMs the Israelis destroyed 17 out of the 19 batteries (the last two were only initially damaged but were destroyed the next day) in a series of strikes executed in two and a half hours. The Israeli practice was to use ARM (anti-radiation missiles) that were designed to home in on enemy radars systems to destroy the SAM batteries’ radars and then finish off the rest of the sites with conventional bombs. The Israelis also used airborne standoff jammers to limit the effectiveness of the SAM batteries during the strikes.
Needless to say the Syrians did not just stand by as their SAM umbrella in Lebanon was being destroyed but sent up the Syrian Air force to engage the IAF in what arguably became the greatest aerial battle since the introduction of jet fighters. Not surprisingly the Syrians were outclassed and were thoroughly defeated. In one day the Syrians lost 26 planes and in the end they lost 86 in total against no losses on the Israeli side. The Bekaa valley air battle, along with the complete destruction of the Syrian deployment of SAMs in Lebanon, allowed the IDF to rout the Syrian forces on the ground and was arguably the IAF’s finest hour.
The Israelis dominated the Bekaa valley air battle due to several factors. The Israelis had more modern planes such as the American supplied F-15s and F-16s compared to the relatively obsolete Soviet supplied MIG-21s and MIG-23s the Syrians had. The Israelis also had more modern ordinance including the newest side winder missiles while the Syrians still had ordinance from the 60s. The Israelis used effective jamming techniques that cut off the Syrian pilots from their ground control and thus isolated the Syrian planes in battle, as well as equipment and methods that prevented the Syrians from jamming them in turn. The Israeli pilots had a significant advantage in training and combat experience. The Israeli pilots had much more fly time, a more extensive training program, and on average had fought in at least 2 major wars and countless smaller engagements while the Syrian pilots, or at least those who had survived previous encounters, had little practical combat experience.
Perhaps even more significantly the Israelis had a first rate command and control capability during the battle. The Bekaa air battle was the first aerial battle that included the AWACs (Airborne Warning and Control System) which even in 1982 allowed the Israelis to monitor up to 200 planes simultaneously and control up to 130 separate dog fights (using a single AWACS plane) at once. Given that the Israelis had better planes and better ordinance, given that they effectively cut off the Syrian pilots from their command and control, given that they had better training and more combat experience, given that they had state of the art command and control, and given that they outnumbered the Syrians over the Bekaa valley 3 to 2, it is no surprise that the Israelis managed to shoot down nearly 100 Syrian planes without loss. Apparently a favorite tactic of the Israelis was to use the AWACs to guide Israeli planes to attack the Syrian MIGs from their flanks as the obsolete MIGs had sensors to detect missiles from the front and back, but not their sides!
Having destroyed the Syrian SAMs in Lebanon and neutralized the Syrian air force the IAF was free to rein havoc on the Syrian ground forces which were forced to retreat and abandon the Beirut-Damascus highway to the Israelis. This allowed the Israelis to surround Beirut and lay siege to the P.L.O. stronghold. Eventually the P.L.O. was forced to leave Lebanon. However, Israel’s defeat of the P.L.O. and humiliation of the Syrians would be short lived as her Christian allies in Lebanon proved unreliable and its brutal conduct during the war alienated many Lebanese who had initially welcomed the Israelis. With help from Iran, and eventually Syria, the Shiites of Lebanon created a new resistance movement. More pragmatic and less corrupt than the P.L.O, Hezbollah would arguably become Israel’s most efficient enemy.
However, despite being kicked out of Lebanon the P.L.O. was still seen as Israel’s mortal enemy.
(To be continued)
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www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Society_&_Culture/73iaf.html [September, 2011]
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