On the first day of the Yom Kippur War, an Israeli photo reconnaissance plane, flying well inside Sinai to keep out of range of surface-to-air (SAM) missiles across the Suez Canal, scanned the Egyptian deployment on the far bank.
The Israel Air Force commander, Maj.-Gen. Benny Peled, would not see the photographs until days later. They showed Egyptian tanks, fuel and supply trucks, troop carriers, and other vehicles lined up for miles, packed together virtually bumper to bumper on narrow desert roads waiting to cross into Sinai on pontoon bridges being assembled in the water.
Had he known of this stationary target in real time, Peled would later say, he would have ordered an attack despite the profusion of SAMs in the area.
It might have meant the loss of two to four planes, he estimated, but it would have wrought greater destruction than the Egyptian army suffered in Sinai in the Six Day War.
A year earlier, Peled’s predecessor, Maj.-Gen. Mordecai “Motti” Hod, had seen almost identical photographs.
They had been taken during an Egyptian military exercise simulating a canal crossing.
Recognizing a prime target when he saw one, Hod ordered an attack plan prepared in case the Egyptians deployed like that for an actual crossing.
A detailed plan, labeled Srita (Scratch), was drawn up and rehearsed by the air force. When war came the next year, however, Srita was overlooked amid the intense confusion of the opening hours of the war, with surprise attacks unfolding on both the Syrian and Egyptian fronts.
In an interview three decades after the war, Hod was still lamenting the failure of his old friend and successor, Peled, to implement the plan. “He had only to say, ‘Srita, execute.’” If Peled had given the order, Hod believed, Israel’s most trying war would have been turned around at its very start.
To avoid the SAMs, Hod’s plan was based on so-called “toss bombing.” Planes coming in low over the Sinai desert, invisible to the SAM radars, would pull up sharply 2 miles from the waterway and release their bomb loads, as if from a sling shot, while looping to the rear to escape fire. Although toss bombing was of limited accuracy against small targets, a massive staging area was impossible to miss. Under the plan, each aircraft would carry 24 small bombs to make for a broader spread. A wave of 100 planes would thus carry 2,400 bombs.
The same planes would attack in two cycles, doubling the number of bombs. If 200 planes were used, the physical and psychological damage would be that much greater, with close to 10,000 bombs raining down on the trapped vehicles.
The attack would be simpler to carry out than the preemptive attack on Egypt in 1967 that Hod had commanded and the impact on the war could have been almost as great. It would have thrown the entire Egyptian attack off stride, taken the wind out of the Arabs’ psychological sails, and permitted Israel to recover swiftly from the shock of the surprise Arab attack Coming off the high of the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War would prove a difficult challenge for the air force. It received more than half of Israel’s defense budget and its reputation was of mythic proportions. Yet it would be unable to carry out one of the basic missions it was expected to perform – to block an enemy incursion if the ground army was unable to hold.
Within the air force itself, there had been uneasiness about these expectations. The pilots well knew that the Soviet-made SAMs posed a serious problem for which there was no clear answer.
The Americans, who had encountered SAMs in Vietnam, offered only partial electronic solutions for the SAM-2 and SAM- 3, the first missile systems introduced by the Soviets; there was no known defense at all against the new SAM-6.
Israel began to lose planes to SAMS in worrisome numbers during the so-called War of Attrition along the Suez Canal in1969- 70. With the end of the fighting, the SAMs became even more formidable, when the Egyptians, with their Soviet advisers, linked the scattered batteries into a mutually supporting system.
For Israeli pilots, dogfights with enemy planes were virtually a recreational activity; but the SAMs were implacable, mysterious and deadly, filling their cockpits with raucous warnings of radar lock-on and approaching missiles.
Shortly after taking command of the air force in May 1973, Peled was visited by then defense minister Moshe Dayan and members of the General Staff, all eager to know whether the air force had an answer to the SAM threat.
Peled summoned the operational team working on the problem.
The best minds in the air force, they spelled out for the visitors their “Star Wars” plan, as Peled sardonically labeled it. The plan’s code name was Tagar, or challenge.
Since the SAM batteries could not be suppressed electronically, Tagar aimed at eliminating them by brute force.
The day-long operation would involve hundreds of aircraft in staggered waves, performing an intricate choreography with clockwork precision. Drones and helicopters dropping aluminum strips would clutter the enemy radar.
If the radars were activated, planes would drop American-made Shrike missiles that home in on radars. If the radars were kept inactive to foil the Shrikes, planes would undertake low-level attacks against them. The choreography would include a mix of low-level and high-level attacks.
Before Dayan and the others left, Peled brought them down to Earth. “You should know that these plans aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on unless there’s a preemptive strike,” he cautioned.
The surprise Arab attack on Yom Kippur afternoon, a Saturday, left no time to execute Tagar in the few hours of daylight remaining, but at dawn Sunday the first wave rose for a preliminary attack.
Dayan had meanwhile helicoptered up to the northern front and was appalled at what he found. The Syrians had broken through the thin Israeli defenses in strength and some units had reached the edge of the escarpment overlooking the Galilee. Israeli army engineers were already preparing the demolition of the Jordan River bridges.
The northern front commander told Dayan bluntly that he was not sure he could hold the heights.
Dayan had himself patched through to Peled and told him to halt Tagar and send the entire air force north. When Peled attempted to argue, Dayan snapped, “This is not a request. This is an order.”
Obliged to seek out the Syrian SAMs before their locations were verified by reconnaissance photos, six Phantoms were downed and only one missile battery hit. The air force, normally meticulous and decisive, had been jarred into sloppy haste. There would be no further attempt to implement Tagar.
Senior air force veterans of the war interviewed years later were unanimous in saying that, if Dayan had not interfered, Tagar and its Golan equivalent would have succeeded in destroying the SAM array on both fronts, enabling the air force to operate decisively in support of the ground forces. Israeli losses in the operation would have been high, some said, perhaps dozens of planes and pilots.
In an interview shortly before his death, Peled said that the air force had dominated the skies throughout the Middle East during the war except for two small rectangles – the spaces above the battlefields in Sinai and the Golan, where the SAMs ruled. On the ground, soldiers kept looking at the sky and asking “Where’s the air force?” The IAF, however, was far from passive. It shot down hundreds of aircraft over Syria and Egypt, prevented attacks by enemy planes on Israeli convoys bound for the fronts, kept the skies over Israel clean of enemy planes except for a few peripheral pinpricks in the north, and destroyed a substantial part of Egypt’s commando forces being helicoptered behind Israeli lines.
The IAF attacked strategic targets in Syria, such as power plants and oil depots. The pilots would also “go into the fire,” as Peled put it, to attack missile-intensive environments such as the bridges on the canal and military targets in the heart of Damascus.
The Arab attack on Yom Kippur caught Israel with its reserves – two-thirds of the army’s strength – still unmobilized. Initially staggered, the ground forces recovered brilliantly. After crossing the canal, Israeli tanks and artillery destroyed half the SAM batteries in the area, opening up patches of sky for the air force, which could now reciprocate with direct ground support.
The IAF paid a heavy price – 53 pilots killed, 44 captured and 102 planes downed. Pilots flew three or four sorties a day. When the war started, Israel had 317 serviceable aircraft and 82 in maintenance.
All 82 would be returned to service during the war, largely offsetting the number shot down.
After the war, the air force devoted itself to coming up with a technological answer to the SAMs. By 1978 it had it – a standoff weapon that could be launched from beyond the range of the SAMs and guided onto target with its own camera.
When the Lebanese War came in June 1982, the new weapon and new tactics were put to the test in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, where the Syrians deployed a missile array more formidable than the one they fielded in the Yom Kippur War – 19 SAM-6 batteries.
The IAF opened the battle remotely by dispatching drones to overfly the SAMs and the radar-controlled antiaircraft guns protecting them. The drones sent electronic signals activating the Syrian radars, which had been kept dormant to avoid being targeted.
When the radars came alive, their electronic parameters were recorded and instantly fed into airborne and ground-launched missiles that homed in on and destroyed the radars before they could be shut down.
With the Syrian radars blinded, Israeli warplanes swarmed over the valley, destroying 15 batteries and severely damaging three others.
When Syrian warplanes rose to challenge them, dozens were shot down, as Israeli air controllers in surveillance planes directed waiting fighter squadrons to the attack.
At this stage, with not a single Israeli plane downed, the air force commander, Maj.-Gen. David Ivri, Peled’s former deputy, recalled his planes to make it a perfect day.
Air battles would resume the next day. In all, 82 Syrian planes were downed in dogfights. Israeli losses were one Skyhawk and two helicopters downed by conventional antiaircraft fire.
The Israeli attack in the Bekaa involved an integration of technology and tactics which American military analyst Anthony Cordesman would call “uniquely efficient.” With this stunning display nine years after the frustrations of the Yom Kippur War, the IAF took back the technological and psychological high ground.
The revised edition of The Yom Kippur War by Abraham Rabinovich, published this month by Schocken (New York), includes previously censored material as well as information that has emerged from memoirs and other sources since the book was originally published in 2004.
A major new source is a 1,300-page compilation of transcripts of debates within the high command and other command levels during the war that offers a rare close-up of decision making amid seeming chaos.
Separately, we learn about two Egyptian informants for the Mossad who provided vital information that directly impacted the battlefield. A former Mossad leader offers new insights into the colossal failure of military intelligence on the eve of the war. Interviews with a former commando leader and others similarly add new layers to the story. There are also new maps.