The Israeli armed forces – especially their Air Force are universally admired for their dedication, professionalism and innovative approach. Some Israeli operations — especially the destruction of the Arab Air Forces in the six day Arab-Israeli war in 1967, have become benchmarks of professional excellence. There is much to learn from the Israeli proactive and highly offensive orientation which relies heavily on seizing the initiative right from the outset. In this article AVM Tiwary examines how the Israeli Air Blitz of 1967 succeeded so brilliantly as to become a textbook model for the employment of airpower.
|This article is published with the kind permission of “Defence and Security Alert (DSA) Magazine” New Delhi-India|
The brilliant air campaign by Israeli Air Force over the deserts in Middle East in 1967 is the dream stuff of air war planners. This was the most emphatic demonstration of immense capabilities of air power next only to initial lightning success of Luftwaffe in World War II. There were multiple factors responsible for success of Israeli Air Force (IAF). But it is not the widely misreported impression that Arab Air Forces were highly inferior, had inferior equipment etc. The war though fought between mainly Western (Israeli AF) and Soviet (Arabs) equipment, did not automatically become one sided due to the equipment.
The basic reason was the way the senior military leadership visualised airpower and its impact on modern battlefield. The doctrinal thought on the Arab side came far closer to the one prevailing in the Indian subcontinent. The Egyptians, Syrians, Iraqis and Jordanians were all influenced by the thought process in RAF, more specifically the thoughts relating to tactical airpower’s employment. Though each of these nations possessed a reasonable air arm — the thinking remained land centric.
For the state of Israel and Israeli forces — success in war was key to their survival. This newly found nation of Jews, without their own motherland for over 2000 years, was born in 1948. The birth itself was marked by open hostility and attacks from all around. Their struggle for independence and its success was a question mark for quite some time. Though every Israeli fought for freedom, the leaders did not fail to notice the increasingly effective contribution of the emerging, (then fledgling) Israeli Air Force (IAF). Therefore, post independence, the IAF got primacy by way of funding and suitable structuring in comparison to the other two arms i.e. the Israeli Army and Navy. What of the IAF leadership as far as clarity of doctrinal thought and strategic approach about the use of air power? Indeed their approach was sound, as the opening hours of 1967 war proved.
There is a long road from doctrinal purity to execution efficiency in the field. For the entire system to ultimately produce the desired result, it is imperative that the theory is passed on to field, be assimilated by them and then only it can result in the blueprint of a successful air war plan. The blueprint has to be tried out to discern the flaws in planning — if any; to refine and shape the final contours of the plan to ensure it can be executed effectively and in the process offers high survivability of own forces while inflicting a paralytic or at least a crippling blow on the enemy. This is the moment that initiative must be wrested from the enemy if one is to keep away from a war of attrition; this being even more important for contestants with near parity or facing asymmetrical situation. Modern warfare is a complex process and often results in avoidable horrendous attrition if one fights more from the heart than the brain — so catastrophically demonstrated along the trenches in World War I. When meticulously planned, utilising the strength of various components of warfare in synergistic manner, it leads to lightning victory, simultaneously keeping casualties to unbelievably low levels — as so amply demonstrated by Germans in the initial stages of World War II. That control of air is central to everything else, has been repeatedly proved since World War II. These were the clear lessons, to be noted for success and to be ignored at own peril. But as we see, many parties will continue to pay dear penalties when they choose to ignore the wisdom of past wars.
The strike aircraft flew at low and ultra low levels to delay radar detection. They ensured total R/T silence, from pre-start to pull up for attack, using hand signals and rocking of the wings to convey instruction. Pilots identified each other by remembering the tail numbers, painted on each aircraft’s fin. They pulled up / eased up at predetermined points, so calculated as to permit Egyptian’s radar detection, time enough for Egyptian pilots to strap IN, start and taxi out, but not take-off
OP ‘Moked’ was the code name for Israeli air plan in the opening hours of 1967 war. The 1967 war was a six day war with extremely positive results for Israelis. IAF chose to pre-empt when it’s intelligence assessment indicated imminent attacks by Arab states all around. And, therefore, it is at once obvious that the air plan could not have been conceived in days or weeks preceding the outbreak of hostilities. In fact this was a plan which had evolved more than a decade earlier and was to have been used in 1956 during “Suez Crisis”. Why it was not used then, is not pertinent to our study here, but the fact remains that OP ‘Moked’ probably was conceived in early 50s.
The problem facing the Israelis was, that once a war starts, how quickly to neutralise Arab nations’ airpower? Unless this was done and done with immaculate efficiency, the initiative would slip on to the Arab side. In a war of pure attrition (classical dog fights), there was no way for Israel to come out winner, since they were outnumbered 1:3.25 times. The solution was to strike at Arab airbases, with a view to making the runways unusable by bomb craters and thereafter, to destroy the aircraft on ground, parked most harmlessly. But to be able to strike at all the airbases in Egypt, Syria and Jordan, before these air forces launched counter attacks would require considerable number of sorties. So the Israeli solution was to be able to turnaround strike aircraft as soon as possible after refuelling and rearming. This is what they precisely achieved — a record-breaking turnaround time of seven minutes. This permitted them 960 sorties as part of Day One plan, a phenomenal utilisation rate. They used only about a dozen aircraft for air defence of Israel during this period. Or in other words, such excellent time saving permitted them to effectively present a much larger Air Force, when it mattered.
Time Over Target (TOT) was chosen as 0745 Israeli time. In Egypt it meant 0845 local time. The prime consideration being that most of the Egyptian AF (EAF) personnel would be driving for work in the busy Cairo Traffic at 0845. The ones already at airbases would be in the process of having morning refreshments or breakfast. Thus, first their alert status would likely to be low and the reaction after the sudden Israeli strikes — slow. They planned a simultaneous attack on ten Egyptian airbases. Each target was struck by four strike aircraft. That means the first wave comprised of 40 strike aircraft. Eight such waves were directed at the ten Egyptian airbases in Phase I. Each wave had an interval of about ten minutes from the preceding wave. Thus within 1 hour and 30 minutes, the ten Egyptian airbases were struck repeatedly. The repeated attacks in quick succession ensured a near knockout volley of punches for EAF.
In phase II, seven new airbases in Egypt were targeted by waves of about four strike aircraft each, repeatedly again in quick succession. That is around 10:30 Israeli time, barely 2 hours 40 minutes of the first TOT, 17 EAF bases had been devastated by repeated attack and in each attack itself multiple passes were made. Phase III was devoted to airbases in about eight waves of 30 aircraft each. By noon of 05 June 1967, a mere matter of four hours, a total of 24 airbases were struck, most of them 3–4 times each. In addition 16 radar sites were also attacked. Such intensity of air attacks had seldom been seen in any air war. It must have been totally mind-boggling at the receiving end and the very basis for destruction of Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian air forces as a fighting force.
The Israeli solution was to be able to turnaround strike aircraft as soon as possible after refuelling and rearming. This is what they precisely achieved — a record-breaking turnaround time of seven minutes. This permitted them 960 sorties as part of Day One plan, a phenomenal utilisation rate. They used only about a dozen aircraft for air defence of Israel during this period
To ensure that Israeli air effort is not impeded, the briefing to Israeli pilots was to clear off the runway definitely in case of aborted take-offs and to ensure at any cost that the runway is not blocked. For any emergency enroute to the target, the affected aircraft was to return all by himself still maintaining R/T silence.
The strike aircraft flew at low and ultra low levels to delay radar detection. They ensured total R/T silence, from pre-start to pull up for attack, using hand signals and rocking of the wings to convey instruction. Pilots identified each other by remembering the tail numbers, painted on each aircraft’s fin. They pulled up / eased up at predetermined points, so calculated as to permit Egyptian’s radar detection, time enough for Egyptian pilots to strap IN, start and taxi out, but not take-off, thereby, catching them as sitting ducks, totally exposed to Israeli strike pilots.
The strike formations were supported by Mirage III aircraft, acting as an air defence escort, to take care of airborne enemy interceptors. This they surely did shooting down 79 aircraft in air to air combat.
The strike aircraft carried runway penetration bombs, some with delayed fuse of three-four hours to delay and disrupt runway repairs. This was followed by two-three strafing passes on parked aircraft and other targets. It is reported that for next three-four days hardly any effective runway repair was achieved.
Time Over Target (TOT) was chosen as 0745 Israeli time. In Egypt it meant 0845 local time. The prime consideration being that most of the Egyptian AF (EAF) personnel would be driving for work in the busy Cairo Traffic at 0845
In over 1,000 sorties on Day one, IAF lost 50 aircraft, an attrition rate of 5 per cent. Not a small or insignificant amount for sustained air operations, but totally justified in this context. Israelis destroyed around 271 Arab aircraft on ground.
Another novelty employed was in conveying of air situation picture, particularly information on enemy CAP to Israeli strikes, speeding away towards targets at ultra low level, thus outside the R/T range. An Israel aircraft was made to fly at height within friendly airspace. If Israeli radars detected enemy CAP, this airborne relay would pass the relevant info for strikes’ benefit or for that matter any other intelligence update.
The central belief — the core idea emanating from Israeli air doctrine remained un-altered. And, the core belief was to use airpower in offensive manner, exercising initiative when pushed to the wall. To neutralise numerically superior air forces of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq, before they could play a spoilsport role over Israeli homeland required an all out attack, with all assets available. Quite akin to a boxer on offensive landing left, right punches in quick succession — and in the process being without own defensive guard. Faced with enormous odds, Israeli AF had no other alternative but to risk it all in an audacious offensive. Jordanian AF and Syrian AF did respond with their attacks on Israeli cities, airfields and over Haifa oil refinery respectively, but these attacks came at 11:40 and did not have any significant impact. In air war especially, it is suicidal to let the enemy wrest the initiative. War is about risks and leaders succeed only when they take risk. All risks need not be foolhardy or quixotic. In fact warfare history is full of instances when numerically inferior forces, but superior in training, equipment and tactics and under excellent leadership have always turned the tables on larger forces. Air warfare cannot be any exception to this fundamental truth.
This was, then, the plan which had evolved over the years after extremely careful considerations. It had been practiced by all the participants, naturally in ingenious ways which preserved the plan’s security. Israelis’ made up for their inferior numbers by generating up to 5 sorties on each strike aircraft in one day. They turnedaround the strike aircraft in unbelievably low time of 7 minutes. Patch repair of minor battle damage due to bullet hits was simultaneously attempted and completed in ten to fifteen minutes. Amazing. How many air forces even today can boast of such a feat? Such things cannot happen purely out of patriotism, zeal or suddenly emerging demands for airpower, rather these demand precise planning of complex activities and ever insufficient resources including manpower. The false pretence of security behind the veil of detailed elaborate technical checks might not harm the operations during peace, but during wartime these can rob the nation itself of larger security due to underutilisation of airpower. Statistics can be twisted to suit desired result — but not always. Table 3 above gives a comparative picture of Peak Sortie Rates.
About the Author
Air Vice Marshal A K Tiwary VSM (retd) — The writer commanded a MiG-29 Squadron in late 80s. His various command and staff appointments like Chief Operations Officer at a major Wing, operational planning at Command level, Director Concept Studies at Air HQ, Command of a major flying base, Head of the Training Team (Air) at Defence Services Staff College and Senior Directing Staff (Air) at National Defence College have conferred a rich practical experience. The air staff course at DSSC Wellington (TN), Command and Air War Course at the Air University, Maxwell Airbase, Montgomery (USA), all inducted and accelerated his interest in air war studies. After premature retirement he now flies as Commander on Boeing 737–800 NG.
Note by the Author:
They planned a simultaneous attack on ten Egyptian airbases. Each target was struck by four strike aircraft. That means the first wave comprised of 40 strike aircraft. Eight such waves were directed at the ten Egyptian airbases in Phase I. Each wave had an interval of about ten minutes from the preceding wave. Thus within 1 hour and 30 minutes, the ten Egyptian airbases were struck repeatedly
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