The Story of the 1967 Precision Air Strike
In complete defiance of United Nations (U.N.) resolutions supported by Russia, China, United States, Britain, France and Germany, Iran continues to enrich uranium and produce plutonium at no less than seven suspected nuclear sites. Seeking cooperation from North Korea and A.Q. Khan, the notorious weapons smuggler from Pakistan, Iran continues to pursue enough fissile material for a basic nuclear weapon by spinning more than 3,000 centrifuges at the Nataz enrichment site from uranium hexafluoride gas. Recent reports from international intelligence agencies such as Israel’s Mossad Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations (HaMossad leModi’in v’leTafkidim Meyuhadim) indicate that Iran has also built a heavy-water facility at Arak, southwest of Tehran for making Plutonium, another way to make material for a nuclear bomb. Other sites include Tabriz, Karaj, Mashhad, Qom, Esfahan and the Russian built electricity-generating reactor at Bushehr.
Claiming the effort is needed to meet peaceful energy needs, and supported by Mohamed ElBaradei, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran seems poised to join the club of nation state actors operating outside of the mandate of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (North Korea quit, India, Pakistan and Israel never joined). As the potential for Iran to weaponise with nuclear missiles increases, the possibility of a regional arms race becomes frighteningly real. Middle Eastern rivalries could easily push Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, and Turkey into development programs, and exponentially increase the risk and consequences of a fatal “miscalculation”.
For quite some time, this threat has received considerable attention by military planners and the international media who have engaged in an often-public debate concerning the justification of a precision air strike on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. President Bush has repeatedly stated that the United States will keep Israel from harm through a military option that if extended to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, could calm rivalries before the region becomes even more volatile.
In fact a ground war with Iran has been envisaged since the mid-1990s as part of a strategic “sequencing” of theater operations. During the Clinton administration, US Central Command (USCENTCOM) had formulated “in war theater plans” to first invade Iraq and then invade Iran.
“The broad national security interests and objectives expressed in the President’s National Security Strategy (NSS) and the Chairman’s National Military Strategy (NMS) form the foundation of the United States Central Command’s theater strategy. The NSS directs implementation of a strategy of dual containment of the rogue states of Iraq and Iran as long as those states pose a threat to U.S. interests, to other states in the region, and to their own citizens. Dual containment is designed to maintain the balance of power in the region without depending on either Iraq or Iran. USCENTCOM’s theater strategy is interest-based and threat-focused. The purpose of U.S. engagement, as espoused in the NSS, is to protect the United States’ vital interest in the region – uninterrupted, secure U.S./Allied access to Gulf oil.”
Consistent with CENTCOM’s 1995 “sequencing”, the plans to target Iran were activated under TIRANNT (Theater Iran Near Term) in the immediate wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. TIRANNT existed in a scenario analysis of a theater war directed against Iran. The analysis, which involved senior military and intelligence experts, consigned to examine different theater scenarios.
“The US army, navy, air force and marines have all prepared battle plans and spent four years building bases and training for “Operation Iranian Freedom”. Admiral Fallon, the new head of US Central Command [resigned in March 2008], has inherited computerized plans under the name TIRANNT (Theatre Iran Near Term).”
Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, has said he favors a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear ambitions but has not ruled out military action. Olmert told a German newspaper “Israel always has to be in a position to defend itself against any adversary and against any threat of any kind”.
Such a strike-mission scenario has significant historical precedent for Israel and the Israeli Defense Forces Air Force (IDF AF). In 1981, Israeli jets bombed the Osirak nuclear facility in Iraq to thwart Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program. And last September Israel bombed a facility in Syria that US officials have alleged was a nuclear reactor being constructed with help from Pyongyang North Korea (see before and after satellite image at right).
As the anti-Israel rhetoric of Mr. Ahmadinejad and the ayatollahs continues to increase in tempo, the likelihood of an Israel – Iran confrontation grows. The efforts of the Majlis speaker Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel have done little to soften the Khamenei position that “The state of Israel is an unforgivable sin, and all Muslims have a duty to reverse it”. Iran’s anti-Israel stance and nuclear efforts may eventually provoke Israel’s IDF AF to launch a pre-emptive strike.
An Israeli military exercise held this month was most likely a rehearsal for an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, according to US defense department officials. A Pentagon official told the Associated Press that Israel sent IDF AF warplanes and other aircraft to the eastern Mediterranean for “large scale” exercises, The New York Times quoted defense department officials as saying that more than 100 Israeli F-16s and F-15s took part in the exercises, flying more than 1,450 kilometers – roughly the distance from Israel to Iran’s Natanz nuclear enrichment facility. The exercises also reportedly included refueling tankers and helicopters capable of rescuing downed pilots. A Pentagon official also told the New York Times newspaper that the exercises were conducted to both practice a prospective Iran air strike and also to show the US and Europe that Israel was prepared to act militarily should diplomacy fail. Israel itself has neither confirmed nor denied the exercises, with an Israeli military spokesman saying only that the country’s air force “regularly trains for various missions in order to confront and meet the challenges posed by the threats facing Israel”.
The words of this IDF spokesperson eerily recall when, in 1967, Israel was brilliantly prepared to act militarily by executing the most decisive pre-emptive air strike in the annals of modern military history.
Prelude To War
Israel’s six-day war of 1967 is one of histories decisive victories directly attributed to operation Moked, a military plan built upon a devastating air-strike attack designed to eliminate air space assets and control to the enemy. On the first day of the war, June 5, 1967, the IDF/AF staged what has come to be considered the most successful strategic air attack ever delivered.
It is generally considered that Egypt initiated the crisis leading to the 1967 war by taking actions in April 1967 that forced Israel to plan a preventive war to avoid destruction. In the view of many Middle East specialists, Israel may have instigated the crisis by fooling the intelligence agencies of the Soviet Union with a disinformation campaign regarding Israeli military intentions. Soviet diplomats in turn led both Syria and Egypt to believe that Israel was massing troops to attack Syria, prompting Egypt’s President Nasser to begin preparations to come to Syria’s aid. Nasser obviously overreacted in the spring of 1967 by asking that the United Nations forces in the Sinai Peninsula separating Egyptian and Israeli troops be withdrawn. This suddenly put Egyptian forces back in control of the Strait of Tiran, at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba, which Nasser then declared closed to Israeli shipping, a move unacceptable to Israel. It also was unacceptable to the U.S., which had secretly guaranteed – when it forced Israel to withdraw from the Sinai in 1956 – that the strait would remain open.
By June 1967, the Arab‑Israeli situation had deteriorated to the point of no return. After the UN peacekeeping force in the Sinai peninsula had been withdrawn at Nasser’s request, and Egyptian guns blockaded the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli ships, denying their access to the port of Eilat, Israel attacked Egypt and in six days of combat occupied the entire Sinai Peninsula up to the Suez Canal.
Brigadier General Yeshayahou Gavish, Chief of Southern Command at Beersheba, describes the Israeli strike against Egypt: “The attack of the Egyptians started with the movement of war planes toward Israel, which were detected by our radar, and with the shelling of villages along the Gaza Strip”. There is no claim that these blips on a radar grid, allegedly seen to the west over the Mediterranean, ever materialized as an air armada violating Israel’s space. Of the bombardment of numerous frontier villages, however, there is adequate proof. Artillery and mortar shelling from beyond her borders was an affliction with which Israel had had to live more or less patiently for nineteen years.
The Sinai Invasion
When patience ended, plan took over according to a brilliantly conceived timetable. Having been told by the Army Chief of Staff, Major General Itzhak Rabin at 0800 that the Egyptians were coming, Gavish could report at 0815 that three of his divisions were already moving on enemy territory. One column was advancing toward the Gaza Strip; the second was moving against Umm Gataf, a main Egyptian fortress organized around successive sub-ridges anchored on both sides to much higher, unflankable dunes and ridges, 30 miles southeast of El Arish; and the third division was slicing in between them, headed straight west over raw desert, roughing it where no road lay. One independent brigade was sparring toward Kuntilla in the south of Sinai with no intention of getting mauled in full-scale engagement.
To get away that fast, these several formations had to be already drawn up in march order, echeloned according to what combat would require of the columns from front to rear. They must have trained hard at it for some days; an armored division on the road stretches out twenty-five miles.
An air raid warning had sounded at 0755 over Tel Aviv. While the alarm went on, a radio news caster continued his scheduled report, completed it, and then on the stroke of 0800, added quietly: “We are at war.” In that way some of the public got the word. Early morning in Tel Aviv was otherwise almost normally calm, except at military headquarters. The sky was bright and cloudless. Following the all clear, men and women proceeded on their routine rounds. Motor traffic had kept rolling, disregarding the alert.
So when the clock struck eight, only one thing was more certain than that a new war had come: it would not be like the last war, in 1956. After that year the balance of heavy armament in the Near East had shifted radically against Israel-through Soviet assistance to Egypt, Iraq, and Syria in the form of modern tanks and military aircraft. Arab strength in tracked fighting vehicles and mobile guns was a lesser menace, although Egypt alone could field more Stalin-3, T-34, T-54, and T-55 tanks than Israel could muster in matching armor. Dramatically altering the problem was the all-around threat from Arab air bases. They could put up enough jet bombers, such as the TU-16 and IL-28, along with MIG-21 transonic fighters and MIG-ITs, to outnumber Israel’s comparable types, like the Vatour bomber-fighter and the Mirage III CJ, by better than two to one. With four air bases in Sinai, two of them new, Egypt could put MIG’s over Tel Aviv in seven minutes, the flight time from El Arish.
The Air Attack
North of Tel Aviv at 0745 that morning there began at the several air bases a great motion and stir: crews scrambling; fighter aircraft moving to the runways, some from underground hangars; planes taking off in formations of two, six, or eight, the numbers varying according to the size and importance of the pre-designated target. Such were the flight paths that farmers afield only a mile or so away might have wholly missed their going. The din and howl of this lift-off must have been deafening as group followed group low and to the west over blue water.
It was 0145 in New York and Washington when the attack order sent Israel’s war planes winging toward the Nile, Suez, and Sinai-fifteen minutes before the armor was directed to roll for the borders. Those cities slept on, not knowing until 0330 that a new war was underway. By then its outcome was already virtually decided. There followed for Israel’s High Command one suspense-filled hour, though not for her pilots. First to take off was a formation of Vatour bomber fighters of the deep penetration group. Theirs was to be the farthest journey, their target the bomber base at Luxor on the Nile, far to the southwest of Sharm-el-Sheikh and almost double the distance to Cairo. The key to the master plan was to coordinate a synchronized attack, directed against eleven bases. The lift-offs were timed and staged so that each formation fronting the first wave would go at its target in the same minute. Thereafter the same eleven bases would be pounded steadily for eighty minutes. Speed had been precisely measured against distance, without the aid of computers. Having tried and tested the mechanics of the staggered take-off, the Israelis knew it could be done.
The Egyptians had set themselves up for such an attack; each aircraft type was concentrated at its own base, allowing the Israelis to prioritize their targets. Proposals for constructing bombproof concrete hangars had been submitted by the air force, but none had been built. Assuming any Israeli attack would come at dawn, the MiGs had already flown their patrols and returned to base at about the same time the first elements of the attacking forces took off. The Egyptians believed the main air bases of Faid and Kibrit were out of range to Israeli aircraft, and jets were parked on the aprons in rows; they were wrong. Many airfields had only one runway; if the Israelis destroyed it, no further operations could take place.
The eleven targeted fields whose destruction was expected to shock Egypt and induce in its air arm a state of near-paralysis were: El Arish, Bir Gifgafa, Bir Tamada, and Jebel Libni in Sinai. Abu Suer, Kabrit, and Fayid in the Canal zone. Imshas, Cairo West, Beni Sueir, and Luxor in the Nile Valley. All eleven were nominated and hit because they were the bases either for bombers or for MIG-21’s, the hard core of the threat to Israel’s interior. With the destruction of the fighter aircraft based on Sinai and the three fields of Suez, such MIG’s as remained whole in Egypt would not have range enough to menace any city in Israel as the MIG is a short-legged aircraft.
Myth, often enough repeated, and especially when supported by arrows on a map, has a way of displacing fact. So it was that in the wake of the instant war, experts hypothesized about how Israel’s airmen contrived the approach to Egypt to achieve full deception and accomplish total surprise. Most of the diagrams purporting to show the air strike have arrows indicating prolonged flight westward over the sea, and then hooking back over the northeast corner of the Libyan Desert to approach the Nile from the west. Some show planes based on Beersheba hitting the Egyptian fields in Sinai.
None of this happened. There is an air base at Beersheba; its planes and pilots supported the armored attack into Sinai from the start. All the planes in the synchronized strike that smashed the eleven main bases took off from the runways near Tel Aviv. They flew west over the Mediterranean for a short distance. Those bound for the targets along the Nile then flew on a direct southwest course to their objectives. The Sinai-bound fighters, which are certain to have staged out last because of the short distance, flew almost due south. They moved out over a glass-smooth Mediterranean, which, for jets moving even at subsonic speed fifty to one hundred feet above the surface, is a far less friendly sea than one a bit choppy. They had to stay dangerously low lest they be picked up by enemy radar. At that level, a smooth sea means monotony, with the blending of water and sky, the loss of horizon, incessant strain in maintaining the proper altitude, and constant vigilance to avoid disaster in the form of ditching due to a slip in judgment.
With radios silent, the June 5 formation flew on toward Egypt. During the approach, as well as in actually striking at the target, the planes flew at maximum speed, although none of the bombers or fighters flew at transonic speed, since the weapons load out would not permit the aircraft to move that fast. A few minutes past eight, and they were crossing the Egyptian coastline, rocketing along at treetop level. Then should have come the first warning to the Egyptians, since, from that point on, direct observation of the Israelis’ passage became unavoidable. Nothing happened.
The Egyptians had one chance to discover what was coming. The Jordanian radar facility at Ajlun was one of the most sophisticated in the entire middle east. The screens were suddenly inundated with blips at 0715. The officer in charge radioed in the prearranged code for war to headquarters in Amman, from whence it was relayed to the Egyptian Defense Ministry – where it sat, indecipherable. The Egyptians had changed their codes on June 4, failing to notify the Jordanians. The Jordanians watched the Israeli aircraft head into the Sinai, repeatedly sending the indecipherable warning.
Without sign of any reaction below them, the planes flew on to Luxor without incident, rose five hundred feet in the air to bomb the runways and strafe the unbunkered TU-16’s, which were neatly, evenly spaced on the apron and alongside the runways. These multimillion-dollar twin-jet medium bombers with a range of three thousand miles and a speed of six hundred miles per hour were cratered right where the attackers had expected to find them. At Luxor the four 30-mm. cannon on the Vatours were the big killers of Egypt’s Soviet-built aircraft. Much the same sort of thing was occurring at the other ten bases by the time the farthest-south Vatours were heading for home. At Israel’s insistence, the French-built Dassault Mirages and Super Mysteres had been modified to carry two 30-mm.guns instead of their original rockets. Thus, Israeli pilots hammered Egypt’s air force to death with cannon fire. It was so accurate that correspondents credited the devastation to a new secret weapon, something that smelled out the vulnerable heart of a sitting aircraft and went right to it. To attribute what happened to expert gunnery skills sounded much too simple.
Thus for eighty minutes, more of the same was delivered against the seven fields in the Canal Zone and along the Nile. It was judged soon after the first strike that the MIG’s based on Sinai were all burned to ash and wrecked metal. There followed a respite of perhaps twenty minutes. Then for eighty minutes more, the air force went at Egypt again. Syrian and Iraqi bases went untouched through the morning. Only twelve fighting aircraft were left at the Tel Aviv bases to defend Israel. None was put up as a screen to the north or east, and when at last that was deemed advisable, only eight took to the air.
A Gutsy Call
The mastermind of this plan, without doubt the greatest gamble with the largest payoff in the history of military aviation, sat in his unpretentious command post at Tel Aviv, supremely confident that it would work. At age thirty-nine, about one year earlier, Brigadier General Mordechai Hod had taken command of an air force that weight-for-weight was probably the most effective fighting machine anywhere, made so largely by his predecessor, Brigadier General Ezer Weizmann, now Deputy for Operations. Weizmann shaped the tools and trained the men. Hod was the man with the big idea. Hod belonged to the first class of pilots ever to win wings in Israel, this on March 14, 1949. A third-generation Sabra (native-born Israeli), he had taken his first flight training in Czechoslovakia in 1948, and then converted to jets in England.
There were some simple reasons for his conviction that he could win the battle for Israel over Cairo. He calculated that it would take the Egyptians one hour to assess what had happened and a second hour to agree on what could be done about it. He was convinced that when hit, they would not tell the truth to their allies. Instead, they would proclaim a victory, disarming in its effect. Syria and Iraq he could not take seriously; they were just an inconvenience. But he made one mistake. Instead of a lag of two hours, the Egyptians gave him four hours. Long before that it was all over. The planes of the first wave had all returned to home base by 0900. It was then that Hod put up the screen to the north.
Knowing by 1100 that he had won the air battle in Egypt, Hod began shifting bombers and fighters to Sinai to support the attack by the armored columns. Around noon he began the air attack on the bases of Jordan and Syria and continued through most of June 5. But they were in effect finished after one hour. The only Iraqi base strafed was H-3, along the pipeline, just east of the border of the Jordan panhandle. One squadron of MI G-21’s had set down there just in time to go out like a light. Habaniya, near Baghdad, was not attacked, being beyond range of Israel’s bombers.
BLU-107 Durandal – The Durandal anti-runway bomb was developed by the French company MATRA, designed solely for the purpose of destroying runways. Once the parachute-retarded low-level drop bomb attains a nose-down attitude, it fires a rocket booster that penetrates the runway surface, and a delayed explosion buckles a portion of the runway. It can penetrate up to 40 centimeters of concrete, creating a 200 square meter crater causing damage more difficult to repair than the crater of a general-purpose bomb.
A third or more of Nasser’s warplanes remained in condition to fight. Well aware of it, Hod had no intention of renewing the assault on the bases. There had been no dogfights; not one MIG had risen to challenge a Mirage.
The air-to-air dueling started that Monday afternoon somewhat west of the Bir Gifgafa-Jebel Libni line and continued into Tuesday. Egypt threw SAM missiles into the air fight from the park west of the Mitla Pass, a fact that went unreported. There are entries in the record; an Israeli pilot said casually: “Hey, one of those blazing telephone poles is after me.” The SAM’s did no harm; Israel’s fighters were flying too low.
Some of the victory is told in statistics. The Israelis themselves were stunned by their success, with kill ratios exceeding estimates by 100 percent. Indeed, Israeli HQ refused to believe the initial reports until Hod had conducted personal debriefings with mission leaders. There were thirty-one dogfights near Suez and above the western Sinai; five Egyptian planes were shot down, not one Israeli plane. Hod lost twenty-five pilots, twenty four of them when their ships were shot down by ground fire; the other man died as a forward observer with the army. Yet the 492 sorties were the lesser part of the workload; airmen flew nearly a thousand sorties in support of the armored advance into Sinai.
Of 420 aircraft in the Egyptian Air Force that morning, 286 were destroyed, along with the loss of nearly one-third of their crews. Thirteen bases were rendered inoperable, along with 23 radar stations and anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) sites. At 1035, Hod turned to Moshe Dayan and reported, “The Egyptian Air Force has ceased to exist.”
Hod was above all elated by the performance of the Fougas. The Fouga Magister, built in Israel, is the basic trainer for jet pilots, and this relatively slow schooling craft had been up armed with two machine guns and thirty-six rockets to operate as a tank-killer over Sinai. Older men, El Al pilots and others from civilian life had been called back to man this fleet. These turtles of the air force destroyed more than seventy Egyptian artillery pieces, took on the enemy armor wherever they found it, and softened the base camps before the armored spearheads came up. Their over-all contribution to the quick victory is incalculable.
Hod learned that he had sorely underestimated the resources of his men and their machines. He had expected three to four sorties a day from the average pilot; he got’ an average of seven, and some went as high as ten. He figured the standard of gunnery established in peacetime training would drop during combat; instead, it rose. He anticipated that the serviceability of aircraft would slip steadily downward once fighting started. To begin, it was ninety-nine per cent, and it held that way through six days.
One young pilot shot down four enemy planes. In between number two and number three he was hospitalized for a wound, then ducked back to duty without permission. But for the wasted time, he might have become Israel’s first ace.
The blow dealt to Egypt by General Hod’s men and aircraft on the morning of June 5th doomed President Nassers hopes for any military success against Israel.
Defense Minister Moshe Dyan was quick to point out that, for the first time, air power had effectively won a war.
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