Air Warfare in the middle East.

A AS ONE conflict ended, so another began. The 1967-70 War of Attrition saw sporadic but often intense air activity between the air arms of Israel, Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Again the Soviet Union rapidly made good the losses suffered by Egypt and Syria and thousands of Russian advisers came to rebuild the shattered armies and air forces. The Russians built hardened shelters to protect Egyptian and Syrian jets on the ground and established a massive air defence shield along the Suez and Golan Heights to counter Israeli air superiority. Air action began within a month of the end of the 1967 war; on July 8 and 15, Israeli and Egyptian jets clashed. The Arabs and Israelis flew strike, air superiority, reconnaissance and support missions until the UN-brokered ceasefire of August 1970. While most air actions involved less than a dozen jets, on September 11, 1969, more than 100 EAF aircraft penetrated into the Sinai and plastered several Israeli targets with bombs. After the massive air battle was over, Egypt had lost seven MiG-2 Is and two Su-7s to Mirages plus a MiG-17 and Su-7 to ground fire, while Israel lost a Mirage flown by the ace Maj Giora Rom to a missile fired by an EAF MiG-21 pilot.

According to a declassified 1971 US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) study the EAF flew thousands of attack and air patrol missions against Israel and lost 109 aircraft and 90 pilots in action, plus another 45 aircraft in operational training during the July 1967-July 1970 time period. Egyptian pilots were credited with shooting down two Israeli jets, while Air Defence Force AAA and SAM units downed 15 Israeli aircraft. Egypt deployed a MiG-17 squadron to Syria in 1969 to support Syrian pilots who fought many air battles with Israeli jets and lost more than 20 MiGs during this same time period.

For Israel the dramatic 1967 victory rapidly gave way to costly terrorist attacks from Jordan and Lebanon together with regular engagements with Egypt and Syria. The IDF/AF began to receive new A-4H Skyhawks in 1968 and F-4 Phantoms in 1969 to replace ageing French jets and embargoed Mirage Vs. By 1969 Egypt was fighting an all-out war of attrition with Israel which was spearheaded by artillery barrages and large-scale air attacks made by Egyptian jets. In retaliation, Israel sent in its jets to blast the Egyptians and, on occasions, the Syrians and Jordanians. Russian advisers supported the Egyptian and Syrian air defence units which used the same SA-2 and AAA weapons that had proved so effective against American aircraft in Vietnam. In the spring of 1970 the Russians introduced the SA-3 surface-to-air missile system which had been successfully used against low-flying aircraft. Russian pilots flew patrols with MiG-2 Is along the Suez Canal and lost five jets in a clash with the Israelis.

During the War of Attrition IDF/AF Mirage, Phantom and Skyhawk pilots downed 113 Arab and Russian aircraft, about two-thirds fell to cannon and the rest to Israeli-built Shafrir and American AIM-9 Sidewinder infra-red homing missiles. There were many opportunities for air combat over the desert and along the Golan Heights and more than a dozen Israeli pilots achieved ace status. Another 25 Arab aircraft fell to Israeli Hawk missiles and anti-aircraft fire. Israel lost nearly 30 aircraft over Egypt, Jordan and Syria during this period with most falling to SAMs and AAA — the Israelis admit to losing four of these to air combat.

Continuing conflict

Despite the ceasefire, Arab and Israeli jets continued to clash; in September 1971 an Egyptian Su-7 was shot down over the Sinai and a week later an IDF/AF Stratocruiser was shot down by a SAM. Egypt (with Soviet support) moved many air defence units up to the Suez Canal, and Russian-flown MiG-25s taunted Israeli Mirage and Phantom jets by speeding over the Sinai at Mach 2. Syrian and Israeli jets clashed on several occasions in late 1972 and in September 1973 some 20 MiGs were downed for the loss of a Mirage in a major air battle over Syria.

By 1973 the IDF/AF included four squadrons (Nos 69, 107, 119 & 201) with 125 F-4E Phantoms, five squadrons of A-4 Skyhawks (Nos 102, 109, 110, 115 & 116), three squadrons with a mix of 90 Mirages and Israeli-built Nesher copies (Nos 101, 113 & 117) and 105 Squadron with the 25 surviving Super Mysteres. Egypt and Syria enhanced the effectiveness of their air arms through the addition of new Russian jets such as the late-model MiG-2 IMF, the swing-wing Su-20 and Tu-16 jet bombers armed with AS-5 air-to-surface missiles, and they intensified training. Egypt and Syria together fielded more than 800 MiG-21, MiG-17 and Su-7/20 jets and these were augmented by squadrons of Hunters from Iraq, Su-7s from Algeria and Mirages from Libya.

1973 Arab-Israeli War

Arab air strikes and artillery barrages initiated the fifth major Arab-Israeli conflict on the afternoon of October 6, 1973 — the Yom Kippur holiday. The intense Arab air strikes were followed by an armoured assault across the Golan Heights in the north and the Suez Canal. Israeli units, now under fierce pressure, called for air support, but the Arab air defence shield shot down large numbers of Israeli jets — on the second day of the war alone, the IDF/AF lost 22 aircraft. For the next 19 days air action was unrelenting as both sides fed aircraft into the battle to support ground forces, provide air cover and strike at targets behind the front lines. During these battles more than 550 Arab and Israeli aircraft were lost; air defence weapons accounted for about 200 of these but more than 300 were downed in air combat and IDF/AF pilots emerged the victors in the vast majority of these engagements.

During the war the IDF/AF flew some 11,233 sorties with all types of aircraft and fought more than 115 air engagements; 65 involved Syrian and Israeli jets, while 52 were between Egyptian and allied Arab forces and the Israelis. Israeli Mirage/Nesher pilots and Phantom crews claimed 277 victories, while Israel admitted the loss of only five jets in air combat. Two thirds of this total was achieved by Mirage/Nesher pilots and one third by Phantom crews. More than 175 Arab aircraft fell to IR-guided Shafrir and AIM-9 missiles, a small number were destroyed by AIM-7 Sparrow missiles and the rest were downed by cannon fire. More than a dozen IDF/AF pilots reached ace status as a result of the large number of air victories achieved during the 1973 war. Skyhawk, Super Mystere and Phantom crews flew most of the ground attack missions and bore the brunt of the losses; 53 Skyhawks, 33 Phantoms and six Super Mysteres were shot down along with 11 Mirage/Neshers and six helicopters, while another 200 aircraft suffered damage but were repaired. IAF casualties included 31 aircrew killed, 14 captured and two dozen injuries from weapons and ejections.

During the Ramadan War Arab air forces flew more than 10,000 sorties with Egypt and its allies flying about 7,000 and the Syrians 3,000 sorties. Over 60% of this total were fighter and air defence missions, with the rest attack and reconnaissance sorties. Arab Su-7/20, MiG-21, MiG-17, Hunter, Mirage and even L-29 trainers used bombs, rockets and cannon in raids from the first day of the war to the last and inflicted serious losses on the Israelis. While most Arab losses were to Israeli fighters, some 13 were hit by Hawk surface-to-air missiles and 30 downed by ground fire. Egyptian helicopters were also active moving commandos into the Sinai.

Egyptian and Syrian MiG-21, MiG-17 and Iraqi Hunter pilots flew thousands of fighter and patrol missions and fought more than 100 air battles with Israeli jets. While losses were heavy, Arab pilots achieved victories. While Israel admitted the loss of five aircraft some IDF/AF officers the author spoke with admitted that some of the aircraft listed lost to SAMs and AAA were probably lost to Arab fighters. One American source listed Israeli air combat losses at 21 aircraft, while the USAF estimated air combat casualties at 10% of the total (about 11 aircraft).

A declassified 1974 DIA report listed the EAF as having lost more than 100 pilots during the 1973 war and noted that 30 North Korean and ten Pakistani pilots were supporting the force. The DIA report also noted that despite repeated Israeli air strikes which caused damage, the massive airfield hardening programme paid off during the war — only ten aircraft were destroyed and repair crews usually had runways back in service in a few hours. This report also credited the Egyptian air defence force with more than 40 Israeli aircraft and significantly degrading the IDF/AF close air support mission. In the book, The Story of the Pakistan Air Force (Shaheen Foundation, 1988) the PAF claims that Pakistani pilots supported the Syrian Air Force during the 1973 war and that Flight Lieutenant Sattar Alvi, flying a MiG-21, shot down an IDF/AF Mirage with a K-13 Atoll missile. Excellent sources for information on the 1967-1982 war-time period from the Israeli perspective include No Margin For Error by Ehud Yonay (Pantheon, 1993), Israel’s Best Defence by Eliezer Cohen (Orion Books, 1993) and G-Suit Combat Reports From Israel’s Air War, (Sphere Books, London, 1990). Israeli Fighter Aces — The Definitive History by Peter В Mersky (Specialty Press, 1997) is the first book to name the names of Israeliaces and includes full details of engagements. Phoenix Over the Nile by David Nicolle and Lon Nordeen (Smithsonian, 1997) gives the Arab perspective.

More conflicts

Following the 1973 war shelling and air action continued on the Northern Front well into 1974, with both sides suffering air losses while the last Egyptian-Israeli air battle occurred on December 6, 1973. Syrian equipment losses were quickly replaced by the Soviet Union but the 1974 DIA study noted that the Soviet Union only provided Egypt with an emergency resupply during the conflict and this left the EAF inventory below its prewar level. Over the next few years Egypt did receive a small number of MiG-2 Is and swing-wing MiG-235 but turned towards France for the Mirage V and the UK for Sea King helicopters. The 1979 Camp David peace accord led to the delivery of American systems including F-4 Phantoms and eventually F-16s to Egypt. Israel received a substantial resupply of Phantoms and Skyhawks directly from the US inventory, plus placed orders for new systems such as the F-15, F-16, AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters and Israeli-built Kfir fighters. These new systems were proved in action over Lebanon in the late 1970s and early 1980s when Israeli moves to eliminate terrorist enclaves initiated clashes with Syrian forces. The first major air clash over Lebanon occurred on June 27, 1979, when Israeli F-15 pilots downed four MiG-21s, a Kfir and a single MiG. Four more Syrian MiG-21s were shot down by F-15 pilots on September 24, 1979. On June 7, 1981, Israel demonstrated the long range of the new F-16s when they flew into Iraq and destroyed a nuclear reactor under construction near Baghdad.

Action over Lebanon

Air combat over Lebanon between Israeli and Syrian fighters in June 1982 pitted the F-15, F-4, F-16 and Kfir against Russian-built MiG-21, -23 and -25 fighters. Eighty-five Syrian aircraft were shot down by the Israelis who suffered no losses but several of their aircraft were damaged. About 40 of the Syrian aircraft were downed by F-15 crews and some 44 by pilots of F-16s. One MiG fell to an F-4. The star performers were the AIM-9L Sidewinder and Israeli Python 3 IR-guided missiles. A small number of Syrian jets were destroyed by AIM-7 Sparrow missiles and cannon fire. This Israeli success was due to effective command and control, superior systems, training and sound Israeli tactics. A number of pilots achieved ace status during the fighting over Lebanon but since many are still flying, Israeli security has limited the available information on their names, scores and detailed information on these air engagements (See F-15 On View p40). On October 1, 1985, Israeli F-15s flew some 1,500 miles (2,400km) across the Mediterranean Sea and bombed the PLO headquarters in Tunisia. This raid destroyed several buildings and killed 73 people. Israeli Defence Minister Rabin commented that the raid was flown to demonstrate to the PLO that, «the long arm of Israeli retribution will reach them wherever they are». Following this raid Syrian MiGs began challenging Israeli reconnaissance missions over Lebanon. On November 20, 1985, Israeli F-15s shot down two Syrian MiG-23s moving in to strike at a reconnaissance aircraft. Israeli aircraft have remained active over Lebanon and have repeatedly struck at terrorist targets in retaliation for artillery and commando raids. During the Gulf War, the IDF/AF was poised for action but was held back from striking against Iraq by American support of Patriot units and diplomatic efforts. There have been no air engagements between Arab and Israeli aircraft since 1985 and peace treaties have been signed between Israel, Egypt and Jordan. There have been, however, plenty of Israeli air strikes against targets in Lebanon.

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