July 18, 1970, was another broiling-hot summer day in Egypt. In the skies above the Suez Canal, Egyptian soldiers and the operators of the Soviet surface-to-air-missile batteries, dozens of Israel Air Force fighter jets appeared. It was the start of Operation Etgar, which aimed to put an end to the threat posed by the Soviet weapons, which in the past months had made their way, with their Russian operating technicians, to the canal stubbornly and persistently.
The air force had no means to counter the deadly weapon. But that situation was ostensibly about to change. The Israeli F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers were armed with highly sophisticated U.S.-made electronic jamming equipment. The American technicians promised that a mysterious signal emitted by the electronic devices would paralyze the Russian SAMs.
The new and promising equipment arrived with a tough condition: The Israeli pilots were instructed to fly in a tight, stable formation, which they were not to break out of even when missiles were fired at them. This was not how they had been operating up until then: The routine procedure in such cases was to call out “Scorpions! Break!” on the radio and launch rapid evasive maneuvers.
For his part, Iftach Spector, commander of the IAF’s 101st Squadron, thought the use of the new system was nothing less than insane. Over dinner at a Jaffa restaurant, he tried to persuade his good friend Shmuel Chetz, the commander of the force’s Phantom squadron, to rebel and not take part in the mission. “There is such a thing as physics in the world! How can you fly like that?” Spector asked. To which Chetz replied, “They won’t hit me.” Spector was stunned. That night, he told his wife, “Tali, Chetz will die this Shabbat.”
Below, on the ground, Soviet troops waited and glanced at their control screens. As the Phantoms unleashed their bombs, the ground trembled. It was so hot in the command room that the Russians had stripped down to their underwear, though they were still wearing helmets and gas masks. Despite the unnerving tension, the Russians held their fire, waiting for the Phantoms to get closer. But some of the Egyptian soldiers panicked: They threw off their helmets and started to run. A Soviet officer grabbed one of them and hit him with a helmet, shouting, “You bastard! We, who came all this way (from Russia), are staying in our positions, and you are fleeing?!”
In the end, on that fateful day, the American equipment didn’t do the job: Two Phantoms were hit, one of them Lt. Col. Chetz’s. He plunged to his death; he was just 32.
Enter the Red Army
Historian Yoav Gelber calls the War of Attrition – which began shortly after the Six-Day War and went on until August 1970 – the “forgotten war.” It was an extraordinary conflict, which did not end with a lightning Israeli victory or with territorial conquests. It was fought along the static defensive line of the Suez Canal, in order to preserve the gains of the Six-Day War in Sinai. Egypt demanded the peninsula back. Israel was ready to return only parts of it – and only by means of direct negotiations, a prior condition that Cairo rejected. The two sides did not communicate directly with one another, and when the diplomats were sidelined, the cannons thundered.
Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser threatened that Egypt would shed Israel’s blood in a prolonged war of attrition, and the Israelis would learn the steep price that came with their stubbornness in holding onto Sinai. Exchanges of fire, border incidents and reciprocal commando raids on both sides had been frequent occurrences since June 1967. But in the spring of 1969, a year before Operation Etgar, the hostilities escalated.
The frequency of Egyptian artillery volleys across the canal increased, inflicting large numbers of casualties among the Israeli soldiers stationed in the outposts there. The Israel Defense Forces lacked an operational response. Every month, soldiers were killed and wounded along the Bar-Lev Line, a series of fortifications that Israel constructed along the canal’s eastern bank after the 1967 war. In July 1969 alone, 25 IDF soldiers were killed and 93 wounded. In that month, the chief of the Operations Branch, Ezer Weizman, was himself caught in a heavy barrage outside an outpost and took cover in the dunes. Returning to Tel Aviv in a belligerent mood, he summoned Mordechai Hod, commander of the air force, and ordered him to plan an operation to eliminate the Egyptians’ forward defense lines. Thereafter, the IDF began making massive use of the air force as airborne artillery. In the months that followed, the IAF dropped thousands of tons of bombs and destroyed not only Egyptian bunkers and artillery batteries, but also air-defense systems.
In January 1970, Israel’s government, in a fateful decision, ordered the IDF to also start bombing targets deep inside Egypt. Two months later, a Red Army air-defense brigade appeared in Alexandria, equipped with dozens of antiaircraft missile batteries. In a slow but persistent process, the Soviets succeeded in deploying these systems, first around Cairo and in the Nile Delta region, then along the canal. The IAF lost its freedom of action. But the presence of Soviet batteries exacted an even steeper price: Their deployment along the canal created an aerial umbrella stretching 10 kilometers that would protected any Egyptian forces seeking to cross the canal. This brought about the conditions which, three years later, would allow the Egyptians to launch the Yom Kippur War with a canal-crossing operation.
Thus, the seeds of the tragedy of October 1973 were planted already in August 1970, the month the War of Attrition ended.
Despite a series of successful operations by the IDF, the three-year War of Attrition ended in defeat for Israel, while the Egyptians and the Soviets achieved their goals. Failure led to a need to assign blame. Immediately after the Soviet presence in Egypt became known (in March 1970), a dispute erupted between Israeli intelligence and their American counterparts. The Americans maintained that the bombing raids deep into Egyptian territory authorized by the government of Golda Meir were a mistake and spurred the heightened Soviet involvement in the region. The Israelis argued, however, that contacts between Cairo and Moscow had begun long before those raids, and that there was no connection between them and the arrival of the Soviet equipment.
That debate continued on and off for years, in a battle of conflicting versions between Israeli historians and leading Egyptian figures, such as Foreign Minister Mahmoud Riad and Chief of Staff Mohamed Fawzi. The Egyptians argued that the air strikes inside their country forced them to turn to the Soviet Union for help. The Israelis replied that Soviet sources proved the opposite.
Was there or was there not a connection between the arrival of the Soviet forces and the steps taken by Israel? And, equally important, did Israel have other options?
Green light from Washington
Whatever the case, the deep bombing raids did not become possible until the arrival in Israel of the U.S.-manufactured Phantom aircraft, at the end of 1969. This fighter jet could carry a heavy payload over long distances and also outmaneuver the Egyptians’ Soviet-made MiGs. The Americans had already deployed the Phantom successfully in Vietnam, and the IAF believed it now had a winning card that could break the Egyptians’ determination and bring Nasser to his knees.
When the Americans agreed to sell Phantoms to Israel, they also apparently expected it to use them in combat. The impression of Israel’s ambassador to Washington at the time, Yitzhak Rabin, was that the U.S. wanted Israel to send the Phantom into action against Egypt. Rabin sent a series of cables from Washington encouraging Jerusalem to make more use of the air force. However, the stationing of Soviet troops in Egypt prompted the Israeli leadership to reexamine the situation. Was it really worth Israel’s while to bomb the Soviet units and find itself in a direct confrontation with one of the world’s two superpowers? Here, too, the U.S. administration intervened and strengthened the hand of the Meir government.
On March 18, 1970, Rabin held a routine working meeting with Henry Kissinger, then national security adviser to President Richard Nixon. That day, initial reports arrived about the presence of a Soviet expeditionary force in Egypt. At the end of the meeting, Kissinger suggested, unusually, that he and Rabin go see the president, who rarely met with foreign ambassadors. Nixon asked Rabin why Israel was not destroying the Soviet SAMs now deployed on Egyptian soil. Rabin read this as a clear signal to Israel to continue with the deep strikes.
Nixon and Kissinger encouraged Israel to strike Egypt, of course, because the latter was a Soviet ally. But the administration also had other considerations. In Israel’s eyes, the War of Attrition was part of the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. However, for the Americans, the clashes in the Sinai desert also presented an opportunity to test the strength of U.S.-manufactured materiel against Soviet munitions. The Americans had the Vietnam War in mind as well. In effect, the two wars were being waged symmetrically: American and Israeli pilots were using the same Phantoms to overcome the same Soviet defenses that were positioned in Sinai and in North Vietnam. Lessons gleaned from one arena could be applied in the other.
In the spring of 1970, a golden opportunity was handed to the Americans. The Soviets’ new and highly effective SAM-3 antiaircraft missile was introduced into the combat zone. It was a smaller and faster surface-to-air missile than the slower and heavier SAM-2 deployed earlier. It became clear to the IAF that it could not overcome the new Soviet weaponry. When the IDF informed the Pentagon about the difficulties it was encountering with the SAM-3, the initial response was one of disbelief: Never before had the Soviet Union deployed the SAM-3 outside its borders, not even in Eastern Europe.
Once persuaded that the IDF reports were accurate, the Americans leaped at the opportunity. The Pentagon had developed an electronic-warfare system to cripple the SAM-2, but wasn’t certain it would be a match for the SAM-3. The Americans sought to ascertain that before the Soviets could deploy that new system in North Vietnam and hamper U.S. aerial operations against the communist enemy. Their only recourse was to employ the current system against the SAM-3 in combat.
In July 1970, the United States sent senior officers and a crew of technicians together with the requisite equipment to teach the Israelis how to operate the system. The result of these efforts was Operation Etgar (Hebrew for “challenge”), in which Shmuel Chetz was killed. The Americans now had an answer to the question that had been troubling them: They knew they had to develop a different way to counter the SAM-3.
Two years later, Nixon ordered his air force to launch a massive bombing campaign against North Vietnam. Bad weather and poor visibility forced it to begin three days later than planned. The delay was reported on American television, and Nixon, deep into his campaign for a second term, was held up to ridicule. Furious, he called in the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Thomas Moorer. “The Air Force didn’t do a goddamn thing for the last three days,” Nixon declared. “Now, I am tired of this bullshit! It’s been in every paper in this town,” he ranted at Moorer. “I want the military to shape up or there’s going to be a new chief of staff all up and down the line.”
At this point, the conversation took a surprising turn. The president asked the chief of staff why American pilots insisted on “5,000-foot ceilings,” whereas “the goddamned Israelis fly at 1,000-foot ceilings.” It emerges that in the wake of the IAF’s sorties in Sinai two years earlier, Nixon was in possession of precise information about the Phantom’s full technical capabilities.
Defending Egypt’s skies
In the first three hours of the Six-Day War, the IAF bombed airfields in Sinai and deep inside Egypt, effectively neutralizing the country’s air force. That was one of the reasons for the dazzling victory in 1967. The Egyptians discovered, to their astonishment, that they lacked a functioning aerial-defense system and that their skies were open to Israeli aircraft, which could patrol and bomb almost unimpeded. A solution to that problem was a precondition for any Egyptian attempt to launch a new war and recapture the Sinai Peninsula. But Egypt could not embark on such an operation on its own.
Aware of the scale of the problem, Nasser turned to the Soviet Union as early as the end of June 1967, suggesting that the Red Army take charge of Egypt’s air defenses. Nasser reiterated this request in July 1967 and in the spring of 1968, but was turned down each time. The main reason was Soviet apprehension about becoming entangled in Middle East hostilities.
After the last refusal, the subject of an expeditionary force remained pending; the Egyptians continued pressing for it. The Soviets, however, were reluctant. Moscow’s considerations were complex. The Americans possessed technology allowing them to target the Soviet Union with nuclear-tipped missiles launched from warships and from submarines deployed in the Mediterranean. As far back as the late 1950s, the Soviets sought to deploy a naval force in the Mediterranean as a counterweight to the American Sixth Fleet, but to do that they needed naval and air bases in Arab states. Until the Six-Day War, Nasser declined to authorize such a presence, seeing it as a dangerous blow to Egyptian sovereignty. But after June 1967, Egypt became completely dependent on the Soviet Union. Only Moscow had the resources and motivation to assist Egypt to rehabilitate itself militarily and economically following its disastrous defeat. Accordingly, Nasser allowed the Soviets to establish their own naval base in the port of Alexandria and an airbase in Cairo. In the face of the Sixth Fleet, the Soviets deployed the Fifth Eskadra (flotilla) and the 90th Squadron of its air force.
The escalation in the War of Attrition put this achievement at risk. In the summer of 1969, Egypt began firing heavy artillery barrages at IDF outposts along the Suez Canal. The IAF responded with a series of strikes as part of what was called Operation Boxer, bombing the massive line of fortifications (150 kilometers long and 30 kilometers deep) that Egypt had arduously constructed along the canal’s eastern bank. In the following months, the IDF dropped thousands of tons of munitions on this line, putting it in danger of annihilation. Even though the IDF was careful to avoid bombing Soviet facilities, an unknown number of Soviet advisers, who were stationed with every Egyptian unit, were wounded or killed.
Summit in Moscow
In September and October 1969, the IAF bombed much of the Egyptian air-defense system and gained absolute supremacy in the skies over Egypt. The frequent attacks on Egypt’s artillery batteries reduced the intensity of the shelling, but not the number of Israeli soldiers killed, which continued to be about 12 per month. The combination of frustration and feelings of invincibility resulted in extraordinary Israeli operations, designed to drive home to the Egyptian public the message that they had no chance of winning.
In September, an IDF force of six tanks and three armored personnel carriers staged a raid on the western shore of the Gulf of Suez. The force remained on Egyptian soil for about 10 hours, drove 70 kilometers along the shoreline, destroyed several radar stations and killed about 100 enemy soldiers and officers, including an Egyptian general and a Soviet adviser with the rank of colonel. The Egyptian high command was hard pressed to respond, and the initial reports to Nasser were fragmentary and confused. The next day, the Egyptian president suffered a heart attack.
On the morning of November 4, 1969, a pair of Phantom aircraft appeared in the sky over Cairo a few minutes after sunrise. Despite the haze, the jets flew low and at full throttle. “We flew at a hundred feet between the antennas of Cairo, like we were cars driving on the main street,” IAF pilot Avihu Bin-Nun related later. The sonic boom created by the Phantoms shattered the windows of thousands of buildings, including those in Nasser’s private home – a perfect demonstration of Egypt’s helplessness and inability to defend itself. Two days later, Nasser told the Egyptian House of Representatives, “The feeling that must become rooted within us is that if the enemy fights and his back is to the sea, we are fighting with our back to perdition… The only path that is available to Egypt, and to the entire Arab nation, is war for life or death.”
In December 1969, an Egyptian delegation whose members included Vice President Anwar Sadat, Foreign Minister Riad and Chief of Staff Fawzi visited Moscow to ask for help. Riad’s impression was that the Soviet leaders were very worried about the escalation at the canal and the possibility that Egypt would launch a premature effort to cross it. The most important meeting in the Soviet capital was with Communist Party Secretary General Leonid Brezhnev, the strongman in the Kremlin. He emphasized that at that stage, Egypt must avoid going to war, as its preparations for such were incomplete.
At the same time, Brezhnev promised that within a month Moscow would send 60 pilots who would serve as advisers to the Egyptian air force. The Soviet Union would not allow Egypt to be vulnerable, he promised, and therefore the government would also send its latest antiaircraft missile, the SAM-3, together with 1,000 soldiers to operate the batteries. Soviet troops would train Egyptian soldiers and defend Egypt’s cities against Israeli attacks. However, Brezhnev told his interlocutors, those forces would not arrive in Egypt before October 1970.
The position Brezhnev presented was based on staff work in the Soviet army and on a decision by the Politburo, the country’s supreme authority. The Soviet leadership was not blind to the dangers posed to its facilities in Egypt. In the light of this, the Soviet government had instructed the army to prepare to station forces in Egypt as early as September 1969. The following month, Brezhnev had even consulted East German leader Walter Ulbricht on the subject (the Soviet leader generally tried to coordinate major foreign policy decisions with the leaders of the East-European satellites, in order to enhance the cohesion of the Communist bloc), but the Soviet leader did not sign the official order to execute the move until late December, when he learned from his conversations with Sadat that Egypt would agree to accept the expeditionary force. At the same time, Operation Caucasus, as it was code-named by the Soviets, was confined at this stage to only dispatching the 1,000 personnel. It was aimed solely at defending the Soviet Union’s naval and air bases in Egypt, and at this stage it progressed at a leisurely pace.
In January 1970, Israel launched its campaign of air strikes deep inside Egypt. Two such attacks took place before a visit by President Nasser to Moscow, and two more while he was there. Nasser decided that these attacks represented a radical change in the situation and that he could no longer accept Brezhnev’s limited promises. By this time the Egyptian president was very ill. He suffered from heart disease, diabetes and other problems and it wasn’t clear how much longer he had to live. He could barely walk, and on a previous trip to Moscow had to be supine during the entire flight. Nevertheless, he took his life in his hands and decided to go once more to Moscow to coax the Soviets to broaden the operation and expedite their preparations.
On January 22, 1970, two weeks after the start of the IAF attacks on Egyptian territory, Nasser arrived in Moscow for a series of meetings, which the participants in their memoirs refer to as the most important since the end of the Six-Day War. Nasser insisted on meeting with Brezhnev immediately upon landing. Since July 1967, the Soviet Union had done all it could for Egypt, Nasser acknowledged to the Soviet leader. However, the arrival of Phantoms in the Middle Eastern arena at the end of 1969 had transformed the picture completely: Egypt had no military response to these aircraft.
Following lengthy consultations, Brezhnev announced that the USSR was ready to supply SAM-3 missiles to Egypt, which could deal with the new problems, and it would also train Egyptian crews to operate them. Nasser replied that this was not an adequate solution, since the training period lasted six months. Why not sign a cease-fire agreement with Israel for now, Brezhnev asked, until the Egyptian troops are ready? It’s impossible to blow hot and cold so abruptly, Nasser replied; it would be a severe blow to the morale of the army and the nation.
Brezhnev asked what Nasser had in mind. The Egyptian leader urged Moscow to send the SAM-3 missile batteries together with Russian crews, which would assume responsibility for defending the Egyptian homefront, to which Brezhnev retorted: Are you proposing that Soviet forces take part in the fighting? No, Nasser insisted, only in defending Egypt’s cities. Marshal Andrei Grechko, the Soviet defense minister, made a small gesture with his hand in Brezhnev’s direction. The latter said: You understand that deploying our forces will also entail sending planes with our pilots to protect them? Nasser explained that he had no problem with that, either.
Alexei Kosygin, the prime minister and the leader of the Kremlin’s dovish wing, had reservations: “This proposal means an escalation of the conflict. It will lead to a collision between us and the United States.” Brezhnev agreed: “It would be to defy the United States militarily.” In reply, Nasser said he wanted to know why the U.S. was not afraid to give aid to Israel, whereas the Soviet Union was hesitant about helping Egypt. No reply was forthcoming. Nasser picked up a package of cigarettes; at his doctors’ advice he hadn’t smoked for several months. Now he lit one up. If you don’t fulfill my request, he threatened the Soviet leaders, I will resign and recommend my deputy, Zakaria Mohieddin, to succeed me. The latter, Nasser warned, is pro-American and will bow to every demand made by Washington. The Soviet leaders were nonplussed; Brezhnev suggested taking a break in the discussions in order to consider the issue further.
Behind Kremlin walls
At noon on that same day, a special session of the Politburo convened, in the presence of the General Staff of the Red Army; it went on for five hours. Meetings of this sort were held in a large, high-ceilinged hall in the Kremlin. Hanging on the walls were portraits of Marx and Lenin staring dolefully at a long table covered with a green tablecloth. Around it were 24 chairs for the members of the Politburo. Additional chairs were set up along the walls for aides, experts and advisers. On the way in, the participants strode through long, empty corridors; the number of security guards increased near Brezhnev’s office. There was something petrifying about the entire building; participants at Politburo would usually speak in soft, low tones.
Since the Six-Day War the issue of military intervention in the Middle East had become a controversial topic among the diverse factions in the Soviet government. Not all members of the Politburo thought the goal justified a confrontation with the United States. During the 1967 war, Kosygin had been overheard shouting at his comrades, “And what if they launch bombs against us? Is it worth it?”
In the course of 1967-68, the Soviet ambassador to Cairo, Sergei Vinogradov, and a senior military adviser, Yevgeny Malashenko, also debated this subject between them. Vinogradov wanted the USSR to send military forces into Egypt; Malashenko opposed any such move. Malashenko believed that it was Vinogradov who persuaded Nasser to present his demands to Moscow. Malashenko also reproached Soviet leaders – though not by name – who had visited Egypt and seemed enthusiastic about the idea of military intervention. In his view, they were driven by imperialist ambitions. A similar debate broke out in the Politburo that January between the hawks and the doves. Grechko, for his part, was in favor of acceding to Nasser’s request; Kosygin was against. What tipped the scales was Brezhnev’s backing for Grechko.
Immediately after the Politburo meeting, Brezhnev informed Nasser and his delegation that, for the first time since the end of World War II, Soviet troops would be stationed in a “friendly country.” The Politburo agreed to send 23 SAM-3 missile batteries with their crews, and 85 MiGs, to be manned by Soviet pilots. In response to Nasser’s request, the number of soldiers planned for the expeditionary force was increased from 1,000 to 10,000, and the date of their arrival was moved up from October to March.
The use of the Israeli air force as airborne artillery led to a tactical achievement and a strategic defeat. The IDF set out to vanquish Egypt, but the latter turned to the Soviet Union, which intervened and vanquished the IAF. The United States initially encouraged Israel to strike powerfully at Egypt and the Soviet Union, but then changed its mind for considerations of its own, and forced Israel to accept a cease-fire in August 1970. But was there really no alternative? Why didn’t the IDF respond to Egyptian artillery barrages with artillery fire of its own? In fact, the use of the air force brought about an escalation that no one in Jerusalem wanted. On the face of it, artillery fire would have focused the fighting on the cease-fire line of the 1967 war and would not have posed a threat to the Soviet military presence, which was hundreds of kilometers from the frontline.
At the time, however, the IDF had only a few artillery batteries, and not by chance. Even though the new borders created by the Six-Day War were considered ideal in terms of defense, the General Staff continued to toy with the idea of, and to hope for, more conquests. The area to be seized in the next campaign was thought to be the same size as the territory conquered in the 1967 war. Contingency plans involved taking control of the eastern bank of the Suez Canal and from there moving south to seize the coast of the Bay of Suez down to the Bab al-Mandab Straits; capturing a large swath of territory west of the Suez Canal, bordering on Cairo; and, in the north, conquering the Syrian part of Mount Hermon and the Lebanese Beka’a.
To achieve these goals, the IDF needed a mobile offensive force armed with tanks and warplanes. That, at least, was the lesson of the Six-Day War. Having left few resources for the purchase and deployment of artillery, the IDF had to improvise and use the air force as airborne artillery. Besides that, the attempt to vanquish Egypt by means of a series of offensive moves on land, in the air and at sea enabled the IDF to try out new weapons and to prepare the forces for the major push to conquer more territory.
Finally, there were some in the General Staff, among them the director of Military Intelligence, Aharon Yariv, who hoped that the deep air strikes would topple Nasser. Washington and Moscow believed that this was the goal of the air strikes launched far from the Suez Canal. No few officials in Washington – in the White House, the State Department and the CIA – thought that the West would only benefit if Nasser were removed from the picture, and they spurred Israel to act toward that end. Thus, the path chosen by Israel was not a mistake but part of a comprehensive policy.
Because the War of Attrition has been forgotten over the years, perhaps even deliberately, its lessons have not been learned. For example, during 2018, the IDF attacked more than 200 targets deep inside Syria. In this case, too, the IDF was eager to try out a new American plane it had just acquired, the F-35. The aircraft’s first operational sortie took the form of attacks in Syria. The government told the public that all these actions were coordinated with Russian President Vladimir Putin, so there was no fear that Russia – which maintains ground, sea and air forces in Syria – would respond.
But last September a Russian spy plane was downed, apparently by Syrian antiaircraft fire, while Israel was again bombing targets in Syria. Moscow responded with fury and accused Israel of involvement. At the time there were four Russian antiaircraft battalions operating in Syria. The Russian Defense Ministry took advantage of the incident to expand control over Syrian airspace and dispatched three more battalions. They took over the responsibility for air defense from the Syrians and were equipped with the state-of-the-art S-300 missile system, which has the capability to engage in cyber and electronic warfare against attacking aircraft.
Even though in 2018, as in 1970, Washington initially backed Israel, in the end the United States left Israel to cope on its own with the consequences of its deeds. The number of Israeli sorties over Syrian territory has decreased tremendously since the end of 2018. The cliché was never truer: Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat its mistakes.
Dr. Guy Laron is a senior lecturer in the international relations department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.