Military & Aerospace

Yom Kippur War: 1973
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Issue Book Excerpt: Attrition in Air Warfare | Date : 14 Aug , 2016

Chronologically the next war for our study is the Yom Kippur War. If 1967 was a classical study of pre-emptive offensive, then this war of 1973 can be considered how an Air Force ought to react to enemy’s initiative and offensive. This was a case wherein Israeli AF had to stem the enemy advance on two fronts, each serious enough to threaten the existence of the state of Israel itself.

Thereafter continue operation to fight and maintain air superiority for further operations. The land operations eventually would annihilate an entire Egyptian Army on the canal front and having pushed back Syrians from Golan Heights would threaten Damascus.

The lack of doctrinal clarity and defensive strategy on the part of Egyptian AF and Syrian AF, of course, would amply help the Israeli AF – so much so that the Israelis would soon convert the initial setbacks in to victory. In doing so, while Israelis suffer unsustainable attrition on 6 and 7 Oct 1973, let us see their brilliant strategy which enables them to bypass this suicidal headlong attrition.

The war started with Israeli military, more specifically Israeli AF being denied permission to launch a pre-emptive air strike on the morning of 6th Oct 1973. The Israel intelligence had forecast, albeit rather late that war was about to start, possibly by the evening of 6 Oct 1973. To Israeli military leadership, who were handicapped by this extremely short notice and facing the painful truth of complete mobilisation taking upto 48 hours, the only redeeming action was a pre emptive by the Israeli AF. This would also enable Israeli AF to reduce the numerical superiority of hostile air forces. The following table shows the comparative combat aircraft balance prevailing then.

AC Egypt Syria AC Israel
MiG 21 210 200 Mirage 100
MiG 17 105 80 F-4 100
5U-7 80 30 A-4 160
TU 16 25 Mystere 12
Total 420 310 307
Ratio 420+310=730 Vs 307 (2.4 : 1)

The Israeli AF was capable of reacting in hours and was the only hope of reducing the odds in Israel’s favour. But the military decision was overruled by political compulsions. Politically Israel could not show itself as initiator of offensive action. Thus, Israeli AF was forced to commence its operation after absorbing the initial blow from both the Egyptian & Syrian Air Forces.

Egyptians stnlck at 25 Israeli targets, with about 220 aircraft at 1358 hrs on 6 Oct 1973. The targets were three primary airbases, three secondary airbases, twelve Hawk Sites, two major Command & Control Centres, two radar stations, two field artillery sites and one telecommunication centre. The attacks were mainly against targets located close to the border. For deeper targets TV-16s launched ‘Kelt’ air to surface, long-range missiles. The primary concern of EAF seemed more on minimising attrition without serious consideration to effectiveness of air attacks. The damage it seems was not so serious so as to ground the Israeli AF. The Israeli AF got airborne around 1700 hrs. The EAF, in the bargain suffered loss of about 30 aircraft.

The Syrian action though offensive was least comprehensible. About 100 Syrian aircraft carried out RIP and gun attacks against Army targets amongst front line troops. Why did they not follow the Egyptian air attacks on counter air targets in Israel is totally beyond comprehension. It is like starting a war with your most powerful instrument of offence being directed against targets, which at that moment did not even deserve to be on the target list. And after this one round of offensive action by both Egypt and Syria, they reverted back to defensive operations, directing 80-90 percent effort towards air defence.

Luck certainly favours the brave and on 6th God too was on Israeli side. Here was a chance for Arab Air Forces to gain control of air over Israel, which would have ensured continued success of their ground offensive on both. the fronts. It was frittered away in incorrect target selection, less than professionally executed air attacks and most importantly in not following up the counter air offensive against Israel. Even in those air plans of the opening round that resulted in awesome success in the first strike itself, follow up has been essential to ensure attaining and, thereafter, maintaining control of air. Arab’s air doctrine seemed to under-emphasise on control of air and their strategy was half hearted and mixed up as far as target selection was concerned.

On subsequent days EAF & SAF’s efforts would be largely reactive to Israeli Air & Ground initiative, illcoordinated with its own surface to air missile and gun units, resulting in more losses to own forces from these ground weapons than to Israeli AF. It would be a classic example of how not to fight an airwar. The Egyptians had employed the philosophy of shared air defence zone between Army and Air Force, one served purely by SAMs and AAA and the other outside SAM cover by air defence aircraft. Because they abused the indivisibility of airspace principle and in the process suffered more fratricidal losses compared to kills on Israeli, it would be worthwhile to spend some time on the details of their air defence employment.

The Egyptian Second Army, consisting of 3 Divisions was deployed in an area of 100- km front with 40-55 km depth. Within this area 586 SAM launchers comprising 102 batteries were deployed. These included SA-2, SA-3 and 56 launchers of SA- 6. In addition there were 1330 missiles of SA-7 class and a total of 1833 AAA, which included 100 ZSU- 23-4, a potent gun with 3000-3400 rounds per minute rate of fire. Apart from the canal front, the second Army had vital areas like Reserve Combat Commands, Div Admin area, Div HQs, Corps Maint area, Corps HQ; Corps artillery sites etc. These would number about 36 sites.

Considering the SA-3’s maximum crossing range at 10 km, the 100- km canal front would, require 11 SAM sites, bringing the total number of sites to 47. SA-2 would supplement the SA-3 Cover for increased high attitude cover. SA-6 batteries were only 13. These are mobile missiles mounted on tracked vehicles, designed to move along with tank columns. So these perforce had to be deployed at the bridging sites, to move into bridgehead area after completion of bridging.

What was the Israeli AF’s reaction and how did they first halt the unbelievable yet successful enemy Army’s advance on both the fronts. And, thereafter, wrested the initiative in air against EAF & SAF. In this process, no doubt they created condition, which enabled Israeli Army to take the initiative on ground, eventually going on extremely effective offensive.

There is no denying the fact that Israeli Army as well as the Israeli Navy contributed their effort in silencing some of the SAM batteries on the canal front. Infact in modern wars each service must participate in other’s battle whenever possible. But one can not detract from the fact that it is the cool analysis and very sound decisions of the Israeli AF senior leadership which arrived at proper air strategy when faced with suicidal air losses on Golan Heights on 7 Oct 1973.

The Syrian advance was halted by a combination of heroic ground resistance and air action, both of which unfortunately incurred heavy attrition. But it was essential. However, continuation of such an air strategy would undermine the existence of IAF itself, hence, soon close air support gave way to interdiction and strategic strikes against Syria. In this fascinating battle 170 Israeli tanks and 6000 soldiers and 60 artillery pieces held off a Syrian force comprising 1400 tanks and 1000 mortars and artillery pieces with 45000 troops.

Then with little reinforcement, took the battle to the doorsteps of Syrian Capital – Damascus; turned about in time to face the combined offensive of 180 Iraqi tanks and 40th armoured brigade of Jordan, all within 7 days. This was made possible by audacious leadership, manoeuvre warfare and airland integration of the highest order. A serious study of this battle by US Gen Don Starry would result in the famous Air Land concept for US Army.14

On the Canal front, the Egyptian Army started the canal crossing at 1400 hrs on 6th Oct. Their initial progress was stunning and dramatic. The impregnable Bar-Lev Line, like many such defensive barriers in the past was being proved ineffective. Simultaneously twenty bridges, ten for tanks and ten for infantry crossing were being launched across Suez Canal. The incoming reports from Israeli defences on the eastern side of the canal must have been desperate. And, so, the Israeli AF, recovering from the effects of EAF’s counter air strike was immediately and desperately called in to interrupt the Egyptian bridging effort.

Israeli AF responded by attempting to strike the bridges being built on the canal, but ran into unexpected firewall of SAMs. Even though during the war of attrition in late 60s and early 70s – Israeli AF had been evolving tactics to deal with SAM threat, the discovery of a new type of SAM being guided on continuous wave, the SA-6, was now the most disconcerting discovery. Sortie after sortie alongwith anti SAM tactics & techniques so far developed proved ineffective. On 6th and 7th Oct both at the Golan Heights as well as the Canal front, the Israelis lost about 50 aircraft in probably 100 sorties.

The losses were frightening and unsustainable even for few days. This must have forced the Israeli AF leadership to reevaluate these attacks. No doubt the threat to Israel \ was real and immediate – but what was the best way to utilise Israeli AF, so that it could stem the spectacular success of enemy and not be destroyed like sitting ducks without meaningful effect on the battlefield.

The Israeli AF leadership had the hours of darkness on 6-7th night to charter the way for 7th and onwards. Their firm belief in control of air provided a suitable road map. The Israeli AF must start and take the fight into enemy skies for control of air. And so as the 7th dawned, it saw Israeli AF mount a counter air strike against ten Egyptian airbases. But as the day progressed – the Israeli leadership was faced with disastrous situation developing on the Golan front.

Syrians had advanced and were poised menacingly, this was the most dangerous threat to Israeli positions; so far the available Israeli Army units had tried to impede Syrian advance, but they were at breaking point. The new mobilised forces arriving after mobilisation ordered 24 hrs earlier were being committed piecemeal and so the situation at the front continued to be precarious.

The only possible way to stem this advance was the use of Israeli airpower. The Israeli airforce was ordered to abandon its counter air strikes and at once attack the Syrian armour on the Golan front. Israelis started the air support of their Army and again they ran headlong into murderous trap of Syrian SAMs and AAA. One after another Israeli aircraft was shot out of the sky with sickening regularity. Having suffered heavy aircraft losses, the Israeli AF leadership decided to put a halt to the massacre, till it figured out the proper way. There was urgent and frenetic search for the optimum way which first keeps air attrition within acceptable limit and secondly makes air attacks effective, because that’s precisely what was not happening and the precious and numbered air resources were dwindling at an extremely alarming rate.

It is credit worthy that the Israelis find an answer in the strategy of Indirect approach – the favourite theme of Sir Liddle Hart. They decide to keep away from the murderous SAM trap. They decide to shift the pressure to another vulnerable point against Syrians and. plan to attack targets in Damascus including the Syrian HQs. They decide to attack the SAM replenishment columns that surely must follow and in all likelihood not so devastatingly defended.

Thus on 7th itself Israeli weight of air attack shifts following strategy of indirect approach. Its results are nearly as per Israeli expectations. Most importantly it gives them thinking time to devise ways to counter the new murderous threat – the threat of SAMs.

Let us now review the air attrition in various phases:

Estimated Air Losses: October War 1973

Type Egypt Syria Iraq Other Arabs Total Arabs Israel
Fighters 222 117 21 30 390 103
Bombers 1 1
Transport 1 1
Helicopters 42 13 55 6
Total 265 131 21 30 447 109


Arabs Israel
Air to Air 287 21
To SAMs 17 40
To AAA 19 31
Misc/ Unknown 66 15
To Friendly Forces 58 2
Total 447 109

Of course the above figures vary depending upon the source, but are fairly representative of actual losses and serve our purpose well enough for analysis of attrition. Arab losses in the opening round are acceptable, for in offence one generally has to accept certain attrition. But it is in the defensive operation that Arab lose heavily, particularly during air combat. This undoubtedly is a matter of tactics and training. What definitely was within control was to avoid losses to friendly fire, which apart from 58 confirmed cases must also have comprised the major chunk in unidentified losses.

Also, remember, anyone operating in defensive posture is basically operating in reactive posture, reacting to plans of enemy as they unfold. Thus, initiative is with the enemy and in air combat, initiative is an extremely important factor for victory. Defensive operations, at best can postpone defeat, they can never result in victory by defensive action alone.

The lesson to learn from Israeli air operations is its remark ability in decision making and fluidity in the operational mindset. The opening hours, rather the opening days, the 6th, 7th & probably 8th saw more than fifty percent of their losses, probably around 60 aircraft. Even during this phase, in some of the crucial subphases, the ones dealing with headlong attack on to Egyptian bridges and bridgeheads across the Suez Canal and Syrian advancing armour over Golan, the losses were horrendous reaching about 50-70 percent attrition.

Such an attrition rate if inflicted over two days will seal the fate of any fighting force. It is here, that the flexibility in air operations, the ability to think of alternative approach not only saved the day for Israeli AF but allowed it to eventually turn the tables on Arabs. Of course exceptional tactics and adaptations at lower levels of IAF functioning amply supported the strategic brilliance. Therefore, the most important lesson is in first able to be continue in being – to be able to fight another day, probably in another way, which suits the prevailing circumstances.

What were the odds that the IAF faced? 1330 SA- 7 divided amongst 47 sites would work out to about 28 launchers at each site; more than, enough to cover the dead zones of SA-2 & SA-3 and yet be separable to be deployed along with SA-6 at bridgeheads, 1833 AM works out to 39 guns per site.

Thus it is so distinctly evident, that each target system, within the Second Army had formidable protection by missiles and guns. A hostile aircraft approaching any of these sites would have had the following type of weapons and number of launchers attempting to shoot it:

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(a)  SA-3           –  atleast 4 launchers;

(b)  SA-2           –  atleast 2-3 launchers;

(c)   SA-6            –  atleast 3 launchers;

(d)  SA-7             –  atleast 2 launchers;

(e)  AM               –  atleast 3-4 guns.

For the moment let us skip past the fate that befell Israeli AF and review EAF air operations. Having started the air war with a pre-emptive strike, the EAF and both SAF concentrated on defensive operations, in areas behind the SAM umbrella. Israel did retaliate with counter-air operations against Egyptian airbases in Nile Delta and attacks for Interdiction and Strategic targets deep in Syria, alongwith air effort against SAMs at many places. But their effort was diffused due to multiple tasking as well as having suffered heavy to extremely heavy attrition to hostile SAMs. Once the Israelis made a breakthrough over the canal near Bitter Lake area on 15 Oct and thereafter created a corridor in SAM defences by combination of ground and air action, the EAF reacted with large air effort in support of Egyptian Army. From 18 Oct onwards, EAF flew about 2500 sorties in the ensuing week.

This resulted in extensive air battles between Israeli AF and EAF. Israeli AF claimed 200 EAF aircraft. What was unpardonable – EAF lost 58 aircraft to their own SAMs. The co-ordination between EAF and Egyptian SAMs under separate air defence arm was noticeable for lack of it. This fratricidal damage to EAF pilots, C who were sandwiched between Israel AF on top and own SAMs below must have been nerve wrecking and resultant cause for their poor performance. 

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