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Israel Air Force: In the War of Attrition

(1969 - 1970)

Egypt launched the War of Attrition along the Suez Canal with the idea of inflicting as many Israeli casualties as possible, thereby testing Israel's ability and determination to hold onto its gains from the Six Day War. The war officially began in March 1969, but hostilities had been common along all three fronts (Egypt, Syria and Jordan) ever since the June 1967 cease-fire. For example, terrorists continuously infiltrated into the Jordan Valley, leading to IDF helicopter-borne search operations.

The real War of Attrition, however, was with Egypt, which pounded Israeli positions along the Canal. Lacking sufficient numbers of cannons, Israel utilized its aircraft as flying artillery. For the first time, modern American-made fighters took part in the action. This development was the direct result of a French arms embargo to the Middle East following the Six Day War. In reality, the embargo applied only to Israel, which had previously relied on French aircraft of all types. Now the A-4 Skyhawk and F-4 Phantom become the workhorses.

The Phantom arrived at the height of the battle and immediately took on Egyptian air defenses along the Canal. The Phantom's range enabled it to reach strategic targets deep inside Egypt. Before long, Phantoms also began hammering Migs in dogfights. The air-to-air arena took on the look of a Wild West gunfight. Israeli and Egyptian fighters shot it out high above a barren stretch of desert which became known as “Texas.”

The U.S.S.R. took an active role in Egypt's air defense, providing the latest equipment along with thousands of “advisors.” In fact, Soviet participation went far beyond a training role. Russians operated the sophisticated radars and surface-to-air missiles and succeeded in downing several Israeli planes. They even flew Egyptian Migs until Israeli Phantoms and Mirages shot down five Russian pilots, without loss, in a massive dogfight.

IAF helicopters, such as the newly arrived Sikorsky CH-53, took part in many daring missions. They stole a brand new Soviet radar and flew it back to Israel. Helicopters inserted troops on many missions in Egypt's heartland. Together with the strategic bombing missions these deep penetrations provided the answer to Egypt's numerical supremacy along the Canal. By revealing Egypt's vulnerability, the IAF forced the enemy to reconsider and put an end to the costly War of Attrition.

Capturing a New Egyptian Radar

During the War of Attrition (1969-1970), Egypt continuously improved its air defense capability. The Soviets were eager to reverse the poor showing of their protege and their equipment in the '67 Six Day War. They rushed the latest military hardware to their chief Arab client.

The P-12 early warning radar was a prime example of an advanced Soviet system in use by the Egyptians. It was the eye that helped the air defense network pinpoint and shoot down Israeli fighters.

Toward the end of 1969, an IAF intelligence analyst made a startling discovery while assessing post-strike aerial photography. He noted that the target which had been struck was in fact a dummy radar site. By chance, the reconnaissance film also revealed a real radar that was located a few kilometers away. Incredibly, the true site was unprotected — no AAA (anti-aircraft guns) could be seen anywhere near it.

The analyst, Sergeant Rami Shalev, rushed his findings to his commanding officer. They recommended a scheme so fantastic that it just might work: to kidnap the new radar. A plan was formulated and approved with lightning speed. Three Super-frelon helicopters would first insert a paratroop force to secure the site. Then two of the IAF's newly acquired CH-53 heavy-lift helicopters would carry the radar vans back across the Suez Canal.

The radar was located on a small peak which made it difficult for the troop-laden Super-frelons to find a suitable landing site. With the entire mission hanging in the balance, the pilots were able to land and offload the paratroopers, who quickly disconnected the vans and readied them for airlift.

The Sikorsky's hoist is designed to lift 2.9 tons. The radar weighed 4.3! Immediately after lifting the vans, the lead aircraft lost its primary hydraulic system. Command pilot Nehemiah Dagan ignored the emergency procedure which required him to land immediately. He crawled along at low altitude while his flight engineer monitored the engines and reserve system all the way to touchdown. His personal skill and daring brought this brazen mission to a perfect ending.

Sources: Israel Defense Forces