Operation Nickel Grass was a strategic airlift conducted by United States to deliver weapons and supplies to Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Over 32 days, between October 14 and November 14, the U.S. Air Force’s Military Airlift Command shipped 22,325 tons of tanks, artillery, ammunition, and supplies in C-141 Starlifter and C-5 Galaxy transport aircraft. The supplies came at a critical moment as Israel’s stocks were rapidly being depleted.
The invading armies from Egypt and Syrian were trained and equipped by the Soviet Union. The Soviets had supplied them with more than 600 advanced surface-to-air missiles, 300 MiG-21 fighters, 1,200 tanks, and hundreds of thousands of tons of other war materiel.
Henry Kissinger, the United States Secretary of State and President Richard Nixon’ National Security Advisor, believed it would undermine American security and deterrence if Soviet-armed forces defeated Israel’s U.S.-armed military. He arranged for El Al to pick up ammunition, “high technology products” and AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles from a naval base in Virginia; however, he hoped to keep any visible involvement to a minimum to avoid upsetting America’s Arab allies, particularly the oil-producers who had threatened to withhold oil supplies if the United States came to Israel’s assistance.
As Israel’s strategic position worsened, the United States became increasingly concerned Israel might feel the need to use its nuclear arsenal. American officials were also alarmed by the Soviets’ resupply of the Egyptians.
Against this backdrop, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir appealed to the United States for help on October 9. Nixon responded by ordering the commencement of Operation Nickel Grass to replace all of Israel’s materiel losses. The decision was taken the same day the Soviets began their own resupply of Arab forces by sea.
Initially, El Al transported supplies, which began to arrive in Israel on October 10, the same day the first Soviet resupply by air arrived in Damascus. El Al’s fleet of reconfigured passenger aircraft were inadequate, however, and American officials approached U.S. carriers to help but they were all afraid to risk losing access to the Arab market. Nixon subsequently decided on October 12 to “send everything that can fly.” Within nine hours, C-141s and C-5s were en route to Israel.
The airlift was complicated by the refusal of European allies to allow the U.S. to fly over their territory or to refuel at their military bases. The only country that agreed to help was Portugal, which allowed the Americans to refuel at Lajes Air Base in the Azores Islands.
Strategic Air Command (SAC) KC-135As were the first to arrive at Lajes. Stratotankers left Pease AFB (one of the bases El Al was using to re-supply the war effort) in New Hampshire the night of October 13 ferrying Douglas A-4 Skyhawk and McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II aircraft directly from the factory in St. Louis, Missouri to Ben Gurion Airport. To comply with the demands of other European nations, even U.S. supplies already stationed in Europe were routed through Lajes, and soon more than thirty aircraft per day were routed through the Azores. American fighters from the U.S. 6th Fleet escorted the transports to within 150 miles of Israel, where Israeli Air Force Phantoms and Mirages accompanied them to Ben Gurion. Upon arrival, the transports were unloaded by U.S. and Israeli personnel.
Airlifted supplies were not all that was delivered under Nickel Grass. In the opening days of the war, Arab forces destroyed significant numbers of Israeli Air Force aircraft, surprising the Israelis with aggressive use of the new Soviet SA-6 Gainful surface-to-air missile. Consequently, at least 100 F-4 Phantom II fighters were sent to Israel under Nickel Grass, coming from the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing, the 33d Tactical Fighter Wing and the 57th Fighter Weapons Wing. They were flown to Lod, where American pilots were swapped for their Israeli counterparts. After the replacement of USAF insignia with IAF insignia, if needed, the planes were refueled and ordered to the front, often taking to the air within hours of having arrived. Thirty-six A-4 Skyhawks from U.S. stocks, staging from Lajes were refueled by SAC KC-135A tankers from Pease Air Force Base and U.S. Navy tankers from the USS John F. Kennedy west of the Strait of Gibraltar. They then flew on to the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt southeast of Sicily where they stayed overnight, then continued to Israel refueling once more from tankers launched from the USS Independence south of Crete. Twelve C-130E Hercules transports were also transferred to Israel, the first of the type to be delivered to the IDF/AF.
When the third cease-fire resolution was finally implemented on October 24, the airlift slowed. Further flights were made to rebuild Israeli forces to their pre-war strength before Operation Nickel Grass concluded on November 14.
The U.S. ultimately shipped 22,325 tons of materiel to Israel. Additionally, the United States conducted a seaborne resupply operation, delivering 33,210 tons to Israel by October 30. The Soviets airlifted 12,500–15,000 tons of supplies, more than half of which went to Syria; they also supplied another 63,000 tons mainly to Syria by means of a sealift.
Source: “Operation Nickel Grass,” Wikipedia.