Beka’a Valley

Israel gives high priority to destroying and suppressing the enemy’s air- and land-based air defense capability during the initial stages of the battle. The potential scale of Israel’s success in suppressing Syrian air defenses in a future battle over the Golan is indicated by the fact that during the 1982 war, Israel essentially broke the back of the Syrian surface-to-air missile network in the Beka’a Valley in one day, on June 9. Israel shot down over 80 Syrian fighters and lost only one A-4 in flying a total of over 1,000 combat sorties-including the sorties delivered against Syrian ground-based air defenses in the Beka’a. Israel also was able to devote an extraordinary percentage of its total sorties to the attack mission, although it should be noted that even in the 1973 war, some 75 percent of all IAF sorties were attack sorties.

The IDF’s commanders had not forgotten their chastening experience from the first week of the October 1973 war. If the IAF were to be effective in the reconnaissance, strike, maneuver, and close-attack roles during the invasion, it would first have to win control of the air. Consequently, the IAF was tasked with clearing out an ostensibly powerful air-defense system the Syrians had constructed in Lebanon’s Beka’a Valley, the site of the Beirut-Damascus highway. The scene had been set for another remarkable air campaign.

Writing just after World War II, the commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces, Gen. H. H. Arnold, contended that air forces must remain open to new ideas and advanced technologies and keep their vision “far into the future.” An air force whose doctrine was tied “solely to the equipment and processes of the moment,” he continued, would endanger national safety. The air war between Syria and Israel overhead the Beka’a Valley in June 1982 confirmed the wisdom of Arnold’s analysis.

Syria had enjoyed early success in the October 1973 war with its GBAD in the Golan Heights before being crushed by the IAF. Apparently satisfied that a model that partially succeeded almost ten years previously was still good enough, the Syrian Air Defense Command packed the seventy-five-mile-long Beka’a Valley with nineteen SA-2, SA-3, and SA-6 batteries, large numbers of short-range antiaircraft missiles, and about four hundred antiaircraft guns. But while the defensive barrier was intense and the short-range missiles modern, the larger SAMs had been upgraded only incrementally, their electronic warfare systems were obsolescent, and the Syrians’ operational practices were careless. The notion that a dated GBAD system might prove superior to a high-quality, constantly modernizing force indicated the limitations of Syrian airpower thinking.

Doctrinal problems of a different kind were apparent in the SyAAF, which continued to rely on the MiG-21, an excellent fighter in its time but now twenty years old. President Assad had a better knowledge of airpower than most national rulers and was committed to the concept of technological “strategic parity” with Israel. This was the kind of forward thinking SyAAF airpower doctrine needed, but it had to be managed carefully lest it conflict with the service’s modest abilities. Unfortunately for Assad that was precisely what happened with the two main additions to the SyAAF’s inventory between 1973 and 1982.

The first, the MiG-23, featured a variable-geometry wing, a technical innovation whose complexity taxed even advanced air forces and that survived only one design generation; the second, the MiG-25 Foxbat, was a high-altitude interceptor intended to combat the American developmental B-70 Valkyrie nuclear-armed bomber, which in the end never entered production. Although the MiG-25 achieved something of a cult status because of its exotic purpose and Mach-3 speed, it was of questionable use to a substandard air force, which needed to concentrate on mastering the basics of control of the air, close attack, interdiction, and reconnaissance.

The Syrians’ reliance on the past (the October War) and delusion over the future (the Foxbat) contained a dangerous assumption—namely, that the IAF would not have improved during the previous decade. But, unlike the SyAAF and Syrian ADC, the IAF had spent a great deal of time analyzing its failings in the October War, paying special attention to technologies and techniques that might defeat GBAD systems. New strike/fighters were the starting point. The design and systems of the F-15s and F-16s that had been so successful at al-Tuwaitha incorporated lessons learned from the Americans’ air war over North Vietnam. Both jets had outstanding maneuverability, excellent cockpit visibility, look-down shootdown radar, advanced ECM, and the capacity to launch a wide range of weapons, including antiradiation missiles. Regular upgrades to the Phantoms, Skyhawks, and Kfirs since 1973 meant that they too were still highly effective.

Complementing the strike/fighters was the Middle East’s first airborne early-warning and control capability, four E-2 Hawkeyes. The Hawkeyes raised battlespace awareness and coordination to new levels by providing command and control, real-time intelligence, fighter vectoring, and strike direction. It was typical of the IAF’s innate understanding of the Arnold Doctrine that the IAF was the first E-2 operator to modify the aircraft for air-to-air refueling.

Two locally developed weapon systems were also to prove critical in the Beka’a Valley: remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs, later known as unmanned aerial vehicles) and antiradiation ordnance. RPVs were acquired from the United States following the War of Attrition as both a promising technology and a means of easing the stress of prolonged conflict on pilots. At around the same time, Israel Aerospace Industries began designing and building its own RPVs. Some officials questioned the initiative, believing RPVs to be nothing more than toys. But encouraged by Major General Ivry, IAI persisted and became a world leader in one of the most important developments in aviation for decades. Whereas the U.S. RPVs carried only photographic cameras, it seems IAI’s were fitted with a television camera to relay information in real time, and perhaps also weapons.

Antiradiation ordnance developed by the Israeli Armament Development Authority during the 1970s was later acclaimed by the former IAF fighter pilot and squadron commander Shmuel L. Gordon as the IAF’s “most important advantage” in the campaign against SAMs in the Beka’a Valley. Writing some thirty-five years after the event, Gordon described the weapons as “revolutionary . . . standoff air-to-ground precision-guided munitions” that have “completely changed the aircraft-SAM balance ever since.”

The First Lebanon War started on June 6, 1982, when the IDF invaded southern Lebanon. While the ground war was to end badly, the air battle in the Beka’a Valley, which began three days later, was a triumph for the IAF. In a reversal of the first days of the October 1973 war, Israel’s dynamic air force crushed Syria’s inflexible GBAD. And when the destruction of his missiles and guns compelled Hafez al-Assad to send the SyAAF into combat, the contest was one of the most one-sided in the history of air warfare.

This time the IAF had done its homework. In addition to information collected by reconnaissance aircraft and satellite imagery, the IAF had made skillful use of RPVs. In the months preceding the battle, RPV flights into the Beka’a Valley were used to trigger the Syrians’ air-defense radars, enabling the Israelis to plot the position of SAM batteries and compile emission data from which ECM could be constructed.

Meticulous coordination characterized the IAF’s campaign, titled Operation Arzav. A pleasing feature for any military strategist was the use of deception. At around 2:00 p.m. on October 9 Syrian radar operators reported the apparent presence of large formations of unidentified aircraft at numerous locations around Lebanon; shortly afterward, their communications, early-warning sensors, and command-and-control networks were disrupted by electronic countermeasures. More confusion was added by RPV decoys, which flew into the Beka’a Valley and deceived air-defense operators into firing SAMs.

With the Syrian ADC in disarray, about forty IAF aircraft attacked SAMs, AAA, radars, and headquarters buildings. Perhaps referring to Israel’s “revolutionary standoff air-to-ground precision-guided munitions,” Syria’s Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass later noted that IAF F-4s used “television” bombs. IAF Hawkeyes coordinated activities, and an electronic intelligence B-707 jammed Syrian command-and-control services. As soon as the attack finished, battle-damage assessment was carried out to redefine targeting priorities for the next tranche of strikes.

The Syrians’ reaction was instructive. Prior to the IAF strike SyAAF fighters were on combat air patrol near the Beka’a Valley and in most circumstances would have been vectored to engage the Israelis. Instead they were ordered to withdraw, apparently to create a free-fire zone into which SAMs and AAA could be fired without having to identify targets. Either Syria’s commanders doubted their fighter pilots or were very confident in their GBAD. If it were the latter, their confidence was misplaced. Within two hours all nineteen SAM batteries had been either destroyed or damaged, and Syria’s strategy for protecting the Damascus-Beirut highway had been shattered.

The question now was whether or not the SyAAF would be called up to try to regain control of the air over the Beka’a Valley. Numerous factors indicated that Syria’s pilots were likely to struggle. Israel’s fighter pilots were the equal of any in the world and were flying leading-edge F-15s and F-16s and very good Kfirs armed with advanced air-to-air missiles. They were operating as one component of an integrated system featuring centralized command and control, real-time battlespace management, ECM superiority, and information dominance. By contrast, the Syrians’ standards were modest, their MiG-21s and -23s were obsolescent, and they were fighting blind because of the destruction of their early-warning radars and communications and the inadequacies of their command-and-control arrangements.

Major General Ivry personally managed the air-to-air battle from his command post in Tel Aviv. Although the IAF committed about ninety aircraft to the fight, Ivry preferred to vector waves of four-ship formations into the combat zone, where engagements with courageous but confused Syrian pilots generally lasted only a minute or two. By the end of the first day almost thirty SyAAF jets had been shot down for no IAF losses; six days later the ratio had increased to more than eighty to nil.

The IAF’s remarkable kill rate did not mean the victory was easily achieved. On the contrary, it represented thirty-four years of constant striving for excellence across the full spectrum of airpower skills. In this instance, Ivry and his staff managed an extremely complex situation with a degree of real-time control never previously achieved. Ivry later provided a neat musical analogy: rather than “playing” a set of individual instruments that more or less supported each other, he was “conducting” a full orchestra.

In Moscow the extent of the failure by association of Soviet training, tactics, and technology caused shockwaves and prompted a root-and-branch review of warfighting concepts. The USAF also learned from the experience, and nine years later during the first Gulf War the IAF model from the Beka’a Valley served as a prototype for the most successful air campaign in history.


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