Battle of Latakia

Saar 3, Israel Defense Forces.

October 6, 1973

The Battle of Latakia (Ladhakiyya, Syria) occurred on the night of October 6, 1973, the first day of the Yom Kippur War. The naval engagement takes its name from Syria’s chief seaport on the Mediterranean Sea. It was fought between Israeli and Syrian missile boats, the first battle between missile-firing ships in naval history.

The Egyptian and Syrian attack against Israel on October 6, 1973, caught Israeli forces by surprise. Israeli Navy missile boats put to sea that very evening to carry out a long-planned attack against units of the Syrian Navy. It would be the first combat test for the missile boats, on which the Israeli Navy had expended much energy over the previous decade. The task would not be an easy one, however. The Israeli Gabriel antiship missile used a joystick tracking system requiring that the operator keep it on target by radar. It had never been fired in actual combat. Meanwhile, the Soviet SS-N-2 Styx fire-and-forget (meaning that it does not require human tracing once fired) missile employed by the Syrians was combat-proven, with Egyptian missile boats having fired several of them to sink the Israeli destroyer Eilat in October 1967 and, in May 1968, sink the small wooden fishing vessel Orit. In addition, Israeli developed electronic countermeasures (ECM) to defeat the Styx had never been tested in combat. Were these to fail, the Israeli missile boats would be easy prey for the radar-guided Styx missile, which had a range of some 27 miles, more than twice the 12-mile range of the Israeli Gabriel.

Nonetheless, with Israel’s army and air force fighting desperately on land and in the air to contain the large Egyptian and Syrian offensives, the navy was determined to do its part and remove the possibility of a Syrian naval attack on the Israeli Mediterranean coast. The Israeli plan was to lure the Syrian missile boats out and engage them at the maximum range of their Styx missiles, which the Israelis hoped to defeat through chaff and electronic counter measures (ECM). Once the Syrians had shot away their missiles, the Israelis planned to close and engage the Syrian boats at the effective range of their own missiles. Come what may, the Israelis were determined to engage the Syrians.

Commander Michael Barkai commanded the Israeli naval flotilla committed to the operation. It consisted of five missile boats (the Saar-class Gaash, Hanit, and Miznak and the Reshef-class Miv tach and Reshef ). He took his flotilla wide to the west toward Cyprus to avoid Syrian coastal radar. Barkai planned to attack from the north, the direction the Syrians would least expect. The boats proceeded in two parallel columns: Barkai’s own Miznak (flagship), Gaash, and Hanit to port and the Mivtach and Reshef to starboard and slightly behind, several miles closer to shore.

Some 35 miles southwest of Latakia, the Miznak, which was in the lead, picked up a radar contact four miles to the northwest moving east across the Israeli course and apparently making for Latakia at full speed. Lookouts on the Miznak’s bridge reported that the vessel in question had a low profile and was moving without lights. Fearful that the vessel in question might be a civilian ship, Barkai ordered the Miznak to fire warning 40-mm rounds. The unknown vessel then opened up with return machine-gun fire. A searchlight on one of the Saar boats enabled the Israelis to identify the vessel as a Syrian torpedo boat, undoubtedly a picket boat to warn against an attack. The three Saar-class missile boats in Barkai’s column them opened fire on the torpedo boat but failed to hit it. The torpedo boat was too small a target to warrant a missile, and the Reshef in the right-hand column then opened fire with its 76-mm gun at extreme range of about 10 miles. Soon the wooden torpedo boat was dead in the water.

Syrian naval headquarters meanwhile had received a message from the picket boat of the attack, and it ordered a minesweeper, also on picket duty and some 10 miles from shore, to immediately seek the protection of Syrian coastal guns at full speed. Headquarters also informed three Syrian missile boats that had just headed from Latakia south of the Israeli presence at sea.

Barkai had to assume that the Syrian torpedo boat had reported the Israeli presence. He now abandoned the carefully rehearsed Israeli plan of an attack from the north and fighting at optimum distance in favor of an immediate descent on Latakia from the west. Barkai, however, detached the Hanit to sink the Syrian torpedo boat.

As the four remaining Israeli missile boats headed east, the Reshef picked up another radar contact some 15 miles to the east. It was the Syrian minesweeper heading at full speed to safety. Soon the Goash fired a Gabriel at the new target, but this was the extreme length of its range. The Syrian ship was able to increase the range in the two minutes it took the Gabriel to reach the area, and the missile fell short. The Reshef in the starboard column then fired another Gabriel at some 12 miles. This missile struck the 560-ton Syrian minesweeper dead on. The Reshef then fired a second Gabriel. It too hit home, although the minesweeper remained afloat. The detached Hamit subsequently finished it off from close range with another Gabriel and 76-mm cannon fire.

Even as it prepared to fire its second missile and the four Israeli missile boats were continuing their course for Latakia, the Reshef picked up three additional radar contacts. These were the Syrian missile boats, one Osa-class vessel and two Komar-class vessels, that had turned back to meet the attackers. As the Israeli missile boats continued on course, the Syrians fired their missiles at a range from which the Israelis could not reply. Their targets were the closest Israeli missile boats, the Reshef and Mivtach. As the Syrian missiles approached, the Israelis fired off chaff rockets and employed the jamming and deceptor systems to send out false radar signals to the incoming Styx missiles. Unlike the Gabriel, which was guided to its target by an operator on the mother ship, the Styx was a fire and-forget missile, and those who fired it had no control over it once it was launched.

Israeli ECM systems functioned perfectly. The Syrian missiles either flew harmlessly overhead or fell short. The Israelis pressed their attack, now confident of success. Only one of the Syrian missile boats-the Osa-still had missiles left. It turned to face the Israeli flotilla as the two Komar-class missile boats fled for Latakia at high speed. The Israelis closed at full speed. At this critical juncture, a short circuit on the Reshef prevented a missile launch. The Mivtach was not equipped with missiles, and this left only the Gaash and Miznak capable of engaging the Syrians. They let loose a salvo of Gabriel missiles while at the same time defeating two more Styx missiles fired against them by the Osa. The 330-pound Gabriel warhead was more than sufficient to destroy the two Komar-class Syrian missile boats, which were about a third the size of the mine – sweeper and loaded with fuel.

The Osa, its missiles expended, raced for the shore, where its captain simply ran it up on the shore. Barkai was determined to destroy it with gunfire. He ordered the other three missile boats to keep out of range of the Syrian shore batteries, which had begun to fire, and took the Miznak in to a range of about half a mile, opening up with its three 40-mm cannon. Soon the beached Osa was ablaze and exploding. The battle was over. Shortly after midnight on October 7, the Israeli missile boats returned to base.

Following the Battle of Latakia, the Syrian Navy remained in port for the rest of the war. The battle also brought new prestige to the Israeli Navy, previously regarded by most observers as only a poor relation of Israel’s highly regarded army and air force. Israeli ECM techniques employed in the battle set a new standard for sub sequent naval engagements employing missiles.

References Erell, Shlomo. “Israeli Saar FPBs Pass Combat Test in the Yom Kippur War.” U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings (September 1974): 115-118. Rabinovich, Abraham. The Boats of Cherbourg: The Secret Israeli Operation That Revolutionized Naval Warfare. New York: Seaver, 1988.