Egyptian Front 1973 – The War in the Air

President Sadat, Chief-of-Staff General Isma’il ‘Ali, and C-in-C Egyptian Air Force Mubarak all concluded long before 6 October 1973 that the Egyptian Air Force was no match for the IAF and would not be for the foreseeable future. Egyptian air strategy for the October War was built around this central assumption. First, the EAF was almost completely relieved of counterair missions. With the exception of the airstrikes against a few Israeli airfields in the Sinai, there would be no Egyptian offensive counterair effort. In particular, Cairo ruled out offensive fighter sweeps over Israeli lines. Similarly, the defensive counterair mission would be left mostly in the hands of Egypt’s ground-based air defenses. Cairo did establish some combat air patrols deeper in Egypt, but these were all either in unimportant sectors or else set as final lines of defense behind the SAM belts. Wherever it was important for the Egyptians to repulse the IAF, the mission fell to the SAMS and AAA. The ground-based air defenses provided all air defense coverage over Egyptian ground forces on both sides of the canal as well as the barrier defenses to prevent Israel from conducting deep penetration raids against strategic targets such as Cairo. In addition, the Egyptian generals concluded that they could expect only very limited support to their ground forces in the form of close air support (CAS) or battlefield air interdiction missions and so instead planned to rely on artillery, mortars, and rocket fire.

While the EAF’s role was to be very restricted, it would not be completely inactive. Isma’il ‘Ali, Gamasy, and Mubarak assigned Egypt’s pilots limited tasks that would be well within their capabilities and that would give them the greatest chance of successfully conducting their mission and then escaping before they could be intercepted by IAF fighters. Thus, Egyptian aircraft would conduct quick hit-and-run raids against specific Israeli targets near the canal zone and then immediately return to base. This effectively ruled out both GAS missions-which require aircraft to loiter overhead until they are called on by the ground commander -and any interdiction missions deeper than the forward enemy positions.

Even with such minimal goals, EAF performance can hardly be described as anything more than mediocre. As noted above, the initial airstrikes against the Sinai facilities caused little damage and the planes were quickly intercepted by Israeli fighters, resulting in the rapid loss of 5-10 percent of the attacking force and prompting Cairo to abort the planned second wave. For the next ten to fourteen days of the war, the EAF did not hinder the war effort, but neither did it contribute very much. The Egyptians staged quick hit-and-run strikes against well-identified Israeli positions. These attacks were annoying to the frontline Israeli forces but did little damage. Egyptian air-to-ground missions were very uneven. During the first few days, when the Israeli Army expected the IAF to have air superiority and so did not take even routine precautions to defend against air attacks, some Egyptian airstrikes caused some damage to IDF field units. But overall, Egyptian air-to-ground skills were poor and, as soon as Israeli ground forces began to disperse and pay more attention to air defense, even the minimal effectiveness of Egyptian airstrikes evaporated. Air force command and control was rigid and highly compartmentalized with the result that Egyptian air power was not very flexible or responsive to changing battle conditions. In particular, because the EAF refused to loiter over the battlefield, they could not come to the aid of Egyptian troops meeting Israeli resistance. In fact, airstrikes really could only be conducted against targets that were in place and identified by the Egyptians at least 24 hours ahead of time, which was about how long it took for the strike request to filter up through the chain of command and then the orders to filter back down to the squadron.

Egyptian air-to-air performance was no better. There were fifty-two major dogfights between the Egyptians and Israelis. In all, the Egyptians succeeded in shooting down 5-8 Israeli aircraft while losing 172 of their own to Israeli fighters. As these figures imply, the Egyptians were completely outclassed by the Israelis. While it is true that the Israelis possessed the state-of-the-art Phantom F-4E, which was a generation ahead of Egypt’s MiG-2Is, it is also the case that the Israelis generally reserved the Phantoms for strike missions, and the older Mirages flew the lion’s share of counterair missions (65-70 percent of all counterair sorties). Thus, the majority of air-to-air battles involved the same combination of planes as in 1967, although both models had been upgraded in the interim. Nevertheless, the modest change in the technological balance cannot account for the dramatic change in air-to-air outcomes. The Egyptians did much worse in 1973 than they had in 1967, demonstrating that pilot skill was the dominant factor, not technology. In 1967 the Egyptians had suffered about a 1 to 7 kill ratio to the Israelis, but in 1973 this ratio fell to somewhere between 1 to 20 and 1 to 35 and probably was right around 1 to 25. While IAF pilot skills continued to develop, the Israelis found little improvement among their Egyptian counterparts. As in 1967, Egyptian pilots were inflexible, dogmatic, and slow to react in combat. They stuck closely to doctrinal maneuvers, were heavily reliant on their ground controllers, and panicked when Israeli pilots took unexpected actions or busted up their textbook formations. As a result, when Israeli and Egyptian fighters did tangle, the Egyptians were virtual sitting ducks for the Israelis. For example, in one battle on the first day of the war, 2 Phantoms took on a strike package of 28 MiG-2 is and MiG-17s near Sharm ash-Shaykh, and in a few minutes of dogfighting the Israeli planes shot down 8 MiGs and chased off the other 20 with no losses.

The Egyptians again suffered from a low operational readiness rate that diminished their ability to put aircraft in the air. Because of poor maintenance and repair practices, only about 65 percent of the Egyptian fighter force was operationally ready for combat. Overall, the Egyptians managed 6,815 sorties from 540 combat aircraft, or about 0.6 sorties per day per aircraft. By contrast, the Israelis averaged nearly 4 sorties per day per aircraft.

Egypt’s ground-based air defenses were highly effective in keeping the IAF from seriously disrupting Egyptian ground operations until late in the war. However, they were terribly inefficient in doing so. Specifically, Egyptian forces probably should have caused far more harm to the Israelis than they actually did. Egyptian SAM and AAA operators had only a limited understanding of their weapons, and their marksmanship was often abysmal. Ultimately, the Egyptians attempted to compensate for their inefficiency by launching masses of SAMS and concentrating entire battalions of antiaircraft guns on Israeli aircraft. The Egyptians probably shot down 20-25 Israeli aircraft with SAMS and another 15-20 with AAA.”‘ Given that the Israelis flew about 6,000 sorties against the Egyptians, this translates into a loss rate of only 0.006-0.0075 per sortie – a very poor attrition rate from the Egyptian perspective. The Egyptians fired about 1,000 heavy SAMS of all types plus another 4,000-8,000 SA-7s. Thus, on average, they expended about 40 heavy SAMs and 150 SA-7s for every aircraft shot down. Again, this is a very poor ratio, given that Soviet metrics predicted that downing an enemy aircraft should have required the expenditure of only 5-10 SAMS. Egyptian air defenses apparently shot down more of their own planes than Israelis. Estimates vary, but Egyptian SAMS and AAA brought down somewhere between 45 and 60 EAF aircraft during the war.

OVERALL ASSESSMENT

Although the Egyptians continue to tout the October War as a great victory, in truth their successes were modest and their failures equal or greater than their achievements. The canal crossing and consolidation of the bridgeheads were exceptionally well conceived, well planned, and very competently executed. However, this was hardly the invasion of Normandy. Indeed, what is noteworthy is the amount of effort required to pull off these attacks – operations that never penetrated more than ten or fifteen kilometers into the Sinai. The labor required of the Egyptian General Staff is reminiscent of the planning of such major World War II offensives as the German invasions of France and Russia or the Allied invasion of France and the breakout from Normandy, while the training imposed on Egyptian troops probably was without parallel in modern history. Nevertheless, the successes the Egyptians squeezed from this labor were negligible compared to the success of those German and Allied offensives. As Trevor Dupuy and others have argued, given the enormous advantages the Egyptians enjoyed in force ratios and strategic surprise, they should have been expected to do far better than they did in their initial offensive. Moreover, by 10 October the Egyptians had shot their bolt, and without the detailed operational plans of the general staff, Egyptian forces proved to be as ineffective as in the past.

Thus, the great lesson of the October War was the tremendous restrictions imposed on Egyptian military operations by the limitations of Egyptian tactical formations. While Egypt’s generalship may not have been perfect, it was well above average. Generals Ismail ‘Ali and Gamasy, the two field army commanders – Wasil and Ma’mun – and the other members of the general staff performed very well throughout the war. Even though General Shazli acted as if he were commanding a different military, Ismail ‘Ali consistently minimized his influence on Egyptian operations. This level of performance should have produced greater accomplishments, but it did not because the GHQ had few useful tools to work with.

When comparing Egyptian military effectiveness in 1967 and 1973, what stands out is that it was this improvement in Egyptian strategic leadership that was responsible for the improvement in Egyptian fortunes on the battlefield. However, it required a major improvement in Egyptian strategic leadership to produce only a modest improvement in battlefield fortunes. The great weight holding Egypt back from greater success in 1973 was the ineffectiveness of Egyptian tactical formations resulting from the limitations of Egypt’s junior officer corps. This problem was clearly demonstrated in the sudden reversal in Egyptian effectiveness between the first four days of the offensive and the rest of the war. As long as Egyptian tactical formations could follow the superb plans of the general staff they did well, but as soon as those plans ran out and the direction of operations devolved to the tactical commanders, Egyptian operations quickly returned to previous patterns of incompetence.

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