The Israeli Invasion of Lebanon, 1982

The Israeli Invasion of Lebanon, 1982

Thirty-four years later, on June 6, 1982, the Israel Defense Force invaded southern Lebanon. Ever since the Palestinian expulsion from Jordan in 1970–1971 and their subsequent resettlement in Lebanon, Israel had been harassed, shelled, attacked, and raided by Palestinian guerrillas based in Lebanon. The Palestinian presence had been a major contributing factor to the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975, which had caused Lebanon to spiral into chaos and triggered a Syrian intervention and partial occupation. By the early 1980s, key members of the right-wing Israeli cabinet were determined to solve the Lebanese problem by force and began trying to provoke Palestinian actions that could justify a full-scale invasion. In 1982, the Israelis found the pretext they were looking for and sent their military north.

It was a desperate move and the plan devised primarily by Minister of Defense Ariel Sharon was a harebrained scheme. Sharon, with the connivance of Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the assistance of Israel’s chief of staff, Lt. General Rafael Eitan, claimed that his intent was merely to send Israeli forces 40 kilometers into Lebanon to push the PLO away from Israel’s borders. In actuality, his goals were far more expansive. He planned to send Israeli ground forces to Beirut, have them rout the PLO and drive them out of Lebanon altogether, install the pro-Israeli Bashir Gemayel as president of Lebanon, and provoke the Syrian forces occupying the Bekaa Valley into a war that would enable Israel to crush them and drive them out of Lebanon too.

To accomplish this daring set of tasks, Israel put together a massive force including nine divisional ugdot plus a variety of smaller formations. These units totaled 76,000 men, 1,250 tanks, and 1,500 other armored vehicles. In addition, the Israelis would have the entire IAF, 650 combat aircraft, at their disposal.

In contrast, the Syrian presence in Lebanon in 1982 was primarily an occupation force, unprepared for large-scale combat with the Israeli military. The Syrians had two substantially reinforced heavy brigades in Lebanon at the time of the Israeli invasion. The 62nd Armored Brigade was bivouacked in the Bekaa Valley, and the 85th Mechanized Brigade was deployed along the Beirut-Damascus highway east of Beirut. In addition, the Syrians had at least 10 battalions of commandos operating throughout Lebanon. Altogether, there were about 30,000 Syrian soldiers with 200–300 tanks deployed in eastern and central Lebanon. The Syrians also had 16 batteries of SA-2/3/6 SAMs deployed in the Bekaa. Later, the Syrians would commit the 1st Armored Division, additional SAM batteries, and then the 3rd Armored Division to the fighting, but when the Israelis first invaded these divisions were still deployed around Damascus and the Golan. In addition, the Syrian forces in Lebanon had been compromised by graft and a general inattention to combat training.

On the other hand, the Syrians had been working hard to improve their forces. In the late 1970s, after they had settled into their occupation of Lebanon, the Syrian military began to make changes in accordance with the lessons it had taken away from its war against Israel in 1973 and its own bumbling invasion of Lebanon in 1976. Syrian dictator Hafiz al-Asad further expanded his army so that by 1982, the Syrian armed forces boasted some 250,000 men, 3,600 tanks, 2,700 APCs, 2,300 artillery pieces, 80 SAM batteries, and 500 combat aircraft. As these numbers implied, the Syrians also made a major effort to mechanize their force, importing huge numbers of tanks and other armored fighting vehicles from their Soviet patron. After the success Syrian SAM units had had against the Israeli Air Force in 1973, Damascus greatly increased the number and mobility of its tactical air defenses by buying additional SA-6 launchers, as well as newer SA-8s.

Of particular importance, the Syrians concluded that only their commando units had shown any real skill in combat against either the Israelis on the Golan or the Palestinians in Lebanon. In response, the Syrians expanded their commando forces from 7 to 33 battalions. They did this by stripping most of the best personnel from their infantry units and diverting many of the most promising new recruits to the commandos. They began to attach commando units to armored formations, and vice versa. While the expansion of the commandos and their new missions gave Syria a small force of quite competent soldiers, it diminished the skill levels of other Syrian units by stripping them of many of their best personnel.

Israel Attacks. In the west, the Israeli offensive went largely according to plan, but not according to schedule. On June 6, 1982, the Israelis launched their attack only to discover, as the Syrians had six years before, that Lebanon’s terrain impeded the movement of large armored forces. Israeli tank columns got jammed up trying to bypass the coastal cities and were further delayed by small groups of Palestinians with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and mines who ambushed Israeli armor as it moved along the narrow roads. Still, with their usual skill and flare for improvisation, Israeli forces found ways to defeat these threats and so made remarkably good time by any standard but their own. The Israelis reached the outskirts of Beirut by June 9 where they encountered much stiffer resistance, but by June 11 they had fought their way into the suburbs and besieged the center of the city.

In the east, things moved in a more herky-jerky fashion, reflecting the bizarre political circumstances of the Israeli invasion, the ongoing mobilization of key units, and command failures on the part of IDF leaders. During the first three days of the invasion, Maj. General Avigdor Ben Gal’s corps-sized BFG pushed into southeastern Lebanon to clear out the Palestinians in the area and get into position for the expected showdown with the Syrians. To the BFG’s right, the Israeli 252nd Armored Division attacked what was called “Fatahland,” the center of PLO operations in Lebanon, and cleared out PLO forces with little difficulty. Only on the third day of the invasion, June 8, would the Israeli General Staff finally order the BFG forward into their jumping off positions for the assault into the Syrian-occupied Bekaa, at which point Ben Gal’s divisions hit the forward Syrian screening positions around Marjayoun. The Syrian forces there put up little resistance and were easily driven off.

Damascus was surprised and perplexed by the Israeli invasion. The Syrians were not entirely displeased with the idea of the IDF smashing the PLO, which had become obstinate with them too. But they did not know whether to believe Israel’s (disingenuous) claims that it had no desire to fight Syria. Hafiz al-Asad adopted the prudent course: he would stay out of the Israelis’ way to avoid war if at all possible, but reinforce his positions in Lebanon in the event they attacked. Because Asad did not want to give the Israelis any pretext to attack his troops, he ordered them not to fire at the Israelis—even if they were fired upon—unless they began taking casualties. Syrian troops were also forbidden from moving any farther forward, even to occupy better defensive terrain, for fear that this would look aggressive to the notoriously trigger-happy Israelis.

Meanwhile, Syria readied its forces in the event the Israelis were looking for a fight. The Syrians ordered their troops in Lebanon to man prepared defensive positions along many of the major routes from the south into their strongholds in the Bekaa and along the critical Beirut-Damascus highway. They dispatched the 1st Armored Division to bolster Syrian forces in the Bekaa. The 1st arrived on June 7 and immediately began to establish a Soviet-style defense-in-depth across the valley. Two days later, Damascus decided to add its 3rd Armored Division as well. Finally, Syria redeployed 3 more medium SAM batteries to the Bekaa, bringing the total number there to 19.

Operations in the Central Sector. While the Syrians were attempting to decipher Israeli intentions, the Israeli 162nd Armored Division was steadily pushing northward into south-central Lebanon toward the Beirut-Damascus highway, the lifeline of Syria’s occupation army in Lebanon. Sharon and Eitan hoped this move would force Asad to fight to prevent the 162nd from cutting off the Syrian units around Beirut, thus furnishing Israel with an excuse to attack the Syrian forces in the Bekaa.

At first, the 162nd’s route of advance was largely undefended, as the Syrians had only one company of tanks and one commando company watching it. However, the Syrians detected its movement on June 7 and sent several commando companies with armor to set ambushes along the Israeli route. Damascus also dispatched a multi-battalion task force of commandos and armor from the 85th Mechanized Brigade to establish a blocking position farther north at Ayn Zhaltah.

The 162nd began to run into these units on June 8. The Syrian commando-armor teams fought hard and retreated in good order when they were outflanked and driven off by the IDF. While they did little damage to the Israelis, they delayed them. Later, the first Syrian helicopter gunships made their appearance, attacking the 162nd Division along the narrow, winding mountain paths. The Syrian helicopters—French-made Gazelles armed with ATGMs—caused little damage and were easily driven off, but they caused further delays by forcing the Israelis to scramble for cover and then regroup before they could get moving again.

All of these skirmishes, plus additional pauses caused by Israeli command problems, bought the Syrians time to establish impressive defenses at Ayn Zhaltah. When the Israelis reached the town during the evening of June 8, they were hammered by Syrian commandos, well dug-in and generously armed with RPGs and ATGMs and covered by tank and other heavy weapons fire. The Syrians had dug-in on the high ground around the southern entrance to the town, with their tanks at the far end. The Israelis saw the tanks and drove straight at them, destroying three T-62s before they were themselves caught in a crossfire by Syrian commandos with AT-3 Saggers and RPGs hiding among the steep ridgelines on both sides of the road. The Syrians destroyed the two lead tanks and several APCs of the Israeli vanguard before the Israelis could halt the column and pull back from the Syrian fire sack.

Later, the Syrians beat back an Israeli infantry force that tried several times to rescue their wounded. Moreover, when the Israelis pulled back from the village to regroup, Syrian commandos crept forward and again attacked them from several different directions, forcing the Israelis to fight their way back south of the town. Late the next day, the Israelis regrouped and conducted a flanking attack under heavy air support that drove the Syrians from the hills overlooking the town, so that by nightfall on June 9, Ayn Zhaltah was in their hands. The Syrians did only slight damage to the IDF in the clashes at Ayn Zhaltah, mostly because their fire was inaccurate and their armor refused to maneuver against the Israelis, but they delayed the IDF drive toward the Beirut-Damascus highway. Ultimately, this proved to be one of the most important factors in preventing the complete destruction of the Syrian army in Lebanon.

Farther south on June 8, an Israeli armored brigade without infantry or artillery support attacked a reinforced brigade of Syrians in the Lebanese town of Jazzin. The Syrians saw Jazzin as the forwardmost position on the right flank of their defensive lines in the Bekaa and had sent a brigade task force to hold the city. The Israelis had been content initially just to set up a blocking position at the crossroads—which allowed the 162nd Armored Division to pass. On June 8th the Israelis attacked into the town, where they were met by well-placed antitank ambushes manned by Syrian commandos. The Israelis then sent another part of their brigade in a flanking maneuver to roll up the Syrian positions in the outlying hills. The Syrian commando units were deployed to fire into the town and could not quickly reorient themselves to deal with this unexpected move. Thus, it fell to the Syrian armor to try to stop the Israelis. However, the Syrian tanks also had difficulty shifting to face the IDF flanking attack, and the tank battalion was virtually wiped out in a quick firefight, prompting the other Syrian units to pull back.

The events of June 7–8 had important effects in both Jerusalem and Damascus. For the Syrians, the powerful Israeli attacks on Ayn Zhaltah and Jazzin convinced Asad that the Israelis were lying when they claimed only to want to punish the PLO. He recognized that they were looking to drive Syria out of Lebanon. In response, he sped up the deployment of the 3rd Armored Division to the Bekaa and sent additional commando battalions to Lebanon.

Nevertheless, the fighting at Ayn Zhaltah and Jazzin, the movement of Syrian reinforcements into the Bekaa, and the participation of a few Syrian MiGs in dogfights with IAF jets over Lebanon, were enough for Sharon to persuade the Israeli cabinet to approve the offensive against the Syrians. On the afternoon of June 9th, Ben Gal was ordered to drive the Syrian army out of the Bekaa. Simultaneously, the IAF was ordered to implement its long-planned contingency operation to knock out the Syrian SAM network in the Bekaa Valley.

The Israeli SAM Suppression Campaign. The IAF had meticulously studied the lessons of the 1973 war and developed a comprehensive operation involving over a dozen different ground and air-based systems to suppress and destroy Syria’s medium-range SAM units. Although the Syrians had bought even more advanced models than they had possessed in 1973, they had not kept pace with Israel’s countermeasures. Syrian SAM operations were very predictable. Their command and control was primitive, slow, and lacked redundancy, making it susceptible to Israeli attack and incapable of adequately responding to the fast-paced, multifaceted Israeli assault. Syrian radars, transporter-erector-launchers (TELs), and support equipment rarely moved from their positions, and Syrian radars were left on for long periods of time, making it easy for the Israelis to locate and target them. The Syrians also had inadequate early-warning radars—they had less than a quarter of the radars called for by Soviet doctrine—and did not recognize that terrain masking from Lebanon’s mountains degraded the coverage of the radars they had deployed. All of these problems left them vulnerable to the Israeli attack.

The Israelis began the assault with flights of unmanned drones and electronic spoofing of the Syrian radars to convince the Syrians that large numbers of attack aircraft were overhead. These deceptions prompted Syrian SAM crews to turn on their targeting radars and fire off a huge salvo of missiles at the drones, at which point the Israelis unleashed a swarm of air- and surface-launched anti-radiation missiles that homed in on the Syrian fire control radars and destroyed them. With the Syrian SAM units blinded and “unloaded,” Israeli strike aircraft and artillery attacked the early warning radars and TELs themselves, pounding them for several hours with highly accurate strikes.

The Syrians mostly panicked during the attack, showing little ability to respond to this unexpected set of Israeli tactics. Some Syrian SAM crews tried to fight back as best they could, but few turned off their radars or tried to pack up and move, which were the only solutions to their problems. Syrian SAM batteries also had difficulty communicating with each other and with the small number of AAA units supposed to defend them, so that they could not coordinate their responses to the Israeli attack. By night on June 9 the Israelis had destroyed 17 of the 19 SAM batteries in the Bekaa without losing a plane, and by the end of August, subsequent Israeli air strikes had destroyed another 12 SAM batteries.

When Damascus realized that the IAF was destroying its SAM batteries, it ordered the Syrian Air Force into the fray to protect its air defense forces. The Syrians dispatched as many as 100 aircraft, which were met by a similar number of Israeli fighters. The Syrians labored under several disadvantages. Syrian command and control was incapable of coordinating the operations of air forces and ground-based air defense units, so that each could only fight either at different times or in different areas, but could not integrate their efforts. Damascus also had no particular battle plan or operational concept for employing its fighters. They were simply sent to the Bekaa and told to drive off the IAF without much thought. The Syrians were flying MiG-23s and MiG-21s and their pilots were heavily dependent on guidance from ground-controlled intercept (GCI) sites, while the Israelis flew more advanced F-15s and F-16s armed with far more capable air-to-air missiles. The Israeli fighters also were supported by E-2C Hawkeye airborne warning and control aircraft, which vectored Israeli aircraft to intercept Syrian planes before they could sneak up on Israeli aircraft or flee the battlefield.

Nevertheless, Syria’s technological disadvantage became almost beside the point because Syrian pilot performance was so poor. When the Syrian Air Force rose to defend the SAMs, the Israelis jammed their GCI links. Deprived of GCI guidance, the Syrians pilots “went stupid.” Syrian formations dissolved as their pilots could not handle flying in formations larger than pairs. The Syrians were unimaginative and showed no creativity or flare for improvisation; they flew into combat mindlessly, making little or no effort to maneuver in dogfights with the Israelis. Some pilots simply flew figure eights because without the orders of their GCI operators they literally had no idea what to do and made no effort to try to think for themselves. Those few pilots who did try at least some air combat maneuvers employed only simple, predictable tactics and were slow to react to Israeli moves.

The result was a slaughter. In three days of air battles, the Israelis shot down 82 Syrian fighters without losing any of their own. By the end of September the Syrians still had not shot down a single Israeli plane, and their losses had reached 86 MiGs.

The performance of Syria’s Air Force was stunningly inept. A senior Israeli Air Force officer asked to comment on the capabilities of the MiG-23 replied:

I can’t compare it when a MiG-23 is flown in a tactic that I can’t understand or in a situation that I would never get into. The problem is that their pilots didn’t do things at the right time or in the right place . . . the pilots behaved as if they knew they were going to be shot down and then waited for it to happen and not how to prevent it or how to shoot us down. . . . It wasn’t the equipment at fault, but their tactics. They could have flown the best fighter in the world, but if they flew it the way they were flying we would have shot them down in exactly the same way. I don’t mean they were sitting ducks, but in our view, they acted without tactical sense.

The outstanding RAND analyst, Ben Lambeth, concluded:

The Syrians were simply outflown and outfought by vastly superior Israeli opponents. Without question, its sophisticated American hardware figured prominently in helping Israel emerge from the Bekaa Valley fighting with a perfect score. Nevertheless, the outcome would most likely have been heavily weighted in Israel’s favor even had the equipment available to each side been reversed. At bottom, the Syrians were not done in by the AIM-9L’s expanded launch envelope, the F-15’s radar, or any combination of Israeli technical assets, but by the IDF’s constant retention of the operational initiative and its clear advantages in leadership, organization, tactical adroitness, and adaptability.

However, by the same token, one Israeli pilot who fought in the June air battles stated that the Syrians “knew they stood no chance against us, yet they kept coming in and coming in as if asking to be shot down. They showed such remarkable dedication and courage, and I have nothing but respect and admiration for them.”

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