The Six-Day War: How Israel’s Air Force Led the Path to Victory
The Six-Day War presents an exceptional case study of the Israeli Air Force (IAF)’s ethos of military planning and preparation — something that resulted from the clear understanding that the country’s very existence rested — in no small part — upon the shoulders of its pilots, air crew, and ground crews.
On land, tens of thousands of graves had been dug to be filled by the anticipated casualties of war. Our young nation felt like it was on the edge of the abyss, with powerful enemies rounding upon it in the form of several Arab militaries.
The sense throughout the defense establishment was that if Israel was to avoid defeat and the country’s destruction, it had to capitalize upon the first opportunity to push back the threats massing against it to the north and, much more forebodingly, to the south. Primary among those threats was the mighty Egyptian Air Force.
Israel’s response would rely upon intelligence gathering, doctrinal contrarianism, logistical daring, the exploitation of the mundane, and communications discipline.
Israel acquired and deciphered detailed intelligence as it studied its enemies. As they built up their military forces and declared their intention to eliminate the Jewish state, Israel observed.
In 1967, Arab militaries based much of their strategy and battle doctrine on Soviet concepts — a doctrine Israel closely studied. Combined with the ongoing intelligence effort, Israel came to receive rivers of information on the military capabilities of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan — both in the air and on land.
As a result, we deduced the tactical and strategic calculations of enemy commanders, turning that information to our advantage.
This was particularly true in the case of Nasser’s Egypt, the leader of the Arab world.
Compared to the air forces of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, the IAF had to concede that it suffered from a massive shortage of planes. Because our forces were so scant, a strict prioritization of targets was required, and priority number one was hitting the Egyptian Air Force — before it left the runway — in a daring mission known as Operation Moked.
Calibrated to a precision of seconds and meters, the strike required the dispatch of the maximum number of planes possible for a wave of attacks against the Egyptian Air Force — the first wave of which had to massively impede the Egyptian takeoff capabilities.
If that first wave failed, Israel would have been exposed to painful aerial attacks at home. Israel’s need to incapacitate enemy aircraft meant very few planes were reserved for defense, far fewer than is endorsed by any known military defense doctrine. Israel went all in.
Every individual, from the mechanic to the pilot, knew their role — precisely. In most combat sorties, pilots typically learn of their destination just prior to take off. Every pilot in Operation Moked knew their precise location in the attack formation, and where they would be flying to, well in advance.
The distance between Israel’s airfields and the more distant Egyptian Air Force bases made fuel efficiency a priority. Israel’s pilots had to practically drain their supplies in order to target Egypt’s Soviet-supplied strategic bombers, which had the ability to reach Tel Aviv.
Attack planes would need rapid turn around as well. They had to land, rearm, refuel and be airborne for the next wave, without delay, to avoid retaliatory air raids.
The ground crew’s ability to rearm and repair aircraft had to be as rapid and efficient as possible.
Because Israel needed the maximum number of planes possible for the purposes of the bombings, while planning the mission, it logged the precise details of when enemy air forces conducted routine defense air patrols, and when those patrols changed over. It did so not with a view to downing those patrols, but to avoiding them and preventing dog fights, freeing up Israeli aircraft to concentrate on bombing stationery targets on the ground. After many months of surveillance, the IAF had a clear idea of the optimal time to strike.
Even rush hour traffic in Cairo was exploited to Israel’s advantage. The first strike took place at the point when the Egyptian Chief of Staff and Air Force command officers left their homes bound for their offices. Israel thus maximized the length of time they would be in transition, without direct contact with their forces.
Egyptian decision-making was effectively paralyzed, allowing additional time for the bombing waves to take place.
On the morning of the attack, the IAF’s flight school conducted training flights, creating a veil of normality for the watching Egyptians.
To lull Egypt’s defense systems into a further sense of security, Israel’s June 5th air force radio transmissions were pre-recorded and transmitted over the airwaves as decoy communications for the consumption of Egyptian surveillance.
Radio silence was strictly adhered to. In case of mid-air malfunction, Israeli crews were instructed to leave their formations in silence, fly back to base at low altitude, and, if necessary, to eject. The attack squadrons flew toward Egypt at a sufficiently low altitude so as to evade Egyptian radar.
Incredibly, every formation reached its target without a word being uttered over the radio.
Israel’s planning, daring, and clear understanding of the threats it faced resulted in the successful bombing raids it needed against Egypt, and set the stage for the remainder of the war and the lightning fast Israeli victory that ensued, one studied by militaries throughout the globe to this day.
With Egypt firmly on the back foot, the IAF crippled the Syrian Air Force, and destroyed targets in Iraq after the Iraqis entered the fray.
Those same attitudes and principles remain essential for victory in the modern era, and will play a crucial role in combating enemies that threaten Israel today.
Avishai Levi is a publishing Expert at The MirYam Institute. His career in the Israeli Air Force (IAF) culminated as the Head of Intelligence and Reconnaissance for the IAF from 2007-2010. It was during his tenure that the Israeli Air Force successfully destroyed the Syrian nuclear reactor.