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You May Fire When Ready:

The Arab-Israeli Missile War of 1973


By Chris Oakley

Part 1



In the aftermath of their defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War against Israel, the Arab nations sought new ways of taking the battle to the Jewish state now that their air forces had effectively been wiped off the map and their armies were in ruins. Conversely by the same token, the Israelis were looking for means of strengthening their military edge over their Arab foes; though the Israeli army and air force had won the Six-Day War decisively, there was a consensus among defense minister Moshe Dayan’s staff that something extra was needed for the next time the Arabs decided to tangle with Israel.

Both sides would find the answer to their dilemmas in intermediate range surface-to-surface missiles, domestically built in Israel’s case and supplied by the USSR in the case of Israel’s two chief Arab foes, Egypt and Syria. These missiles-- the Israeli Jericho and the Soviet- made Scuds bought by the Egyptians and Syrians --could travel hundreds or thousands of miles to hit their targets and were equipped to carry both conventional and nuclear warheads. The Israelis were in a better position than their Arab enemies to utilize the nuclear capability; since the late 1950s Tel Aviv had been secretly developing its own A- bomb at a research complex in the desert town of Dimona.

In fact, one of the very reasons Israel fought the Six-Day War in the first place was to prevent the Arab states from interfering with the Dimona reactor facility’s production of Israeli atomic bombs. In this aim the Israeli Defense Forces were extraordinarily successful, particularly where Egypt and Syria were concerned: despite diligent efforts by their chief foreign ally the Soviet Union to make good the equipment losses they’d suffered on the battlefield, the Egyptian and Syrian armed forces found it hard going to rebuild in the aftermath of their defeat. And though Moscow was perfectly willing to provide Cairo and Damascus with conventional armaments, it rejected their requests for nuclear weapons technology, citing the Kremlin’s concerns that if the USSR were to furnish A-bombs to its Arab clients the United States might respond by arming Israel with nukes.

It was a situation that vexed Egypt and Syria no end-- and they would have been even more worried had they known the truth about the Dimona nuclear plant. But Tel Aviv had done a superb job of concealing what went on there; not even the CIA had any idea the Israelis had been able to attain a nuclear capability (albeit a crude one). In fact, few people outside Israel-- or in Israel itself for that matter --were aware of the Dimona reactor’s existence...


....and the Israeli government was in no hurry to clue anyone else in on what was really happening there. Levi Eshkol, prime minister of Israel at the time of the Six-Day War, had known all too well how the Arab states would react to even the vaguest hint his nation was making nuclear bombs; his successors knew it too, and accordingly they made it a point to continue his policy of secrecy on Dimona. The last thing Israel needed was to have the lid blown off its nuclear arsenal lest the Arab powers start a pre-emptive war or the United States cut off economic aid to Tel Aviv.

Still, the lack of knowledge about the real state of Israel’s A- bomb efforts didn’t stop the Arab countries from stockpiling medium- range and intermediate-range missiles with conventional warheads; the Syrians were particularly eager to acquire these missiles, believing that they might one day help dislodge Israel from the positions it had occupied along the Golan Heights since the end of the Six-Day War. To a lesser extent Egypt was interested in obtaining them too-- prior to his death in 1970 Gamal Abdel Nasser had spent considerable time in negotiating sales agreements with the Soviets for surface-to-surface missiles, and his successor Anwar Sadat continued those negotiations.

Israel’s chief ballistic missile, the Jericho, was largely a homegrown affair although the Jericho development staff had in the beginning gotten some technical assistance from the French aerospace company Dassault. France’s embargo on military aid to Israel after January of 1968 did very little to slow down Tel Aviv’s efforts to enhance its missile inventory; indeed, it may have in some respects spurred the Israelis on to work that much harder.

By 1971 the Israeli Defense Forces had succeeded in mating nuclear warheads to their Jericho missiles, and the Chel Ha’Avir (Israeli air force) had started equipping its aircraft with nuclear bombs. At just the push of a button, the Israeli prime minister could unleash nuclear death on Cairo, Damascus, or Amman...


....but for security reasons Tel Aviv continued to take great pains to keep its friends and foes alike off-balance as to the truth about its atomic capabilities. With tensions still high in the Middle East, Israel was anxious not to spill the beans about acquiring A-bombs till they had an adequate supply of said bombs to use against the Arabs. And there was still the need to maintain the flow of foreign aid from Israel’s western allies-- aid which might yet be cut off if they got  wind of the Israelis’ nuclear arsenal prematurely. By the fall of 1972 that arsenal, while not as substantial as those of the United States or the Soviet Union(or China for that matter), was assuredly capable of delivering terrible blows to Israel’s foes in Egypt, Jordan, and Syria; as the Jericho’s range and accuracy steadily improved, Tel Aviv would also gain the ability to strike at targets inside Iraq.

In the summer of 1973 the Chel Ha’Avir began a series of intensive and covert nuclear attack exercises in the Negev Desert, simulating A- bomb strikes on Arab air bases and other strategic targets. MOSSAD, the Israeli counterintelligence arm, had advised the senior military and political leadership in Tel Aviv that Egypt and Syria had started making preparations to invade Israel during the Yom Kippur holiday in October; while the politicians were reluctant to activate the Israeli Defense Forces’ ground units for fear of hastening the Arab invasion, the air force had been given tacit consent to do what they had to do in order to disrupt the Arab attack. The Chel Ha’Avir general staff had even started drafting a preliminary list of primary and secondary targets to be struck should it prove necessary to go to the nuclear option.

High on that list were the Egyptian capital Cairo and the Syrian capital Damascus, both of which had been hit by heavy conventional  bombing raids during the Six-Day War. Both were well within flight range of Israeli combat aircraft; in fact, by geographical standards Damascus was only a stone’s throw away. And with Israel having been in control of the Golan Heights since the end of the Six-Day War, the IDF high command in Tel Aviv could in effect fire nuclear missiles right from Syria’s very doorstep. The Syrian general staff, unaware as they may have been of Israel’s nuclear capability, was fully cognizant of the damage surface-to-surface missiles could do with conventional high explosive warheads, and when in the second week of September of 1973 Syrian intelligence operatives found evidence that Jericho launch  sites were being built at the southern Israeli town of Zacharia it was decided the strategy for the invasion of Israel should be revised to allot more forces for the elimination of the Zacharia bases and other Israeli missile sites.

On September 13th the high commands for the Syrian and Egyptian armies held a joint staff conference in Cairo to rewrite the battle plan for the offensive, code-named Operation Badr after a victorious battle said to have been fought by the Prophet Muhammad against the Quraish people of Mecca in ancient times. The role of the Syrian and Egyptian air forces in the invasion, already considerable to begin with, was expanded further and the original idea of driving straight for Tel Aviv was altered to include a flank thrust against Zacharia that would be supported by heavy Syrian and Egyptian bombing raids to knock out Zacharia’s Jericho bases.

As Napoleon Bonaparte once observed in another context, though, no battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy. Operation Badr’s new strategy certainly wouldn’t last beyond the first Israeli nuclear strikes...


On October 1st, four days before Operation Badr started, Israeli reconnaissance planes detected heavier-than-normal traffic along the the highways of western Syria. The IDF counterintelligence staff had an inkling of suspicion that this might be a prelude to a large-scale assault on Israel, but they couldn’t be sure-- the Syrian and Egyptian governments had made a point of heavily publicizing the fact that they would be engaged in military training exercises around this time, so the higher traffic volume could simply have been part of the exercises and nothing more. Still, according to Israeli prime minister Golda Meir’s way of thinking, this development definitely merited serious consideration.

On October 2nd, Meir and her top security advisors met at her Tel Aviv home to debate what Israel’s next move should be; Israeli army chief of staff General David Elezear was of the opinion the IDF should immediately activate all its ground forces at least as a precautionary measure, but Meir was reluctant to back him on that score. Suppose, she suggested, that all this new traffic really was part of a normal military exercise and Elezear’s activation of ground troops provoked Syria into a pre-emptive attack? Elezear’s counter-argument was that failing to take some sort of proactive measures on the ground invited catastrophe for Israel if the Syrians were actually getting ready for an invasion.

The debate was still going on when Syrian infantry and armored divisions crashed into the Israeli occupation zone out in the Golan Heights on the morning of October 5th, 1973...


News of the initial Arab attack against Israel on the Yom Kippur holiday sent shockwaves throughout the entire country-- and brought home to workers and technicians at the Dimona reactor complex just how vital their operations were to Israel’s survival. For years they had known that their jobs, though performed in anonymity, constituted a critical element of Israeli national security; now, as their nation faced war with its Arab neighbors for the fourth time in its history and the second time in six years, they realized it was more important than ever to do those jobs well and in a timely fashion.

At Zacharia IDF missile crews were immediately put on full alert, awaiting what their officers considered an inevitable order from Prime Minister Meir to mate nuclear warheads to their Jericho missiles. At Chel Ha’Avir air bases across Israel, Israeli fighter attack squadrons began preparations to make A-bomb strikes on designated targets inside Syria, Egypt, and Jordan.

Twenty-eight years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the nuclear clock was about to once more strike midnight.


To Be Continued...


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