You May Fire
The Arab-Israeli Missile War of 1973
By Chris Oakley
Summary: In Part 1 of this series we reviewed the efforts of Israel and her Arab foes to expand their respective missile arsenals in the wake of the Six-Day War and the Israeli program to equip the IDF’s missiles with a nuclear capability; we also charted the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War and the Israeli Defense Forces’ preparation to begin nuclear attacks against the Arab forces. In this chapter we’ll recall the hours leading up to Prime Minister Golda Meir’s decision to commence nuclear strikes against Syria and Egypt and the first Israeli air and missile nuclear raids against the Arab powers.
As soon as it was officially confirmed that Arab ground and air forces had attacked Israel, Prime Minister Golda Meir and her cabinet convened an emergency meeting in the war room of the Israeli Defense Ministry. Air raid sirens could be heard outside, and would continue to blare for much of that meeting; the initial Syrian air and ground assaults on northern Israel had been accompanied by simultaneous Scud missile strikes against every major Israeli military target within range of the Syrian Scud launchers. Even as Prime Minister Meir was entering the war room, Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan had gotten the disquieting news that Syrian Scuds had hit and seriously damaged the Israeli naval base at Eilat.
Egyptian Scud crews were nearly as busy as their Syrian comrades, lobbing high explosive warheads from launchers in the western Sinai at strategic targets throughout southern Israel. IDF field commanders overseeing the defense of the ancient city of Beersheba reported to Tel Aviv that they could hear the detonation of Scud missile warheads just yards away from their command posts. Israeli naval patrols near the Gulf of Aqaba could see the contrails of Scuds zooming across the Suez Canal and clouds of smoke billowing up from where Scuds had hit Israeli navy and merchant marine dock facilities. Before the cabinet meeting was over all of these reports, combined with the steady stream of messages about the swift and deep penetration of Arab ground forces into Israeli territory, would compel Meir to order the use of Israeli nuclear weapons against the Arabs.
If Meir was worried about the damage Egyptian and Syrian Scuds were inflicting on Israel, Anwar Sadat and Syrian dictator Hafez el-Assad were equally disturbed by the injury Israeli Jericho missiles had done to Egypt and Syria. To the dismay of Egyptian and Syrian strategic planners the initial Arab air and ground attacks against Israel had not entirely disabled the IDF’s missile bases-- or kept the IDF from firing Jericho Is armed with conventional warheads at Egyptian and Syrian military facilities. The failure to knock out the IDF missile base at Zacharia was particularly troubling to Arab senior generals, and would prove catastrophic in light of the events to come. Egyptian air force chief of staff Hosni Mubarak, who later on would assume the leadership of Egypt’s new provisional government in the chaos which followed the Israeli nuclear strikes against Cairo and Alexandria, was personally distressed by this failure; a considerable part of the battle plan for the initial Arab air strikes on Israel had been conceived by Mubarak, and the fact that the Zacharia missile base was still operational reflected poorly on his professional reputation.
Assad could easily relate to Mubarak’s embarrassment on this score; before becoming ruler of Syria he had served as an officer in the Syrian air force, and he knew as few other men did the importance of properly executing an air campaign. He had hoped that this time, by getting in the first licks, the Arab powers might deprive Israel of any chance at defeating them; fate, however, had a thrown a wrench in the calculations of strategic planners in Cairo and Damascus.
With the exception of the Soviet Union, which started airlifting weapons and equipment to the Arab powers well before the first Syrian troops crossed Israel’s northern border, the outside world had largely been slow to react to the events unfolding in the Middle East. Great Britain and France were too busy squabbling over the issue of British admission to the European Economic Community1 to pay much attention to the outbreak of yet another Arab-Israeli military conflict; China was deep in the throes of its infamous Cultural Revolution, which at the time had already been going on for seven years and would only end with the death of Chinese ruler Mao Zedong in 1976; West Germany remained traumatized by the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich; India was picking up the pieces from its latest conflict with its neighbor Pakistan and a short but vicious civil war in what is today Bangladesh; and the United States, having only ended its involvement in the Vietnam War less than nine months earlier, was preoccupied by the ever-escalating Watergate political scandal.2
But the world’s attention would be dramatically focused on the fighting between Israel and the Egyptian-Syrian alliance when, within twelve hours after the initial Arab attacks on Israel, Prime Minister Meir made a special live broadcast address from her offices in Tel Aviv warning that if Arab forces did not agree to a cease-fire with Israel by 6:00 PM Cairo time on the evening of October 5th, the Israeli government would be obliged to turn to what she described as "extreme measures" to halt the Arab aggression.
The use of those two words, "extreme measures", immediately made counterintelligence staffs in all the major Western, Arab, and Soviet bloc capitals immediately sit up and take notice. They could only mean the Israelis planned to use some type of weapon of mass destruction-- but what type? Had Tel Aviv somehow gotten its hands on chemical or biological weapons? There were few foreign military or intelligence officials who imagined that Israel might have nuclear weapons at its disposal, and even fewer who were willing to say so outright to their superiors lest they risk being proven wrong and looking like fools.
As the afternoon of October 5th progressed and IDF ground forces continued to struggle to halt the Arab advance, there was no sign from Cairo or Damascus that Egypt or Syria would be willing to agree to a cease-fire with Tel Aviv. On the contrary, just two hours after Golda Meir delivered her "extreme measures" ultimatum Hafez el-Assad let it be known that the Syrian army intended to wipe out the IDF’s northern ground forces to the last man. With that rash statement Assad may have sealed his own doom; he certainly guaranteed a fiery and radioactive death for thousands of his fellow Syrians.
Thousands of miles from the hell of the Middle East battlefronts, President Nixon met with the National Security Council to hear their take on Meir’s "extreme measures" speech. There was a five-hour time difference between Cairo and Washington; 6:00 PM in Egypt would be 1:00 PM in the afternoon US Eastern Daylight Time, meaning that Meir’s deadline for an end to Arab hostilities against Israel would come in the midst of lunchtime for many Americans. Present at the NSC meeting was one of the few men on the planet who dared suggest the possibility Meir’s "extreme measures" allusion might refer to the use of nuclear weapons, Dr. Henry Kissinger, a onetime Harvard professor who’d begun his service to the Nixon administration as Nixon’s National Security Advisor and was now Nixon’s secretary of state.
Prior to the NSC meeting, Kissinger had been extensively briefed by the CIA on the subject of Israeli nuclear weapons development. By the time the Yom Kippur War broke out the agency was well aware that Tel Aviv did in fact have a nuclear bomb capability; on the basis of circumstantial evidence obtained from their sources in France3 and in Israel itself, CIA analysts estimated that the IDF possessed at least thirteen nuclear warheads in its arsenal and maybe more. Kissinger’s great worry was that the Israelis, feeling that their backs were up against the wall, might decide to drop the bomb on Cairo or Damascus-- and since both Egypt and Syria were both allies of the Soviet Union at the time, this opened up the dangerous possibility the Soviets would retaliate on their allies’ behalf by launching a nuclear strike on Tel Aviv. That in turn meant the hostilities in the Middle East could well escalate into global war between the superpowers, since if the Soviets attacked Israel the United States would be obliged to strike back at the USSR in Israel’s defense.
One thing Kissinger didn’t have to worry about was the prospect of American diplomatic personnel getting killed in an Israeli nuclear strike; the United States had long since severed diplomatic relations with both Egypt and Syria and would not resume them again until the mid-1970s. As for Jordan, it had not yet officially become a combatant in the war though it was supporting Syria and Egypt politically; thus, Kissinger believed the US embassy in Amman was safe as long as cease- fire arrangements between Israel and the Egyptian-Syrian alliance were worked out quickly before the war escalated.
Still the atmosphere at the NSC was pretty tense, and it would get even tenser as the clock ticked down towards 1:00 PM with no sign of any willingness by Egypt or Syria to end hostilities with Israel. If anything, the fighting seemed to be growing more intense with each minute that the deadline got closer. At 12:47 PM, thirteen minutes before the deadline was scheduled to expire, CIA director William R. Colby received an alarming message from his station chief in Tel Aviv: IDF headquarters had transmitted the single code word "Maccabee" to the commander at the missile base in Zacharia-- a code word which, if the agency’s information about the Israeli nuclear program was right, signalled the Zacharia base commander was being granted full authority to commence nuclear strikes on Syria and Egypt the moment the deadline was up.
Nixon then turned to Henry Kissinger and to Defense Secretary James Schlesinger to ask their opinions on whether they thought it was possible the Soviet Union would launch counterstrikes right away. Both Kissinger and Schlesinger bluntly told the President such a response from Moscow wasn’t just possible, it was probably inevitable; Defense Secretary Schlesinger in particular was convinced that Soviet missile launchers in Georgia and Armenia would start firing on targets inside Israel within, at most, 45 minutes of any Israeli nuclear attack on Syria or Egypt.
As if the outlook for peace wasn’t bleak enough already, it grew bleaker yet at 12:56 when Colby got another message from his Tel Aviv station chief advising him that Chel Ha’Avir squadron commanders had also received the "Maccabee" signal and were scrambling their jets in anticipation of receiving orders to launch secondary nuclear strikes on Egypt and Syria once the initial wave of missile attacks had been completed. Nothing short of a miracle was going to avert disaster now; unfortunately, miracles were in short supply that day....
Sure enough, the deadline the Israelis had set for the Arab powers to agree to a cease-fire expired without Damascus or Cairo offering the slightest hint they might be interested in arranging a peace accord with Tel Aviv. At 1:01 PM US Eastern Daylight Time-- 6:01 PM Cairo time --Prime Minister Meir ordered the IDF to begin nuclear attacks on Syria and Egypt immediately. It was not a decision she made lightly or with enthusiasm; up until the very last second before the deadline elapsed, Meir had still held out hope the Egyptian and Syrian governments might change their minds and extend an olive branch to Israel, if for no other reason than to give themselves breathing room to regroup some of their armies.
At 1:05 PM a second single-word code signal, "Masada"4, was flashed to IDF missile and air commanders. This was their cue to start nuclear strikes on designated primary and secondary targets in Egypt and Syria; special attention was to be given to the Egyptian armies in the Sinai Peninsula. Jordan, which had not gotten involved in the conflict militarily although it supported Egypt and Syria politically, would essentially be ignored(though a single warhead had been placed on standby to be used on Amman if the Jordanian army showed any signs of intervening in the fighting).
Realizing that there was a 50-50 chance Jerusalem might well be overrun, Meir had-- with serious trepidation --agreed to a "doomsday plan" by Defense Minister Dayan to bury a nuclear warhead beneath the center of the city and detonate it the moment that Arab forces entered Jerusalem proper. Meir prayed she wouldn’t have to use it, but neither she nor any member of her cabinet could stand the thought of Judaism’s most sacred city falling under the control of Arab occupation troops.
At 1:07 PM a flight of Chel Ha’Avir jet bombers which had been holding steady at failsafe points over the Israeli-controlled eastern Sinai Peninsula5 crossed over into Egyptian airspace to deliver nuclear warheads on Egyptian troop positions in the western Sinai. Barely 90 seconds later, US reconnaissance satellites passing in high orbit over the Middle East detected several missile launches from Zachariah, one of which was headed in the direction of Damascus and another of which was making a beeline for Cairo. The already ugly state of affairs in the Middle East was about to turn catastrophic...
The only warning the citizens of Damascus had that their city was about to be atomized was a faint glimmer of light reflected off the metallic casing of the Jericho missile’s warhead in the final moments before that warhead detonated. In geographic terms, Damascus is just a stone’s throw away from Israel’s northern border; the length of time it took for the missile fired at Damascus to reach its assigned target was only slightly longer than the time required for IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv to issue the launch order.
It was 6:11 PM in the evening local time(1:11 US Eastern) when the Jericho I warhead targeted for Damascus detonated three thousand feet above the Syrian capital. Ground zero for the warhead’s detonation was Tesheen Palace, the Syrian president’s traditional residence; Hafez el-Assad and his top cabinet advisors, who’d gathered to hear a report on the progress of Syrian military operations in northern Israel, were all vaporized in the blast. Many of the city’s most famous landmarks, including the Umayyad Mosque, were also destroyed, as were a number of major command/control and diplomatic facilities including the Soviet embassy in Damascus.
No sooner had the news of the nuclear attack on Damascus started to reach the outside world than additional Israeli nuclear strikes on Syria took out three critical Syrian army bases situated between the ruins of the Syrian capital and the Golan Heights. Had the Israelis possessed a sufficiently large supply of nuclear warheads, they would most likely have also fired a missile at the port of Lataika-- it was home to one of the Arab world’s largest major naval bases. The roar of the explosion from the IDF nuclear strike on Damascus could be heard as far away as Beirut; the light flash from the warhead’s detonation was seen from the decks of fishing boats off the coast of Cyprus.
The Egyptian masses didn’t even have time to register the news of the horrific devastation that had been visited on their Syrian allies by Israel before Egypt herself was subjected to that same devastation. At 6:14 PM(1:14 US Eastern), Radio Cairo abruptly ceased transmission as the Egyptian capital was hit by an Israeli nuclear warhead; at that same instant thousands of Egyptian troops stationed out in the western Sinai perished in the inferno of multiple nuclear explosions.
Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev was given a detailed briefing by his top military advisors on the Israeli nuclear attacks; he hardly needed it, however, to tell him that a terrible calamity had befallen the Kremlin’s two most important allies in the Middle East. The swift and total loss of communications between Soviet foreign ministry HQ in Moscow and the now-obliterated Soviet embassies in Cairo and Damascus was more than sufficient evidence of the nearly apocalyptic disaster that had been inflicted on Egypt and Syria. And there was still more bad news to come: during the briefing Brezhnev’s defense minister, Andrei Grechko, informed him there had also been an Israeli nuclear attack on Alexandria, Egypt’s largest seaport and second-largest city.
Brezhnev’s reaction to the Israeli nuclear strikes on Syria and Egypt was swift and predictable: at 7:21 PM Moscow time(6:21 PM Cairo time), he ordered all Soviet intermediate-range missiles in Georgia and Armenia placed on full alert to launch retaliatory nuclear strikes on Israel. This decision by Brezhnev triggered an equally predictable countermove from the United States-- the escalation of the alert level of US nuclear forces in western Europe to DefCon6 2. Far from being over, the atomic nightmare in the Middle East had barely even started yet...
To Be Continued
1The forerunner of today’s European Union.
2The Nixon Administration was also beset by a tax evasion scandal involving Nixon’s vice-president Spiro T. Agnew, who resigned and pleaded nolo contendere(no contest) to the tax charges just four days after the Israeli nuclear strikes on Cairo, Alexandria, and Damascus.
3French financial and technical assistance had been largely responsible for building Israel’s first nuclear reactor.
4A reference to the legendary 73 A.D. desert siege in which nearly a thousand Jewish patriots chose to commit suicide rather than submit to the numerically superior Roman legions assaulting their fortress.
5The Chel Ha’Avir had adopted the practice of deploying nuclear-armed combat planes at ‘fail-safe’ points from the US Strategic Air Command and the Long Range Aviation branch of the Soviet air force; to disguise the true nature of such flights and keep Israel’s Arab adversaries in the dark about Israeli nuclear capabilities, the IDF euphemistically classified them as "special training" or "strategic reconnaissance" missions.
6Short for Defense Condition, the combat readiness level of US military forces around the world. DefCon 5 refers to normal peacetime readiness; DefCon 1 indicates a state of war is in defect. The placing of US nuclear warheads in Europe on DefCon 2 therefore indicated that the Nixon Administration was expecting war with the Soviet Union at any moment.