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You May Fire When Ready:

The Arab-Israeli Missile War of 1973



By Chris Oakley


Part 3



Summary: In the first two chapters of this series we traced the buildup of Israeli and Arab intermediate-range missile arsenals in the aftermath of the Six-Day War; Israel’s efforts to equip its missiles with nuclear warheads; the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War of 1973; the initial Israeli nuclear attacks on Egypt and Syria; the activation of Soviet IRBM launchers in Georgia and Armenia in response to those attacks; and the raising of the alert level of US nuclear forces in western Europe. In this segment, we’ll look back at the destruction of Haifa and examine how the regional holocaust in the Middle East nearly escalated into global nuclear war; we’ll also study the chaos that overtook the Egyptian  and Syrian armies as word spread of the IDF nuclear strikes on Cairo and Damascus.


To say all hell broke loose after the first IDF nuclear strikes on Egypt and Syria would be an absurd understatement. Mass hysteria spread in both countries like a brushfire, and also infected the ranks of the Syrian and Egyptian ground forces fighting Israel. It felt like the world was coming to an end-- and it almost did come to an end as the tensions between the superpowers escalated. Charges and  countercharges between Washington and Moscow flew almost as fast as the missiles being launched from Zacharia; in a situation where reason and goodwill were urgently needed to facilitate a peaceful end to the carnage in the Middle East, both commodities were in frighteningly short supply.

The previously well-coordinated Egyptian and Syrian offensives against Israel screeched to a halt as ordinary soldiers tried to find shelter from additional Israeli nuclear strikes1 and their commanders made desperate but vain attempts to reach the general staffs in Cairo and Damascus. Hosni Mubarak, now the most senior surviving officer in the Egyptian armed forces, had had the good fortune to be out of the now-destroyed Egyptian capital when it was hit; it would therefore be up to him to preserve some semblance of order among the Egyptian armed forces and scrape together a new provisional government for Egypt.

He’d also have the unenviable task of trying to co-ordinate ground combat operations against the IDF with what was left of the Syrian army officer corps. The nuclear strike on Damascus had wiped out the entire Syrian general staff, and the Israeli nuclear attacks on Syrian bases east of the Golan Heights had killed a staggeringly high number of officers as well; more to the point, the use of nuclear warheads against Egypt and Syria had wreaked havoc on both countries’ communications networks. Mubarak, his nation’s telephone systems badly  crippled by the Israeli nuclear attacks, would in the days ahead have ample cause to be grateful for the fact that the Egyptian military’s radio system had survived more or less intact.


In Amman, King Hussein and his cabinet viewed the nuclear strikes on Syria and Egypt as a vindication of the Jordanian monarch’s previous decision not to commit Jordanian troops to Operation Badr; had he gone along with Egypt and Syria in their attack on Israel, he thought, Amman might have shared the fate of Damascus and Cairo. Now Hussein was confronted with the problem of how to handle the waves of refugees he felt were sure to come streaming towards the Jordanian border any minute now. Some of his ministers thought he should throw the borders open and let the refugees in, while others recommended sealing those borders to project Jordan against overcrowding as well as possible cases of radiation sickness.

In Tel Aviv, MOSSAD had gotten wind of Soviet intentions to use nuclear weapons against Israel’s major cities in retaliation for the IDF nuclear strikes on Egypt and Syria; this news naturally made Prime Minister Meir uneasy, but it did not deter her from doing what she felt needed to be done to defend Israel against its Arab enemies. It did, however, prompt her to order Israeli civil authorities to accelerate the evacuation of civilians from Tel Aviv and relocate her cabinet and herself to a secret emergency bunker.

In Washington and Moscow, the superpowers braced themselves for World War III. Not only had both the United States and the Soviet Union put their respective strategic nuclear arsenals on Defcon 2, but they were also deploying their conventional forces in Europe along the inter-German border in preparation for a full-scale NATO-Warsaw Pact conflict in central Europe. UN secretary general Kurt Waldheim tried to convince the US and Soviet governments to back off from the brink, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. Once those first nuclear warheads had gone off over Damascus and Cairo, all bets had been off; neither the Kremlin nor the White House were particularly inclined to stand aside and let their respective Middle Eastern or European allies get wiped out.

Not since the Cuban missile crisis eleven years earlier had the world been so close to the verge of global nuclear war. Armageddon looked like it was just around the corner...


....and the obliteration of the Israeli city of Haifa by Soviet nuclear warheads scarcely two hours after the first Israeli nuclear strikes on Syria only served to heighten the general sense of impending doom. There had also been a Soviet nuclear missile launched at Tel Aviv, but a technical malfunction had caused that missile too prematurely self-destruct before its warheads could be deployed. Golda Meir and her cabinet were already en route to their bunker when the Soviet warhead detonated over Haifa; Meir could see the light flash of the warhead’s explosion from the window of her helicopter. "My heart nearly crumbled inside me." Meir would later recall in her memoirs.

When word of the Soviet nuclear strike against Haifa reached the White House, President Nixon saw it as vindication of his decision to bring US nuclear forces to Defcon 2 and a sign that the time had now come to order them brought-- albeit reluctantly --to Defcon 1. "If we allow Soviet nuclear attack to destroy Israel," he is reported to have told Richard Helms, "history will never forgive us, nor will the American people."

This action inevitably provoked the Soviets to raise their own ICBMs to full alert and evacuate most of their major cities. No sooner had Nixon given the order for US nuclear forces to go to Defcon 1 than Brezhnev directed Soviet bombers to hit primary and secondary targets in Alaska and Hawaii; Soviet ICBM bases were given the green light to begin hitting military installations in the continental United States. Now it wasn’t just Israel and her Arab neighbors who were at war with one another-- the superpowers were finally engaging in the large-scale nuclear confrontation the world had been expecting, and dreading, for nearly a quarter-century.


An even greater danger than the bombers and ICBMs, however, were the missile submarines the superpowers had deployed on patrol off each other’s coasts and in the icy waters of the Arctic Circle. The American Polaris and Poseidon and the Soviet SS-N-6 and SS-N-8 were among the most lethal strategic weapons of their day; the SS-N-8 in particular was a devastatingly effective element of the Soviet nuclear arsenal, having an operational range of at least 4000 nautical miles.2 The warning time for a missile attack, very slim to begin with, is cut down to almost nothing when said attack is carried out from a nuclear submarine, which meant that whichever side got in the first blows in  the impending nuclear conflict between East and West would most likely strike those blows with an SLBM3 attack.

But in the end nobody would be able to say which side’s subs launched first; communications would be just as badly disrupted in the United States and the Soviet Union when nuclear war erupted between the superpowers as they had been in Egypt and Syria after the Israeli defense forces mounted their initial nuclear strikes on Cairo and Damascus. And it would hardly matter anyway whose submarines fired the opening salvo, for the end results would be the same-- destruction on an unimaginable scale that would get exponentially worse as the US and the USSR unleashed their respective ICBM and bomber arsenals against one another.

The first major cities to perish in the ICBM fusillade between the superpowers were Leningrad and San Francisco, which were obliterated almost simultaneously just minutes after the Soviet nuclear strike on Haifa. Kiev, Chicago, Minsk, and Detroit all soon followed...


To Be Continued



[1] An ironic concern given that Israel had already used up most of its slim nuclear arsenal in its early attacks on Egypt and Syria.

[2] The SS-N-8’s only significant drawback in the eyes of Soviet military authorities was that there were too few them in service; at the time the 1973 Arab-Israeli war first broke out, there were only 34 SS-N-8s in the Soviet naval inventory.

[3] Submarine-launched ballistic missile.



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