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You May Fire When Ready:

The Arab-Israeli Missile War of 1973


By Chris Oakley

Part 4




Summary: In the first three 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; the raising of the alert level of US nuclear forces in western Europe; the destruction of Haifa; the chaos that overtook the Egyptian and Syrian armies as word spread of the IDF nuclear strikes on Cairo and Damascus; and the outbreak of full-scale nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. In this installment we’ll see how the Soviet government was imperiled by the massive thermonuclear destruction inflicted on the USSR by the United States and the damage which the US suffered in return from Soviet nuclear attacks.


The first reports that came in to the Kremlin about the initial US nuclear strikes on the Soviet Union set off sheer terror among the doves in the Soviet foreign ministry. From the moment the first Arab ground units had crossed the Israeli border the doves had been worried things might come to this pass sooner or later, and now their greatest fears were being fulfilled to the tenth power. Unfortunately, there was little they could do to halt the cycle of destruction which had been unleashed by the nuclear strikes on Cairo and Damascus; in fact, some of them would themselves be victims of that destruction when two American nuclear warheads hit Moscow while the Kremlin was still in the process of evacuating the skeleton staff that had remained behind after the rest of Brezhnev’s cabinet left the Soviet capital when the superpowers went to Defcon 1.

Everything seemed to be going to hell in a handbasket on both sides of the Iron Curtain; things were particularly bad in the Soviet Union, however, which was being subjected to a wave of punishing US nuclear strikes in retaliation for the nuclear hell Soviet missiles had visited on Israel and the United States. Indeed, it will forever astonish historians that the entire Soviet senior political hierarchy wasn’t wiped out right off the bat when the US and the USSR went to war with one another. One Soviet survivor of that horrific day would later recall feeling "like hell itself had burst up out of the ground" as reports came in one after another about American nuclear strikes on the USSR.


Things weren’t much better for Nixon and his cabinet; as soon as the first Soviet ICBMs had been detected leaving their silos to hit strategic targets in the United States the entire White House staff had been evacuated to the President’s secret emergency bunker, Mount Weather. Now, within Mount Weather’s stark concrete walls, Nixon and his aides heard the bunker’s communications gear toll a nearly endless litany of nuclear destruction on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

Washington had already been vaporized by the time Marine One, the official presidential helicopter, reached Mount Weather; within minutes after Nixon’s arrival at the emergency bunker word would come that Los Angeles had been destroyed by Soviet ICBMs and a major air battle was raging a hundred miles off the coast of Hawaii as U.S. air defense squadrons tried to stop long range missile-equipped Soviet bombers from destroying the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet’s headquarters at Pearl Harbor. Similar engagements were being fought in defense of U.S. military outposts in Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea, with the battles in Japanese airspace proving to be particularly ferocious.

Not surprisingly, New York City was among the first targets of Soviet nuclear attacks on the East Coast. Only two of the six Soviet ICBM warheads aimed at the Big Apple found their mark; however, those two warheads were enough to kill hundreds of thousands of people and devastate at least half of Manhattan and Queens along with a sizable portion of the Bronx.1 Three nuclear warheads were directed at Boston; two of them hit their intended targets and for all practical purposes wiped the Athens of America off the map.2

Kansas City perished not long after Boston did. Within minutes of Kansas City’s destruction Tbilisi, regional capital of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, was vaporized by Polaris missiles; almost simultaneously the great Arctic port of Murmansk was blasted off the face of the earth by air-launched AGM-28 Hound Dog missiles from B-52 bombers standing just outside the range of Soviet SAM batteries and using every countermeasure in their arsenal to prevent being shot down by Soviet fighter jets. By sunrise U.S. Eastern Daylight time on the morning of October 7th, very few major cities would be left standing  on either side of the Iron Curtain...


As Golda Meir’s cabinet met in extraordinary session inside her secret emergency shelter out in the deep desert, they were trying to sort through a seemingly endless stream of contradictory reports about the situation on the IDF’s battlefront with the Arabs. The utter chaos that had been unleashed in the outside world by the outbreak of atomic war between the United States and the Soviet Union had only served to make an already intolerable situation that much worse. Repeated tries by Meir’s foreign minister to reach President Nixon at Mount Weather had proven fruitless, and the Israeli diplomatic missions in New York and Washington had of course been destroyed by the first exchange of ICBMs between the superpowers.

As uncoordinated as the Egyptian Army was in the aftermath of the nuclear strike on Cairo, things weren’t much better for the IDF ground forces. Entire divisions were stumbling around effectively blind, their radio equipment rendered useless by the EMP bursts which had resulted from the first wave of Soviet nuclear strikes against Israel. Israeli air force recon planes were having trouble seeing much of anything thanks to the huge clouds of dust and debris kicked up by the various nuclear detonations that had been taking place throughout the Middle East since the fateful code word "Maccabee" had first been transmitted by the Israeli Defense Ministry to IDF missile commanders and air force squadron COs. The Israeli navy had for all intents and purposes ceased to exist when the port of Eilat was destroyed. And the normally reliable MOSSAD counterintelligence service had sustained a major blow to its information-gathering capabilities as a result of the simultaneous deaths of so many of its field operatives after the missiles started flying.

Even the IDF’s famed paratroopers were having a great deal of trouble carrying out their assigned missions in the sheer chaos of the post-nuclear attack environment of the Middle East. The radio communications systems which had helped make so many of their past triumphs possible had collapsed in the face of the initial nuclear strikes on the Middle East. It was small comfort to the paratroopers that their Arab enemies’ communications networks had been disrupted even further; with Israel’s own radio net torn to shreds by nuclear attack, they might just as well have been blind and deaf.

Many Israelis literally were blind and deaf, their retinas burned out and their eardrums burst by the nuclear detonations that had torn their country apart. Some particularly devout Israeli Jews were convinced the atomic horror that had been visited on their ancient homeland was retribution from God for their individual and collective sins. And there would be little incentive for them to change their minds on this score as plagues and famine of Biblical proportions descended on the entire Middle East in the aftermath of the atomic holocaust....


To Be Continued



[1] And it wasn’t just the nuclear detonations themselves that wrought so much carnage on New York; tidal waves generated by the force of those detonations swept through New York Harbor, drowning thousands of people as floodwaters swamped the ruined city.

[2] The third went off course, most likely due to a guidance systems malfunction, and prematurely detonated somewhere off the Cape Cod coastline.


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