Bekaa Valley: Lessons India Must Derive
Sub Title : Lessons for the Indian Air Force to plan its equipping profile
Issues Details : Vol 15 Issue 6 Jan – Feb 2022
Author : Prof Prodyut Das
Page No. : 46
Category : Military Technology
: January 21, 2022
The Bekaa Valley operation by the Israelis was a brilliantly choreographed aerial commando raid. They took out many Syrian SA6 missile systems and destroyed several aircraft. Had the Syrians done minimal retrofits to their aircraft, the match would have been a little more even. There are lessons in this for the Indian Air Force to plan its equipping profile. The writer suggests that we need a large and sensibly equipped Air Force rather than one to international standards
The narration of the air war over the Bekaa Valley has only improved with time. Various slanted lessons have been read off this spectacular operation though the Israelis themselves have often said that Bekaa Valley lessons cannot be generalized. This article is based on official analyses by Col Dubrov writing in the Aviytsiya and Kosmonautica on the lessons of the war and a commentary on the same by Dr Benjamin Lambeth writing for RAND. A factor none of the reports mention is the terrain of the Bekaa Valley which impacted the final results and made the operation” unique” rather than “general”.
Military reports often have strong “marketing” angles to them. These have been filtered out. It then appears that in the Bekaa Valley rather than “the latest technology” winning the war, it was the traditional qualities viz diligence, carefulness, training and planning which the Israelis displayed over a sustained period – a decade to be precise – which paid rich dividends, whilst dogged courage – which the Syrians displayed in abundance – did not get them anywhere. It should not be taken to mean that if the Syrians had the same qualities of careful planning as the Israelis the loss ratio would have been reversed but certainly the Syrians could have given the Israelis a fight. With equally careful planning and some supplementary upgrades on the part of the Syrians the Israelis could have been dissuaded from undertaking the operation itself.
Various claims have been made about the conflict, from the Israelis having invented a secret weapon to the fact that the Bekaa Valley triggered the collapse of the Soviet Union to even that the Bekaa Valley operation is a proof that third (read x) generation fighters cannot survive against fourth (read x+1) generation aircraft. However, these claims need reasoned debate as they are largely assumptions. For India the tactical lessons of the Bekaa Valley are not important. The focus should be on the philosophy. Adequate numbers of appropriate type of warplanes is the need. How to achieve balance between sophistication and numbers should exercise the minds of our experts because the requirements have to be India specific. No one- certainly not the vendors- should dictate these.
Yom Kippur War
In the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the Israeli AF suffered horrendous losses to the new and then largely unknown SA6 Russian missile system (each SA6 battery consisted of one “Straight Flush” fire control radar, four SA6 launchers based on the PT 76/ZSU 23-4 chassis each with three missiles and two ZiL 131-6 six wheel re-supply trucks -the batteries being controlled by “Long Track” surveillance radar and a thin skin height finding radar). The flat Sinai terrain allowed the tracked launchers room for manoeuvre as well as presenting the aircraft as clear high contrast targets. The flat launch trajectory of the SA6 was also no problem. Under these ideal conditions, the SA6 system, was devastatingly effective and the total Israeli AF losses in the critical first 72 hours was 50 aircraft (Israeli figures) and the total losses over the 18 days air war was 109 aircraft. How many fell to what system will not be known because amongst other things the Israeli AF mentions all losses as “operational loss” or, “due to ground fire”. As with the PAF, Air to Air losses are almost never acknowledged. Another noteworthy fact was that despite all the legends of Israeli prowess in intel, lack of up to the minute information repeatedly caught the Israelis flat footed in 1973.
Israeli Focus after Yom Kippur War
Surviving the high losses, the Israelis prioritized three lessons.
♦ They focused on the development of tactics to neutralize the threat posed by the tracked SAMs. In this they were aided by the Americans who had a direct interest as NATO forces would encounter the same missile systems. By 1978 i.e. after about five years the Israelis cautiously declared that they had the measure of the SA6 threat. By May 1980 the Israelis were able to “field test” their solution under actual conditions when they destroyed two SA 9 launchers but waited patiently for another two years for a suitable opportunity, both tactical and political, to present itself. And it did in the Bekaa Valley.
♦ They also built up their number of combat squadrons from 14 squadrons to 21 which included helicopters for the CAS role. It took the Israelis about 5 to 7 years to do this because of the time required to train new aircrews and reach an acceptable level of proficiency.
♦ Learning from their unpreparedness from Yom Kippur they reorganized their information gathering and dissemination system thoroughly so that information, even at the squadron level was real time. Without the latest information the Bekaa Valley operations would have unravelled badly!
The Bekaa Valley Shootout
The details of the operations are widely available; what is given here is a summary. Syria involved itself in Lebanon in support of the PLO in the early ‘eighties. It had moved its SA6 batteries into the Bekaa Valley to protect its forces in Lebanon following the shooting down of two of its helicopters by Israeli F15s. Israeli forces invaded Lebanon in June 1982, after informing Syria that they were only after the PLO and would penetrate 40 km into Lebanon. Apparently, Syria accepted the conditions and moved its forces out of the way. When they exceeded the 40 km limit as perceived by Syria, the Israeli advance was halted by a Syrian armoured division at the River Jazzine on the night of 8-9 June 1982.
Israel saw this as a long awaited opportunity for its plan to take out the SA6 Batteries. The Israeli Armed Forces had been cunning about the advance as it was not specified where the 40 kms would start from, (mis) emphasized to the Israeli Cabinet that taking out the SA6 batteries was crucial to the safety of the Israeli armoured division under Syrian attack. They also assured the Israeli politicians that given its preparations, careful planning and homework its losses would be minimal. Political sanction was given by 1000 hrs of 9 June 1982 but the strike was postponed due to weather conditions over Bekaa and the need to update information. The strike was finally unleashed on the SAM sites at around 1400hrs.
The strike consisted of aircraft at three levels of sophistication. It will be of note to India that Second/Third generation airframes with upgraded avionics e.g. Kfirs/Nesher and upgraded Skyhawks provided CAS at sea level. Further third generation aircraft, F4s, were stacked in “cab ranks” at 3000 m. The Boeing “jamming” aircraft and the E2A’s AWACS used to direct the strikes were at 9000 m. The Israelis attacked the EW Radar at Jebel Barick at 1420 hrs. The Syrians reacted with fighters about an hour later but were shot down flight by flight as they blundered blindly against the Israelis who could not only monitor, thanks to the use of IAI Scout UAVs, each flight almost as soon as it took off but also jammed their communications. At around 1550 the Israelis went in for the SA6 sites using HARM, Shrike and similar standoff missiles mounted on F4s. The F16s and F15s were employed in the “free hunt” mode with the F15s also being used as mini AWACs to cover the gaps in coverage caused by the two ridges. The Lebanon side of the valley was blanked off from the Israeli AWACS by the Lebanon ridge as the E2s were operating out over the sea to avoid being shot down by Lebanon based SA6s.
At its peak there were up to 90 Israeli and 60 Syrian aircraft in the conflict zone of about 40 km by 40 km. Having first “blinded” the guidance radars with ARMs the SA6s were destroyed all by cluster bombs in a very short timereputedly about 20 minutes because of the up to the minute knowledge of the SA6 positions. No LGBs were used because the Israelis deemed them to be too slow.
The figures usually quoted for the Bekaa Valley shootout are about 85 to 87 Syrian aircraft shot down for no losses for the Israelis. These figures, as with the Soviet official figure of 60 Israeli losses, must be taken as untrue and for respective domestic consumption. So, what were the actual losses? The Syrian admission of 50 losses and 18 pilots is likely to be nearer to the truth.
The Israeli losses would have been around ten to twelve. Of these three, two A4s and a Phantom F4 have been confirmed by photographs of the wreckages and the rest must have been caused by the formidable AAA in Bekaa Valley. The Israeli AF achievement -50 kills for wastage of 12 aircraft i.e. 4:1 is enviable.
An analysis of the results
There is a view that Bekaa Valley confirms that “quality” will triumph over “quantity”. My conclusions are somewhat different. Bekaa Valley confirmed more than anything else that traditional factors – a mastery of one’s own weapons, thorough knowledge of the enemy, careful planning, patience, numerical superiority and training play an important part. The element of surprise and the first mover advantage are also significant. Thanks to diligent planning, when it came to the actual fighting, the Israelis were shooting fish in a barrel. Below are some salient points.
Western analyses mentions nothing about the terrain, perhaps discounting it totally. However, it did play a significant part. The Bekaa is a rift valley between two ridges, rising to peaks of 2800 m and a gap of around 16 km between the ridges. The ridges are fairly narrow at the top. The North – South orientation of the ridges meant that the theatre was isolated into three sectors- Lebanon, Bekaa and Syria. Radars located in any of the sectors were isolated by the ridges from looking into or networking with the other two areas and those located on the ridges were sacrificing their mobility and flexibility in siting options whereas the Israeli. AF early warning stations could look up and into the valley. The fighting was confined to a very small “bowl”. What advantages it gave to jamming, which made a big contribution to the success or how the opposite ridge wall may have disadvantaged the clutter suppression abilities of SA6s tracking radars–something that was never a problem in the Yom Kippur War- cannot be quantified here.
A second feature was the relatively short distances of the airbases of both the combatants from the Bekaa Valley. Typically, within 150 to 185 km. It meant that aircraft could loiter over the battle area and cherry pick targets.
The Israelis were using at least two of their four E2 Hawkeyes and these were operating well above the battle at around 9000 m and 20 km away from the Lebanon coastline to avoid coastal SAMs. This was supplemented by the powerful radars of the F15 which covered any “blind spots”- a strip about 6 kms wide caused by the shadow of the Lebanon ridge to the E2’s radar. The Israeli set up and maintained an imaginary threat line on the Syrian side and any Syrian flight that crossed that line was destroyed.
The Israelis used the AIM7F Sparrow, the AIM 9L Sidewinder. The homegrown Shafrir is mentioned but this could be a marketing effort. All the IR missiles were capable of “head on” attacks. The Syrians were using the Atoll which had very restricted launch parameters. The differences in the missiles of both the adversaries were perhaps a more important factor than the differences in the platforms.
The Syrian mistakes
The SA6s mobility was a part of its repertoire for survival. Using them on the ridges of the Lebanon (Western Chain) and Anti Lebanon (Eastern Chain) mountains meant that the SA6s were static and were literally “sitting ducks”. The Israelis knew exactly which ‘holes to ferret’ and this accounts for the swift destruction (allegedly 20 minutes for the 19 batteries) of the SA6 batteries. Indeed, having suffered from the SA6 in the Yom Kippur war the Israelis treated the SA6 with informed respect, delaying at the last minute their strike until two batteries which had moved around a village were located. When “baited” by flights of Israeli drones the Syrians reportedly switched on all their radars thus revealing their position and confirming them to the ELINT aircraft.
MiG 21 SMT avionics
It is fair to describe the MiG 21 SMT as a third generation (Mach 2) airframe with a second-generation avionics’ suite. The MiG 21s only had front and tail warning from its Sirena RWR and the Israelis who were dominating the agenda fed it to the fighter streams to make beam attacks, so the Syrians had no inkling even just prior to a VFR attack.
The jamming of communications completely disrupted and demoralized the Syrian efforts. It was a key force multiplier in blunting the Syrian response as the pilots were cut off from their GCI. In desperation they were seen to fly around in figures of eight trying to obtain visual contact until they were shot down. “It would not have mattered what aircraft they were flying because the way they were flying they would have been shot down anyway” said one Israeli AF senior planner. It is possible the confined space in which the battle was going on meant that the jamming was particularly effective- the valley acting as a bowl antenna and also the short distances between the arena and the jammer was a factor. It is interesting that the Israelis also used helicopter borne and ground- based jammers to ensure complete jamming.
Homing onto the jamming Boeing 707s does not require high technology. It could have been rigged up by the Syrians themselves for their MiG 21s and would have passed the initiative of the battle over to the Syrians because the Israelis would have had to move to protect the foundation of their attack strategy, the Boeing 707 jammer. The Syrians should have anticipated heavy jamming but obviously they did not and paid the price.
In 1981 the COAS Maj General Mamdouh Hamdi Abazi was assassinated by the Moslem Brotherhood. The Syrian Air Force had to be purged in early 1982. This must have crippled the small Syrian AF, yet reports do not mention this significant part.
Lessons for India
The Lessons for India are somewhat different than the tactical lessons discussed above.
Our present air strength is rather small to be able to afford high losses. Hence, we have two options. Either we have a small excellently equipped and trained air force that will be very sensitive to losses or have a larger well equipped air force but whose training and serviceability may be inadequate on account of economic factors. What we are trying to make at home is “not quite international standard” and delayed and what we may import is unaffordable in the quantities required, also availability of the same may become uncertain politically. The problem appears insoluble. However, within the take aways of the Bekaa Valley lies our answer. It is clear that with more “thinking” on the part of the Syrians and with small upgrades to their equipment, as it existed, the Syrians could have got much better results.
It will be noted that:
♦ None of the platforms used their “limits of the aerodynamic performance” limits. No one pulled 9G and none of the two hundred aeroplanes went supersonic let alone Mach 2. The Balakot fight and Kargil reconfirmed this.
♦ Equipment did not perform according to the brochure. Despite “all weather” equipment strikes had to be postponed according to weather diktats.
♦ Very little additional equipment was needed by the Syrians to avoid the one- sided drubbing.
♦ The platforms by themselves were not important to the result as the Israelis themselves acknowledged. The Israelis did not rush in as soon as they had the F 15s/ F16s.
We have to ponder as to what minimum did the Syrians need to largely even out the situation. The key is to find out what is that was required to dissuade the Israelis from attacking.
The Syrians did not need too much. Let me expand the idea:
♦ I am putting forth a deliberately provocative proposal. Suppose the Syrians had used platforms with the performance capabilities of the MiG 17/ Mig 19 in terms of top speed, high AoA, etc i.e. something between a second and a third generation airframe, there would have been no difference i.e. the losses would have been the same as the “better” MiG 21 which the Syrians used but the force would have been cheaper to buy and maintain!
♦ To that add jam proof communications. Would the kill ratio have improved? By how much?
♦ Suppose the Syrians had added an all aspect RWR system. This could have saved them from being blind in the cases of gun/CCM attacks. The scores would have been altered.
♦ Then add to that the all aspect CCMs – the R 73/ R60 or equivalent -what then? There would have been considerable change.
♦ Now put in a HMD – not the latest thing -but something simple that can be locally produced and pressed into service to enable a missile to be pointed correctly. What would have been the kill ratio picture? We see that fairly simple upgrades could have made the MiG 17/ MiG 19 / hypothetical simple platform quite a deterrent. We also see that at a certain point the Israeli losses may have reached an “unacceptable” level. The question is at what point of this build up would “the Israelis” think carefully and twice before they would attack? They may still have shot down more Syrians but only with “unacceptable” losses.
The basic issue is what better ‘minimum’ equipment and tactics should the Syrians have used so that the kill/loss ratio became unacceptable to the Israelis. I emphasize the minimum because that is what the Syrians are capable of/can afford as of the moment. Soon we will get a picture of a relatively simple ‘minimum’ aircraft tailor made for a clear well defined threat scenario –like ours- which is within the reach of our industry and costing a fraction of a Mach 2 aircraft ex import. We should start with what we can do for sure and then build up rather than opt for the sales brochure of the vendors line for line. We have chosen a very wise mix of MKI/ MMRCA/LWF aircraft to meet our air defence needs. We must maximize the flexibility and the economy this mix gives us to get the type of air force that we need but will not be able to afford if we rely only on imports. Indeed, given the dependencies on spares imports cannot be an option.
The Bekaa Valley Air Operations was a commando operation: violent, effective but unlikely to be repeated. The real lesson for us is the high probability of severe losses for the defender and how to absorb them and still remain in the ring. We need a large and sensibly equipped Air Force rather than one to international standards. Following Western doctrines is a sure recipe for being underprepared. Having selected the correct “three class” fighter formula, the whole will collapse, unless we make the LCA type the cornerstone of our numbers – 30 or 35 squadrons of Fighter (General Purpose) to work in tandem with the MKIs and the MMRCAs, with missile systems, duly supported by AWACS and ADGES.