Exactly fifty-four years ago, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) launched surprise air strikes on the morning of June 5, 1967, against major Egyptian airfields, air defense sites, and command and control centers at the start of the Six-Day War. By the afternoon, the IAF had attacked seventeen Egyptian airfields with about 500 sorties. The Egyptian air force lost more than 200 aircraft destroyed, mostly on the ground. The IAF also attacked airfields in Syria, Jordan, and Iraq, gaining air superiority over the ground phases’ operational areas by that evening. The surprise air raids enabled the Israeli ground forces to penetrate deep and rapidly into the Sinai Peninsula and by June 10, Israel had occupied the Sinai, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. These stunning victories were facilitated by the air raids that destroyed Israeli adversaries’ air power which provided the Israel ground forces with the ability to advance without many disruptions by enemy aircraft and the IAF to relatively free conduct close air support (CAS) missions and battlefield interdiction strikes.
But how was the IAF able to launch such a surprise air strike on Egypt? And what are the strategic lessons that can be drawn from this event for Taiwan today?
For years, the IAF had conducted flights over the Negev desert, collecting intelligence along the way. The Egyptians at first tracked these flights with their radars and occasional scrambled fighters to intercept them, but after a while got used to these usual flight routines and did not take them seriously. For two years before the Six-Day War started, the IAF had conducted almost daily morning flights over the Mediterranean Sea. IAF aircraft would fly low almost at sea wave height, disappearing from Egyptian radar screens before emerging again on their flight home. When the Israelis launched their surprise air raids on the morning of June 5, Egyptian air defense personnel detected what they thought was regular, daily air activities by the IAF and relaxed their watch. The successful IAF deception plan to mask their surprise air strikes was built over many months of constant and regular patterns of seemingly non-threatening flights.
This appears to have parallels with today’s China People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) constant flying within the Taiwanese Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). Since last year, the PLAAF has sent aircraft flying into Taiwan’s ADIZ nearly every day and regularly crossed the median line, buzzing Taiwan’s air defense systems. From January to October in 2020, the Taiwanese air force (Republic of China Air Force, ROCAF) scrambled its fighters 2,972 times to intercept PLAAF aircraft flying into Taiwan’s ADIZ. The Taiwanese Ministry of Defense has started to release information regarding these incursions in mid-September 2020. The constant scrambling of aircraft each time to intercept PLAAF intrusion was not cheap (for example, in aircraft fuel) and had cost Taiwan about $1 billion, or 9 percent of its 2020 defense budget. Apart from that, the intense regular scrambling of ROCAF aircraft also caused wear and tear on the fighter aircraft resulting in high maintenance costs and lower numbers of operationally ready fighters.
By late March this year, the costs of scrambling fighters has finally taken its toll on Taiwanese resources. The ROCAF has decided not to scramble its aircraft every time PLAAF enters the ADIZ but will use its radars and air defense missile systems to track the PLAAF aircraft. China, however, has not lowered the tempo of its near-daily PLAAF flights into Taiwan’s ADIZ. On April 12, the PLAAF conducted its largest overflight to date with twenty-five aircraft which included fourteen Shenyang J-16 strike fighters, four Chengdu J-10 multirole fighter planes, and four Xian H-6 strategic bombers.
There are numerous claims about the purported intentions of these PLAAF flights including maritime surveillance of the strategic Bashi Channel, shows of force against Taiwanese military and U.S. Navy operations, the PLAAF conducting training exercises at longer ranges with their newer aircraft, and political signaling to both the US and Taiwan. Nevertheless, the strategic similarities between Chinese air sorties and Israel’s air deception campaign against Egypt months before the Six-Day War—which yielded spectacular results—cannot be easily dismissed.
Dr. Adam Leong Kok Wey is associate professor in strategic studies and Deputy Director of Research in the Centre for Defence and International Security Studies (CDiSS) at the National Defence University of Malaysia.