It was 7 o’clock Israeli time, three hours after dawn on Monday, June 5, 1967. The summer season’s daily thick morning mist was just lifting from the coastal areas, across the breadth of the humid Nile Delta, and along the Suez Canal. The air was calm and the angle of the sun rendered visibility throughout the coastal region as good as it was going to be all day.
Right on time, 40 Israeli combat jets took off from their Negev Desert base as they did each morning. And, as it did each morning, the Israeli formation swept to the west, out across the neutral Mediterranean Sea. To the southwest, Egyptian radar operators noted the regular morning flight and thought nothing of it. In the first place, it was not their job to think. And, in the second place—even with the danger of war breaking out at any moment—there simply was no need to concern higher headquarters with news of what for two full years had been a routine so unvarying that it was possible to set clocks by it throughout the troubled region. In due course, precisely on time, the Israeli jets would dive to wave-top height and turn for home. In a short time, the skies over the southeastern corner of the Med, where Africa touched Asia, would be clear.
Along the Egyptian shore and inland, at all 18 of the Egyptian military air bases scattered throughout upper Egypt and across the uneasy Sinai Peninsula, Egyptian pilots and ground crews were eating breakfast. There had been a dawn alert—there was a dawn alert every day—but no Israeli attack had materialized despite the extremely tense situation along the Egyptian-Israeli frontier in Sinai. Everyone thought the war would have started by now, but it had not. For one more day, the feared Israeli preemptive dawn strike had not materialized, as common wisdom said it must. So, after all, the day’s normal routine had to be played out.
The Egyptian Air Force was ready. Before dawn, dozens of Egyptian combat fighter pilots had been in the cockpits of their jet interceptors, sitting at the ends of the various runways, all on five-minute strip alert. From 4 o’clock until 7:35, pairs of Egyptian MiG-17 and MiG-21 fighter-interceptors had been flying a succession of half-hour combat air patrols along the Egyptian-Israeli frontier in Sinai. But the last patrol fighters had landed, and nearly all the pilots were eating breakfast. Indeed, at 7:40, nearly every pilot in the Egyptian Air Force was eating breakfast.
Elsewhere in Egypt, top military commanders and government leaders were on their way to work; most of them would be unavailable to receive information or make decisions until 8 o’clock. The only Egyptian commanders who were focusing specifically on what the Israelis might be doing at that moment were Field Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer, the Egyptian minister of war, and General Mohammed Sidki Mahmoud, the Egyptian Air Force chief of staff. Together with the Soviet brigadier general who was then serving as senior liaison to the Egyptian Air Force, Amer and Sidki were aloft in a Soviet-built twin-engine Ilyushin Il-14 transport fitted out as a flying command post. Sidki had spent the past hour monitoring transmissions from the combat air patrols along the frontier, but he and War Minister Amer decided to head home at 7:40, five minutes after the last patrolling MiG fighters had touched down. As the Il-14 turned toward Kabrit air base near Cairo, the ground controller reported that there was no traffic anywhere near Sinai, except for the daily Israeli mission over the Med.
At 7:45, precisely on schedule, the Israeli jets on the Egyptian radar screens dived and disappeared below the horizons of all the radar in the area—Egyptian, American, and Soviet. The daily event was duly noted. At the same moment, precisely, the pilot of the Il-14 flying command post reported to General Sidki that, following a brief burst of voices, radio contact with Kabrit had gone dead.
It was at that precise moment that the bombs began to fall.
Tensions had been rising in the Middle East for months before Israel launched her preemptive strike against the Egyptian Air Force on the morning of June 5, 1967. Thanks to an international political process that had gone awry—chiefly because of a weak and vacillating United Nations—Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser had embarked upon a game of intimidation and brinksmanship from which, in the end, he could not be pulled back, and from which Israel would not shrink. At the moment the Israeli bombs started falling, Egypt had amassed more than 90,000 soldiers and as many as 900 tanks on her Sinai frontier with Israel. It was impossible for Israel to wait for the more powerful Egyptian Army and Air Force to strike; she had to strike first. That Israel used her air force to strike the first blow was not a matter of chance; the Israelis had plotted and planned that strike for nearly two decades.
The Rise of the Israeli Air Force
It was an infantryman, Brig. Gen. Chaim Laskov, who had the most profound impact upon the doctrinal development of the Israeli Air Force (IAF). As commander of the IAF from 1951 to 1953, Laskov ordained that Israel build an offensive air force composed entirely of fast, sturdy fighter-bombers capable of both defending themselves and delivering precision bombing attacks upon enemy tactical, operational, and strategic targets and ground forces. The IAF was to be a multipurpose air force, capable of launching surgical reprisal air raids and strategic air offensives, and delivering precision on-call close air support for the ground forces.
Laskov’s was a tall order—beyond the capabilities of most of the world’s air forces of the day—and it remained beyond Israel’s reach throughout Laskov’s tenure because of budgetary constraints and limitations imposed by arms’ producers unwilling to alienate Arab sentiments on behalf of Israel’s survival. However, in identifying the exclusive combat-aircraft type, Laskov had a powerful impact upon the IAF’s strategic outlook, and even upon tactical doctrine.
It remained to others, notably Laskov’s successor, Brig. Gen. Dan Tolkowsky, to try to bring Laskov’s dream to fruition. From his appointment in late 1953, Tolkowsky worked tirelessly to acquire the material and hone the proficiency of his small force of pilots, maintenance technicians, and armorers to world-class standards.
The first jet warplanes ordered by Israel, in June 1952, were French Ouragan ground-attack aircraft, a first cousin of the first-generation Russian and American jet fighter-interceptors that were at the time rewriting combat aviation history over Korea. The first 25 Ouragans were delivered in October 1954; the Israelis also acquired British Meteor jet trainers, some of which were converted for combat purposes. Next, modern French Dassault Mystère-IV fighter-bombers were delivered in April 1956. Not without considerable forethought, each Mystère was armed with two 30mm cannon that were as well qualified to disable or destroy the tanks of the day as they were to take on anything that flew. They could also carry a thousand kilograms of mixed bombs and rockets beneath their wings.
The IAF had 53 operational jet fighter-bombers (and about 50 piston-powered warplanes) by the time Israel joined France and Britain in the November 1956 Suez-Sinai Campaign to re-internationalize the Suez Canal. Although the IAF was vastly outnumbered by the Egyptian Air Force, it quickly gained air supremacy over Sinai; this was due to its overwhelming edge in the quality of its personnel. Leading up to the Sinai Campaign, the head of the IAF’s Fighter Command, its operational arm, was Colonel Ezer Weizman, a bear on pilot selection and training and a true visionary with respect to maintenance and ordnance. It was Weizman’s observation that an air force is not measured in battle by how many planes it carries on its roster, but by how many armed combatants it can get into the air.
Following the 1956 Sinai Campaign, it fell largely to Colonel Weizman to analyze the use of air power in Sinai and to make recommendations based upon the findings. An inevitable result of the study was an energetic aviation modernization program. It also fell to Weizman, following his elevation to the post of IAF commander in 1958 with the rank of brigidier general, to oversee the procurement of new weapons systems.
The highlight of Brig. Gen. Ezer Weizman’s long tenure as IAF chief was his unremitting drive to further improve the overall quality of Israel’s only truly strategic combat arm. While all of Israel’s other military arms were oriented solely toward the tactical and operational levels of fighting, the IAF’s most important mission in time of war was the destruction of the strategic war-fighting assets of one or more enemy nations at once—plus tactical and operational coverage of the battlefield.
Of all of Israel’s combat arms, the IAF possessed the greatest responsibility for undertaking preemptive attacks against the enemy at the outset of a war. Israel’s bedrock preemptive strategy had evolved rapidly since Israel achieved nationhood in 1948, but it took Ezer Weizman’s blunt articulation of the principle—“Israel’s best defense is in the skies over Cairo”—to make a strategic preemptive air strike the IAF’s chief mission in life.