Israel’s Firebees: UAVs & the Future of the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses
2nd Lt. Grant T. Willis, USAF | Aug 28 th 2022
“Look man…I hate SAMs. Gets me all worked up, just thinking about them.” – LCDR Virgil Cole’s character played by Willum Dafoe in Flight of the Intruder (1990)
Air Defense Forces across the globe have attempted to bend the wing of the aircraft through the surface to air missile, known to aircrews as “SAM”. In Southeast Asia the United States Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps were dealt a vital lesson in the importance of destroying an enemy’s integrated air defense system (IADS). From the launch of Operation Rolling Thunder to today, the SAM has created a dilemma that has sparked innovation amongst the Air Forces of the world, bringing new ways of fighting in this deadly dance amongst the clouds.
The evolution of the unmanned aerial vehicle’s (UAV) utility in modern warfare has been preceded by circumstances throughout the previous century that showcased its capabilities as a vital asset of air combat. Today’s headlines are dominated by the unforeseen and underestimated performance of relatively small and cheap drones used to strike enemy targets ranging from high value individuals (HVI) to main battle tanks (MBT). From America’s shadow wars marked by the Predator and Reaper to Turkey’s Bayraktar TB-2 in Nagorno-Karabakh and Ukraine, the UAV has proven itself as a vital instrument in modern war. Its capabilities have shown an unorthodox ability to execute one of the most dangerous duties known to airmen, “Weasel”. The suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) has been a deadly ballet between aircrew and air defense (AD) batteries since the loss of Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 to Soviet SAMs on May 1st, 1960. The purpose of SEAD (suppression of enemy air defenses) is to detect, degrade, and destroy the enemy’s ability to conduct an orchestrated and effective IADS; therefore, the inherent danger of aircrew tasked to execute this mission is simple. One must get the enemy search and acquisition radars to go active, track, and eventually shoot at you to achieve the desired detection, degradation, and hopefully destruction of SAM and radar sites. During America’s War in Southeast Asia (1965-1973), so called “Wild Weasel” missions conducted by the United States Air Force and “Iron Hand” sorites conducted by the United States Navy and Marine Corps taught aircrews valuable lessons within this deadly duel in the air. Cold War author Tom Clancy explains the dangers of “Weasel” missions in a 1986 lecture at the National Security Agency (NSA) when he states, “What’s the most dangerous mission in the Air Force today? It’s “Weasel”. The guy who goes around looking for SAM sites to shoot at him. It’s like trying to kiss a porcupine”.[i] One great advantage the technology of new unmanned aerial systems can provide modern air thinkers is the fact that if UAVs could effectively participate in the coordinated art of SEAD, the less risk is present of losing manned aircrew in a high threat environment. The Israeli Air Force has provided 20th century examples of innovative usage of UAVs within the SEAD concept and can provide valuable lessons for the development of joint UAV “Weasel” doctrine for tomorrow.
War of Attrition: The War Between the Wars
After the sweeping Israeli defeat of the United Arab Command (UAC) in the 1967 Six Day War, the Suez Canal Front demanded continued air activity between the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and Egyptians. Although major operations had ended, a peace settlement was never signed, and the War of Attrition began. The Israelis required a method of collecting signals intelligence, locations, and jamming of the Soviet supplied Egyptian IADS that were pouring in from the Eastern Bloc. In many cases these SAM sites were manned and directed by Soviets themselves as they trained their Egyptian/Syrian counterparts in the complex operation of these systems. Proliferation of SA-2 “Guideline” and SA-3 “Gao” sites were erected across eastern Egypt, opposite of the canal, threatening to deny the IAF the ability to conduct effective aerial intelligence. The Israeli Air Force realized the extensive air defense umbrella and its dismantling was required to maintain the vital air and ground intelligence advantage Tel Aviv held over their adversaries in Cairo and Damascus. In late July 1970, the IAF secretly ordered Teledyne Ryan American Firebee 1241 UAVs.[ii] The 1241 model was improved for Israeli use with longer range and a capability of conducting both high and low altitude reconnaissance. The first 12 UAVs arrived in Israel by July 1971 and by August 1st, 1971, the 1241’s first unit was established at Palmachim Air Base on the Mediterranean coast. Several squadrons of IAF drones are stationed there to this day. The 1241s were tasked with aerial photography of areas heavily defended by SAM sites and to act as decoys to draw missile fire.[iii] The Israelis also ordered the Northrop Chukar, a smaller UAV designed to draw enemy anti-aircraft and missile fire, exposing the location of the hidden batteries for strike crews to locate and destroy the sites. 27 of the small UAVs reached Israel in December 1971 and were christened “Telem”, meaning “Furrow” in Hebrew.[iv] The 1241s would see their baptism of fire over the canal during the War of Attrition while the Chukar would have to wait for 1973.
October War 1973: The SAM Massacre
On October 6th, 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a premeditated two front attack against Israel. It was Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. As Israel’s tiny regular forces stood hopelessly outnumbered by their Arab counterparts, the IAF was called upon to make up the difference in forces, holding the enemy back while the IDF’s reserves mobilized. In the Israeli intelligence community, the capability of their post-1967 defeat Arab adversaries was collectively known as “The Concept”.[v] “The Concept’s” 1971-1972 thesis was the IDF/AF’s complete victory in 1967 would neutralize any chance of an Arab attack for at least 10 years and that Syria would never attack without the cooperation of Egypt.[vi] Over-confidence in this wishful thinking and underestimation of the Arabs combined to allow Egypt and Syria to achieve strategic surprise on October 6th, 1973. The IAF’s preconceived notions and Six Day War hubris combined to make the opening days of the war the deadliest in IAF history. 74 SA-2 and 64 SA-3 batteries had been established on the west side of the canal to provide high-altitude protection and 40 SA-6 mobile SAM batteries covered at medium altitudes.[vii] This layered defense forced IAF strike aircraft to fly at lower altitudes into the envelope of over 1,500 conventional anti-aircraft artillery (AAA), 100 mobile-radar-guided ZSU-23-4 “Shilka” batteries, and 366 SA-7 MANPADS (Man portable air defense system).[viii] The most well-equipped unit of the Egyptian Air Defense Command (ADC) was the 149th Air Defense Division, armed with 30 SA-2 SAM, 14 SA-3 SAM, and 10 AAA batteries. With its headquarters at Inchas Air Base, the 149th was responsible for the Suez Canal Zone with 8 SAM regiments each consisting of 5-8 SA-2/3 batteries in every regiment.[ix] A similar mix of air defense platforms were employed by the Syrians along the Golan Heights front. By the end of the first afternoon of the war, the Israelis lost 30 A-4 Skyhawks and 10 F-4E Phantom IIs. By the end of the first week, 80 IAF aircraft had been lost- 24 percent of the Israeli Air Force inventory.[x] The missile had bent the aircraft’s wing and the IAF had suspended operations in areas of high threat to limit unacceptable attrition. To help counter Egypt and Syria’s effective Soviet style IADS, the IAF utilized their small fleet of American made UAVs to detect and decoy enemy SAM and radar sites. On October 7th, the Chukars were launched North against Syria in the Golan Heights which misled the Syrian AAA and SAM batteries into believing that a large IAF strike package was vectored their way.[xi] This action drew fire from the batteries and exposed the positions of radar and missile sites, noted for later suppression. During the October War, 5 of the 23 Chukars launched were lost to enemy action with each section of two to four UAVs drawing 20-25 missiles.[xii]
On several occasions the lack of availability of UAVs for both fronts caused more risk to strike packages attempting to conduct defensive counter-air missions against Egyptian airbases. One such absence of the drones occurred along the Southern Front on 7 October when the IAF launched Operation Challenge-4. This pre-war orchestrated strike launched at 0645 hours with the objective of striking Jiyankis, el-Mansourah, and Tanta Air Bases in the Nile Delta, while Qutamiyah AB east of Cairo, and Bir Arida and Beni Suweif Air Bases south of Cairo would be knocked out. The package consisted of 87 aircraft including A-4 Skyhawks, F-4E Phantom IIs, S-61 helicopter stand-off electronic countermeasures platforms, with KC-97 command and control aircraft.[xiii] However powerful this strike force seemed on paper, it lacked its principal SAM decoy force of No. 200 Squadron’s UAVs who were deployed along the Golan Front against Syria, not having enough time to re-deploy south the support Challenge-4. The absence of these UAVs would allow Egyptian air defense units to concentrate their fire on the incoming strikers without risk of biting off on the decoys or diversionary attacks.
When available, the outstanding performance of Israel’s Firebees and Chukars demonstrated the effectiveness of the UAV SAM decoy as an effective SEAD tool to waste enemy missiles and expose their positions. Throughout the duration of the war the United States would continue to resupply the Israelis with more Chukars as a part of Operation Nickel Grass, the American military airlift to send immediate assistance to the IDF to make up for the high attrition rates suffered in the first weeks of the war.
On the Sinai front, a Firebee squadron was deployed along the Bar-Lev Line along the canal but was withdrawn to their rear Air Bases due to increased Mig-17 ground attack sorties. The Firebee 1241s operated throughout the war, flying 19 sorties in which 10 were lost to enemy action. By the end of the war only 2 Firebees remained operational.[xiv] Their effectiveness during the conflict was immense, illustrated by the fact that the IDF ordered 24 more after the war. Like the Chukars, the 1241s provided critical intelligence on SAM and radar positions, drawing fire from manned strike packages, and forcing the Egyptian and Syrian battery commanders to waste their missiles on relatively cheap decoys rather than Israel’s precious F-4 Phantoms and A-4 Skyhawks. During the war, Firebee 1241s drew 43 Egyptian missiles while in turn locating sites destroyed by 11 HARM (high anti-radiation missile) missiles.[xv] Like their American patrons in Southeast Asia, the Israelis learned the value of utilizing the UAV to augment SEAD. Just as the American versions did over North Vietnam, the Israelis could add yet another riddle to the difficulty of conducting an effective air defense campaign in this cat and mouse contest between men and machine. By the end of the war, the military situation had been completely reversed. After a daring Israeli armored thrust back across the Suez Canal, the Egyptian 3rd Army was completely cut off. Three Israeli Armored Divisions sat 65 kilometers from Cairo. General Ariel Sharon’s tankers assisted General Benjamin Peled’s airmen by directly attacking the Egyptian SAM positions at point blank range from the ground on the Western side of the Canal, opening the skies for the IAF to conduct effective close air support and air interdiction missions. This action by the ground forces to open the skies for their air force above refers to a ground type of SEAD that should never be overlooked on a modern and dynamic battlefield. On the Syrian Front, the IDF had driven the initial Syrian divisions back beyond their pre-war positions and deep into Syria towards Damascus itself. Negotiations and American-Soviet Cold War posturing eventually allowed the crisis to come to an end, but the war had displayed how fast and deadly a modern conventional conflict between U.S. and Soviet equipment could be.
After 1973, the American military began to restructure itself. After the defeat in Southeast Asia and the critical lessons of the October War, American war planners across the various branches sought to improve and develop their doctrine to develop conventional American military power to counter the growing advances by the Soviets. Concepts like Active Defense and Air Land Battle were born from this military renaissance and the hard lessons learned by the USAF, USN, USMC, and the IAF contributed to the pinnacle of 20th century SEAD doctrine.[xvi] It was paramount for the U.S. Department of Defense, specifically the United States Air Force, to avoid another vicarious learning experience like the Yom Kippur War that NATO could il-afford until their equipment and doctrine met the Soviet echelon threat.
The year 1982 would prove to be an even more complimentary year in the development of warfighting doctrine. In 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, the Soviets and Cubans were in Angola fighting the South Africans, and the Syrians and Israelis would clash again, in Lebanon.
Lebanon 1982: Scout versus Gainful
On June 9th, 1982, the IAF launched Operation Mole Cricket 19 with the objective of knocking out Syria’s SAM batteries in the Bekaa Valley. The Syrian defenses consisted of some of the latest equipment available to Soviet satellite nations including the deadly and mobile SA-6 “Gainful”. The Syrian Air Force possessed the latest versions of Mig-21 “Fishbed” and the new Mig-23 “Flogger”. The Flogger was the newest Soviet swept wing fighter armed with a GSh-23L autocannon and four AA-2 “Atoll” missiles in the air-to-air role. The IAF entered the arena with their Cold War patron’s newest toys as well, including F-16s, F-15s, and E-2 “Hawkeye” AWACS aircraft. Alongside their F-4 and A-4 older brothers, this force was ordered, trained, and designed to take the hard lessons of 1973 and reverse the legacy of the October War’s “SAM massacre” inflicted upon the IAF by Arab IADS. To counter the SAM threat the Israelis called upon their fleet of UAVs to open the door for their Weasels. The Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) manufactured the “Scout” UAV with a 13-foot wingspan and piston-driven engine.[xvii] This aircraft possessed an extremely low radar signature, making it almost impossible to shoot down. It also possessed a TV camera that could relay 360-degree real time footage and intelligence data to operators and decision makers. The Scouts were sent ahead of the strike force of HARM armed Phantoms to entice the Syrians to fire on them and expose their positions. This tactic proved to work beautifully with the Syrians activating their radars and physically being located by the drones above. With their locations confirmed and their radars active, the Phantoms popped up over the mountains, launching their HARMs and annihilated the Syrian SAM batteries. All but two of the missile sites were destroyed in one day, forcing the Syrians to desperately send their interceptors into the air to contest the Israelis.
The air-to-air battle that would follow would become the largest in the history of the Middle East resulting in an aerial display of East versus West. 82 Syrian Migs were destroyed with 0 Israeli losses.[xviii] This one-sided humiliation of Soviet aircraft and doctrine was made possible by the destruction of the Syrian IADS, who were located and decoyed by the UAVs in the initial wave. Rather than the missile bending the wing of the aircraft, the aircraft had bent the missile. It is often rumored that due to the complete and utter destruction of the Soviet supplied Syrian Air and Air Defense Force in June 1982, the Soviets fully exposed to this disaster understood their technological inferiority to the West. This aerial disaster to Soviet prestige and self-image combined with Afghanistan and Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of Glasnost and Perestroika aided in the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union.
Lessons Learned & Direction for Tomorrow’s War
The IAF’s use of UAVs in the 20th century is a case study worth exploring by future war planners and doctrinal authors of today. UAV technology is growing and its use in modern combat in the conventional realm is expanding daily. Tik Tok and Instagram footage of Ukrainian TB-2 attack drones striking a Russian SA-11/17 “Gadfly” or SA-15 “Gauntlet” shows modern air power enthusiasts that UAVs are relevant in the conventional fight at a low risk to the side who chooses to use them.[xix] Many similar systems used by the IAF during the Yom Kippur War are being utilized as “SAM Bait” in Ukraine. Soviet Tu-143 (NATO designation, “Reys”) reconnaissance drones are being used by the Ukrainians and Russians as flying bait to draw trigger happy target and acquisition radars to turn on, who’s location can then be relayed to artillery or other strike assets to target them.[xx] As the present Russo-Ukraine War drags on, we must look at the use of UAVs in the conventional role closely to learn the lessons required to expand on the possibilities the UAV possess in the Pacific.
Rising tensions in the Taiwan Straits and Korean Peninsula have combined with the reality that the days of high intensity wars are not over. Our adversaries and friends will learn valuable lessons from the War in Eastern Europe, but it is the changes that these lessons will drive that will make the difference in next conflict.
From the Eastern Baltics to the Taiwan Straits the Joint Force must develop a flexible and reliable capability to conduct UAV SEAD to effectively decoy, deceive, and destroy enemy SAMs and radars. We must also be mindful of the possibility of a PLAAF (People’s Liberation Army Air Force) move to trick Allied air defense commanders into the same trap the Egyptians and Syrians found themselves in from the IAF’s UAVs. Offensive doctrine to utilize the deceptive nature and low risk to human life potential of our own UAV fleets must be considered and developed, but countermeasures to such an assault by any future enemy is also necessary to ensure that the Allies are not caught off guard in the opening phases of an attack.
One advantage that the United States and the West possess over their competitors is a long history of trial and error within the art of the air campaign. Conducting large air wars with interlocking and joint assets to defeat an enemy’s IADS is something we have done time and time again, learning more and more each time. From Korea to Kosovo, we have developed a deep understanding of how to dismantle and destroy an air defense system. The Russian Air Force now is going through a deadly lesson in the consequences of an absence of experience in these matters. The PLA on the other hand hasn’t fought a war since 1979 and hasn’t participated in a major conflict since 1953; therefore, their lack of experience in actual combat may force opportunities for exploitation within their war plans that near-future UAVs may be able to penetrate. The only primary adversary we face who has a relatively recent air campaign under their belt is Iran with their war against Saddam Hussein in the 1980s. The Allies must take this experience into account and exploit their opponent’s dearth of joint air planning and execution while developing new techniques, tactics, and procedures (TTPs) for developing the unmanned and manned mix to bend the missile.
The possibilities and the future of the UAV is only as expansive as one allows themselves to dream. Dedicated UAV SEAD crews across the Joint Force can provide an adaptive, effective, and low risk/high reward asset for the future of modern air combat. We must not wait to adapt and innovate after we fight through a vicarious learning experience against a future adversary. The development of new methods and weapons to meet the objectives stated above should be pursued across the Joint and Combined Force to retain our aerial dominance and deterrence we have enjoyed in this century.
The fact of a war stimulates evaluation and reaction. It is a vivid and instructive experience.
– Dr. Malcolm Currie, Director Defense Research and Engineering to House Armed Service Committee, 26 February 1974.
2nd Lt Grant T. Willis, USAF
Lieutenant Willis is an RPA pilot currently stationed at Cannon AFB, NM. He is a graduate of the University of Cincinnati with a Bachelor of Arts and Sciences, majoring in International Affairs, with a minor in Political Science.
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[i] Clancy, Tom. “Tom Clancy Speech at NSA 1986.” YouTube. National Security Agency , 1986. https://www.youtube.com/.
[ii] 29th Attack Squadron. “History of Remotely Piloted Aircraft .” Alamogordo, New Mexico : Holloman AFB, March 7, 2022.
[iii][iii] https://matas.iaf.org.il/. Accessed March 2, 2022.
[iv] https://matas.iaf.org.il/. Accessed March 2, 2022.
[v] Emran, Abdallah, and Tom Cooper. 1973 – The First Nuclear War: Crucial Air Battles of the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Solihull, West Midlands: Helion & Company Limited, 2019.
[vi] Emran, Abdallah, and Tom Cooper. 1973 – The First Nuclear War: Crucial Air Battles of the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Solihull, West Midlands: Helion & Company Limited, 2019.
[vii] Emran, Abdallah, and Tom Cooper. 1973 – The First Nuclear War: Crucial Air Battles of the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Solihull, West Midlands: Helion & Company Limited, 2019.
[viii] Emran, Abdallah, and Tom Cooper. 1973 – The First Nuclear War: Crucial Air Battles of the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Solihull, West Midlands: Helion & Company Limited, 2019.
[ix] Emran, Abdallah, and Tom Cooper. 1973 – The First Nuclear War: Crucial Air Battles of the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Solihull, West Midlands: Helion & Company Limited, 2019.
[x] Griess, Thomas E. The West Point Military History Series . Wayne , New Jersey: Avery Publishing Group , 1987.
[xi] https://matas.iaf.org.il/. Accessed March 2, 2022.
[xii] https://matas.iaf.org.il/. Accessed March 2, 2022.
[xiii] Emran, Abdallah, and Tom Cooper. 1973 – The First Nuclear War: Crucial Air Battles of the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Solihull, West Midlands: Helion & Company Limited, 2019.
[xiv] https://matas.iaf.org.il/. Accessed March 2, 2022.
[xv] https://matas.iaf.org.il/. Accessed March 2, 2022.
[xvi] Doyle, Joseph S. “Doyle the Yom Kippur War and the Shaping of the USAF.” media.defense.gov. Curtis E. LeMay Center for Doctrine Development and Education , February 2019. https://media.defense.gov/2019/Feb/28/2002094404/-1/-1/0/DP_31_DOYLE_THE_YOM_KIPPUR_WAR_AND_THE_SHAPING_OF_THE_USAF.PDF.
[xvii] Tovy, Tal. “The Struggle for Air Superiority – Airuniversity.af.edu.” airuniveristy.af.edu. JEMEAA Air University Press, 2020. https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/Portals/10/JEMEAA/Journals/Volume-02_Issue-1/Tovy.pdf.
[xviii] Tovy, Tal. “The Struggle for Air Superiority – Airuniversity.af.edu.” airuniveristy.af.edu. JEMEAA Air University Press, 2020. https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/Portals/10/JEMEAA/Journals/Volume-02_Issue-1/Tovy.pdf.
[xix] Ukrainain Bayraktar TB-2 Destroyed Russian BUK in Kyiv Region . ukraine_defense. Instagram , 2022.
[xx] Atlas News. “Tu-143s and Their Purpose in the Ukraine Conflict .” the atlasnews.co. Atlas News , May 4, 2022. https://theatlasnews.co/2022/05/04/tu-143s-and-their-purpose-in-the-ukraine-conflict/.