Forty years ago today, the Middle East--indeed, the entire world--sat stunned. In a matter of hours, Israel had seemingly achieved the impossible, launching a surprise air campaign that destroyed the air forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan on the ground, paving the way for victory in the Six-Day War.
The series of decisive airstrikes were nick-named Operation Focus, and they remain a text-book example of deception in air warfare. While historians agree that the Israeli Air Force (IAF) achieved near-total surprise when they launched their attacks on 5 June 1967, they fail to note that the seeds of that success were carefully sown in the weeks and months before the war began.
As Israel and her Arab neighbors edged toward war in the mid-1960s, the IAF continued its aggressive training program under its legendary commander, Major General Mordechai Hod. As part of their preparations, Israeli pilots routinely flew across the Mediterranean Sea, toward Egyptian airspace, sometimes in large formations, sometimes with only a handful of aircraft. The flights usually occurred in the early morning, about the time Egyptian jets were returning from their first air patrols of the day.
At first, the Israeli missions provoked a strong response from the Egyptians, who dashed to the edge of their airspace. Inevitably, the IAF formations turned for home before entering the enemy intercept zone, and the Egyptian pilots became accustomed to the Israeli flights. Over time, Egypt's response grew softer, despite the growing threat of way. There was a perception among senior air (and air defense) commanders that the Israelis wouldn't dare attack Egypt, which was equipped with then-state-of-the-art MiG-21 Fishbed fighters, and SA-2 surface-to-air missiles.
Meanwhile, the IAF carefully studied readiness levels and operational patterns among Syrian, Jordanian and Egyptian Air Force (EAF) units. With the largest Arab air force of that era, Egypt posed the greatest threat, and Israeli planners knew that Nasser's air units had to be neutralized first. But Israeli intelligence also revealed weaknesses and tendencies that could be exploited in an air campaign, improving prospects for achieving tactical surprise and gaining victory.
Not only had the Egyptians grown complacent about IAF patrols over the Mediterranean; Israeli analysts also discovered that Nasser's airmen essentially stopped for an hour or so each morning to eat breakfast. The morning meal at was typically served around 0700 (Cairo time), so Egyptian MiGs usually landed around 0630-0645, to give pilots and ground crews a chance to eat. That routine continued in late May and early June of 1967, despite rumblings of war.
The Israelis also understood that their enemies could monitor radio traffic, so it became part of the deception plan as well. An IAF transport was configured to broadcast "routine" radio traffic in the hours surrounding the attack, to convince Arab SIGINT operators that June 5th would be an ordinary day. Israeli TV even broadcast footage of soldiers and airmen vacationing at the beach, reinforcing Arab perceptions that the IDF was not planning to strike.
By the morning of the 5th, the Israeli deception hook was set. Hod took an enormous gamble, sending all but 12 of his fighter aircraft on first wave attacks against Egypt. The attackers followed the same profile used on previous, IAF training flights over the Mediterranean. While some of the Israeli fighters appeared on Egyptian radar screens, the controllers were unconcerned. They had watched large formations approach in the past; in a few minutes the IAF pilots would turn around and head home, just as they always did.
Meanwhile, that IAF transport was circling over Israel, broadcasting radio traffic from a "routine" training day that was monitored by Arab SIGINT sites. They automatically assumed that the radio calls were coming from the Israeli jets in the air that morning; in reality, the IAF strike packages were maintaining strict radio silence.
Oblivious to impending Israeli onslaught, the Egyptian Air Force followed its normal morning routine. The MiGs landed; AAA sites, radar posts and SAM batteries went to minimal manning, as most personnel headed off for breakfast. At 0645, almost 200 Israeli jet fighters streaked across the Nile Valley, almost completely unopposed. Over the next three hours, they annihilated Egypt's air force and air defenses, destroying nearly 500 aircraft, many of them on the ground. With the Egyptian threat neutralized, the IAF then set its sights on Jordan and Syria, with equally devastating results.
It was a stunning victory, virtually unparalleled in the history of air warfare. But it was also a triumph that was firmly rooted in deception, following a practice that the Israelis have used time and time again. Fourteen years after Operation Focus, the IAF mounted its famous airstrike on Saddam's nuclear reactor near Baghdad, an attack that coincided with dinner time for the Iraqi Air Force and air defense crews.
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