In 1992, just a year after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Maj.- Gen. (res.) David Ivri, then-director- general of the Defence Ministry and a former commander of the Israel Air Force, made a visit to the Czech Republic.
“The Czech deputy chief of staff told me that when he was in the National Defence College in Moscow in 1982,” Ivri recalls, “he learned that the blow to the Syrian surface-to-air missile batteries (SAM) was a catalyst for glasnost (increased government transparency) in the Soviet Union. The strategic theory that the West lacked the capability to withstand the SAM system had been disproven, and this raised many doubts about Soviet capabilities in general, and the defence sector in particular.”
The Czech official was referring to Operation Mole Cricket 19, perhaps the greatest success of the First Lebanon War. This was the first time that a Soviet-built SAM missile battery was destroyed without the use of ground troops. Within two hours on June 9, 1982, the IAF had destroyed 15 of 19 SAM batteries in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley while downing 90 enemy aircraft at the same time.
The details of Operation Mole Cricket 19 remain classified. It was perhaps the IDF’s greatest military achievement, maybe even surpassing Operation Focus, the opening airstrike at the start of the Six-Day War, during which Israel practically destroyed the Syrian and Egyptian air forces.
In the wars since IDF chiefs of staff have employed a similar strategy in the wars they oversaw. Lt.-Gen. (res.) Dan Halutz did this during the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and Lt.-Gen. (res.) Benny Gantz did the same in 2014 during Operation Protective Edge. The US military has also used this strategy in its fight against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
The Failure of the Israel Air Force in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War was foreshadowed by events that took place during the night between June 29 and 30, 1970. On that fateful night, the Egyptians snuck 10 SAM 2 and 3 batteries up to the Suez Canal. The next afternoon, two pairs of Israeli pilots set out in F-4 Phantoms on a mission to take out the batteries, but unfortunately, two of them were shot down by Soviet air defences.
Up until then, the F-4 Phantoms had been considered safe from missiles.
According to the air force’s chief of operations at the time, Col. Jacob Agassi, IAF commander Maj.-Gen. Moti Hod was stunned by the news (unjustifiably, according to Agassi) and came to the conclusion that the IDF did not have any way to overcome the threat posed by the SAM batteries. Five weeks later, Hod would be the one responsible for Israel’s acquiescence to the terrible conditions it would have to meet in order to bring about an end to the War of Attrition. Israel never did take any action in response to the Egyptians setting up the SAM batteries along the canal.
Brig.-Gen. Benny Peled requested that Maj. Ezra Harel, who had just returned from studying in the US, carry out a full investigation of the air force’s computer system. “I’d never seen such a mess in my entire life,” Harel says. “Soldiers would file a report, but the report would never reach its destination. The flow of information was completely erratic.
When I was appointed head of automated systems for the air force, I reorganized everything. But then the Yom Kippur War broke out and I couldn’t make any more improvements.”
Col. (res.) Eliahu Yitzhaki, who was commander of the IAF’s Electronic Warfare Division during the First Lebanon War, believed that the first step in the Mole Cricket 19 revolution took place in 1973.
“On October 17, the day after we crossed the canal, four jets were ordered to attack the SAM batteries using the ‘hataf’ method (where the planes would fly low and then high and then low again). I told Peled that this was a suicide mission. ‘Well, there’s nothing to do about it now – the orders have already been sent out. Let’s hope for the best,’ Peled replied.
“Four planes were hit during the operation, and six of our airmen were killed or captured,” Yitzhaki continued. “The next day, the IAF grounded all of its planes. Its commanders were looking toward the Electronic Warfare Division to salvage the situation. Operation Nutcracker 23 was planned in full synchronization with the Electronic Warfare Division. The planes flew high, performed all their tasks and not one plane was hit. The revolution had begun.”
After the war, the team that Peled had appointed began rebuilding the air force. “We’re going to build a command centre here for attacking the SAM batteries,” said Lt.-Col. Amos Amir, head of operations at the time. “The head of operations will sit here on this chair, and all the information about the location of the batteries from all the different sources will flow into this computer in real-time – not where they were 10 hours ago. And according to this intel, we will direct our fighter pilots so they can know where to aim.”
Amir continued, “The first problem we had to deal with was the fact that the Egyptians were moving the SAM batteries all the time. We would receive a report that they were located in a certain location, but by the time our pilots reached those coordinates, the SAMs were no longer there. This hadn’t been a problem in the Six-Day War – if an aircraft had been spotted in a certain location, it was always still there when our fighter jets arrived and we were able to destroy the target. The same was true for the tanks. Even though sometimes they had moved a little by the time we got there, we could usually locate them somewhere nearby.
“Our second challenge was learning how to create a system of controls. We would send out a plane to bomb a SAM, and if it located it and succeeded in destroying it we were happy. If it couldn’t locate it, the plane would continue searching for it. Until the Yom Kippur War broke out, we kept carrying out sorties where we’d send in a plane, it would bomb its target and then quickly retreat. But now we wanted to hit the enemy hard without having to get too close.”
And so it happened that during the nine years between the Yom Kippur War and the First Lebanon War, the IAF succeeded in building up a first-rate air force out of nothing. The air force had a phenomenal communication network that kept it in contact with the different branches. It acquired two nicknames, “periscope” and “group sing-along,” both of which hint at how well the different branches were integrated with one another, and that they shared a common goal. Each one had its own role but also knew how to cooperate to reach their common goal.
When the First Lebanon War broke out on June 6, 1982, the IAF had the intelligence capability to know at any given moment where its targets were located. It also had the capability of disrupting the Syrians’ electronic communications and could destroy the missile batteries with electro-optic missiles from a distance of 40 km.
June 4, 1982, terrorists working under instructions from Abu Nidal, who was living in Iraq and was not a member of the PLO, shot ambassador to the UK Shlomo Argov. Immediately afterwards, prime minister Menachem Begin succumbed to pressure from defence minister Ariel Sharon and chief of staff Rafael “Raful” Eitan and approved Operation Small Pines. This was a limited operation against the PLO in the western and central areas of southern Lebanon, reaching up to 40 km. from the Israeli border.
But Sharon and Eitan had other plans, they wanted to take control of eastern Lebanon, too, all the way to the Beirut- Damascus Highway and kick out the Syrians, so they couldn’t impose their control over the Maronite Christians, who were allied with Israel. But to do so, they needed an excuse to begin the operation.
The operation was supposed to last one-and-a-half to two days, but on the third day, an incident occurred that offered Sharon and Eitan the excuse they’d been hoping for: A unit under the command of Brig.-Gen. Dan Vardi attacked the Jezzine Compound just south of Jebl Baruch, where two battalions of Syrian tanks, two infantry battalions, two commando divisions, and two Fatah divisions were located. The rationale given for the attack was that the Syrians had hurriedly brought reinforcements into the compound. Without informing Begin, Sharon approved Eitan’s request to have IDF fighter jets bomb the reinforcements, and for IDF troops to take the compound.
Vardi and his soldiers attacked the town and the army base, during which most of the Syrians either fled or were taken hostage. During the attack, the Israelis succeeded in destroying 32 tanks. The IAF also brought down four Syrian fighter jets. In response, the Syrians brought five new SAM 6 missile batteries from the southern Golan Heights to Lebanon, bringing the number of SAMs in Lebanon to 19.
Operation Mole Cricket was carried out at night, and all the air force planes that participated in the operation were alerted just beforehand. For the first time in the IAF’s history, it was decided that Ivri would command only the fighter jets that were to attack Syrian planes, and that Aviem Sella would command the jets that would attack the SAM batteries on the ground.
Brig.-Gen. (res.) Avi Barber, who was captured and taken hostage by the Syrians during the Yom Kippur War in Operation Model 5, commanded a squadron of Phantom 201s in 1982. About half of the squadron was trained for the operation, and the other half was instructed to blow up the SAM bases using traditional methods if the first team failed.
Yet, some of the pilots were plagued by the uncertainty of their chances of success, including future IAF commander and chief of staff Dan Halutz, as well as the future head of the Personnel Directorate Avi Gil. Barber, however, who took over command of the squadron from Sella, had full confidence.
That Wednesday, Barber supervised the preparations of the aircraft very carefully. The operation was scheduled to begin at noon. At 10 am. he assembled all the squadron members in the operations room. The first to speak was navigator Capt. Doron Dovrat, who was familiar not only with the location of the SAM batteries but with all of Lebanon’s terrain.
Each plane carried two electro-optical bombs (precision-guided missiles), which weighed one ton each.
According to the principle of redundancy, the navigators were supposed to drop four bombs on each battery. Each bomb cost $1 million. The navigators were supposed to drop the bomb in the exact centre of each battery. Dovrat reiterated the plan, especially the details that were particularly important for the navigators to know, even though they had been practising for this mission for years.
Next, it was Barber’s turn to speak to the group. When he finished his speech, he threw down the stick he’d been using to point to targets on the map and said dramatically, “Each one of you has a great responsibility on his shoulders to make this mission a success. You’ve all learned how to fly and have been given all the necessary tools. Now make it happen!” The start of the operation was delayed to 1 pm., and then again to 2 pm. At 1:45, maintaining radio silence, the fighter jets took off, one after another.
“We followed the prepared route over the sea until the Lebanon coast came into view,” Barber described. “When we were 32 km. from the SAM 6 battery, we identified our target. I moved a little closer to ensure that the bomb would reach the target, and then I released the bomb. At first, the bomb flew on autopilot, but then Dovrat took over the controls and steered it toward the target. Suddenly, the control centre announced to us ‘Alfa,’ which meant that the bomb had hit its target. I realized that something historic had just taken place. I had hit and destroyed the target on my first try.”
It took only 110 minutes for the IAF to destroy 15 of the 19 SAM batteries.
At that point, Sella decided to halt the operation and not to try to destroy the remaining four SAM batteries, so as not to endanger the lives of the pilots. Ivri confirmed the decision. The next day, two more batteries were destroyed, and on the last day of the mission, the last remaining batteries were destroyed.
During the three days of Operation Mole Cricket 19, no fewer than 97 Syrian planes had been destroyed, without even one Israeli aircraft being hit. During the operation, the IAF completely wiped out the Syrian military’s combat capability, at least for the short and medium terms. Now that the IAF had complete control from the air, the Syrian military had no chance of surviving.
Despite today’s changing battlefield, with asymmetric warfare tactics based on ground-to-ground missiles – as seen with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip – the lessons learned by Operation Mole Cricket 19 remain an important strategy in Israel’s defence capabilities.