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35 Years Since Operation Mole Cricket; Lessons From One of the Most Critical Battles of the Cold War

June 09th - 2017

Today marks the 35th anniversary of one of the most important, albeit lesser known, battles of the Cold War. On June 9th, 1982 Israeli General Ariel Sharon launched Operation Mole Cricket 19 against the Syrian armed forces to disable their surface to air missile (SAM) systems and cripple their air force. In doing so Israel sought to preventing Syria from intervening to deny the Israeli Air Force access to Syrian and Lebanese airspace for the remainder of the Lebanon War, in which General Sharon also played a leading role. Having failed to decisively counter Soviet SAM systems and second generation MiG-21 fighters during the Vietnam War, and with new third generation Soviet combat aircraft entering service, the United States had designed a next generation air superiority fighter for its Air Force specifically to overcome these threats. This was the F-15 Eagle, which was first put into service in 1976. Israel was the Eagle's first export customer, and used the fighter to great effect against the Soviet equipped Syrian forces.

Syrian SAM systems, second generation MiG-21 fighters and an elite of newly inducted third generation MiG-23 fighters sought to deny the Israeli Air Force access to Syrian territory so as to build up their own ground forces. They relied on a strategy and on equipment similar to that which they had previously used effectively in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, namely use of the S-125 SAM system to deny adversaries access to their airspace. Having learned from the previous conflict however, the Israeli Air Force employed newer electronic warfare systems and countermeasures which combined with the superior speed and manoeuvrability of its new fighters allow it to win an overwhelming victory over Syrian forces. As a result following their attack, spearheaded by the F-15 Eagles, Syria lost 29 of its fighters and 17 SAM launchers while Israel did not lose a single fighter, its only losses being an unknown number of supporting UAVs and damage to two fighters. The repercussions of this successful Israeli operation were widespread, not only regionally but globally in the context of the Cold War. The United States now had evidence that, after underperformance in the air in Vietnam against the North Vietnamese and supporting North Korean Air Forces, they could now better contend for air superiority and overcome second and even third generation Soviet technology. For the Soviet military the potential of the F-15 and the vulnerability of their own weapons systems was put to serious question.

It is important to note that this battle did not in fact demonstrate the superiority of American over Soviet military technology. While Israel won an overwhelming victory, they did so using the newest fourth generation technology against far older Soviet weapons systems operated by the Syrian Army. If for example Syrian forces had been operating fourth generation MiG-31 interceptors or Su-27 fighters, Soviet analogues to the F-15, or had they operated a more modern SAM system such as the S-200 or S-300, the former which they received the following year, then the operation would likely have turned out very differently. The S-200 proved highly effective against U.S. made fighters in later engagements, shooting down several U.S. aircraft threatening Syrian forces during the Lebanon War. Has Israel's pilots not maintained the advantage of superior training, they also would have struggled relying on their technology alone to achieve such a one sided result.

As it is, Israel's success demonstrates the importance of technological parity and above all of preparedness and a lack of complacency. The Syrian forces had seen it to be adequate to rely on the weapons and strategies which they had used successfully nine years before, and these could easily be overcome by a determined a resourceful enemy which had gone against them in the past. Had Israel failed to modernize its Air Force and conducted the operation with F-4 fighters, or alternatively had Syria modernized its forces beforehand to match the Israelis, Operation Mole Cricket would not have been the overwhelming Israeli success that it was. It was only afterwards that Syria would go on to modernise its air defences, and eventually place orders for MiG-29 and MiG-31 fighters - though the cost of the latter advanced platform led to the order's cancellation.

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