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50th Anniversary of the Six Day War; Lessons From Israel's Victory Against Overwhelming Odds

June 08th - 2017

This week marks 50 years since the Six Day War, when Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq, all major Middle Eastern powers with modern militaries at the time, were defeated by their small neighbour Israel in a conflict which lasted less than a week. Though outmatched by both the quantities and quality of the arms arrayed against it, Israel emerged victorious through its reliance on superior tactics and organisation and by employing a professional military with far higher levels of training. Israel waged a preemptive war against its neighbours which it perceived as a threat to its existence, and opened hostilities with a blitzkrieg air campaign against the sizeable Arab air forces, destroying hundreds of aircraft when they were still on the ground. In their first raid on Egypt 200 aircraft were destroyed, most while still in their airfields. A second raid soon afterwards destroyed 100 more. Egypt was caught wholly off guard, failing to use radar systems effectively, keep a patrol around its airfields or prepare for the incoming attack or to. The result was devastating and the other Arab states soon suffered similar losses. While Egypt's Soviet built MiG-21 fighters were more capable than anything Israel had in its inventory, left grounded and poorly protected they were little more than ludicrous targets. The superior calibre of Israeli pilots meanwhile more than compensated for the sophistication of the MiG fighters, and those Egyptian fighters that did get off the ground had little success against their adversaries. 

Though the Arabs enjoyed a significant numerical advantage, with ground forces exceeding 500,000 troops and officers (against 264,000), over 2,000 tanks (against 800 Israeli tanks), and almost 1,000 modern combat aircraft (against 300 in the Israeli Air Force) they were swiftly defeated. This war had repercussions worldwide, and led to a new emphasis of the important of air supremacy, the need for hardened installations to protect aircraft, and the need for anti access denial weapons such as surface to air missile systems - something which Arab forces would obtain from the Soviet Union and rely on heavily in subsequent wars to counter formidable the Israeli Air Force. Egypt would take over a decade to recover its Air Force, and in its subsequent wars with Israel was forced to avoid confrontations with the Israelis in the air. Another major impact was that, as Egypt had operated highly modern Soviet technology at the time, when much of this was captured by the Israelis it was sent to the United States and West Germany to be analysed for technological secrets. The Soviet leadership themselves complained to their Egyptian counterparts of this significant detrimental effect this had on their military capabilities, with the opportunity to study state of the art Soviet arms a significant asset to the Western bloc.

While on paper the odds appeared stacked strongly against Israel's favour, the small state had several critical advantages which made its victory over its adversaries an inevitability. Inferior fighter aircraft and smaller numbers were compensated by high morale, high levels of preparedness, superior combat training and the ability to make better use of aircraft to deliver sorties in a fraction of the time the Arab states could. Superiority in numbers and the quantities and quality of equipment available could not compensate for such essential assets. Israel's performance in turn won it the support of the United States, which following the Six Day War began to supply the country with more modern equipment such as the F-4 Phantom third generation fighter. This allowed Israel to contend with the Arabs from a far better position in future wars.

Perhaps the most critical lessons from the war with significant implications today are twofold - the first being the inability of advanced technology and numerical superiority to compensate for training and preparation, and the second being the importance of a high sortie rate for an air fleet, which effectively served as a force multiplier for the Israeli Air Force against superior numbers. Overwhelmingly outnumbered by the aircraft of its adversaries, Israel's ability to refuel and reload its aircraft within minutes at a fraction of the time it took its Arab adversaries meant it could have a far greater proportion of its aircraft it the air at any one time. With modern U.S. fifth generation fighter aircraft able to fly less than once a week, an extremely low sortie rate which comes as a result of their complexity, operators of such technology may well find themselves in a similar situation to the Arab states, spending far too much time grounded and vulnerable and when in the air finding their fleet vastly outnumbered by adversaries which rely on simpler and lower maintenance platforms. The F-22 air superiority fighter, F-35 light fighter and B-2 Spirit are all examples of such platforms which leave states vulnerable in much the same way as the Arab armies were. Just as it was key to Israel's victory, so too could it be the key to the defeat of operators of U.S. fighters in the future.

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