When Arab armies invaded Israel 50 years ago, they were armed to the teeth with Russian-made missiles that almost brought the Israelis to the brink of defeat.
But call it diffusion of military technology – or just old-fashioned payback. When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, it was similar missiles that derailed what seemed like an easy victory for the Kremlin.
The battles of Kyiv and Sinai were separated by 1,300 miles, yet they have much in common. When Egypt and Syria launched a massive surprise attack on that Yom Kippur of October 6, 1973, Israel was confident of quick victory. Still flush with euphoria over their stunning triumph in the 1967 Six-Day War, the Israelis expected their vaunted air force and tank units to quickly smash any Arab assault. “We will break their bones,” vowed Lt. Gen. David Elazar, the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff.
Instead, it was the IDF that was nearly broken upon a wall of missiles. Desperate to support the vastly outnumbered Israeli ground troops, the Israeli Air Force attacked Egyptian bridges across the Suez Canal and Syrian armored columns streaming across the Golan Heights. But the American-made Phantoms and Skyhawks ran into a hail of Soviet-made surface-to-air missiles, or SAMs.
“One Phantom that had succeeded in evading five missiles was hit by the sixth,” recounted historian Chaim Herzog. Israel lost about 100 aircraft – or around one-quarter of its combat aircraft – mostly to SAMs and anti-aircraft guns. Even worse, the air support that the Israeli Army had counted on had been neutralized.
That put the burden on the Israeli Armored Corps. When Egyptian infantry swarmed across the Suez Canal, Israeli tanks swiftly counterattacked, expecting to the Egyptians to flee as in 1967. Instead, Israeli armor was decimated by massed salvoes of Russian-made AT-3 Sagger wire-guided anti-tank missiles and RPG-7 anti-tank rockets, which were portable enough to be carried by a rifleman.
“Tanks, which had stalked the world’s battlefields for half a century like antediluvian beasts, were now being felled with ease by ordinary foot soldiers,” wrote Israeli historian Abraham Rabinovich.
Guided missiles had been around since World War II. Over North Vietnam, Russian-made SAMs downed more than 200 U.S. jets. But for the first time, missiles had decisively defeated highly skilled and well-equipped air and armored forces.
The Yom Kippur War shocked the U.S. and other Western militaries, which had depended on smaller numbers of expensive weapons to match the mass armies of the Communist bloc. The realization that a thousand-dollar rocket could destroy a million-dollar tank (today a U.S. M1 Abrams costs around $10 million) spurred fears that tanks and manned aircraft had become obsolete.
But cooler heads realized that Israeli planes had taken heavy losses because they pressed ahead with their missions without first knocking out Arab anti-aircraft defenses. And Israeli tanks eventually surmounted the missile threat by eschewing cavalry charges in favor of careful combined arms teamwork with infantry and artillery.
Russia seemed to forget many of those lessons when it invaded Ukraine in February 2022. Instead of being greeted as liberators as they expected, Russian forces were met by volleys of Ukrainian missiles, many of them originally designed and fielded by the Soviet Union.
Of the more than 100 Russian combat aircraft lost, many have been downed by Ukrainian air defenses that included Soviet-designed, long-range S-300 and the medium-range SA-11 Buk SAMs (the successor to the SA-6 that accounted for many Israeli jets in 1973). These weapons help explain one of the mysteries of the Ukraine war: the ineffectiveness of Russian airpower, despite Russia having a much larger and more modern air force than Ukraine.
Instead of blasting a path for the ground troops, as U.S. airpower did in Desert Storm – and the Israeli Air Force vainly tried to do in 1973 – Russian pilots have become more cautious. It’s safer to fly behind Russian lines and lob missiles at Ukrainian cities, rather than fly into the teeth of Ukrainian air defenses.
Air support might have made all the difference to Russia’s drive on Kyiv. Clumsy Russian armored columns became jammed up on narrow roads, where they became juicy targets for Ukrainian anti-tank guided missiles. Social media is packed with videos of burning Russian vehicles picked off by missiles – including Ukraine’s Stugna-P, America’s Javelin and Britain’s NLAW – that are more sophisticated versions of the Saggers that savaged Israeli tanks.
These weapons gave Ukraine the edge it needed to stop the Russian spearheads, as well as time to obtain Western aid and launch a counteroffensive. Those Russian-made missiles that nearly defeated Israel may yet defeat Russia.
Michael Peck is a defense writer and a contributing author for the Center for European Policy Analysis. @mipeck1