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The US armed Israel in ’73 – it must do the same for Ukraine today

The free world's sole superpower is signaling weakness just as Russia renews its onslaught and commits more atrocities
An Israeli Douglas A-4 Skyhawk taxiing in front of an American Skyhawk on the Tel Nof airbase, Israel, October 1973. (IDF Spokesperson, Courtesy)
An Israeli Douglas A-4 Skyhawk taxiing in front of an American Skyhawk on the Tel Nof airbase, Israel, October 1973. (IDF Spokesperson, Courtesy)

On the Jewish high holy day of Yom Kippur in October 1973, Israelis were stunned by a surprise attack coordinated by their country’s longtime nemeses, Egypt and Syria. Overconfidence and complacency had lulled the Jewish state into a false sense of security. Suddenly, Israel found itself immersed in a fight for its survival in which the first week was especially dire.

Egyptian forces stormed across the Suez Canal, ingeniously using water cannons to breach the steeply-sloped Israeli sand-dune walls to establish beachheads in the Sinai, where Israeli troops had been on guard since the Six-Day War in June 1967. The Israeli defenders on the Suez’s eastern shore were outnumbered and outgunned, with sections of the fixed fortifications known as the Bar-Lev Line falling to the overwhelming Egyptian onslaught. Making matters worse, the vaunted Israeli Air Force was impeded in attempts to provide close-air support because of the overarching engagement envelope of Soviet surface-to-air missile batteries arrayed on the western side of the canal.

Meanwhile, in a separate prong of the invasion, Syrian tank columns came rumbling across the Golan Heights, capturing the southern portion for a time. The Israeli strategic overlook atop Mount Hermon was also captured. IAF combat planes were being downed in Israel’s north as in the south due to the sophisticated Soviet-supplied air defenses, resulting in an unsustainable attrition rate.

Amid the bad news from opposite corners of the country, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan is reported to have told Prime Minister Golda Meir that he feared for Israel’s existence. Although it is now accepted in some circles that Israel was not teetering on the brink of disaster at the time, for those who were on the ground during the outbreak of hostilities or who arrived within the first few days and lived through nightly blackouts, as I did, the ominous nature of the situation was no illusion. Israel needed the help that only the US was capable of providing.

All eyes turned to the American President who was struggling with the burgeoning Watergate scandal and the lingering spasms of the Vietnam debacle. Later, the release of tape recordings revealed that Richard Nixon not infrequently uttered antisemitic sentiments. Could someone like this be expected to provide Israel with vital supplies to avert a potential calamity?

At first, the Nixon Administration was not keen on the idea. But the Soviet Union soon began to funnel new materiel to refill its surrogates’ rapidly depleting stocks. As the Soviets upped the ante in a drive to expand their sphere of influence amid the Cold War, Israel’s position grew increasingly precarious. Against this backdrop nearly a week into the war, Nixon embraced his predilection for realpolitik. After conferring with advisers, including Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, he ordered a massive airlift known as Operation Nickel Grass. The aid included equipment, ammo, missiles and A-4 and F-4 fighters like the ones the IAF had been losing.

The green light was given despite intense lobbying from American oil executives who did not want to see their Arab partners agitated by a military assistance package to Israel. Further, Western European nations did not look sympathetically upon Israel’s predicament. Portugal was the only one that allowed American cargo planes to use its territory – an airbase near Lajes in the Azores – as a waypoint, substantially complicating the airlift’s logistics.

Bolstered by the initial elements of the airlift and the prospects of a continuing resupply, by later in October Israel had pulled victory from the jaws of defeat. However, concerns then arose that the Soviets were preparing to invade Israel as a means to reverse the Arabs’ humiliating loss. As a warning to America’s Cold War adversary, Nixon raised the US nuclear alert status to DEFCON (Defense Condition) Three, a highly unusual step that showed the extent of the American commitment. The Soviets got the message and stood down the next day.

This history has lessons for the West’s policymakers, particularly those in the US, as they contend with Russia’s current aggression against Ukraine. Timidity in the face of pugnacity would not have worked in 1973 nor is it likely to produce a salutary outcome this time. Even now, in the face of a renewed Russian offensive and a growing list of atrocities perpetrated by Vladimir Putin’s soldiers, Joe Biden still refuses to authorize the transfer to Ukraine of old Warsaw Pact MiG-29s, let alone truly modern fighters (that could be piloted by a cadre of international volunteers).

A further sign of weakness came from US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, a usually strong voice in a generally fainthearted Administration. He remarked recently that nobody wins in a nuclear war. This should not be the mindset or the messaging of the senior defense official of the free world’s sole superpower. By proclaiming upfront that strategic success is not possible in nuclear exchanges, the initiative is ceded to nuclear-armed states headed by bullies like Putin who are already inclined to brandish their nuclear arsenals as a form of intimidation.

Just think how Israel’s crisis in 1973 might have ended if the US had been too unnerved to rush modern fighters to its diminished ally or too cowed to elevate its nuclear alert status. If Ukraine falls, Putin and the world’s other expansionist-minded authoritarians such as those running China, North Korea and Iran will be emboldened and fledgling democracies will be at heightened risk of brutal assault. While Ukraine today is not wholly analogous to the Israel of nearly a half-century ago, the US should heed the advantages of projecting strength.

About the Author
Philip Handleman, a Michigan-based aviation historian whose latest book is Soaring to Glory, served as a civilian volunteer in Israel during the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
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