Fifty years ago, when the destruction of Israel appeared imminent, Operation Nickel grass helped turn the tide.
In the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Americans have become accustomed to televised images of U.S. military transport aircraft ferrying tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery pieces, ammunition, and a range of other materiel. Though impressive in scale, these deliveries are not the first time in modern memory the United States has launched emergency operations to bolster a beleaguered nation embroiled in a conflict in which the U.S. was not itself a combatant.
During the Yom Kippur War 50 years ago, a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria, and supported by the Soviet Union, launched a surprise attack on Israel. America’s reconstitution of the battered and nearly overwhelmed Israeli Air Force (IAF)—undertaken as part of the larger airlift and sealift operation known as Nickel Grass—likely saved the Jewish state from annihilation.
The operation also represented a victory for the U.S. Air Force, demonstrating its ability to rapidly and effectively mobilize its resources to aid in the defense of an ally thousands of miles away. The airlift to Israel, which lasted 32 days, delivered more than 22,000 tons of tanks, artillery, ammunition, and supplies in C-141 Starlifter and C-5 Galaxy transport aircraft. While the mission was not as massive as the Berlin Airlift, which carried more than two million tons of supplies, it outpaced the efforts of the Soviet Union to resupply its regional allies. An official Air Force history of Operation Nickel Grass, published a year later, concluded: “The demonstration of capability and determination doubtless will not be lost on friend or foe and should prove of great value in underscoring the deterrence that is the cornerstone of American strategy.”
Israel had emerged victorious from 1967’s Six-Day War, feeling more secure than at any point in its still-brief history. The Jewish state had routed Arab forces by flying combat aircraft in coordination with fast-moving armored forces. Israeli General Moshe Dayan spoke for his entire country when, on May 31, 1973, he confidently proclaimed: “As long as we have Israelis as our soldiers, Americans as our suppliers, the Suez Canal as our military border, and the Arabs as our enemy, we should be all right.”
Israel’s adversaries, however, had learned some hard lessons from their defeat. Egypt had been reconstituting its military, focusing on the introduction of portable anti-armor weapons and the massive expansion and technological improvement of its fixed and mobile air defense systems.
During the 1967 conflict, Egypt’s air defenses were based on two primary weapons: the Soviet-supplied SA-2 surface-to-air missile (SAM) system and the ZSU-57-2 self-propelled anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) tracked vehicle. Both had proven woefully ineffective against the Israeli Air Force. While deadly against targets at medium and high altitudes, the SA-2 was far less effective against the low-flying Israeli aircraft that had decimated the Egyptian Air Force on the ground. Moreover, the SAM system’s fixed launch sites and associated radars were easily identifiable and highly susceptible to destruction by artillery and air strikes. And the ZSU’s lack of radar guidance made it difficult to acquire and track high-speed, rapidly maneuvering targets.
To overcome these shortcomings, between 1967 and 1973 the Egyptians supplemented their SA-2s with more advanced Soviet-supplied SA-3, SA-6, and SA-7 SAM systems and radar-equipped ZSU-23-4 self-propelled anti-aircraft artillery. The SA-3 could be fired from fixed emplacements and from truck-mounted launchers, while the SA-6 was fired from a tracked transporter-launcher. Both systems were intended to engage targets at low and medium altitudes, and their mobility enabled them to move forward with ground forces and evade retaliatory attacks. Though it had a shorter range than the SA-3 and SA-6, the portable, shoulder-launched SA-7 gave infantry units a viable anti-air capability. Taken together, the new SAMs and the four-barreled, 23mm ZSU-23-4 presented a formidable air defense “wall,” extending from ground level to more than 60,000 feet.
The Israeli Air Force first encountered the integrated Egyptian ground-based air defense network during the 1967–1970 War of Attrition, and quickly determined that the only way to avoid catastrophic aircraft losses was to make the suppression of enemy air defenses the first priority in any large-scale conflict with Egypt or Syria—the latter having also developed its own integrated air defense network based on the same Soviet systems provided to Egypt.
Despite its outstanding performance during the Six-Day War, the Israeli Air Force emerged from that conflict in need of more-capable aircraft to supplement and eventually supersede the French-built types that had been its mainstay since the 1950s. Discussions between Tel Aviv and Washington regarding the provision of U.S.-built replacements that had been ongoing since 1965 finally bore fruit in January 1968 when the first of an initial 48 Douglas A-4H Skyhawk light-attack aircraft entered IAF service, where they become known as the Ayit (Eagle).
“By the time Israel started ordering the A-4, it was already combat proven in the Vietnam War,” says Michael Hankins, the National Air and Space Museum’s curator of U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps post-World War II aviation. “It is light and therefore maneuverable and fast. It is very versatile, and it can carry a huge variety of types of weapons, making it ideal for multiple types of missions. It’s relatively easy to maintain and thus keep in the field more often. All this adds up to an aircraft that is—above all—accurate in weapons delivery, relatively survivable, versatile, and cheap. That’s a winning combination for a military that needs to quickly add a lot of ground-attack firepower with limited resources in a difficult operational geography.”
Then, in September 1969, Israel obtained an initial shipment of 44 McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom II fighter-bombers, an aircraft known to Israelis as the Kurnass (Heavy Hammer) because of its size and payload. “Although still vulnerable to SAMs, the Phantom in the hands of the Israeli Air Force was very effective against the MiGs flown by Egypt and its allies,” says Hankins. “The Phantom was the premier air-to-air fighter of the time, largely due to its speed. But it was also a much more electronically sophisticated aircraft than others at the time.” In addition to missiles and long-range radar, the E model Phantoms had built-in cannons the Israelis used to devastating effect in dogfights. “The Phantom was designed for versatility, so the Israeli F-4s also proved capable in the suppression of enemy air defenses through the destruction of ground missile sites,” says Hankins.
By late 1973, the Israeli Air Force had approximately 480 combat aircraft. The Ayit was the most numerous, with some 150 of the aircraft’s variants spread across five squadrons. The Kurnass came in second, with 130 being flown by four squadrons, plus one squadron operating six of the RF-4E Oreb (Raven) reconnaissance version. While several French-built and Israeli-modified combat aircraft remained in service with the IAF—most notably variants of the Mirage III fighter and Super Mystère fighter-bomber—the Ayit and Kurnass formed the core of Israel’s attack capability. As such, they would bear the brunt of the coming Arab onslaught.
Preparations by Egypt and Syria for a large-scale offensive in the years following the end of the War of Attrition had not gone unnoticed by Israel. But political concerns—Israel’s desire to avoid killing Soviet technicians and a warning from U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that a preemptive Israeli strike would not have diplomatic support—prevented Prime Minister Golda Meir from taking action through the first days of October 1973. Senior Israeli officers, meanwhile, were adamant that the country would not be seriously endangered by an Arab first strike.
That complacency would be shattered just after two o’clock on the afternoon of Saturday, October 6, 1973, when Egypt and Syria launched simultaneous air and ground attacks on Israeli positions in the Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights. Israel’s armed forces were in a lowered state of readiness in observance of Yom Kippur, Judaism’s holiest day, and the well-coordinated Arab assaults quickly achieved their initial objectives. Egyptian troops and armor crossed the Suez Canal over hastily erected temporary bridges, captured key Israeli positions, and began moving eastward. In the Golan, Syrian forces crossed the 1967 ceasefire line and advanced into Israeli-occupied territory.
The initial Israeli response to the two-front Arab assault was indecisive and uncoordinated, particularly in the air. In the Golan, the speed of the Syrian advance prompted senior Israeli Air Force commanders to order attacks on ground forces without first suppressing the enemy’s air defenses—the latter a pillar of IAF doctrine.
In Sinai, Egyptian airstrikes on Israeli anti-aircraft defenses, airfields, radar installations, and command-and-control centers blunted the effectiveness of the IAF’s first responses to the Suez crossing. The Israeli aircraft that did press home their attacks ran into the Egyptians’ highly effective air defenses. IAF losses on both war fronts were staggering—in the first 12 hours of combat, 30 A-4s, six Phantoms, and four Super Mystères were downed.
Within 12 hours of the initial Egyptian and Syrian assaults, Israel’s situation had gone from dire to existential. “What am I afraid of more than anything, in my heart?” said Dayan to his generals. “That the state of Israel will eventually be left without enough weapons to defend itself.”
Meir and her military commanders turned for help to the one nation that could support its desperate struggle for survival. Kissinger and President Richard Nixon rejected the initial requests for aid, believing Israel would prevail as quickly as it had in 1967. If the U.S. were to act as an honest broker in any postwar negotiations between the combatants, they believed, it could not be seen to have aided one side against the other.
The White House’s confidence that Israel would shrug off the Arab assault faded, however, when, during an evening meeting in Washington on October 7, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Simcha Dinitz revealed to Kissinger the true state of affairs. Without an urgent infusion of war materiel—particularly combat aircraft—the Jewish state might not survive. Kissinger relayed Dinitz’ dire report to Nixon and, following confirmation by U.S. intelligence of Israel’s critical situation, on October 9 the president authorized the resupply effort, code-named Operation Nickel Grass. That day, transports from El Al, Israel’s national airline, began flying shipments of air-to-air missiles, small arms, ammunition, and a host of other items to Tel Aviv from Virginia’s Norfolk Naval Air Station.
Over the following days, the U.S. government sought to institute a larger airlift using commercial aircraft, but American carriers refused to participate both for safety reasons and because they didn’t want to alienate Arab nations. Consequently, on October 12, Nixon ordered the U.S. Air Force’s Military Airlift Command (MAC) to undertake the entire airlift effort. Within hours, 268 C-141s and 77 C-5As were assigned to the airlift; over the next four weeks they carried all manner of supplies to Israel via an intermediate base at Lajes in Portugal’s Azores islands. Many of the offloaded items were in the hands of Israeli troops within hours of their arrival, and by the time the airlift officially ended on November 14, the MAC aircraft had delivered more than 22,000 tons of cargo, ranging from small-arms ammunition to tanks.
The pilots delivering the cargo had to avoid overflying Arab territories. What’s more, many countries in Europe denied U.S. aircraft overflight and landing rights, fearful that Arab nations might retaliate by withholding oil supplies. As such, American pilots were confined to a narrow flightpath. “Navigation from Lajes through the Mediterranean and into Israel at times became a bit hairy,” said Lieutenant Colonel Harry Heist, who took part in the operation. “I recall that on one mission we had minimum navigational aids. It was dark, and we were approaching the Straits of Gibraltar. There is a 10-mile gap between Gibraltar and the coast of Morocco, and we were required to fly between the two with just five miles on each side of the center line.”
Nixon’s Nickel Grass authorization provided for three types of aircraft to be supplied to Israel as combat-attrition replacements: 36 F-4E Phantoms, 46 A-4E/Fs, and 10 C-130E transports.
The Israel-bound F-4s were drawn from three U.S. air bases. All the Phantoms first gathered at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina, where their crews were told to remove all insignia from their flightsuits—a security measure should they be forced to abandon their aircraft over hostile territory. The first Phantoms left North Carolina on October 12 for Lajes Field, and after an overnight stop followed the same route as the airlifters across the Mediterranean. Joined off the Israeli coast by IAF escorts, the F-4s were guided to the Hatzor air base. The Israelis wasted no time getting the aircraft ready for battle. “As we taxied off the runway and stopped in the de-arming area, Israeli ground crews jumped on the back of the airplane and attached Star of David decals to our tail,” recalled a U.S. pilot. “We pulled into parking spaces and as [our] engines were winding down, arming crews were already loading bombs.”
The first of the Nickel Grass Phantoms went into combat on October 18 and, like the majority of the F-4s, they bore the Star of David while wearing U.S. Air Force camouflage.
The 28 A-4E and 18 A-4F Skyhawks earmarked for Israel under Nickel Grass were pulled from several U.S. units. All Skyhawks bound for Israel first gathered at the Naval Air Rework Facility Norfolk. While the aviators were being briefed for the flight to Israel, Navy technicians were removing various advanced electronic systems the United States was not yet willing to share with the IAF. That done, all the markings on each aircraft were painted over—except for the “star and bars” on both sides of the aft fuselage.
Preparations complete, the Skyhawks left Norfolk in four groups, three flights of 12 and one flight of 10. Each group was shepherded to the Azores by two U.S. Air Force KC-135 tankers, one as a pathfinder and the other providing inflight refueling as needed on the nearly six-hour journey. During the overnight stop at Lajes, the A-4s were given full ammunition loads for their two 20mm cannons. On departure the next morning, they joined up with a U.S. Navy KA-3B Skywarrior tanker that remained with them until replaced by a U.S. Marine Corps KC-130 off Gibraltar. After an overnight stop aboard the carrier USS Franklin D. Roosevelt in the western Mediterranean and a final in-air refueling by tankers from the carrier USS Independence south of Greece, the Skyhawks were met by Israeli fighters and escorted into Tel Nof air base south of Tel Aviv. The first Nickel Grass A-4s arrived on October 21, and—after being hastily repainted in Israeli camouflage and markings—were assigned to No. 110 squadron at Ramat David that evening. Some 30 of the 46 Skyhawks delivered to the IAF flew combat sorties before the conflict ended.
Unlike the A-4s and F-4s, the 12 C-130 Hercules transports provided to the IAF during Nickel Grass did not have to be ferried across the Atlantic. Though most were assigned to U.S. Air Force tactical air command units stateside, the aircraft were among some 30 “Herks” already in Europe supporting the movement of ammunition and other supplies to Israel. Able to make several round trips per day between U.S. installations in Germany and Israeli air bases, the C-130s were a significant asset to the overall airlift mission, though their work was overshadowed by the efforts of the Military Air Command’s C-141s and C-5s.
The IAF’s commander, Brigadier General Benny Peled, had requested C-130s because the IAF’s mixed fleet of cargo aircraft—French-built Nord Noratlases and U.S.-built Boeing 377 Stratofreighters—had been quickly overwhelmed at the outbreak of the war, even with the assistance of the two C-130s Israel had purchased in 1971. Peled didn’t think the IAF could afford to wait for the two additional C-130s Israel had on order, so on October 8 he’d added Herks to Israel’s list of urgently needed U.S. equipment. The dozen heavy lifters arrived at Ben Gurion Airport six days later, flying in from U.S. bases in Europe and packed with materiel. The 12 aircraft were all older E models manufactured between 1962 and 1964, and most were well-worn after extensive service in Southeast Asia. That was not a problem for the IAF, for the airplanes’ capability far outweighed their age and condition. Like many of the U.S.-supplied F-4s, the C-130s went into action still wearing their U.S. Air Force camouflage patterns.
Despite the initial gains made by Egyptian and Syrian forces in the opening days of the 1973 war and the massive material losses their combined assault inflicted on Israel’s air and ground forces, within a week of the October 6 surprise attack, the tide had begun to turn decisively against the Arab forces. With its reserves fully mobilized and vital weapons, ammunition, and vehicles pouring in from the U.S., Israel stabilized both fronts.
On October 15, the first Israeli troops and tanks crossed the Suez Canal and began attacking Egyptian SAM and AAA sites from behind, giving IAF strike aircraft more freedom to attack Egyptian targets. By October 21, Israeli forces had encircled Egypt’s third army in western Sinai, and Syrian forces had been pushed back behind the 1967 ceasefire line. A week later, senior Israeli and Egyptian officers meeting in Sinai agreed on terms that halted the fighting.
Israel’s ability to retake the territory it held before October 6 was, above all, a testament to the tenacity and professionalism of its military forces. That said, there is little doubt the war’s outcome would have been decidedly different had the United States not launched Nickel Grass. The cargo aircraft streaming into Israel bearing all manner of vital materiel kept Israel’s ground forces in the fight, and the A-4s, F-4s, and C-130s transferred from U.S. stocks allowed the severely battered IAF to regain the upper hand against a numerically superior enemy.
Nickel Grass would also provide lasting lessons for the U.S. Air Force—notably, the need for reliable in-flight fueling capabilities to sustain overseas operations. The C-141 lacked such a capability and could not have performed its mission had it not had landing rights at Lajes. The experience led to the procurement of the McDonnell Douglas KC-10 tanker and the production of the C-141B variant, which could hold more cargo and was fitted with a universal air refueling receptacle.
During a private meeting with American Jewish leaders after the ceasefire, Meir predicted that “for generations to come, all will be told of the miracle of the immense planes from the United States bringing in the materiel that meant life to our people.”
She was right.
Stephen Harding is the author of 10 books on military history, including The Last Battle: When U.S. and German Soldiers Joined Forces in the Waning Hours of World War II in Europe, a New York Times best seller.
This article is from the Fall issue of Air & Space Quarterly, the National Air and Space Museum's signature magazine that explores topics in aviation and space, from the earliest moments of flight to today. Explore the full issue.
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