There is great debate among naval observers about what a
future naval battle will look like and opinions range all over the map. As always, let’s take a look at history to
see if we can get a glimpse of the future.
The 1973 Yom Kippur War took place during October of that
year between Israel and several Arab states, notably Egypt and Syria. During the war, two missile boat battles
occurred in the brief span between 7-Oct and 9-Oct. These offer us the possibility of observing a
modern naval battle (from the past!) and learning lessons applicable to today.
Battle of Latakia
The first of the two battles occurred on 7-Oct-1973
between four Israeli Sa’ar 3 and one
Sa’ar 4 missile boats and Syrian boats consisting of two Komar and one Osa
missile boats plus a minesweeper and a torpedo boat. The Israelis were armed with short range (12
miles) Gabriel anti-ship missiles and the Syrians were armed with the SS-N-2
Styx anti-ship missile which had twice the range (25 miles) of the Gabriel.(1)
Israeli plan was to lure the Syrian missile boats out and engage them at the
maximum range of their Styx missiles, which the Israelis hoped to defeat
through the chaff and electronic countermeasures (ECM). (1)
On their approach to the operations area, the Israelis
detected a Syrian torpedo boat by radar at 4 miles, visually identified it, and
engaged with 76 mm gunfire to save a missile.
The gunfire from multiple Israeli boats, at ranges out to 10 miles,
proved inefficient with many misses, though ultimately it was successful and
sank the torpedo boat.
commander] Barkai had to assume that the Syrian torpedo boat had reported the
Israeli presence. He now abandoned the carefully rehearsed Israeli plan of an
attack from the north and fighting at optimum distance in favor of an immediate
descent on Latakia from the west. (2)
As the Israelis headed west, they detected a Syrian
minesweeper at 15 miles and fired a Gabriel missile at extreme range which the
minesweeper was able to outdistance, causing the missile to fall short. Additional missiles were fired at closer
range which damaged the vessel and a combination of missiles and gunfire sank
Soon after, the Israelis detected the Syrian missile boats
which fired first, at long range (45 km/28 miles), but the Israeli electronic
countermeasures (chaff and jamming) prevented any hits. Some Syrian boats attempted to fire missiles
while docked in the port of Latakia but the missiles malfunctioned and two nearby
merchant ships were hit by mistake.
As the Israelis closed the range and got their chance to launch
missiles, an equipment malfunction prevented on Israeli boat from launching.
this critical juncture, a short circuit on the Reshef prevented a missile
The Israeli missile salvos from the remaining vessels sank
two Syrian missile boats immediately and the remaining boat, damaged, opted to
run aground. An Israeli boat engaged it
with gunfire and destroyed it.
The Israelis are reported to have used 9 Gabriel missiles
which sank a minesweeper, one Komar, one Osa, and damaged another Osa. Israeli 76 mm guns were used to sink a Syrian
torpedo boat and the damaged Osa which had run aground.
Summary – On paper, the Syrians had every
advantage: longer range missiles, first
salvo, home waters, and land based support.
Despite this, the Syrian force was wiped out. Israeli EW/ECM allowed their boats to pass
through the Syrain engagement zone unharmed and reach their own engagement
range. The Israeli Gabriel missiles
proved devastatingly effective while the Syrian Styx missiles were complete
Battle of Baltim
The second battle took place just north of Baltim, in Egypt,
on 8-9-Oct-1973, the day after the Latakia battle. This one involved 6 Israeli Sa’ar missile
boats (2x Sa’ar 4, 2x Sa’ar 3, 1x Sa’ar 2, 1x Sa’ar 1) and 4 Egyptian Osa class
The Israeli boats shelled coastal targets to try to draw out
the Egyptian boats. Initially, the
Israelis detected targets to their west and pursued at high speed, however,
after 30 minutes they realized that the targets were just false electronic
‘ghosts’. Because of the high speed
pursuit, several Israeli boats ran short of fuel and had to retire but enough
were left to continue the mission.
Shortly after, 4 Osas were detected to the east, coming out
of the port of Alexandria. Unable to
maintain contact, the Israelis fired chaff clouds, hoping to deceive the
Egyptians into firing and this tactic succeeded. The four Egyptian boats launched multiple
missile salvos over the course of several minutes, many (all?) targeted on the
Israeli chaff clouds. After the last
salvo, the Egyptians reversed course and headed back towards Alexandria. The Israelis pursued for 25 minutes before
reaching firing range. Three of the
Egyptian boats were hit by missiles, damaged, and further engaged with 76 mm
gunfire. The remaining Osa escaped when
a pursuing Israeli boat suffered a malfunction and was unable to launch
missiles. At this point, the Israeli force
Note: Any attempt to
study these battles is somewhat limited by the lack of information from the
Syrian side. Their objectives, intent, and
actions are unknown or known only as reported through Israeli sources. Nevertheless, the battle offers a good view
of a modern naval missile battle.
So, as harbingers of modern naval combat, what lessons can
we learn from these battles?
Targeting – As
ComNavOps has repeatedly pointed out, missiles (no matter how fearsome, deadly,
and long ranged) are useless without valid targeting. The Egyptian misidentification of chaff
clouds as actionable targets provided graphic demonstration of this phenomenon. By launching at non-existent targets, the
Egyptians forfeited any possibility of success.
They violated the axiom, ‘fire effectively, first’. Firing at a misidentified, non-existent
target is not firing effectively. This
also gives lie to the reliability of radar.
Targets will still be misidentified or missed no matter how modern and
effective the radar is – or is claimed to be.
Recall the recent misadventure of the Burke destroyer launching several
missiles against likely non-existent attacking missiles.
EW/ECM – Chaff
and jamming allowed the Israeli boats, with shorter range missiles, to reach
firing range safely. ECM has, historically,
proven highly effective at defending against missiles, far more so than active
defensive weapons. Hughes presents the
data on this in his fleet tactics book.
Reliability in Combat
– Systems will fail in combat as the Israelis encountered at least twice. As long as Murphy roams the battlefield, this
will be a guaranteed truth. The fix for
this, to the extent possible, is rigorous testing during peacetime, redundancy,
and a ship and weapon system design that acknowledges such failure and allows
for it with practices such as backups, local control, rapid repairability, and
simplicity of design.
versus Actual Performance – The much hyped Styx missile failed utterly
while the relatively unknown Gabriel performed nearly flawlessly. More generally, the Soviet Osas failed as a
weapon system despite manufacturer claims.
With near 100% certainty, weapon systems will fail to live up to their
claims and, generally, by a wide margin.
The antidote to this is rigorous, realistic testing during peacetime – a
practice the US Navy abhors.
willingness to accept risks allowed the Israelis to close to effective
Squadrons – The
Israeli operation of small vessels as squadrons allowed for massing of weapons and
resilience in combat when several boats ran low on fuel and had to retire
leaving a still effective group behind.
It also allowed the Israeli commander to dispatch individual boats to
perform side actions while still retaining a useful mass of force.
Missile Range –
As noted in the post, the Syrian Styx missiles had twice the range of the
Israeli Gabriel and yet were utterly ineffective. This reinforces, with a hammer to the
forehead, ComNavOps’ oft repeated warning that missile range is useless without
valid targeting and a missile that can actually perform at least somewhat as
advertised. In fact, missile range is
almost a minor attribute compared to other missile characteristics! The obsession with missile range that so many
naval observers have is based on a misdirected emphasis on a single attribute
and the complete disregard for the missile’s other characteristics and the kill
chain, in general. For all practical
purposes, the effective Styx missile range was zero. This is also true of the hugely overhyped
Chinese DF-21 anti-ship ballistic missile whose effective range is also zero
due to the complete absence of commensurate targeting capability.
Ship Range – Missile
boats are strictly a short range, home waters asset and even under these
conditions fuel became an issue and forced several Israeli boats to retire
prematurely at Baltim. Range is a
priceless commodity and should not be ignored as has happened in modern US Navy
Fog of War –
Israeli boats at Baltim pursued electronic ghosts. Egyptian boats targeted chaff clouds. One Egyptian boat ran aground (whether
intentionally or not is unknown – reports differ). The carefully planned Israeli battle plan for
Latakia was quickly abandoned after the initial engagement with the Syrian
torpedo boat. The fog of war is a
constant of combat and all the modern sensors and electronics won’t change that
– The Syrian torpedo boat at Latakia is a prime example of the folly of using
distributed, isolated vessels which is what distributed lethality is. This leads, inevitably, to defeat in detail,
as happened to the torpedo boat. Only in
the most extremely positive set of circumstances can the concept have even a
chance of succeeding and reality rarely provides the most extremely positive
set of circumstances!
Syrian boats were detected by Israeli radar at horizon ranges or shorter. It is noteworthy that the Syrian torpedo boat
at Latakia was not detected until around 4 miles. This should give pause to those who believe
that radar is some kind of all-seeing, omniscient, miracle sensor. The Syrian minesweeper at Latakia was
detected by Israeli radar at 15 miles.
Syrian detection ranges of Israeli boats are unknown but, given the
extreme ranges that they launched their missiles, they were presumably 20+
miles – with the caveat that the target identifications were suspect.
Performance – This was yet another in an almost endless string of Soviet
weapon system failures. Whether it was
Soviet SAM performance in Vietnam, Styx missiles, or Soviet aircraft and tanks
in Desert Storm, the simple fact is that Soviet weapons have failed spectacularly
throughout post-WWII history. This
history should offer us some perspective as we contemplate whatever the latest claimed
Russian wonder weapon is. Soviet/Russian
claims far exceed their actual performance.
Damage Control –
Israeli boats twice suffered malfunctions that prevented missile launches, in
one case allowing an Egyptian vessel to escape.
Battle damage, and simple breakdowns/malfunctions, will always occur and
the ability to implement repairs on board, during a battle, is crucial. US ship designs have forgotten this lesson by
instituting minimal manning with no on-board repair capability and embracing
overly complex systems that cannot be repaired on board.
Following is a brief comparison of the Gabriel and Styx
Israeli Gabriel anti-ship missile used a joystick tracking system requiring
that the operator keep it on target by radar. It had never been fired in actual
the Soviet SS-N-2 Styx fire-and-forget (meaning that it does not require human
tracing once fired) missile employed by the Syrians was combat-proven. (1)
inertial guidance, active radar homing (fire and forget)
semi-active radar, joystick guidance
These missile boat battles offer many lessons but do they
offer guidance for future battles? The
answer is yes but it all depends on the particulars. Huh?
What I mean is that the individual lessons are manifestly informative and
telling but their impact on future battles depends on how they are combined and
what individual ship/weapon/sensor characteristics and battle plans/objectives
one has. For example, the seemingly
simple question of whether to radiate or not is not an absolute. It depends on
whether one has a defensive system that they believe can handle the enemy’s
attack that will result from broadcasting one’s own position.
Well, that’s not very satisfying for those hoping to read
about how a future naval battle will play out.
Okay, I’ll offer my general conclusions which are, as I intimated,
subject to modification depending on specific circumstances.
Barring an anticipated mismatch in missile/defense capabilities such as the Israelis had, EMCON is mandatory until the missiles start flying. This suggests a much greater role for passive sensors than the US Navy is currently committed to.
Active missile defenses will be only marginally effective and electronic countermeasures will be far more important and effective. Again, this is something that the US Navy is largely ignoring.
Confusion will reign supreme and all the networks in the world won’t change that.
Massing of ships equals flexibility, resilience, survivability, effective firepower, and victory.
Battles will be won or lost during peacetime testing.
Short range defenses will be the most valuable and yet are woefully lacking on US Navy ships.
From that you should be able to pretty well visualize what a
future naval battle will look like.
The Israeli use of radar for target detection is interesting
considering the flip side of radar use which is that it gives away the user’s
position. It is unknown whether the
Syrians detected the Israeli radar emissions but, presumably, they did. Given the Israeli intent to concede the first
missile salvo to the Syrians, the use of radar and its revealing of the Israeli
position was immaterial but if the electronic countermeasures hadn’t worked,
the Israelis would have been decimated.
Alternatively, the Israelis could have opted to attempt a clandestine EMCON
approach, similar to a WWII PT boat, and rely on visual detection but this would
have run the risk of missing the Syrian targets. The decision to use, or not use, radar is
always a double sided coin of risk/benefit and is one of the major
considerations in an anticipated naval battle.
To radiate or not?
(1)Naval Post website, “Battle of Latakia: An operation
changed the character of Naval Warfare”, Raymond McConoly, 11-May-2021
(2)Weapons and Warfare website, posted 9-Jun-2018,