Operation Nickel Grass
Airlift in Support of National Policy
ON6 October 1973, while the state of Israel observed the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, war burst upon the Middle East. Egyptian and Syrian forces struck simultaneously against the frontiers of Israel in what would be the fourth Middle East war in 25 years. In his bookThe Arab-Israeli Wars, Chaim Herzog commented that the attack was the equivalent of the NATO forces in Europe being flung against Israel.1Attacking in midafternoon, Egyptian forces crossed the Suez Canal at three points and moved into the Sinai Peninsula while, to the northeast, Syrian troops overran Israeli-occupied positions in the Golan Heights. After initial Arab successes, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) held and by 10 October counterattacked, first in the Golan Heights area, where they drove to within 30 miles of Damascus, and a week later in the Sinai, where they eventually pushed the Egyptians back across the Suez Canal.
The ferocity of the combat severely depleted the equipment and military stockpiles of both sides, and the need for resupply became urgent. The Soviets responded to requests Egypt and Syria and, while US observers looked on with growing apprehension, began airlifting military supplies into those countries aboard An-12 and An-22 transport aircraft.2The United States delayed the resupply of Israel to conduct diplomatic negotiations with Moscow to restore peace in the area; however, it became apparent that those talks would succeed only by reestablishing the military balance through a massive resupply of war material to Israel.
US officials considered various delivery methods that did not require military airlift forces to enter the war zone.3They rejected sealift because the prohibitively long time necessary for delivery would fail to meet Israel's urgent requirements. Airlift was the only viable alternative, and plans were quickly drawn to accomplish the necessary resupply. On 13 October President Nixon made the decision to begin the airlift, and on the following day the first US military transport, a C-5, landed at Lod International Airport, Tel Aviv. The American airlift, dubbed Operation Nickel Grass, was under way.4
By midnight on 14 November, one month later, the United States completed an airlift of immense proportions--an effort that played a decisive role in preventing the defeat of Israel.5Although less publicized than the belligerents' combat operations, the aerial resupply efforts of Operation Nickel Grass were significant. For the United States, Nickel Grass had far-reaching political and military effects. From a broad perspective, the airlift may even have been an important as the Western allies' airlift that broke the Berlin blockade in 1948-49.
Militarily, the Israeli airlift was significant because it offset the Soviet airlift to Egypt and Syria, it overcame Israel's critical shortage in certain military items, and it strengthened Israel's overall military position. For the US Air Force, Nickel Grass was an important milestone in developing its ability to project and resupply forces with an all-jet transport fleet over intercontinental distances. In particular, the operation put the C-5 Galaxy to its first real test as the world's largest intercontinental airlifter. The events of Nickel Grass also provided the impetus for several significant enhancements to the airlift capability we know today: air refueling for airlift aircraft, upgrades in command and control, and realignment of airlift assets under Military Airlift Command (MAC).
Despite its military importance, the airlift probably had an even greater political impact because of the effects that extended beyond the immediate scope of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The political ramifications involved not only the relationship of the United States with Israel but also with the Soviet Union, the Arab countries (particularly Egypt), and NATO members. The success of the aerial resupply also supported the contention that airlift may be among the most flexible options available to the national command authorities (NCA) for the execution of national policy during peace or war.
Policy before Planes
The Israelis called for American aid almost immediately after the Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal. Their request was denied on 7 October because of a consensus within the Nixon administration that "they didn't really need the equipment" and that they didn't suffer from shortages material.6Officials in the administration, most prominent among them Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, also believed in an inevitable Israeli victory with or without resupply. Additionally, some people did not want to antagonize the Arabs because we depended upon them for some of our oil. Large oil companies warned against aid to Israel, fearing that the flow of oil would be halted--particularly to countries even more dependent on Arab oil than the United States.7Also at stake was our status as a broker in the peace negotiations going on with the Soviets and with various Middle Eastern countries.
Regardless of these concerns, the US government found that maintaining the balance of power in the region was closely tied to the survival of Israel. Surprisingly, the United States was under no treaty obligations or formal protocols to supply Israel. Our commitments derived from a series of White House policy pronouncements issued by five successive presidents dating back to Harry S. Truman. These pronouncements indirectly linked the territorial integrity of Israel to the national security interests of the United States within the greater framework of peace and stability in the Middle East.8Moreover, under the Nixon Doctrine, the United States favored support to friendly countries by providing the military equipment and supplies needed for self-defense.9
For Israel, resupply did not come as quickly as it had hoped. In dealing directly with the Israelis, the United States stipulated that it would provide military assistance only under certain conditions.10First, Israel was not to have provoked the Arabs into starting the conflict. In a related requirement, the United States wanted assurance that Israel had not ordered a preemptive military strike against the Arabs, thereby initiating hostilities. Two events emphasize US intransigence on this issue: on the morning of 6 October, the US ambassador to Israel cautioned Prime Minister Golda Meir against a preemptive attack, stating that the United States could not resupply Israel under that circumstance; at the same time, Secretary of State Kissinger warned Israel's foreign minister not to initiate the fighting if Israel desired US support. Actually, Mrs Meir had already ruled out a first strike even though military intelligence indicated that an Arab attack was imminent. Yet another criterion for aid was that it would be offered only for self-defense. It is possible the United States established this condition so that the Soviets would perceive US military aid to Israel only as a counterbalance to Soviet aid to Egypt and Syria.
The US Departments of State and Defense had similar concerns for Soviet opinion and established their own conditions for aid to Israel.11First, Secretary Kissinger did not want military aid to Israel to disrupt US relations with either the Arabs or the Soviet Union. Further, he wished to avoid damage to the ongoing negotiations over the Middle East situation or to the spirit of détente that existed with the USSR. Within the Department of Defense (DOD), Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger initially did not want MAC to deliver goods directly to Israel. Instead, he favored a covert operation in which MAC would fly supplies to the Azores for pickup by Israeli aircraft.
Because of these numerous conditions, the United States deliberated for nearly a week on whether to authorize military aid to Israel. After costly battles; particularly in the Sinai, Israel on 8 October again requested assistance from the United States. This time it asked for aircraft, tank and artillery ammunition, and electronic countermeasures (ECM) equipment.12Despite a deteriorating battlefield situation, the United States was still reluctant to commit to a resupply, preferring to analyze the extent of Soviet efforts and determine its effect on détente. At this point, the United States gave Israel tacit approval for El Al, the Israeli airline, to begin moving supplies to Israel. Consequently, planeloads of bombs and air-to-air missiles arrive in Israel on 10 October.13
Gen Paul K. Carlton, MAC commander, kept a close watch on the unfolding events. During the early part of the war, MAC was directed to provide a number of options for airlifting war material to Israel.Accordingly, MAC prepared its plans and waited for a political decision. In the following days, these plans changed repeatedly as the White House, National Security Council, and the Departments of State and Defense wrestled with the complexities of the war and its political and economic factors to determine the extent of US involvement.14
One of the options examined at various levels called for MAC to airlift cargo to the East Coast of the United States for transshipment by Israeli aircraft to the final destination. Another option was to shift the transshipment point to the Atlantic--Lajes Air Base in the Azores. Planners also considered using American commercial aircraft for the operation.15The Israelis did, in fact use eight of their commercial B-707 and B-747 aircraft to move 5,500 tons from the United States to Israel but abandoned this effort because their fleet could not expeditiously move the necessary quantities of cargo.16
On 12 October 1973, before a final decision was made on the method of conducting the airlift, Mrs Meir personally sent President Nixon an urgent message requestingimmediate assistance. At this point Israeli supplies were running critically low, andIsrael's fate was in serious doubt. That day the president ordered DOD to immediately begin an airlift to Israel with cargoes destined for offload at Lajes Air Base. The next day, however, the secretary of defense directed that the US airlift would operate all the way into Israel using MAC aircraft and that Lod International Airport near Tel Aviv would be the offload point.17
Once the method of resupply was approved, the United States funneled large quantities of equipment and material through an aerial pipeline that stretched across the Atlantic and through the Mediterranean. To begin the supply transfer, crews onloaded equipment and supplies at 29 locations in the United States, principally military air bases.18Equipment and materiel were also drawn from the stockpiles of US forces in Europe and airlifted to Israel.19
Once loaded, the transports began the approximately six-hour flight to Lajes Air Base. Lajes was the only available choice for landing and refueling because most European countries had denied overflight and landing rights to the United States, fearing that the Arabs would retaliate by withholding vital oil supplies.20Serving as a staging base for the entire operation, Lajes handled 30 to 40 flights per day during the airlift.21Base crews handled little cargo and were more involved in maintaining the aircraft and keeping the airlift moving. The C-5s and C-141s did not unload cargo here unless they could not continue due to mechanical problems. Rather, maintenance personnel refueled the aircraft, and fresh crews boarded the C-141s. Before leaving the United States, the C-5s were augmented with extra crewmembers who often remained with their aircraft to Lod and back to the United States, sometimes flying more than 28 hours without relief.22At the peak of the airlift, 1,300 additional personnel crowded Lajes. They were billeted in World War II barracks, psychiatric wards, showers, and even aboard the aircraft. At one point, someone recommended that SAC tanker crews supporting operations and transiting Lajes bring their own sleeping provisions.23
Once the transports departed Lajes for Israel, they flew to a point over the Strait of Gibraltar, then east over the Mediterranean to the vicinity of Crete, then southeast to Tel Aviv. On 22 October 1973 MAC changed the route to fly south of Crete, to comply with a request from the Greek government. MAC exercise extraordinary care to comply with flight restrictions; even flights originating in West Germany were routed to Lajas, then through the Mediterranean to Israel. Aircraft were also careful to avoid overflying Arab territory or entering airspace controlled by Arab countries.24
Once in the Mediterranean, the US Navy's Sixth Fleet helped arrange codes, safe-passage procedures, and diversion plans in case of hostile interceptions. In fact, the Navy tracked the airlift aircraft from Gibraltar throughout the length of the Mediterranean. A ship was stationed every 300 miles and an aircraft carrier about every 600 miles to provide support, if necessary.25As incoming aircraft approached to within 150 miles of the Israeli coast, Israeli Air Force (IAF) Mirages and F-4s escorted them the remainder of the way. Most of the transports landed at Lod Airport in Tel Aviv, while some flew to an airfield at El Arish in the Sinai. Overall, the flight time from Lajas to Israel was approximately seven hours.26
We had no support facilities at Lod Airport, and only a small number of US support personnel were present in Israel to assist with the aircraft. To coordinate a minimum maintenance capability for the transports once they landed, the US Air Force established an airlift control element (ALCE) at Lod, while El Al maintenance crews performed routine servicing for the aircraft. To unload the planes, the Israeli Defense Forces employed a mixture of reserve personnel and civilian teenagers enlisted as laborers from the surrounding area. Israeli teams of five to 10 men emptied the airplanes either by hand or with materials handling equipment (MHE) flown in on early chalks.* Interestingly, the first C-5 to arrive at Lod on 14 October had its 113,000 pounds of cargo unloaded by hand (in three and one-half hours) because the C-5 with the first MHE had aborted at Lajes.27In addition, the IDF was responsible for loading the supplies and ammunition on waiting trucks and overseeing their distribution either directly to the combat units or to the IDF's main depots, depending on the type of materiel. Sources report that crews averaged 30 minutes to unload the aircraft and that IDF trucks left Lod Airport approximately 90 minutes after the aircraft landed, reaching their farthest destination about two hours later. Thus, the minimum total time from arrival of the supplies at Lod to their delivery was around 3.5 hours.28
* Chalks refers to the early troop carrier practice of chalking corresponding numbers on complete, individual aircraft loads and on the intended aircraft. The terms has entered general use as a means of identifying loads or missions.
Conditions at Lod were more difficult than at Lajes, not because of overcrowding, but due to a lack of US personnel. Col Donald R. Strobaugh, commander of the MAC ALCE throughout the operation, had only 12 cargo handlers and 20 communications workers when the airlift began. The number of ALCE personnel at Lod never exceeded 55 during the 32 days of the airlift. Colonel Strobaugh described working conditions at Lod in an article in the McGuire AFB, New Jersey, newspaperAirtides:"Our men did a fantastic job. They worked 12 hours a day--84 hours a week. Some worked more than that. If they started working on a plane at the end of their shift, they stayed on past the time they should have to finish the aircraft."29
The Israelis eagerly displayed their appreciation for the hard work of the ALCE and the aircrews that made the trip from the United States:
El Al Airlines did a great job taking care of the American aircrews at Lod. Tables with catered meals were set up in a special lounge for crew members. . . . El Al's chief stewardess went around Tel Aviv asking merchants for gift donations saying they were making it possible for their businesses to continue.30
Colonel Strobaugh also received 75 to 100 letters each day from Israeli schoolchildren. One typical letter read, "Thanks for helping us in our war. When you have a war, we will help you."31
The airlift to Israel lasted 32 days. Though not as large as the Berlin airlift, which carried more than 2 million tons of supplies to that city, the US airlift of 22,305 tons to Israel was impressive, nevertheless. The C-141s flew 421 missions to Israel, delivering 11,632 tons of equipment and supplies, while the C-5s flew 145 missions and delivered 10,673 tons of cargo. Some 48 percent of the total tonnage was moved on Galaxy flights, yet they flew only 25 percent of the missions.32The Soviet airlift to Arab allies pales in comparison:
Best estimates of the Soviet effort were that their 935 missions, over a distance of 1,700 miles, moved in about 15,000 tons during a 40-day period. In short, MAC airlifted one-fourth more cargo with a little more than one-half the missions over a route that was three times greater.33
Overall, it appears that the American airlift had both substantive and psychological effects. The Israelis, who had begun to worry about how many shells they had left, were able to resume an extremely high rate of fire with the delivery of plentiful stocks of 105-, 155-, and 175-millimeter ammunition. With the influx of many of the consumables of war to replenish depleted stockpiles, they also were emboldened to throw all available reserves into the battle and succeeded in breaking through the Egyptian lines to the west side of the Suez Canal, threatening the bridgehead established by the Egyptians on the east side, and encircling the Egyptian Third Army.34Psychologically, the Egyptians were shaken by this reversal of their military successes.
Another example of the impact of the airlift on the war was the effectiveness of the TOW and Maverick missiles. According to the Defense Intelligence Agency, these weapons were responsible for the majority of Israeli tank kills (Arab losses were estimated at 1,900 tanks during the war). Since the TOW and Maverick were not present in the Israeli inventory in any significant numbers before the war began, it is apparent that the missiles delivered by airlift the difference.35
Most accounts measure the airlift's performance in terms of tonnage moved, but it is more important to note what items were moved and their actual impact on the war. For example, only 39 percent of the Nickel Grass materiel was delivered before the cease-fire agreement on 22 October.36Further, the C-5 was able to demonstrate its capability to transport outsized cargo--items too large for other transport aircraft.37
The movement of outsized cargo had different effects on the Israeli war effort but generally complemented the continual resupply of combat consumables. During the entire airlift, the C-5s delivered 29 battle tanks to Israel.38Only four of those tanks along with 10 other pieces of outsized equipment arrived before the cease-fire on 22 October.39The other 25 tanks were delivered after the fighting had stopped. Although 432 Israeli tanks were lost between 6 and 8 October during the armor battles of the Sinai, the Israelis did not overlook the psychological value of the airlifted tanks.40The General Accounting Office (GAO) report on the airlift assessed the impact of the outsized cargo accordingly:
The aerial delivery of combat tanks and other outsize cargo by C-5s was an impressive use of airlift capability and it is impossible to assess the psychological impact of demonstrating this capability. In our opinion, the relatively small quantities of outsizing equipment delivered in this manner had no effect on the war's outcome.41
Facts and figures aside, American airlift "reversed the imbalance of military power created by the vast shipments of Russian war material to the Arab nations and led to a cease-fire which in turn brought about a return to the status quo. In short, the airlift possible the achievement of a national objective--peace in the Middle East."42
Nickel Grass and Its Mark on US Airlift
The Military Airlift Command received near-unanimous high marks for its performance under demanding conditions, but the operation was not entirely free of problems. Fortunately, MAC resolved these difficulties before they jeopardized the operation. Still, there were lessons to be learned. After the cease-fire, MAC officials examined these areas and gained insights that would benefit future airlift capability. Three areas requiring improvement were particularly prominent: (1) air refueling (AR), (2) command and control, and (3) management of airlift resources.
Need for Air Refueling
Although the C-5 could have carried a reduced load of 33 tons nonstop from the United States to Israel, the C-141 could not have flown this mission nonstop at all.43Without the C-141, it would have taken 670 C-5 flights to deliver the same 22,305 tons to Israel. At the directed daily aircraft flow rate of six to eight arrivals per day, the operation would have taken 100 days.44The C-5 has always been capable of in-flight refueling (the C-141 lacked this capability at the time of the operation); however, MAC did not use AR because of concerns about its effect on the aircraft's wing.45Technicians later determined that AR would have put less stress on the wing than the extra takeoffs and landings. Further, the political climate in Europe prevented the United States from strategically positioning tankers to provide refueling for the return trip from Lod.46
Thus, the Israeli airlift was possible only because our aircraft were able to use Lajes Air Base. Although Portugal made Lajes available for this operation (after considerable negotiation), it is uncertain whether we will always have access to this facility. Therefore, an important lesson learned from the airlift is that implementation of our policy of remote presence requires an effective in-flight refueling capability. MAC and the Air Force have recently made great strides in this area. In fact, the current refueling capability of the C-141 and C-5, the procurement of the KC-10, and the commitment to training in air refueling all have their genesis in Nickel Grass.
Need for Improved
Command and Control
General Carlton described the problems of command and control during Nickel Grass in a 1984 interview:
The concept of operating within an established command and control structure was violated--the Air Force didn't set up a command post to handle our activity; yet, we were working for the Air Force. We found ourselves taking instruction primarily from JCS/J-4, Logistics. Command and control, or rather a lack of it, caused indecision.47
General Carlton went on to explain that, despite operating an European Command's (EUCOM's) theater of operations, the command "wasn't even in the equation for this operation."48 Instead of tying into EUCOM's command and control system, MAC aircraft transiting the Mediterranean worked indirectly with the Navy's Sixth Fleet through the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), as mentioned previously.
The GAO report on Nickel Grass further identified specific shortcomings in command and control procedures: (1) insufficient numbers of experienced people to manage emergency airlift operations, (2) inadequate communications facilities, (3) inaccurate and delayed reports to higher levels, (4) deficient dissemination of critical weather data, and (5) the lack of reliable, high-quality voice, air-to-ground, and secure communications.49After the operation, each item was redressed through modernization of equipment or additional training and manpower.
Need for Improved
Management of Airlift Resources
The GAO report also made the point that "to manage an airlift efficiently, MAC should control the flow of aircraft."50That is, MAC should specify the type of cargo and number of passengers to be moved and the time frames for movements. Then MAC should determine the type of aircraft, airlift flow, and methods of delivery best suited to meet the requirements. During the Israeli airlift, quite the opposite was true. DOD directed MAC's operations and frequently changed the aircraft flow rate. To comply with variable flow rate, MAC had to position extra aircraft and crews at Lajes and use them as directed. This procedure proved to be counterproductive to efficient management of aircraft, crews, and facilities. According to DOD, the secretary of defense controlled the airlift because political considerations were more important than efficient airlift management. However, DOD did agree that, to achieve economic use of aircraft, MAC should have a say in determining total airlift needs.51
Furthermore, MAC initially did not have access to the C-130 fleet to move small but critical loads to certain locations because these aircraft were either theater assets under the control of theater commanders in chief (CINCs) or CONUS-based assets under Tactical Air Command. Because of this situation, it wasn't until 15 October that 12 C-130s per day were dedicated to MAC for use, even though initial planning for Nickel Grass began on 6 October.52As it turned out, these instances of doubtful airlift management were powerful arguments for airlift consolidation--which took place on 1 December 1974--and for designating MAC as a specified command on 1 February 1977.
Along with the Berlin airlift of 1948 and 1949 and numerous other military and humanitarian emergencies, Nickel Grass takes its rightful place in proving that airlift is a key factor in America's military and diplomatic activities around the globe. MAC dramatically demonstrated its ability to organize quickly and transport vast amounts of cargo over global distances to support our government's policies. Furthermore, the fact that our effort exceeded the Soviets' did not go unnoticed in capitals throughout the world. Nickel Grass convinced many people that airlift is a vital component of our national strategy of deterrence: "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."53Perhaps the most meaningful assessment of our role came from Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. During a private meeting in Washington with American Jewish leaders three weeks after the cease-fire, she emotionally commented that "for generations to come, all will be told of the miracle of the immense planes from the United States bringing in the material that meant life to our people.