Back in the early 1970s I served as an Air Force intelligence officer at Udorn Air Base in Thailand, home of the 432nd Tactical Fighter Reconnaissance Wing. Most of the bombing in 1970 and 1971 focused on Laos, especially the Ho Chi Minh Trail logistical network down which Hanoi funneled troops and supplies onto South Vietnam’s battlefields. Occasionally, the 432nd’s F-4 Phantoms would “go North” striking targets inside North Vietnam. Then it was time to “kick the tires and light the fires”—pilot talk for taking the fight to the enemy.
On Nov. 20-21, 1970, the United States undertook the Son Tay Raid, an attempt to rescue American prisoners of war thought to be held in a prison 26 miles north of Hanoi. It was an awesomely planned and nearly perfectly executed mission. That night, Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service helicopters flew from Udorn across Laos deep into North Vietnam to deposit Army Special Forces teams on the Son Tay Prison while also annihilating a North Vietnamese sapper training camp located a quarter mile away. Meanwhile, Air Force F-105 Wild Weasels blasted surface-to-air missile sites while reconnaissance versions of the Phantom flew over Hanoi firing flash cartridges to confound the enemy while Navy A-7s flew along the seam in radar coverage between China and North Vietnam, further confusing North Vietnam’s air defenses. While no POWs were found, we got to Son Tay, kept a force on the ground for an hour, wreaked havoc on Hanoi’s air defenses, and left behind a lot of dead North Vietnamese sappers and prison guards. We also made an important strategic statement. Despite our steady withdrawal from South Vietnam, the United States still could “have its way” with North Vietnam. Hanoi reacted by moving all American POWs into two prison camps inside Hanoi. Additionally, many POWs reported after their release in 1973, that conditions improved as abuse and torture, both horrific and frequent prior to that time, dropped off considerably. Message sent, message received.
This past Sept. 6, the Israeli Air Force, most likely with U.S. knowledge and possibly help, may have sent a similar message to Tehran via Syria. On that day it appears Israeli F-15 and F-16 fighter-bombers blasted targets near Dayr az-Zawr in a raid reminiscent of the 1981 attack on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear bomb-making facility in Baghdad. Both Israel and Syria have remained mute in the aftermath. For Israel, silence is simply good policy.
Syria, on the other hand, is following the old Soviet Union’s example of not commenting on things that are embarrassing. From 1956 to May 1960, the United States routinely flew U-2 reconnaissance flights over the USSR. Try as they did, Soviet MiGs could not reach the U-2’s operating altitudes. Consequently, Nikita Khrushchev said nothing until May 1960 when SA-2 surface-to-air missiles finally downed a U-2 over Sverdlovsk, smack in the middle of the Ural Mountains. By then, U.S. intelligence knew Soviet boasts about ICBM superiority were groundless. In October 1963, knowing the Red Bear’s nuclear legs consisted of borsch made it much easier for President John F. Kennedy to stand up to Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Defense expert Jack Wheeler thinks the Israeli raid may well have destroyed nuclear material provided by North Korea for a possible dirty bomb, or a cache of Zilzal surface-to-surface missiles recently sent from Iran for Syria’s use in a future attack on Israel, or possibly the IAF hit that stockpile of chem/bio weapons Iraq sent to Syria just prior to the initiation of Operation Iraqi Freedom. What was hit is not so important as the hit itself.
For the past two years, Syria has been building its air defense system with the latest in Russian-built surface-to-air missiles, air defense radars, and command and control systems. Evidently, the Syrians never knew the Israelis were overhead until the bombs detonated. Iran, like Syria, has invested heavily in Russian air defense systems, including the latest in surface-to-air missiles supposedly capable of bringing down the most stealthy of U.S. aircraft—planes like the F-117s and B-2 bombers. While F-16s are stealthy, reportedly giving off the radar return of a small bird, F-15s are large hunks of metal dependent on speed, maneuver, electronic counter measures and their inherent dog-fighting capabilities for survival. Both Israeli warplanes evidently “had their way” with Syria. Imagine, what U.S. forces could do with our F-16s and F-15s, not to mention Navy F/A-18E fighter-bombers and U.S. Air Force F-117s and B-2s.
Sun Tzu, the fifth century B.C. Chinese scholar-warrior, advised that the greatest skill is to subdue your enemy without fighting. Hopefully—but doubtfully—Tehran will take note and curb its nuclear weapons development program. If not, it may be time to “kick the tires and light the fires.”