In Retrospect: The Employment of Antiship Missiles

By Kojukharov, Asen N. | Naval War College Review, Autumn 1997 | Go to article overview

In Retrospect: The Employment of Antiship Missiles


Kojukharov, Asen N., Naval War College Review


AMBUSH AT SEA AS A CONCEPT has a great deal to do nowadays with the first successful employment of antiship missiles in 1967. A closer look at history shows that this relationship is not coincidental but rather a phenomenon that developed along with the methods of naval warfare used by light forces. Although thirty years have passed since that memorable event, it is still of great interest today, which is why the world press is giving due attention to the date that marks the onset of missile deployment in naval operations.

By the early 1960s the Soviet military industry had not only armed its own navy with missile-carrying vessels but had begun exporting the new weapon to "friendly" states, which then included the United Arab Republic (a short-lived formation comprising Egypt, Syria, and, for an even shorter period of time, Yemen). However, the new weapon was inadequately dealt with by the Arabs, because of, first, their chronic difficulties with its operation and employment, and second, their doubts about its efficiency. The Arabs had such a deep psychological barrier regarding the reliability of this weapon in combat that when any mistake occurred during maneuvers the offender was severely dealt with. Another contributing factor may have been that since the 1950s antiship missile trials had been carried out in many countries, yet then, a decade later, only Sweden and the Soviet Union were producing ships with antiship missiles; other countries remained reluctant.

To a large extent this explains why no missiles were fired during an early engagement between Arab missile boats and Israeli torpedo boats and destroyers during the Six Day War. On the night of 5 June 1967, off Port Said, an Israeli task force consisting of the destroyer Ja.ga and three torpedo boats supported a group of divers trying to penetrate the Port Said naval base. The frogmen were unpleasantly surprised to find not a single target either in the harbor area or at the base areas. Because events had happened so quickly, Israeli intelligence had failed to learn of the redisposition of Egypt's navy to Alexandria after a heavy defeat by Israeli aviation. However, Israeli support ships did locate two Egyptian picket-patrol missile boats trying to escape to Alexandria at full speed. In spite of several direct hits, the Egyptians finally succeeded in breaking away from their pursuers.

Indeed, before the battle the Israeli squadron commander had been informed that he might encounter missile boats in the vicinity.2 However, the message was considered to be only general information and contained no express warning to avoid an encounter with those boats. On the contrary, the Israelis were intent on fighting the Arab forces-which clearly shows how much the antiship missile was underestimated.

Another engagement relevant to this situation took place six days later, on the night of 12 June. The Israeli destroyer Eilat, escorted by two Saar-1 type torpedo boats (Italian craft armed with 457 mm torpedo tubes and 20 mm guns), was conducting a patrol northeast of Port Said along the newly occupied shore of the Sinai peninsula, when its radar detected a target that the ship identified as an Egyptian missile boat. The Israeli ship abruptly changed course to approach more closely.3 Meanwhile, the Israeli commander ordered his high-speed escorts to engage the enemy. But when they drew closer, the Israelis realized that their target was not a missile boat but a group of torpedo boats (Soviet-built P-6s, with a displacement of 75 tons, a speed of 43 knots, 25-man crews, 450 mm torpedo tubes, and an antiaircraft gun) that were approaching head-on. The Egyptians managed to avoid fighting by making for the harbor of Port Said, where they were protected by coastal and field artillery.

However, the large Israeli destroyer was a tempting target, and the two escorts were now out of sight. So, without knowing the real composition of the enemy, the Egyptian commander made the decision to get close to the destroyer. …

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