June 9, 2019 marked the 37th anniversary of Operation Mole Cricket 19, a complex Israeli aerial undertaking that obliterated Syria’s air defense capabilities in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. In the immediate term, Mole Cricket 19 gave the Israeli Air Force complete dominance over the skies of Lebanon, but the long term effects of Mole Cricket 19 were far more consequential.
The sequence of events leading up to the operation began in London, where a PLO terrorist hit squad attempted to assassinate, Shlomo Argov, who was Israel’s ambassador to the UK. That provocation sparked an Israeli reprisal raid against PLO elements in Lebanon. The PLO responded with indiscriminate rocket and artillery fire on Israeli communities in Galilee forcing much of the population into bomb shelters. On June 6, 1982 Israel answered the PLO’s aggression with a full-scale counter insurgency campaign aimed at creating a 40 kilometer buffer zone between PLO forces and Israel’s northern border. The overall operation was codenamed “Peace for Galilee” but the stage had been set for Operation Mole Cricket 19.
Israeli ground forces required tactical air support but the IAF was hampered by the presence of 19 Syrian surface-to-air missile batteries situated in the Bekaa Valley. The Syrians deployed a dense anti-aircraft umbrella consisting of SAM-2, SAM-3 and the SAM-6 missiles. The formidable SAM-6 caused considerable problems for the IAF during the Yom Kippur War, and the NATO alliance was still trying to figure out a way to defeat the system. On June 9, 1982 Israel showed NATO how to it and in an instant displayed to the world the West’s technological dominance over the decaying Soviet Union.
The IAF deployed remotely piloted vehicles in innovative ways that had never been contemplated by any other army, western or eastern. In addition to providing real time data links and video feeds, the RPVs lulled the SAM operators, who thought they were under attack, to activate their radars. The Israelis then launched AGM-78 Standard and AGM-45 Shrike anti-radiation missiles, which homed in on the batteries’ radar signals instantly transforming them into expensive heaps of scrap metal. The Israelis also utilized long-range artillery to neutralize the missile threat.
Soviet built Syrian MiG-21 and MiG-23 fighter jets sent to defend the SAMs were sitting ducks for Israeli F-16 and F-15 fighter jets that were providing aerial defense for the attacking F-4E Phantoms and Israel-manufactured Kfir C-2 attack aircraft. The Israelis managed to jam communication between the jets and ground control. The Syrians were flying blind and the Israeli fighters picked them off with a combination of Israeli Shafrir and American Sidewinder heat seeking missiles, longer range Sparrow radar guided missiles and 20mm Vulcan canon fire.
Within a few hours it was all over. Seventeen of the nineteen Syrian missile batteries were completely obliterated and two were severely damaged. Of the 100 or so MiGs sent to intercept the Israelis, about one-third of them were shot down and the remaining ones scattered. During Operation Peace for Galilee, the Israelis managed to shoot down 90 Syrian aircraft in air-to-air combat for one Israeli A-4 Skyhawk lost to ground fire. It was an astonishing ratio that humiliated the Syrians and embarrassed their Soviet patrons. (By contrast, a 28-plane raid the following year by U.S. Navy A-6E Intruders and A-7E Corsair IIs against Syrian targets in Syrian occupied Lebanon resulted in the downing of two planes and the capture of a U.S. naval aviator.)
But the Soviets’ embarrassment was not limited to the air war. On the ground too, Soviet technology proved inferior to the West. The Soviet T-72 tank, which had not yet been tested in combat proved to be no match for the Israeli Merkava-1 tank. Nine T-72s were dispatched in engagements with the Merkava with no losses for the Israelis.
During the Cold War, Soviet power derived from its perception of power. Mole Cricket 19 shattered that perception. The lopsided Israeli victory proved that Soviet technology was at least a decade behind the West.
At first, the Soviets went into denial mode, regurgitating false and delusional Syrian claims of aerial victories. The Soviets then claimed that fault rested with incompetent Syrian SAM crews and cowardly Syrian pilots. While, this explanation may have been partly accurate, it could not fully account for such a lopsided loss. Slowly, the Soviet leadership came to the realization that Western technology had surpassed their own and began to question why.
David Ivry, the former IAF chief who ordered Operation Mole Cricket 19 recalled a meeting that he had with a Czech general during a 1991 visit to Czechoslovakia. The general, who was a military attaché in Moscow in 1982, informed Ivry that the top Soviet leadership was in total shock over the devastating defeat and came to the slow realization that their technology was inferior to the West’s. It was the general’s view, Ivry recalled, that Mole Cricket 19 featured prominently in a series of events that ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
While some may take exception with this viewpoint, Israel’s display of military and technological prowess during Mole Cricket 19 undoubtedly shattered previously held beliefs and notions of Soviet strength and served as a catalyst for the Soviet Union’s ultimate undoing.