The INS Eilat: The easiest kill that the Egyptians managed until Sadat’s parade.
It’s October 21, 1967. A few months after Israel’s big stomp of the Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian armies in the Six Day War. The Eilat, all 1700 tons of it, has an easy mission: gunning its engines back and forth in front of Port Said to intimdate the locals. Why not? It’s the “war of attrition,” a sort of lukewarm war between Israel and Egypt, a little sniping, the odd bombing, nothing much. The Eilat is just there to say “Nyah nyah,” basically, which is about all big surface vessels are good for anyway, but what the Hell, it’s 1967, gas is still about 25 cents a gallon, and Israel is victorious everywhere, what could go wrong?
This: two Egyptian missile boats-small craft carrying big bad weapons, the only sort of surface craft that make any military sense-come out of the port and fire Styx missiles (SS-N-2). The Eilat was hit by between two and four Styx, depending on whose story you read, and sank very quickly. 47 of the crew died, and 41 were wounded. That’s an awful lot of casualties when you consider that the IDF lost less than a thousand soldiers taking all of Sinai, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. Especially because the guys on the Eilat died for nothing, just showing off.
The Styx was a simple Soviet design that had been in service for years when it sank the Eilat. Like the longbow, antiship missiles were just not taken seriously because they were cheap peasant weapons, whereas if you were roaring around in an ex-Brit destroyer, you were somebody. It’s that simple. That stupid.
The difference between the Israeli navy and ours is simple: the Israelis learned their lesson and switched to smaller, lighter missile craft. No more ocean-going muscle cars to act like giant magnetized targets. The newer Israeli boats are small enough that when you lose one, like they did in the 2006 war to land-based Hezbollah surface to surface missiles, you don’t suffer 100 casualties.
That’s one way the US Navy could have gone after the Eilat went down: a fleet of smaller, lighter ships, basically ships you could afford to lose. There are some real interesting computer modeled naval war games that seem to be telling us that’s the way to invest your naval budget: lots of small ships carrying big missiles.
Another way would have been to develop an effective defense weapon against ballistic missiles. Maybe the navy tried that; maybe that’s part of what the whole Star Wars boondoggle was actually about, protecting the carriers against weapons like Dong Feng 21. I don’t know.
But it’s real clear by now that if they did try it, they failed. There is no defense. So either you go with boats you can afford to lose, or you downsize the navy radically, turn it into a low-tech anti-piracy force only used against stone-age opponents like the Somalis, or you go the U-boat route the Germans took when they realized the age of the battleship was over, sticking to subs. Because one way or another, if we get into it for real with China or even Iran, all our ships are going to subs, one way or the other.
Gary Brecher is the author of the War Nerd. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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