Seven years after being caught by surprise in the yom Kippur war, Israel is developing a tank-destroying helicopter force to cope with similar surprises in the future.
The purpose of the missile-armed helicopters is to blunt any mass incursion of enemy armor for 48 to 72 hours, enough time for Israel's reserves to mobilize and reach the front in battle array.
The Israeli Air Force has assigned its top young pilots to this highly specialized force, which has been training intensively on its critical assignment since its formation. the existence of the force was disclosed only recently.
In the face of the heavy odds against helicopters facing tank formatins, Air Force experts have attempted to devise battle tactics that would enable them to engage armor at close range and survive.
"Our role is to blunt the impact of an armored surprise and hold up the enemy's advance as long as possible," says the commander of the tank-destroying unit, whose name is not released for publication. "Once that job is done and our forces are on the way, we can return to base. The main battle will be handled on the ground by our armored forces."
During the opening hours of the Yom Kippur war in 1973, more than 1,000 Syrian tanks swept across the border against 177 Israeli tanks posted on the Golan Heights. The Israelis managed to slow down and finally halt the Syrians but not before Arab forces had almost broken through to the Israeli heartland.
In the first days of battle, reservist tanks were thrown into battle piecemeal as they reached the battlefront rather than as organized units, in a desperate attempt to halt the Syrian tide.
If a new Arab-Israeli war were to break out, Israel would face the possibility of attach by more than 6,000 Arab tanks on its eastern border if Iraq joins Syria and Jordan. this is a formidable prospect for Israel.
Following the 1973 war, Israel significantly beefed up its armored corps and developed its own highly maneuverable battle tank, the Merkava. This, however, was not sufficient. The inability of Israel, with a population of only some 3.5 million, to maintain a large standing army meant that it would continue to rely mainly on reserves.
Since it takes from 48 to 72 hours for the reserves to don uniforms and reach the front in organized units, Israel would continue to be vulnerable in the critical opening days if the enemy throws its full weight into a surprise attack.
In 1973, the Air Force attempted to slow down the Syrian tanks, but at a great cost to its primary mission -- strategic interdiction behind enemy lines.
In turning to the helicoper concept, the israeli general staff started initially with the American Hueycobra attack helicopter, later adapting the cheaper Hughes Defender as well. These craft are fitted with eight and four anti-tank missiles, respectively. The helicopters are flown by two-man crews. One of the crewmen fires the missile while the other holds the craft steady -- theoretically even if it becomes the target for every tank on the battlefield.
Israel never has had Kamikaze-type suicide units, and the general staff presumably believes that the tactics it has developed will permit most of the helicopter pilots to return home by the third day with their mission accomplished.