In 1961, the Israeli navy, seeking a way to overcome its small size and small budget, began research into an unprecedented idea: arming small craft—too small to be equipped with heavy cannon—with missiles. These ships could blow much larger ships out of the water, and sophisticated radar would give them a high likelihood of hitting their targets. After a decade of intensive research and development, Jerusalem contracted with a French shipyard to build the vessels, which the IDF would later arm and equip. But, after seven of twelve were delivered, Charles de Gaulle got cold feet.
Abraham Rabinovich tells the gripping story of how Israel snuck the ships out of France, and the even more gripping story of their first battle—by which time the Soviets had built missile boats of their own and given them to their Arab allies. And the IDF had learned that the Styx missiles on the Soviet vessels had nearly twice the range of those on their own:
Guessing at the electronic parameters of the Styx radar, the navy’s chief electronics officer, Ḥerut Tzemaḥ, [had] devised electronic countermeasures to divert incoming missiles. He also recommended as a backup rockets firing chaff—strips of aluminum that confuse radar. The efficacy of this anti-Styx umbrella could be tested only in combat. If he had guessed wrong, the war at sea would end quickly.
The first time the entire missile-boat flotilla engaged in maneuvers was the first week in October 1973. The boats returned to their base the morning before Yom Kippur, a day before the war’s outbreak. On the first night, four Israeli missile boats engaged three Syrian missile boats off the Syrian port of Latakia in the first-ever missile-to-missile battle at sea. The Syrians, as expected, fired first.
The Israeli sailors watched fireballs arcing into the sky and then descend straight at them. All knew that every Styx fired at an Israeli target until now had hit. The crewmen’s lives hung now on Tzemaḥ’s educated guess regarding the Styx. In the final seconds of their trajectory, the missiles succumbed to an unseen force tugging at them and plunged into the sea. The Soviet-built boats in the Arab fleets had no such electronic defenses.
The Israeli vessels off Latakia closed range and destroyed two of the Syrian missile boats with Gabriels as well as two other warships. The captain of the third Syrian missile boat, witnessing what happened to his comrades and with no missiles left, drove his boat onto the shore so that he and his crew could escape. In a reprise two nights later, three Egyptian missile boats were sunk near Alexandria.