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Disaster in Lebanon: US and French Operations in 1983
By Tom Cooper & Eric L Palmer
Sep 26, 2003, 20:37

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In reaction to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, in June 1982, several countries brought a decision to deploy their troops in the country in order to separate the combatants and attempt to establish peace and order. According to this decision, from 11 August 1982, US, French, and Italian units started arriving in Beirut, establishing the basis for what later became known as the “Multi-National Force” (MNF). The first to arrive were French paras of the Foreign Legion, flown in directly from Corsica aboard Transall transport aircraft of the ET-64 already on 19 August. Six days later the first US Marines arrived, supported by the French carrier Foch (R-99), and its Super Etendards and Crusaders.

The French naval fighters were very soon to be deployed in combat: in reaction to some Syrian troop movements, considered threatening for the MNF troops, on 20 August 1982 eight Super Etendards bombed Syrian positions near Ein Dara and Dahra el-Baidar. The strike was considered as a “signal” to the Syrians, and its results were consequently only marginal.

The situation subsequently quietened, and remained stabile until April 1983. However, the appearance of MNF troops was considered an interference of Western powers by too many parties involved in the war in Lebanon, and consequently the were soon to be confronted with immense problems. The Israelis saw the Western intervention as support for their efforts and interests; the Muslims – and especially the Lebanese Shi’a – believed the Americans and other troops were there to support and reinforce the Christians and protect the Israelis; and the Christians believed that the MNF-troops would help them increase their influence in the country. Any hopes and uncertainties in this complex situation were eventually destroyed by the visit of Lebanese President Gemael in Washington: soon after the first shipments of arms for the Christian Phalanga started arriving, and the US special forces began training the reformed units of the Lebanese Army on them.

Such a decision instantly changed the status of the MNF in Lebanon: within only a few days the foreign troops became dangerous opponents. The USA then poured even more il in fire then it permitted the Israelis to patrol areas under their control, and far outside the part of southern Lebanon held by the Israeli troops. The Israelis tended to attack any suspicious target without much investigation or any warnings, and this caused a number of civilian deaths. Consequently, the MNF-troops were finally considered enemy not only by the Syrians, but also by the Shi’a and all the other Muslim fractions in Lebanon.

Until today there are frequently discussions about what exactly were the MNF-troops looking for in Lebanon: the situation in the country at the time was such that there was no possibility of establishing a durable peace, and the Americans, French, and the Italian could not but end being entangled into serious arguments with most of the involved parties – including the Israelis. On 2 February 1983, for example, a column of Israeli tanks attempted to enter the US compound around the Beirut IAP. The Israelis were so stubborn in their insistence to enter the area that a captain of the US Marines had to climb to the leading Merkava and threaten the commander to turn around at a gun-point. When the Israeli column refused to pull away from the USMC finally deployed several AH-1T Cobra helicopters, equipped with TOW-anti-tank missiles, forcing them to do so under a threat of attack. This incident could not change anything in the way the Muslims regarded the presence of the MNF-troops as a threat to their positions. Quite on the contrary, as soon as the US troops started mounting joint patrols with the Lebanese army, in March and April 1983, their bases came under attacks by the Shi’ia and the Syrians. Then the situation escalated.

On 14 July 1983 the artillery of the Druze Militia opened fire on US Marines compound at Beirut IAP, and subsequently the Druze fighters captured several hills overlooking the whole US bridgehead in the area. From there they were in a perfect situation to guide artillery fire against the Americans, and on 28 August 1983 two Marines were killed in one such attack. In response the US administration authorised the commanders in situ to react and retaliate, and now everybody started fighting: the Druze attacked the Lebanese Army positions near the Beirut IAP, and captured them, obtaining a basis from which a direct attack against the US Marine compound was possible. The US Marines countered the artillery fire, and then also called the battleship USS New Jersey (BB-63) for support, which arrived into that part of the Mediterranean Sea straight from a deployment in the Central America. Taking a position directly off the coast, the USS New Jersey was able to bombard targets over a range of 40km with its main artillery calibre 406mm.

Nevertheless, on 29 August the US Marine compound came under a new attack, and this time the Americans were finally forced to deploy several AH-1T Cobras of the HMM-169 into a counterattack.

The Syrians were all the time monitoring the situation – mainly with the help of their MiG-25RB reconnaissance fighters, which were frequently detected while passing high over Beirut. The MNF troops had no fighters deployed in direct support, and the Lebanese Air Force was everything but operational. Consequently, only the Israelis were able to attempt to disturb these overflights, but their attempts proved fruitless, despite the deployment of at least two MIM-23B I-HAWK SAM-sites in southern Lebanon.

The SyAAF continued flying reconnaissance missions over Lebanon even in the aftermath of the severe defeat in 1982. These two MiG-25s were seen at low level over a Lebanese village. (Tom Cooper collection)

Consequently, the USN began concentrating larger ships off the Lebanese coast, moving the carrier USS Eisenhower (CVN-69) from a station off Libya to a new station east of Cyprus, named “Bagel”. The carrier arrived accompanied with the helicopter carrier USS Iwo Jima (LPH-2), which had the troops of the 24th MEU aboard.

While the Israelis pulled their troops behind the Awali river on 4 September 1983, additional US, French and Italian troops arrived in Lebanon, and then also a British contingent (BRITFORLEB) was deployed near Beirut as well. The BRITFORLEB was initially supported by several Hercules C.1 transports and a detachment of No. 56 Squadron Phantoms, based at RAF Akrotiri, on Cyprus, but later also Buccaneer S.2Bs of the No.12 and No. 208 Squadrons were added, as well as – on 7 September 1983 – three Chinook C.1 heavy helicopters, which established a permanent air bridge between Akrotiri and Beirut.

The Buccaneers announced themselves in the skies over Beirut on 11 September by a spectacular power-projection show flown very low over the city. Because of the different threats in the area the aircraft were armed with AIM-9B Sidewinders and 454kg bombs, but also ALQ-109/W-10 ECM-pods, they did a power-projection show low over the city. Similar actions were repeated in the several following days as well, even if it is questionable if they impressed any of the warring parties in Lebanon. Nevertheless, the French followed the suit, starting regular overflights of the area by their Super Etendards and Crusaders from the newly-arrived carrier Clemenceau, and finally Italy felt compelled to deploy six F-104S Starfighters at RAF Akrotiri; it remains unknown, however, if these ever flew any patrols over Lebanon.

Meanwhile, the Americans did their best in attempts to bring the regular Lebanese Army back into operations. In the frame of such activities they also reactivated the Lebanese Air Force (FAL), which was laying inactive for most of the time since 1974. With British assistance three old Hunter F.Mk.70s were made airworthy and in September 1983 they flew their first combat operations. On 15 September the three Lebanese Hunters – supported by French Super Etendards – attacked Druze positions in the Shouf Mountains. On the following day, however, the Syrians reacted by a powerful artillery bombardment of MNF positions around Beirut and the Rayak airfield, which was the main air base of the FAL. With their airfield being put out of commission, the FAL Hunters were forced to operate from an auxiliary base on the road near Biblos in the following days.

Eventually, however, their pilots were to discover that the skies over Lebanon were heavily defended: every serious militia in the area – and especially the Syrian Army – was equipped with a large number of heavy automatic weapons and MANPADs, and they were frequently shifting them from one neuralgic position to the other, creating areas that were extremely dangerous for any kind of aircraft. When the FAL Hunters attempted to attack Druze positions for the next time, on 17 September 1983, they were surprised by a truly “hot welcome”: one was shot down and the pilot barely managed to eject himself into the sea, from where he was picked by a USN SH-3D helicopter. The second Hunter was heavily damaged and made a force landing back in Biblos, while the third did not even attempt to return to the base but flew straight to Akrotiri, the pilot eventually requesting political asylum there. Only two days later also a British Buldon SRS-126 light observation aircraft was shot down by Syrian ZSU-23-4 Shilka flaks.

With their Legionaries under heavy pressure on the ground, the French were the first to feel forced to counterattack again. On 19 September eight Super Etendards, escorted by eight Crusaders, attacked the Druze artillery positions near Dhour el-Choueir, Dahr El and a Dara with 454kg bombs and unguided rockets calibre 68mm. A single Etendard IVP was sent to make post-strike photographs as well, but one of the two Crusaders escorting it was heavily hit by flak and the pilot made a barrier landing aboard the Clemanceau.

Meanwhile, the Americans continued their efforts to reinforce the Lebanese Army, supplying it even with a number of M-48 Patton MBTs, and supporting its operations by heavy artillery, in turn making the Lebanese Muslims – and their Iranian and Syrian supporters – even more nervous. Nevertheless, it still came as a terrible surprise when the MNF-troops were hit by a new form of warfare: on 23 October 1983 a suicide-bomber drove a truck filled with explosives into the headquarters of the US Marine compound in Beirut and detonated his murderous load. The terrible explosion completely obliterated the building, killing 241 US troops in the process. Only few seconds later a similar vehicle hit the Headquarters of the French troops in Beirut, killing 58. The MNF troops did not properly recover from these blows, when in another similar assault against an Israeli security post in Tyre, on 4 November 1983, 23 Israeli troops were killed as well.

The USA seems not to have had a clear idea how and against who to react at the time, but the French felt it was time for another air raid against one of Druze or Syrian positions. On 17 November 1983 ten Super Etendards bombarded carefully selected bases of the Shi’ia Militia and the Iranians in the Balbek, while four hit the main base of the Jihad-al-Islami – the organization that took the responsibility for bombings of US and French headquarters – with napalm bombs. The French fighter-pilots were confronted by a considerable amount of flak and several SA-7s and their attack was not especially precise, most of their bombs landing in the nearby vineyards. The Shi’ia losses were nevertheless heavy. In the following days the USN reinforced its units off Lebanon, by deploying the carrier USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) and her combat group to the Bagel Station.

In the meantime the Israelis continued their withdrawal from Lebanon, in accordance with agreements reached in June and July 1982. But, as they moved out, the Syrians moved in to take their positions, bringing with them new and more powerful weapons. Already in the spring of 1983 the first SA-5 SAM-battery, reportedly manned entirely by between 500 and 600 Soviet troops – was deployed near Dmeyr, some 35km northeast of Damascus. Only a month later another was established in Shamshar, south of Homs. Although stationed within Syria, these two batteries covered the whole Lebanese airspace, and were also connected with Soviet warships shadowing the US 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean. Both SA-5 sites were soon put under the direct Syrian control, and although the Soviets attempted to prevent Syrians from using them to attack Israeli, US, French, and British aircraft, in order to keep their wartime-codes secret, the Syrian Air Defence command (SyAAF/ADC) decided to use them at first opportunity.

In 1983 the Soviets deployed two SA-5 sites in Syria. Originally manned by Soviet personnel these were linked (via sattelite) directly to Moscow, and integrated into the Soviet V-PVO strategic net. The site seen on this photograph was positioned outside Shinshar, in the hills east of the busy highway Damascus-Homs, some 90 miles north of Damascus. Syrians, however, were swift to take over the control over both sites and - according to unconfirmed Russian and Ukrainian reports - have used them several times against US, Israeli and French aircraft during 1983. While there are no Western reports about either US or any other aircraft ever being fired at by Syrian SA-5s, according to Russian and the Ukrainian media reports, the Syrians claimed up to 12 USN aircraft as shot down on 4 December 1983 - all by SA-5s - and including two F-14s, several A-6Es as well as a single Israeli or USN E-2C. Although almost ridiculous - then there is not the slightest trace of evidence for such claims (the USN Corsairs and Intruders lost on 4 December 1984 were all lost to MANPADs and ZSU-23-4s; while the Israelis never lost any of their E-2Cs), such claims are still frequently repeated even in most recent issues of different specialized Russian and the Ukrainian magazines. (Tom Cooper collection)

The appearance of the SA-5s forced the IDF/AF and the USN to keep their E-2Cs, as well as Israeli Boeing 707s and Mohawk ELINT-reconnaissance aircraft away from the area, and this enabled the Syrians to rush additional units equipped with SA-3s, SA-6s, SA-8s, and SA-9s – all defended by numerous ZSU-23-4s, SA-7s and the new SA-14s – into Lebanon. Most of these assets were deployed along the Beirut-Damascus highway, in turn defending the main supply route for Syrian troops in the country: the SyAAF/ADC thus re-established the control of the Lebanese skies it lost in June 1982.

Such a threat could of course not be tolerated by the Israelis, then these considered their ability to strike terrorist targets in Lebanon at free as ultimately important. Consequently, the IDF/AF reacted with a series of strikes against different elements of the SyAAF/ADC and other Syrian positions. The Americans were also interested in monitoring this development, and after the 6th Fleet was reinforced by the second carrier – USS Independence (CV-62), which took part in the intervention on Grenada just a few weeks before – from early November the F-14A Tomcats equipped with TARPS-recce containers were sent into reconnaissance over Lebanon. Due to US aircraft using ECM-systems unknown to the Syrians, the Tomcats initially operated without any disturbance. However, in turn they were considered a much higher threat as well. On 10 November 1983 a French Etendard IVP only barely escaped from being hit by a SA-7 while operating over the Druze positions in Bourj el-Barajneh. On the same afternoon also two F-14As of the VF-143 were fired at while underway over Beirut.

In an interview published in the book “Intruder”, by Lou Drendel (Squadron/Signal Publications, 1991), an anonymous A-6E bombardier-navigator described the situation at the time:
We arrived in late October 1983. This turned out to be a seven and a half month cruise. We shared the duty initially with USS Eisenhower and then with USS Independence. The duty consisted of flying and standing 5, 10, or 15 minute alerts (alert aircraft are usually fighter, attack and tanker assets manned on the flight deck and situated so that they can launch on very short notice when needed), and we usually alternated on a daily basis with Independence. On day on alert, one day flying.
The flying for us consisted primarily of tankers for the F-14 and anti-surface warfare (ASUW) missions, in which we protected the gun line off of Lebanon. We had a bunch of small boys (destroyers and frigates) as well as the USS New Jersey, which would come in close to the beach and fire their guns at targets inland in support of the Marines….
We also flew ground support missions for the Marines at Beirut International Airport (BIA) or at the American Embassy. The Marines had FACs at both locations and they would call out possible targets. We were allowed to fly right up to the beach, but not over it, so the Rageheads knew of our presence. We generally carried laser-guided bombs and Rockeye cluster bombs for these missions, and there was always an A-6 airborne with live ordnance during this period. The alert airplanes could provide follow-up within minutes. We also patrolled between the island of Cyprus and the Lebanon coast to keep track of several Soviet ships. If they cam south from Syria, the Admiral wanted to know about it as soon as possible.

The Flight into Disaster

The situation reached the boiling point with an IDF/AF strike against the Syrian SAM-sites in Balbek, on 16 November, which resulted in quite some casualties on the Syrian side, but also saw one of Israeli Kfirs being shot down over Bhamdoun. The pilot ejected safely and fell directly into the British positions near Beirut. The Israelis came back on 3 December, striking Syrian SAMs with a larger group of F-4E Phantom IIs and Kfirs, which delivered a very precise attack this time. This happened in the same moment two F-14As of the VF-32 were in the area on a reconnaissance mission, and therefore it was actually no surprise when the Syrians fired more than ten different SAMs against the Tomcats. The Tomcats, one of them equipped with a TARPS-container, were underway at 3.5000ft and over 960km/h, and could thus barely be hit from the ground. But, their crews noticed several SA-7s fired at them, and they were eventually forced to abort their mission. The U. S. Navy, however, saw this as another provocation: having finally a clear target at which it could hit back, it was clear that an answer was about to be delivered.

F-14As of the VF-31, based aboard the USS Kennedy at the time, were also involved in operations over Lebanon, in autumn 1983. Some sources indicate that it was their and not the Tomcats of the VF-32 which were engaged by the Syrian SAMs on 2 December 1983. Note the armament: due to very tight Rules of Engagement in force at the time, the USN Tomcats were almost exclusively armed with Sparrows and Sidewinders for most of the 1980s, as the deployment of AIM-54 Phoenix missiles was not probable. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)

On the same evening, Rear Admiral Jerry Tuttle, the commander of the Task Force 60 – which now included two carriers, the USS Independence and USS J.F. Kennedy, as the USS Eisenhower was ordered back to the USA) – was given the order to prepare a retaliation strike. However, the issue of this operation almost immediately became a matter of several controversies. Tuttle, of course, has left the planning to the teams of the units embarked aboard the two carriers, foremost Cdr. John J Mazach of the CVW-3, aboard USS Kennedy, and Cdr. Ed "Honiak" Andrews of the CVW-6, aboard USS Independence, and the whole following night these have worked very hard in order to properly plan the action and prepare their aircraft. On the early morning of 4 December 1984, however, a new order arrived from Washington, which included very specific instructions about the targets that were to be attacked, weapons to be used, as well as the time-point of the strike: instead of attacking at 1100 AM, the USN fighters were ordered to hit already at 0545AM, and to fly in at a level of 6.000m instead at a low altitude! It remains unclear who was the person that issued these orders, but the fact is that this had to lead straight into a disaster.

The instructions from Washington could not be ignored by R.Adm. Tuttle and his officers: Tuttle had excellent reputation within the USN, for being a perfectionist and completing immense amounts of work within the shortest period of time. He was not ready to permit anything to went wrong with the operation, but he had to obey his orders. The problem was that they were received barely 30 minutes before the point at which the planes had to start in order to reach their targets by 0545AM. The problem was also that all the aircraft were already armed: Mazach and Andrews planned Kennedy to launch eight A-7s, each armed with 12 Mk.83s, and Independence to add four aircraft armed with Mk.7 Rockeye CBUs, filled with APAM (anti-personnel/anti-material) bomblets), and the whole package to be supported by at least two EA-6Bs and several F-14As. This had to be changed on a short notice, however, and the aircraft re-armed, as well as additional aircraft armed for the mission - as per order from Washington. The following chaos on the decks of USS Independence and USS Kennedy was unimaginable: pilots had to be awakened several hours earlier than planned, and then brought to their aircraft almost without any briefing: Mazach was only able to give them a short briefing of barely five minutes. The “red-shirts” - weapons specialists that care about the armanent of the aircraft - were rushing new trolleys with bombs from the ammunition depots deep inside the ships, and moving from one plane to the other, removing already prepared weapons and attempting to mount new ones. They had not had the slightest chance to properly arm the aircraft, however, as there was obviously not enough time. The case of Lt.Cdr. Tom Corey is known, who - after noticing that his aircraft was not loaded, but saw a stack of Mk.83s parked on their trolley near the ship's bridge - simply ordered few "red shirts" to hang a TER with three of the bombs under his aircraft! Eventually, several pilots had to start into the attack armed only with two – instead of a full complement of 12 or 16 bombs: in fact, only one aircraft, an A-6E of the VA-85, took-off carrying the assigned bomb-load!

An additional problem was that the re-scheduling of the strike made it impossible for support aircraft to start as first in order to reach their assigned positions in time. Quite on the contrary, in a rush to bring the planes over the target in time the USS Independence had first to catapult 12 A-7Es of the VA-15 ("Valions") and VA-87 ("Goldern Warriors"), and then the same ship and USS Kennedy launched also 16 A-6E TRAM Intruders (from VA-75 "Sunday Punchers" and VA-85 "Black Falcons" aboard Kennedy, as well as VA-176 "Thunderbolts" from Independence) in a fast sequel. Three Intruders were from VA-75 and seven from VA-85, the remaining six from VA-176.

Only then could a single E-2C Hawkeye, two EA-6B Prowlers and two F-14A Tomcats be prepared for their missions. The two Tomcats of the VF-31 eventually managed to catch-up with strike planes, but the Hawkeye was late in reaching its position and establishing a good control of the Lebanese skies, while the two Prowlers were all the time flying behind the attack formations, attempting to cover them against threats as these appeared – and thus reacting to threats, instead of preventing them from becoming some. There was not the slightest chance of this attack to be properly organized.

High over the Task Force 60, the ten A-6s from Kennedy joined into a formation of six A-6s and 12 A-7s from Independence. Cdr. J. J. Mazach from USS Independence led the Intruders, as "Green 01", his target being Syrian artillery and ammunition depots near Falouga and Hamman, some 16km north of Beirut-Damascus highway. Corsairs were led by Cdr. Andrews.

Over the coast the first sign of the trouble became apparent, as the formation was hit by a volley of Syrian SAMs. Within seconds the first US aircraft - one flying directly behind Cdr. Andrews, who flew as "Red 01" - was hit:
- May Day! May Day! Here Three-Oh-Five. I'm moving out over the sea! Follow me. Speed 250 knots!

The controller aboard the E-2C of the VAW-122 ("Steeljaws") concluded, simultaneously announcing that a SAR helicopter is underway:
- Steel Jaw, Red Two is down. Three-oh-Four is the lead. Primo is underway. Out.

The downed aircraft was the A-7E "AE305" of the VA-15. Covered by his wingman the pilot ejected safely over the sea and was shortly after picked up by USN helicopters.

This A-7E was actually the first US aircraft shot down on 4 December 1983, albeit this remained largely unknown until the very recent days. It remains unknown who was the pilot, but the Corsair in question was AE305 of the VA-15.

All the other SAMs missed, but in order to evade the A-6s and A-7s had to manoeuvre very hard and in the consequence the formation fell apart, with every plane attacking alone instead operating in mutual support – and this by day!

Once over Hamm, the Intruders reached their initial point and – one by one – dived towards their targets. Mid through the attack there was a radio call:
- Fireball! Fireball!

Cdr. Mazach then called Cdr. Jim Glover, Commander of VA-75, who flew as "Ace Lead":
- Green Lead, here Red Oh-One. I believe Five-Oh-Two went down!

But, the A-6E AC502, flown by "Blue Ribbon" Papst and "Jabbo" Jablonski, was not shot down: it was flying directly behind Mazach and could not respond because their radio was down. Papst accelerated slightly in order to overtake the lead Intruder and show himself to Mazach. Only then did Lt. Paul Bernard report that the position of the AC556 was empty.

Indeed, this Intruder from VA-85 was hit by an SA-7 or SA-9 missile into the engine nozzle right after dropping its bomb-load, while still in a dive through 1.800ft. The rear fuselage and one wing were immediately afire, and then the starboard engine exploded. The pilot, Lt. Mark "Doppler" Lange, did his best to keep the aircraft airborne and enable his BN, Lt. Bobby Goodman, to eject safely. After almost colliding with the ground the aircraft was seen to pull up into the sky for the last time - and then it crashed on a 245m high hill, directly above a village surrounded by Syrian AAA-positions. Lt. Lange ejected in the final moment, but his parachute failed to properly deploy by the time he hit the ground: his left leg was so severely injured, Lange died shortly after in the hands of several Syrian troops and Lebanese civilians. Goodman broke three ribbs and injured the shoulder and a knee during the landing, but was otherwise OK. He was captured by the Syrians immediately afterwards, and taken to Damascus.

AC556 was the A-6E TRAM Intruder shot down by Syrians on 4 December 1983. The aircraft was flown by pilot Lt. Mark Lange and BN Lt. Bobby Goodman on its last mission. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)

Mortally injured, Lt. Lange died in the hands of Lebanese civilians and Syrian troops. Most likely his aircraft got hit because it was the last in the Intruder-formation and the only fully-loaded with bombs, which made it less capable to manoeuver and evade enemy fire. (SIGMA via Tom Cooper)

Meanwhile, the Corsairs passed a Syrian SA-6 site near Jebel al-Knaisse and Mgite, some 30km from the Lebanese capital, and then dived towards their target. Once free of the bomb-load (his Corsair was originally armed with Mk.7 Rockeye CBUs and AIM-9 Sidewinders), Cdr. Andrews decided to start a search operation for the crew of the downed Intruder. The chance to find them and then also mount a successful recovery was minimal, but there was a crew lost in the middle of an area held by the Syrians, and Andrews could not just run away. Upon reaching the area where the A-6E came down he did several circles until the Syrian flaks opened fire: Andrews attacked the positions he could make out with 20mm canon-fire, but during his last pass his aircraft received a direct hit from a SA-7. The engine was destroyed but Cdr. Andrew nevertheless managed to return over the sea near Beirut, where he safely ejected. The rest of the formation joined the leader and wached as he fell into the sea under the parachute: immediately, two SAR helicopters were dispatched towards the area, but Andrews was eventually fished out of the sea by a local fisherman, and then handed over to the US Marines.

This A-7E was flown by Cdr. Andrews, CAG CVW-6 on 4 December 1983, when he was shot down over Lebanon. Cdr. Andrews was recovered safely. His aircraft was armed with six Mk.7 Rockeye CBUs and two AIM-9 Sidewinders for this mission.

In the narrative from the book mentioned above, the anonymous A-6 BN from VA-85 that participated in this strike described it as follows:
A-6s and A-7s from the USS Kennedy and USS Independence flew this mission in two waves. CAG Andrews, from Independence, was the first aircraft over the beach. He was flying an A-7 and he was shot down. VA-85 lost an A-6. The A-6 pilot, Lt. Mark Lange, was killed and the BN, Lt Bobby Goodman, wound up a prisoner, although he was later released. The side number of their aircraft was 556.

This strike was a real quick reaction deal. We pulled out of Haifa, Israel, on 2 December and flew that afternoon. The next morning I was awakened at about 0400. One of my duties in the squadron was that of schedule officer, so when they needed crews I was the first one notified.

(Note: due to the early morning local time when the strike was flown, it was still 3 December 1983 in the USA).

I was told to get ten crews up and ready. We were given about five minutes to plan, five minutes to brief and ten minutes to get to our aircraft. The ordnance-men were busy changing the loads for our mission. We were given a time on target (TPT) of approximately 0800 and although the Admiral had asked for an extension, it was denied somewhere up the chain of command….

We counted a dozen surface-to-air missiles from our cockpit (probably infrared or heat seeking missiles) We were at high altitude which limited the A-6 infrared signature so the missiles didn’t have much to lock on to. Every Raghead over there was probably issued one of these things and they filled the sky with them (shoulder-launched SA-7s). There was a lot of artillery and they were obviously expecting us to come in low, because we overflew all of it, with the shells bursting several thousand feet below us. We were the last division over the beach, and the A-6 that was shot down was number three in our three plane division, so it was the last aircraft of the entire strike group to ingress. I likened the situation to following someone who has hit a hornet’s nest. By the time you get there, the hornets are really pissed! My pilot’s comment when we crossed the beach, outbound, sait it all, “Now I know how a dove feels on opening day of hunting season!”

Syrian troops gloat on the wreckage of the A-6E "AC556", shot down on 4 December 1983. (SIGMA via Tom Cooper)

We got a new airplane flown over from MATWING in Virginia Beach to replace the one we lost, so we gave it the side number 556…. My pilot and I jumped into that airplane on 11 January (1984) for a “routine” tanker mission….

The plane was eventually lost due to the so-called “Cold cat”, when the catapult failed, but the aircraft was already released and moving across the deck. With the deck being already slippery due to much previous use, the aircraft fell into the sea, the crew ejecting just milliseconds before it hit the surface. Eventually they both survived uninjured, both landing back on the deck of the carrier. The BN concluded:

It was absolutely amazing that we ejected in the middle of the sea and neither one of us got our feet wet! My injuries were limited to a bruised left arm. I think my bruises came from the centre canopy brace on my way out of the aircraft. I was able to fly the next day, but my pilot was down for about three weeks recovering from his bruises. After we lost our second A-6 with the side number 556, our skipper said, “There will be no more 556s in this squadron!”

The USN never published the official documents about this attack, so it remains problematic to assess it properly or find out the exact reason behind the order that led to this catastrophe. In the book mentioned above, the anonymous USN A-6 pilot summarized:

Conducting an “Alpha Strike” resulted in relearning a lot of the lessons from Vietnam… on short notice.
The beneficial fall-out of the mistakes made on this mission was the clockwork success of the mission carried out against Libya an few years later.

According to Israeli reports the strikes were not much off the target, and several artillery and radar positions that threatened the US Marines in Beirut were hit. The Syrians acknowledged a loss of at least three soldiers killed and several injured. Eventually, Adm. Turttle, Cdr. Mazach and Cdr. Andrews all have sharply protested against the orders from Washington: certainly the USN fighters were never again sent into an attack with similar orders – and especially no politician from Washington has ever ordered them again to enter the target area at a level of 6.000m – at least not without a substantial support from aircraft for electronic countermeasures. The USN pilots definitely draw important experiences from this disaster: in the following years the “Strike” Naval Fighter Weapons School was organized, essentially similar to the “Top Gun” for interceptor-pilots but with stress on air-to-ground operations, and the training of USN pilots in total became much more realistic.

It was, however, the unpleasant situation caused by the capture of the bombardier from the downed Intruder that caught the public attention in the following weeks, then this was not only a shame for the USN, but also an extremely negative development for the US position in Lebanon.

In the aftermath of this failure the US operations in Lebanon were much limited. The USS New Jersey continued supporting the Marines with her heavy artillery, repeatedly targeting Syrian and Druze positions around Beirut. But, the fate of the MNF was already sealed, and by February 1984 the US, French, Italian, and British troops were forced to withdraw from Lebanon, leaving the country in the chaos of its civil war. Even before their pull out, in January 1984, the Lebanese Army was heavily defeated by the Druze and Shi’ia militias, which marched down from Shouf Mountains into Beirut. The Christian Falanga fell apart and most of its fighters fled to join the Israeli-supported South-Lebanse Army (SLA), led by Maj. Haddad.

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GD/L-M F-16A/B Netz in Israeli Service
Dassault Mirage III & Mirage 5/Nesher in Israeli Service
Early MiG-23M/MS Floggers in Action
Syrian Air-to-Air Victories since 1948
Egyptian Air-to-Air Victories since 1948
Different Middle Eastern Air-to-Air Victories since 1964
Israeli Air-to-Air Victories since 1974
Israeli Air-to-Air Victories in 1973
Battle of el-Mansourah
War of Attrition, 1969-1970
Israeli Air-to-Air Victories July 1967 - September 1973
Arab Air Forces on 5 June 1967
Israeli Air-to-Air Victories in 1967
Operation Moked: Destruction of Arab Air Forces
Lebanon and Jordan, 1958
Canberra Down!
Suez Crisis, 1956: The War of Stripes
Suez Crisis, 1956
Israeli Air-to-Air Victories in 1948-1966
Syria's Fighting Texans
Egypt’s Forgotten Lysanders
Stirlings in Egypt