Cold War Era

Operation Nickel Grass: How USAF C-5, C-141 Airlifters saved Israel during the October 1973 War

It is sufficient to say that U.S. military transport aircraft – much larger than those deployed by other belligerents in Yom Kippur War – delivered no fewer than 22,345 tons of freight in the course of 556 sorties flown by Oct. 24, 1973

Western military observers often emphasise that during the October 1973 War it was the Soviet air bridge to Syria that emboldened U.S. President Nixon to order a similar resupply effort for Israel. Official U.S. documentation indicates an entirely different flow of events. Accordingly, during 12 and 13 October Israel began reporting to Washington that its stocks of ammunition were dangerously low. Although unsure if such reports were correct, Nixon and Kissinger were concerned. They granted permission for transport aircraft of the Israeli national airline El Al to pick up consigments of arms and ammunition from military bases in the Continental U.S. as early as 9 October, and the first Boeing 707 loaded with the latest AIM-9G Sidewinder air-to-air missiles took off from Naval Air Station Norfolk, Virginia, the same day (the IDF/AF claimed its first kills scored with AIM-9Gs on 10 October).

However, as explained by Tom Cooper & David Nicolle, with Albert Grandolini, Lon Nordeen & Martin Smisek in their book Arab MiGs, Volume 6, Israeli fleet of transport aircraft was insufficient for the task on hand. Although more Boeing 707s and 747s arrived in the U.S. on 11 October, during the subsequent weeks they only managed to deliver about 5,000 tons of spare parts and ammunition (the latter primarily AGM-45 Shrike ARMs and LAU-3 launchers for unguided rockets of 70mm/2.75in calibre). Furthermore, attempts by Nixon and Kissinger to recruit different civilian U.S. airlines for this purpose failed: all of these refused to fly their aircraft into a ‘war zone’. Running out of solutions, on 13 October, Nixon ordered a full-scale military effort. Kissinger explained this strategy to his own staff, in very frank words:

`Having failed to win Egyptian support for a ceasefire resolution at the United Nations, it is necessary to prolong the fighting to create a situation in which [the Arabs] would have to ask for a ceasefire rather than we.’

Codenamed Operation Nickel Grass, this enterprise was run by the USAF’s Military Airlift Command (MAC). Starting on 14 October, the MAC began deploying Lockheed C-5A Galaxy and C-141 StarLifter transports to haul arms and ammunition to Israel. Nickel Grass included deployment of US military personnel to Lod IAP in Israel too: these were required to help expedite the unloading operations. Also on 14 October, the USAF delivered 10 of its F-4Es based in Europe to Israel, while McDonnell Douglas rushed two brand-new F-4Es from an earlier Israeli order to Hatzor air base.

This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. C-5M Super Galaxy 60th Air Mobility Wing, 349th Air Mobility Wing, 22nd Airlift Squadron, 07-0042 – Travis AFB, CA

With this operation having received much public attention ever since, it is sufficient to say that U.S. military transport aircraft – much larger than those deployed by other belligerents in this conflict – delivered no fewer than 22,345 tons of freight in the course of 556 sorties flown by 24 October. Their cargos included 72 ‘large loads’ – among them ‘only’ four M60 MBTs (another 25 M60s and M48A3s were to follow in the same fashion by the end of the month), but foremost:

• 36 brand-new M109 and seven M107 self-propelled howitzers and their ammunition;

• complete equipment for three battalions of MIM-23 HAWK SAMs;

• 12 MIM-72A Chaparral SAM systems, and plenty of assorted ammunition.

Perhaps more importantly – at least from the standpoint of the IDF/AF – USAF combat units in Europe were ordered to hand over to Israel 37 of their F-4Es (the first eight arrived on 14 October), while the US Navy and US Marine Corps provided 46 A-4Es and A-4Fs (the first arrived on 17 October, and 30 examples were in Israel by 24 October).Additionally, McDonnell Douglas rushed six newly built F-4Es to Israel during the war. Despite losses, the number of available Phantoms thus increased from 85 on 12 October to nearly 100 within a week.

As well as delivering combat aircraft and ammunition, Washington provided Israel with 12 Lockheed C-130E Hercules transports (the first example arrived on 14 October), and 40 different UAVs. Finally, nearly 200 additional M60 and M48A3 MBTs, 250 M113 APCs, 226 other vehicles, eight CH-53D helicopters, extensive stocks of ammunition for tanks and artillery, CBUs, GP bombs, ECM and communication systems and other items were delivered by sea.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

Artwork courtesy of

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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