The Battle of Latakia

My debut novel, The Latakia Intercept, takes place in the days leading up to and including the start of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. A naval engagement, the Battle of Latakia, is the signature event of the story.

The Battle of Latakia was a small clash involving small ships, but it was historic nevertheless. It was the first naval battle fought with missiles and is as historic as the Battle of the Coral Sea, the first carrier-versus-carrier battle. The naval engagement involved an exchange of anti-ship surface to surface missiles that homed in on enemy vessels with on-board radar. It was also one of the first in which electronic warfare played a principal role.

On October 6, the first night of the Yom Kippur War, a flotilla of five Israeli missile boats left the port of Haifa and sailed north, towards Latakia, the principal Syrian naval base. The boats were armed with the Israeli built Gabriel missile. The range of the Gabriel, which had not been used in a battle, was half of the effective range of comparable Syrian missiles.


At 23:30 hours, three targets appeared on the Israeli radar screens. Three Syrian missile boats, one Osa and two Komars. The Syrians boats were armed with P-15 Termit (NATO SS-N-2 Styx) missiles, a weapon that had been used against the Israeli destroyer Eilat, by the Egyptians, six years earlier. The Styx had twice the range of the Israeli Gabriel, and a much larger warhead.

The Syrians fired missiles at a range of 45 kilometers, 25 kilometers beyond the range of the Israeli Gabriel missiles. As the Styx missiles drew closer, the Israelis employed a series of electronic counter measures that had never been used in combat. They fired chaff rockets, which produced clouds of aluminum chaff that presented false images to the Styx radar. Electronic jamming systems sent out false radar signals to confuse the guidance systems on the approaching missiles. All missiles fired by the Syrians missed their targets and crashed into the sea.

The Israeli boats attacked at full speed. Once in range, they fired a salvo of Gabriel missiles. All three Syrian boats were hit, two sunk immediately. The third ship tried to escape towards the coast and ran aground in shallow waters. The Israeli boats attacked with cannon fire, leaving the Komar in flames.

The following is an excerpt from The Latakia Intercept. Ross Brannan is flying an intercept mission in an Army RU-8D, the military version of the Beechcraft Twin Bonanza.

Cape Greco loomed in the starlight off to our left. We had flown 400 miles with little results, too far for our jury-rigged antenna system to pick up any interesting signals. Flying next to an active war zone, I feared an interesting signal would be the one that shot us down.

At 2225, concerned about a Syrian MiG, I switched the spectrum analyzer to the I-band warning receiver.

Three minutes later, a green luminous blip appeared on the cathode ray tube, an observable representation of invisible electrons radiating from an antenna in circular scan search mode. A Square Tie, the NATO designator for the Soviet MR-331 Rangout search and fire control system, a predator seeking prey. A three-centimeter I-Band radar associated with Syrian Osa or Komar class fast attack missile boats. I had never encountered one live but did listen to a signal on tape at Ft. Meade.

I checked to make sure the recorder was on. The VU meter showed a steady signal level. The tape had been running since the first early warning radar came on line.

The lone Square Tie scanned the horizon presumably searching for Israeli naval targets. I listened, waiting for the signal to change to a steady scan, indicating a switch to tracking mode. No other signals came into view, Israeli or otherwise.

The navigation chart placed our location west of Latakia, the Syrian naval base located between the Turkish and Lebanese borders, well to the north of Israel. The Syrians appeared to be on a normal defensive patrol.

A change in audio made the hair on the back of my neck stand-up. A bright green pulse quivered on the console's panoramic display. In a split second, the Square Tie switched to a steady scan, transitioning from a low PRF (Pulse Repetition Frequency) search mode to a high PRF tracking mode. Something was about to happen, the radar locked on a target. I anxiously awaited the appearance of a missile-tracking signal.

Tension tightened my grip on the console knobs. Still, no sign of a target, the only active signal emanated from a single Syrian boat. A minute later, multiple signals popped up on the scope, all Square Tie's in search mode. Ten seconds later, the radars switched to tracking mode. The predator detected prey and closed in for the kill.

An unmistakable sound resonated through my headphones: a conical scan, the active radar of a Styx missile in flight. The attack boats routinely carried four Soviet supplied Styx P-15M anti-ship missiles that become electronically active six nautical miles from impact. The Syrians pounced, missiles on the way, but the target kept a negative electronic profile. I still had no sign of their final objective.

Without warning, the guidance signals distorted. The panoramic display flooded with multiple pulses, a sign the target fired chaff rockets and activated electronic countermeasures Seconds later, well past the time when impact should have occurred, the signals vanished. The Styx guidance systems were overwhelmed, unable to lock on a target.

Undeterred, the Syrians started a second sequence. Missiles fired, Styx guidance systems activated, followed by chaff and countermeasures from the target. The missiles fell into the sea with the same results. The radars returned to search mode; the attack boats failed to destroy their targets. Now, with the Syrians out of missiles, the hunter had no claws.

A new set of unfamiliar signals became active, had to be emanating from Israeli Reshef class missile boats. The Israelis had relied exclusively on passive ESM (Electronic Surveillance Measures) for target acquisition and drawn the Syrians into a trap. The hunters were about to pay the price.

A few minutes later, the Israeli's fired a salvo. I monitored the missile's semi-active radar seekers until the signals stopped. The Israeli boats went quiet. No Syrian signals, the silence of the dead.

If you like intrigue, suspense, exotic locations, and page turning thrills, I hope you will enjoy reading this story that reveals the silent conflict waged in the shadows.

Personal Note: In 1974, I saw a Yugoslav Navy Osa class boat at a dock on the Adriatic coast.