Tomorrow is the Fortieth Anniversary of the beginning of the “Fourth Arab-Israeli War”, known for its auspicious holiday beginning as the Yom Kippur War, or Ramadan War.
In the weeks leading up to the war, Egypt’s President Sadat had made overtures of warmer relations with the United States, to include the expulsion of nearly 22,000 Soviet “advisors”. In addition, Egyptian military commanders carefully hid preparations for the offensive from Israeli observation. Israel had made a planning assumption that any future conflict with Egypt would give the IDF 24-48 hours of warning, time to mobilize reserves and reposition forces for effective defense and counterattack. As it happened, Israel would get fewer than 12 hours’ warning, and this through espionage/diplomatic channels, in the early morning hours of 6 October 1973.
The Egyptian forces began to move against the east bank of the Suez canal at 1400 on the same day. Breaching the sand wall with fire hoses, the lead elements of the Egyptian forces established bridgeheads within a few hours. This was Operation Badr, which would last for the first five days of the war. Operation Badr is worth reading about in detail, as the use of integrated fire support and anti-mechanized capabilities by the Egyptian Army nearly spelled disaster for Israel.
Initially, the Bar Lev line, the western Israeli defenses of the Suez Canal, was lightly held by fewer than a thousand IDF soldiers and a handful of tanks, supported by a few 105mm, 155mm, and 175mm artillery batteries, and two forward airfields. The opening preparation fires, a combination of direct fire, massed 152 and 130mm artillery, and ground attack fixed-wing air support, was brilliantly executed. The Israeli airfields were put out of action, and the artillery batteries neutralized. In addition, several air search and ground radars were destroyed, blinding the IDF to the movements of Egyptian ground and air units. The Egyptians had also studied their foe, and had rightly guessed that the IDF would react with powerful air interdiction and armored counterattacks.
In the preceding years, Egypt had invested heavily in air defense and anti-armor capabilities for the Army, increasing its air defense forces fourfold since 1967. Now, that investment would pay massive dividends. With a brilliantly-executed combined arms strike that had neutralized Israeli artillery and air defense systems, the Egyptian Second and Third Armies were able to move the SA-2, SA-3, and SA-6 missile systems forward to establish a layered air defense system over their forward ground units. It was this integrated air defense which took a frightful toll of the Israeli Air Force, especially in the beginning days of the war.
On the ground, Egyptian tank killer teams roamed about setting ambushes for Israeli armor, employing AT-3 Sagger man-portable antitank missiles, where those teams destroyed more than 300 Israeli tanks and armored vehicles. The IAF strikes and IDF armored counterattacks, staples of Israeli doctrine to defeat their Egyptian enemies, could only be executed at considerable risk and with expectations of heavy losses.
By 10 October, with losses far higher than their opponents, Israel was forced entirely to the defensive in the Sinai. In the Golan Heights, a strike on 7 October by three Syrian armored brigades, supported by an Iraqi brigade, required a diversion of forces to counter the new threat. In the Golan, Israeli fortunes were better. Despite being badly outnumbered by the Syrian forces, and the bravery and skill exhibited by the Syrians, Israeli armored and mechanized units held, and in the Valley of Tears, all but destroyed Syrian offensive capability. A great little book was written about the Golan fighting by the Commander of the 77th Battalion of the 7th Armored Brigade, LtCol Avigdor Kahalani. The Heights of Courage should be a read for all company and field grade officers.
A cease-fire was brokered on October 25th, 1973. In the end, Israeli forces pushed the Egyptians back across most of the Sinai, and inflicted heavy losses. But the IDF was only able to do so because of a massive influx of US aid, including mothballed F-4 Phantom fighters from Davis-Monthan AFB, M-48 and M-60 tanks, and great quantities of munitions and logistical support.
Israel lost almost 3,000 killed and 11,000 wounded and captured in the 19 days of the Yom Kippur War. The IDF had been ill-prepared for the Egyptian attack, both in its dispositions and its warfighting doctrine. Since 1967, Israel had invested disproportionately in its vaunted Air Force and elite armored units, and had neglected infantry and artillery capabilities. Israel had also committed the grave mistake of leaving planning assumptions about enemy capabilities and intent unquestioned, a mistake they would never make again.
The aftermath of the Yom Kippur War has been profound. Egypt, once Israel’s most grave threat, reached a peace treaty in 1978, with Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin signing the Camp David Accords. Egypt, with a brief pause for a Muslim Brotherhood-led government, has remained on relatively good terms with Israel, and has (with a current brief pause AFTER the overthrow of the MB by the Egyptian Army) maintained a close relationship with the United States. Operation Badr, significantly, represented the first Arab victory over Israeli forces on any scale since Israel’s founding in 1948. It represents also the birth of the modern Egyptian Army, which remains a capable and well-equipped force, especially in comparison to its Middle Eastern neighbors.
Just six years removed from the swift and devastating victories of the 1967 Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War was a profound shock to Israel. Nobody will ever know for sure how close Israel came to being destroyed, or whether Golda Meir would have been willing to use the nuclear weapons in her possession to prevent that destruction. We never had to find out, thankfully. But it all began in earnest forty years ago tomorrow.
Update-XBradTC: URR writes: Israel had also committed the grave mistake of leaving planning assumptions about enemy capabilities and intent unquestioned, a mistake they would never make again.
I’d argue that is incorrect. Israel badly misunderstood Hezbollah’s capabilities and tactics in the 2006 war. Israel’s incursion into Lebanon was not nearly as successful as hoped, and casualties were far higher than anticipated. The Israeli Army had planned and equipped and trained for a war of maneuver against an armored force, and found itself in an urban fight against a dug in irregular force in urban areas.
As a historical matter, the Yom Kippur War had enormous impact on US Army doctrine. I highly recommend to my readers King of the Killing Zone, the story of the development of the M1 Abrams tank, which also has an outstanding thumbnail sketch of the development of the Army’s AirLand Battle Doctrine. Our Army intensely studied the 1973 war, sifting for lessons learned on how to fight against a larger enemy, especially when strategically surprised. One of the real surprises the operational analysis of this and several other wars was that the smaller army in a war more often than not wins. The question became, “Why?” The answer was agility. Far more than the mere physical agility, the ability to move forces, smaller forces often have the mental agility to operate faster. AirLand Battle doctrine’s focus on operational agility predated, and foreshadowed, Boyd’s OODA Loop theory.
I almost included a blurb about the 2006 Lebanon incursion. Hezbollah tactics may have surprised the senior Israeli leadership, but did not surprise ground commanders. I had the privilege of an extended conversation with Israeli BG Shimon Neveh, whose study of the 2006 fighting is absolutely superb. His take was one that should ring familiar. This from an interview with Matt Matthews:
Now, the other idea was to really assault by about 90 company-sized columns from all directions. Some elements airborne, some coming from the sea and others infiltrating almost without armor. The idea was to move in small teams and identify, feed the intelligence
circles, exploit our advantage in the air in remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs), unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), fixed-wing and helicopters. When we introduced this idea, after certain experiments in CENTCOM in 2003, I remember it was a special meeting of the General Staff, presided by Chief Ya’alon, and I didn’t say much then because the whole idea to develop was presented by the Northern Command (NORTHCOM) commander at that time, Beni Ganz, who was against it then – and of course he was against it now. So when Gal Hirsch tells him to mobilize, let’s review the plans and see what our options are because we’ve been running out of time, he totally brushed this aside. “Halutz, we don’t need that. It’s a waste of time.”
BG Neveh believed strongly that the IDF operational commanders knew what awaited them, and the reasons for the “asymmetry” were political rather than doctrinal. Including, as he told me with no little disdain, the idea of using military force to prompt a political decision rather than for the destruction of the enemy.