Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The CIA’s assessment of the Yom Kippur War

The State of Israel and its Arab neighbors have fought regular wars several times, specifically in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973. The 1973 conflict was called the Yom Kippur War and although it opened with a series of Arab victories in the end the Israelis managed to contain their opponents and then defeat them by counterattacking with their mobile forces.

Prior to the 1973 War the Israeli armed forces were thought to be greatly superior to the Arabs both in training and equipment. The Israeli victories in the previous wars meant that their leadership tended to underestimate the Arab soldier. This led to a false sense of superiority and the belief that the Arab states would not risk going to war against Israel since they would surely lose. Unfortunately for the Israelis the Arabs were prepared to go to war to achieve their political objectives. The Yom Kippur War caught the Israelis by surprise and the Arab armies were able to win victories in the Sinai and the Golan Heights. However Israeli superiority in training and leadership, coupled with the dispatch of reinforcements led to the defeat of the Arabs. This was a costly victory and it led both sides to engage in peace talks that culminated in the 1978 Camp David Accords.
The Yom Kippur War was of great interest to military observers since both sides used modern equipment and tactics. Israel had equipment used by NATO countries and the Arabs were equipped with Soviet weapons. If the Cold War turned hot these same weapon systems were going to be used in a future conflict in Europe between NATO and the Soviet Union. For this reason the US intelligence agencies carefully evaluated the weapons and tactics of both the Arabs and Israelis. The CIA report ‘The 1973 Arab-Israeli War: Overview and Analysis of the Conflict’ contains the lessons learned from this conflict.

The report is dated September 1975 and says:
This study examines the military operations of Egypt, Syria, and Israel during the 1973 Middle East war with a view to providing some indications of future force developments in the area. Key findings:

Strategy. The Arabs had different goals and, consequently, different strategies. The Syrians wanted to liberate the Golan Heights and attempted to do so in one stroke. The Egyptians' main goal was to achieve a political effect, and they therefore planned for a limited offensive. The Israelis, because of overconfidence and because they failed to recognize that their occupation of the Suez Canal's east bank deprived them of advance warning of an Egyptian attack, did not react to mounting evidence of Arab intentions.
Performance of Troops. The Arabs were tough on defense but ill trained and poorly led on offense. The Israelis showed a depth of training and flexibility that enabled small units to withstand the initial shock of the Arab attack without breaking, and to recover quickly.

Antitank Weaponry. The most effective tank killer in this war was the tank - 90 percent of the Arab tanks and at least 75 percent of the Israeli tanks destroyed during the war were hit by enemy tanks. Antitank missiles such as the Sagger, RPG-7, LAW, and TOW could be countered by appropriate tactics, although they represented a new and dangerous presence on the battlefield.
Air Defense. The Arab air defenses prevented the Israeli Air Force from damaging Arab ground forces on anything like the scale seen in 1967. They achieved their primary aim by disrupting Israeli attacks rather than by shooting down or damaging Israeli aircraft. Israeli loss rates were actually lower than they were in 1967, when the Arabs had only rudimentary air defense systems. The Syrians destroyed or damaged Israeli aircraft at a rate two to three times greater than the Egyptians because the tactical situation on the Golan front forced the Israelis to accept greater risks.

Mobilization. The Israeli mobilization was untidy and revealed many flaws and shortages. The situation was saved by the training of the troops and by standardized procedures that allowed crews to be scrambled without degrading performance. Despite the problems, the Israelis delivered more combat power to the front line in less time than the plans called for.
Naval Operations. Israel's talent for tailoring its strengths to Arab weaknesses was especially evident in naval operations during the 1973 conflict. The Israeli navy's excellent performance was a sharp contrast to the prewar complacency and overconfidence displayed by the ground and air forces.

The report is thorough and it covers the political goals and military strategies of Israel, Egypt and Syria, the major battles and the performance of the main weapons systems. The parts I found particularly interesting were those dealing with the performance of the new Soviet anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons and the comparison of Israeli quality versus Arab quantity.
Soviet hand held anti-tank systems versus Israeli armor

In the previous Arab-Israeli conflicts the superior performance of the Israeli tank corps was one of the main reasons for the swift defeat of the Arab forces. Israeli tankers were so confident in their ability to deal with enemy forces that they usually operated without proper support from infantry and artillery units.
The Arab militaries tried to counter the Israeli advantage in tank warfare by equipping their infantry with Soviet hand held anti-tank weapons. In the 1970’s the introduction of new systems such as the AT-3 Sagger threatened the superiority of the main battle tank. Military analysts were skeptical of whether tanks could survive in the modern battlefield against an opponent equipped with large numbers of these weapons.

In the opening stages of the Yom Kippur War the Sagger missile was able to live up to its reputation by destroying or damaging a large number of Israeli tanks.
Israeli tank losses in the first 24 hours of the war are hard to establish. The Israelis began the war with 250 tanks in the Sinai. Within 24 hours, 150 to 160 of these were out of action, although many were repaired and returned to service within periods of several hours to several days. Some units were almost wiped out. The brigade in the Al Qantarah sector was reduced from 50 tanks to 11 by early morning of 7 October. The major cause of these losses probably was the Egyptian antitank missiles employed from ambush by troops who crossed early and moved five, to ten kilometers inland from the canal. Also effective were antitank missiles fired from the mounds the Egyptians had built along the west bank (see illustration on page 17). These mounds provided Egyptian Sagger and tank crews with a broad field of fire extending into the east bank area. Antitank missiles were the primary cause of Israeli losses in the first two or three days of the war. The Israelis' use of unsupported tanks made them vulnerable to Egyptian infantrymen armed with portable antitank weapons. The Israelis had simply failed to recognize that antitank missiles would require them to change their tank tactics.

However after the initial shock the Israelis changed their tactics and were able to deal effectively with the Sagger.
The Israelis realized quickly that events had made their tactics obsolete, and they adopted new ones designed to overcome the Sagger antitank missile. One tactic was to designate one tank in each formation to watch for the launch of these missiles and to warn the others. Often this would give them time to take cover. The Israelis also found that, if they fired at the point of launch, they could distract the missile controller and cause the missile to go astray, because the Sagger is wire guided and has to be controlled until it hits its target. Another technique was to fire at places likely to conceal missile launchers, but this wasted ammunition. In the end, the Israelis rediscovered that the best all-around results came from using a coordinated tank infantry-team: the infantry defended the tanks against missile-carrying enemy infantrymen, while the tanks defended the Israeli infantrymen against enemy tanks and provided fire support.

Although the long range A/T missile was a dangerous weapon it did not render the main battle tank obsolete.
In accounts immediately after the war, however, the effect of the antitank missiles was exaggerated. Detailed information now available indicates that in the whole war the Israelis lost approximately 500 tanks; among them 119 disabled units………. at least 6 percent but no more than 25 percent, were killed by Saggers.

Soviet air-defense systems versus the IAF
In the war of 1967 the Israeli Airforce played a key role in the Israeli victory by destroying the Arab airforces and by relentlessly attacking Arab units on the ground. In 1973 the Arabs made a huge effort to counter the IAF through the use of the most modern Soviet air-defense systems. Apart from the stationary SA-2 and SA-3 missile systems the new mobile SA-6 ‘Gainful’ was introduced.

The report says: ‘The Arabs were so impressed that they concluded the IAF alone had caused their humiliating defeat in 1967. Hence, they believed, if they could but find the means to neutralize the IAF, Arab ground forces with some expansion and further training could deal with Israeli ground forces on acceptable terms’.

The entire pattern of Arab training, equipment acquisitions, and deployments between 1967 and 1973 can be seen as the gradual implementation of a plan to overcome the two major assets of the Israeli armed forces--tactical air and armor. This plan was based on lessons the Arabs learned from the 1967 war, and the main lesson learned was that the IAF had to be stopped
Both Syria and Egypt invested heavily in a multilayered A/A system.

Diversity is an important feature of the air defense systems built in Egypt and Syria. The Arabs had weapons designed to provide overlapping coverage to altitudes over 60,000 feet (SA-2). This meant there was no airspace over the battlefield within which the IAF could operate free of threat

During the Yom Kippur War their air defense systems were not able to inflict heavy losses on the IAF, however they were able to degrade its performance by forcing Israeli pilots to limit their loiter time over the battlefield. This means that IAF bombing missions were not as effective as they could have been due to the threat posed by Soviet A/A missile systems.
In this and the following section the Egyptian and Syrian air defense systems are examined from two points of view--first, in the usual way, by counting the number of aircraft they shot down; second, in a much more general way, according to the amount of damage the systems were able to prevent the IAF from inflicting on the Arab ground forces. The first measure concentrates on the attrition factor while the second attempts to reflect the degradation in effectiveness a heavy air defense environment may cause in an attacking air force


In terms of aircraft shot down, the performance of the Egyptian air defense system in October 1973 was dismal. Despite its enormous increase in size, despite its advance warning, despite its increased sophistication, and despite the fact that the IAF did not attack it in force for the first several days, the Egyptian defenders were barely able to match the performance of their 1967 predecessors
On the other hand, aircraft shot down--in either absolute numbers or percentages--may not be the best or most instructive measure of the performance of the Egyptians. The effectiveness of air defense could also be measured by the extent of damage a hostile air force is prevented from inflicting on the force the system is protecting. There is little direct information, but it seems clear that in preventing damage the 1973 Egyptian air defense system attained considerable success. Evidence includes the continued functioning of the bridges and changes in tactics and weapons that resulted in less accurate and effective Israeli air support

The Israelis found that if they stayed above 10,000 feet they could cope with the Egyptian air defense weapons. At that height they were above the effective range of AAA, their ECM and tactics against the SA-2 and SA-3 were effective enough to make the risks of operating at that altitude acceptable, and their pilots had sufficient warning of an SA-6 launch to take evasive action. However, the combination of altitude and evasive maneuvering severely degraded the accuracy of IAF weapons delivery
The Israelis lost the same number of aircraft (51) on each front, but the loss rate on the Syrian front was three times as high as on the Egyptian front, primarily because the situation facing Israeli ground forces on the Golan forced the IAF to take greater risks there…………………………….Two factors, however, do seem to have been very different on the Golan front and could account for the higher losses. First, the battlefield area defended by the Syrian SAM system was smaller—about 1,800 square nautical miles, as compared with 3,700 sq nm for the Egyptian system. Second, and more important, the tactical situation in the ground campaign was very different. Initially, the Syrians pushed harder and deeper into Israeli-occupied territory than Egypt did, and the Syrian attack was much closer to Israeli population centers. The Israeli command, therefore, decided it had to give priority to defeating the Syrians while the Egyptians were only to be contained until forces could be freed from the Golan front to deal with them. Air power was a major element in this strategy, and the role the IAF had to play forced it to accept greater casualties

Quantity versus quality

An important aspect of war has always been the question of quantity versus quality. History shows that small military forces can defeat much larger ones if they are superior in training, weapons and leadership. On the other hand it has been said that ‘quantity has a quality of its own’.
In general Western societies have invested in quality and thus given emphasis to training, doctrine, leadership and initiative. On the other hand Eastern societies have tried to maximize the size of their armed forces without paying too much attention to the quality of the weapons, the training of their soldiers or the leadership capabilities of their officer corps.

In the Middle East the Israelis have had to fight against Arab countries that had a much larger population. This means that the only way to win was to maximize the potential of the small Israeli Army by making sure it was well trained, equipped with quality weapons and capable of taking the initiative against the larger (but slower to respond) Arab armies.
In the Yom Kippur War Israeli quality triumphed over Arab quantity.

Both Egypt and Syria had apparently devoted considerable effort to planning and training for the initial stages of their attacks. After the opening phases of the war, however, both Arab armies exhibited the defects of command, control, training and maintenance which US intelligence had estimated were present. In the final analysis, the Egyptian and Syrian armies showed they could be trained to win a battle but had yet to master the skills needed to win a war against the Israelis.
The greatest weakness of the Arab armies has always been the officer corps. Through the 1967 war, this flaw could be largely ascribed to class differences, deficient education and a consequent set of attitudes on the part of officers which denigrated the ordinary soldier………………. One of the major strengths of the Israeli Army, in contrast, has been the close relationship between men and officers—a relationship so close that, in the eyes of some foreign observers, it borders on the insubordinate. During the period between 1967 and 1973, both Egypt and Syria took steps to eliminate the worst officers of the old pattern and to recruit and keep younger, better educated officers and NCOs whose competence and more open attitudes enabled them to be more effective leaders…………………. Still, certain weaknesses of the Arab officer corps were evident in 1973. This was especially so after the carefully planned and rehearsed opening phases of the war ended. On both fronts, plans were rigidly adhered to long after it was clear that they were no longer profitable.

The greatest mistake of the Arab armies in 1973, as in 1967, was their failure to train their troops adequately. The soldiers themselves seemed willing enough to do what they had been trained for, but often their training was rigid or poor.’
'The Israeli Army once again showed that its superiority over the Arab armies was greatest in the quality of the training and initiative of the lower ranks--individual soldiers, NCOs, and platoon- and company-grade officers. In the first days of the war it was the tenacity and adaptability of small units and their immediate leaders that enabled the Israelis to stabilize the front and go over to the offensive so quickly. This was especially evident on the Golan, where Israeli forces, though outnumbered five or six to one in almost every category of equipment, were able to stop the Syrian advance within 24 hours and eliminate it within 72 hours.

Note: The Israelis evaluated the performance of Western and Soviet tanks in the 1973 war. I’ve given an overview of their assessments in Recurring problems of Soviet tank design.

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