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Fighting for Advantage: Joint Asymmetries in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War

Introduction

The history of warfare can be defined as an ever-evolving contest to achieve asymmetric advantages in order to avoid the twin perils of attrition and exhaustion. While the modern era saw combined arms modernization in the Napoleonic Wars, Prussian Wars, and the First World War, it was the Second World War that catalyzed an explosion of interplay between emergent air services, industrial navies, and mechanized armies that fully revolutionized tactics and strategy. Defined as the “synergy created by the integration and synchronization of military operations in time, space, and purpose” by US joint doctrine, this requirement to achieve operational offsets through creative cooperation between air, ground, naval, informational, and now cyber and space-based, forces has since become essential for success in contemporary armed conflict.1 

The 1973 Arab-Israeli War, which stunned the world with its sudden vacillations and devastating attrition, provides a ready example of how militaries can succeed, and fail, according to their ability to cultivate asymmetric advantage through joint integration. While the Israeli Defense Forces initially suffered massive setbacks when their Arab adversaries employed advanced anti-air and anti-armor defenses to disaggregate their once dominant air-ground approach, they subsequently managed to devise novel combinations of joint cooperation that ultimately dis-integrated the Egyptian and Syrian defenses and led to ambitious counter-offensives. The critical re-aggregation of joint capabilities, which came at a heavy cost, proved instrumental in enabling the IDF to restore operational maneuver and ultimately end the war on favorable terms.2

 This illustration of the value of the asymmetric offsets resulting from the interplay of disparate forces from separate domains—each with discreet strengths and vulnerabilities like pieces on a chess board—remains as relevant in the 21st century as it was on the battlefields of the Sinai and Golan Heights in 1973. As seen in the Nagorno-Karabakh War of 2020, the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and the Ukrainian counter-offensive of 2023 where attacking forces struggled to execute operational maneuver, the requirement for ground, aerial, and naval forces to create systemic advantages and fatal vulnerabilities remains essential for campaign success.3For the US military, the mandate is clear: its forces must arrive with cascading asymmetries that prevent attritional stagnation, or suffer the fate of previous militaries that attacked without them.

Israeli Joint Failures

The Yom Kippur War exploded in October of 1973 across a fractured Middle East where the IDF had dominated its Arab opponents across a series of bitter conflicts. In the Six Day War in 1967, in particular, the Israelis employed attack aircraft with fast-moving armor to shatter Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian positions and achieve decisive victories in the Sinai, Golan Heights, and West Bank. Reminiscent of German blitzkrieg in 1939 and 1940, the Jewish air and ground forces created cascading dilemmas and fatal disadvantages for the Arab militaries that left them, with few exceptions, paralyzed and defeated on all fronts.4 This display of joint maneuver, which cemented the IDF’s faith in the primacy of fighter-bombers and heavy tanks, resulted in neglect of infantry, artillery, air defense and other capabilities that would prove costly in the next war. 

The victors of 1967 would soon pay a heavy price for this overconfidence. On October 6, 1973, the Egyptian and Syrian militaries launched twin offensives to reclaim dignity and territory. In the north, along the Golan Heights, the Syrian Army attacked with more than 1,200 tanks and 2,000 guns to nearly overwhelm the stunned IDF defenders. In the south, along the Suez Canal, the Egyptians crossed with five infantry divisions and 500 tanks to seize the western embankment and overwhelm the line of Israeli forts.5 Then, when the IDF’s rapid response aircraft and armor counter-attacked, the Arab forces employed a panoply of Soviet-provided SAMS and ADA to wreak havoc on the Israeli fighter-bombers in the skies and entrenched Saggar missiles and RPG7s to shatter entire formations of Israeli tanks in the Sinai desert.6  

Over the next two days the Jewish state desperately mobilized for war on divergent fronts. While the counter-offensive at the Golan Hights—initially a desperate affair—would soon emerge successful, the sequenced IDF assault in the Sinai would prove disastrous in the absence of concerted air-ground integration. Bereft of assumed asymmetric advantages, the Israeli Army would lose approximately 500 tanks and 50 aircraft in this first week of fighting as they attacked in largely unsupported efforts against the Egyptian missile defense.7 Reeling from defeat and fearing an untenable war of attrition, the Israelis were only saved by a foolhardy offensive by the Egyptian Army on October 14th, deeper into the Sinai, where the attackers lost 260 main battle tanks after leaving the coverage of their anti-air and anti-armor defenses along the Suez Canal.8 

These events in October 1973 revealed in stark reality the perils of attacking a peer adversary with symmetrical and dis-integrated approaches. While the Israelis had paid a previously unthinkable price for over-investing in a fragile joint scheme that relied upon “blitzkrieg” maneuver through air superiority and armored overmatch, the Egyptian Army, on the order of its president over the protests of his generals, had attacked head-long into a combined arms defense without adequate battlefield preparation or meaningful offsets. For both sides, and also for the Syrians in the north, the inability to leverage joint asymmetries to create conditions for decisive fire and maneuver had resulted in disasters. As the war moved into its third week, one thing had become clear to the Israelis: they would have to devise a way to restore an effective joint approach, or suffer an attritional defeat on enemy terms.9 

Israeli forces in the Sinai 1973 asymmetric advantages
Israeli forces in the Sinai Desert 1973 (Wikimedia Commons)

Restoring Asymmetric Advantage

The IDF’s solution to the Egyptian problem emerged in the form of an ambitious, if high risk, counter-offensive at the center of the Suez Canal. The Israeli Southern Command, now recovered from early disasters and encouraged by recent success, devised a plan that required one armored division to penetrate and cross the canal, and then two more to pass through to the other side, maneuver south along the western shore of the canal, and finally isolate the Egyptians forces entrenched on the opposite side of the water barrier from their strategic support zones.10 Recognizing the urgent requirement to re-engage the Israeli Air Force to enable the breakout, the scheme required IDF ground forces to attack the Egyptian air defense batteries and open, as now called by US Army doctrine, a “window of opportunity” for attack aircraft to intervene and exploit vulnerabilities.11 

The Southern Command commenced the great gamble on the night of October 15 with a major assault at north of the Bitter Lake along the canal defense that comprised a complicated sequence of feints, attacks, and bridge convoys along the access route that, against all odds, resulted in a precarious lodgment on the far embankment. Though the IDF would encounter numerous challenges with moving bridges, fighting off unanticipated Egyptian threats, and disagreement between senior commanders, the advance force of 20 tanks that made it to the far embankment on motorized ferries executed among the most critical actions of the war: the destruction of the cluster of SAMS batteries at the center of the Egyptian defensive line. This fatal asymmetry, crystalized by the specter of main battle tanks firing on nearly defenseless missile batteries, then opened vectors for the IAF to begin providing close air support and deeper interdiction into Egypt.12

With the crossing underway, even as they endured tremendous artillery fire against the bridges, IDF forces first defeated a hasty Egyptian armored counter attack the east bank on October 17 and then moved a second and third division across the canal to begin the breakout in Africa over the next two days. Concurrently, Israeli aircraft had begun destroying SAMS further out, causing Cairo to launch its entire air force to counter the sudden threat. Over the next week, as IDF ground forces maneuvered both south and north to isolate the 2nd and 3rd Egyptian armies, the IAF interdicted counter-attacks, destroyed bridges, bombed strong points, and attained air superiority in the skies. Concurrently, IDF ground forces iteratively cleared SAMS along the canal to provide ever-increasing freedom of maneuver for their partners in the skies above.13 

This newfound joint integration in the Sinia theater complimented an Israeli naval campaign that, unlike the disasters in the air and ground fights, had proven astonishingly successful at the onset of the war. On October 6 the small IDF missile boat fleet destroyed the small Syrian Navy at the Battle of Latakia, and then followed with a victorious assault on the larger Egyptian Navy at the Battle of Baltim two days later. Unfolding as the first engagement in history where both sides wielded ship-to-ship missile and electronic countermeasures, the rapid sequence enabled Israeli sea control along the Mediterranean Coast and allowed naval strikes against coastal SAMS batteries. To the south, in the Red Sea, IDF naval forces likewise defeated a significant Egyptian amphibious counter-attack that resulted, when combined with losses in the Mediterranean, the destruction of 35 Arab warships and the capture of four others during the conflict.14

This success in combining efforts across air, ground, and maritime domains resulted in a restoration of an Israeli joint approach that would prove vital to enabling decisive ground maneuver in the Egyptian rear areas. By constructing asymmetric advantages that enabled both ground, aerial, and naval forces to array capabilities against enemy vulnerabilities, the IDF achieved the utter destruction of its enemy’s capacity to contest the air and maritime domains while reducing or isolating most of the Egyptian forces stranded along the eastern bank due to the bombing of their tactical bridges. Critically, they accomplished this without drawing on forces on the Golan front where the IDF’s Northern Command had invaded Syria proper and defeated a major Iraqi and Jordanian armored counter-offensive. On October 28, with the IDF now holding the strategic advantage, Israel and Egypt agreed to a final cease-fire that would ultimately lead to a permanent peace with the Camp David Accords.15 

Egyptian forces cross the Suez Canal asymmetric advantages
Egyptian forces cross the Suez Canal (Wikimedia Commons)

Insights for 21st Century Warfare

The October War shocked the world due to its ferocity and intensity as both the Jewish State and the Arab coalition endured severe attrition due to the horrors of symmetrical destruction.16 While the IDF initially suffered traumatic losses when they found themselves unable to create the joint integration that had previously yielded success in the Six Day War, the Egyptians and Syrians likewise came to disaster when they launched unsupported armored offensives beyond their protective anti-air and anti-armor shields. It was only the IDF, by re-calibrating and reimagining a joint solution to the attrition dilemma, that proved able to restore combinations of tactical asymmetries that allowed them to execute a successful air-ground offensive across the Suez Canal and terminate the war on favorable terms.17 

This requirement for operational offsets across disparate domains remains equally valid in the contemporary environment where attritional and positional dynamics seem to be challenging the viability of operational maneuver. While the Arminian Army lost more than 700 armored vehicles to Azerbaijan’s more sophisticated fires and drone arrayment in 2020, the Russian Army, with a much larger military establishment, failed to defeat Ukraine in 2022 when it proved incapable of coordinating joint fire and maneuver at depth in the Battle of Kiev. In the latter example, the Ukrainian Army, which initially repelled the invaders to reclaim substantial territory, then provided similarly unable to devise a joint approach for their 2023 counter-offensive—leading to a continuation of largely symmetrical and attritional combat in that theater.18  

Similar to the war in 1973, these newer conflicts indicate that the ability to create joint asymmetries remains challenging in modern warfare. For the US military, in particular, this means that previous successes with inter-service and interagency integration cannot be taken for granted as the character of warfare evolves and changes. While adversaries may be unable to achieve complete domain superiority, the history indicates that they need only contest discreet spaces at specific times to disaggregate joint schemes and stymie offensives in order to inflict attrition and stagnation. If the events of 1973 illustrate perils of reliance on dated paradigms, the IDF’s costly restoration of an integrated joint approach underscores its importance. Looking towards a new century of warfare, American military forces would do well to heed these lessons and prepare, for themselves and for their country, to negotiate the hardest challenges ahead.   

 

 

Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Jennings
US Army

Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Jennings is an Army Strategist and Associate Professor at the US
Army Command and General Staff College. He served multiple combat tours in Iraq and
Afghanistan, is a graduate of the School of Advanced Military Studies, and holds a PhD in
History from the University of Kent.

 

 

Footnotes

  1. Joint Publication 3-0 Joint Campaigns and Operations (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2022), I-1.
  2. See George W. Gawrych, The 1973 Arab-Israeli War: The Albatross of Decisive Victory (Leavenworth: Combat Studies Institute, 1996) for a tactical summary of the conflict.
  3. Zhirayr Amirkhanyan, “A Failure to Innovate: The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War,” Parameters 52, no 1 (Spring 2022): 119-120; Seth Jones, “Russia’s Ill-Fated Invasion of Ukraine: Lessons of Modern Warfare,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, June 1, 2022; Franz-Stefan Gady and Michael Kofman, “Making Attrition Work: A Viable Theory of Victory for Ukraine,” International Institute for Strategic Studies, February 9, 2024.
  4. Gawrych, The 1973 Arab-Israeli War, 2-5.
  5. Trevor Dupuy, Elusive Victory: The Arab-Israeli Wars, 1947-1974 (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1978), 413-419, 445-450.
  6. Ibid., 433-435, 456-461.
  7. Gawrych, The 1973 Arab-Israeli War, 40, 52-53.
  8. Ibid., 56-57.
  9. Abraham Rabinovich, The Yom Kipper War: the Epic Encounter that Transformed the Middle East (New York: Schocken Books, 2004), 345-347.
  10. Amiram Ezoz, Crossing Suez, 1973 (Tel Aviv: Content Now Books, 2016), 31-33.
  11.  Field Manual 3-0 Operations (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2022), 3-2.
  12.  Gawrych, The 1973 Arab-Israeli War, 62-65.
  13. Ibid., 68.
  14. Ze’ev Almog, “Israel’s Navy Beat the Odds,” Proceedings, U.S. Naval Institute, March 1997; Dupuy, Elusive Victory, 562-563.
  15. Gawrych, The 1973 Arab-Israeli War, 80.
  16. Dupuy, Elusive Victory, 628-633.
  17. Avraham Adan, On the Banks of the Suez: An Israeli General’s Personal Account of the Yom Kipper War (Novato: Presidio Press, 1980), 318-319, 406-408.
  18. Amirkhanyan, “A Failure to Innovate,” 122-124; Jones, “Russia’s Ill-Fated Invasion of Ukraine,” June 1, 2022; Gady and Kofman, “Making Attrition Work,” February 9, 2024.

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