The Arab-Israeli War of 1973 is an illustration that victory in battle does not depend solely on numbers or equipment. What matters the most is the ability to adapt to the situation and implement effective combined arms integration, initiative from officers, the doctrine employed, the quality of training, and familiarity with the equipment. Specifically, this conflict is an illustration of what can happen when a defender who implements the “modern system” is fighting attackers who did not. According to Stephen Biddle, the modern system is a “tightly interrelated complex of cover, concealment, dispersion, suppression, small-unit independent maneuver, and combined arms at the tactical level, and depth, reserves, and differential concentration at the operational level of war.” In other words, the modern system is a military attribute which emphasizes force employment–the doctrine and tactics–that a military uses, rather than the quality of the used equipment or numbers per se.
A military using the modern system consequently prioritizes non-material factors such as tactics, doctrine, skill, morale, and leadership over material elements to achieve victory in battle. In 1973, Israel possessed such a system, unlike Egypt and Syria. Because of that, the overwhelming numbers of the attackers were not enough to overcome. The combination of the modern system and the lethality of modern weapons quickly showed that numbers were not enough.
EXPLAINING EGYPT AND SYRIA’S TACTICAL INEFFECTIVENESS
The tactical ineffectiveness of the attackers in 1973 can be explained by a critical dearth in key non-material factors necessary to optimal performance in battle. Egypt and Syria arguably could not implement the modern system, mainly because of cultural and behavioral factors inherent to their societies. Egypt was initially successful because it scripted the entire operation, which prevented negative behavioral factors from playing a part in the execution of the offensive. But when the Egyptians were unable to use their script, they had to improvise, which brought these factors back into play, to the dismay of Egypt. Syria had to adapt from the beginning, as its scripted plan failed, which meant that such factors impacted the conduct of the operation right away, with infamous consequences.
The Arab-Israeli War of 1973 showcases what can happen when an attacker, despite crushing numerical superiority and key advantages such as strategic surprise and a two-front offensive, is unable to prevail because of poor tactics. No operational or strategic decision from the military leadership to change the situation helped or could have helped. Egypt and Syria were doomed to fail as long as their scripted plan was seriously disrupted. Good tactics could have changed the situation, as the attackers could have adapted to the events on the ground to pursue their—sensible and realistic—operational and strategic objectives. However, the Egyptian and Syrian forces demonstrated a critical lack of adaptability, combined arms integration, maneuvering, and comprehensive training, among other things. In other words, a critical lack of tactical skill. Surprise, crushing numbers and (inaccurate) firepower could not compensate for this flaw.
Lorris Beverelli is a French national who holds a Master of Arts in Security Studies with a concentration in Military Operations from Georgetown University. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent the policy or positions of the French government, or armed forces.