The shrill cry of the shofar—ram's horn—blowing on the morning of October 6, 1973, did more than herald the start of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. It also marked the start of one of the most dramatic conflicts in history.
For nineteen days, modern war raged in all its violence and chaos as Egypt and Syria launched a massive surprise attack against the outnumbered and unprepared Israel Defense Force (IDF). As the biggest tank battles since World War II left burning hulks strewn across the Sinai sands and Golan hills, new weapons of startling power—wire-guided anti-tank missiles and surface-to-air missiles—seemed to transform the battlefield. Those glamorous, expensive weapons of the twentieth century—the tank and the aircraft—seemed an endangered species.
The 1973 October War didn't last long as wars go, but even forty-five years later, its influence is still profound. The war revealed the awesome power of tactical guided missiles, a process that still can be seen in today's laser- and GPS-guided smart bombs.
Yet some lessons aren't so obvious. This is also what the Yom Kippur War teaches us:
Never declare a weapon dead. October 1973 was supposed to mark the death of the tank, the haughty armored knights slain by peasants with cheap man-portable anti-tank rockets and guided missiles. But forty-five years later, the tank is still around. The Israelis learned the hard way that tanks must operate with infantry and artillery (something the Russians also would discover assaulting Grozny in 1999). As part of a combined arms team, and equipped with active protection systems to shoot down anti-tank rockets, modern tanks like the M1 Abrams and Russia's T-14 Armata remain powerful players on the battlefield.
Today, the latest Russia anti-aircraft missiles, such as the S-400, have raised fears that the skies are becoming too dangerous for aircraft to operate. The same fears were expressed in 1973, after the Israeli Air Force suffered devastating losses to SAMs. And yet, airpower remains the most potent weapon in the Middle East and around the world. Equipped with jammers and flare launchers to decoy anti-aircraft missiles, aircraft can cope with SAMs and flak. And it remains to be seen how the advent of stealth aircraft will change the duel between aircraft and air defenses.
Even in the darkest hour, a war can be won. Much has been made of Israeli overconfidence, the hubris that led them to believe that the Arabs would never dare attack, and that the Arab armies would be smashed if they did. That hubris soon descended into despair in the opening days of the war, when the Egyptians repulsed Israeli counterattacks in the Sinai and Syrian armor appeared poised to break out of the Golan Heights and drive on Haifa. Moshe Dayan advocated withdrawing deep into Sinai, abandoning the Golan Heights and—the deepest and darkest thought of all—Israel pondered using nuclear weapons. In hindsight, it was unlikely that the Arab armies could have conquered Israel in 1973, but quite likely that Israel might have settled for a cease-fire that left victorious Arab armies on its borders.
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Instead, within two weeks, it was the Arabs who had to beg for peace. The IDF had pushed the Syrian army deep into Syria and advanced to within artillery range of Damascus. More importantly, legendary Israeli general Ariel Sharon exploited a gap in Egyptian lines to cross the Suez Canal to the Egyptian side, and encircle the Egyptian armies in Sinai. Under threat of Soviet intervention, Israel agreed to a cease-fire—but not under the cloud of military defeat. Politically, Israeli prestige and confidence had suffered, but the damage would have been much greater if the war had ended with the Arab armies victorious on the battlefield.
There is no substitute for decisive victory. By the end of the October War, Israel had recovered from its initial setbacks and gone on to defeat its opponents on the battlefield. The same could be said of the U.S. military in World War II, which suffered humiliating defeats in the early years of this war, only to emerge victorious in 1945. But World War II has gone down in history as a decisive American victory, while 1973 is remembered as a draw at best, rather than an Israeli triumph like 1967. But then, America had achieved something decisive: the complete submission of its enemies. This the Israelis could not achieve: there could be no capture of Cairo or Damascus without triggering World War III. Yet for Israel to claim a decisive victory, by the standards set by the Israelis themselves, the Arab armies needed to be smashed and the Arab nations had to recognize that they had been defeated; all this at a minimal cost in Israeli lives and treasure. These were difficult goals, but Israel's strategic and tactical mistakes tarnished even its eventual battlefield triumphs.