Lessons of the October War

On the 10th of Ramadan (October 6), Egypt and Syria launched Operation Badr against Israeli forces in the Sinai and the Golan Heights. The H-Hour [the hour of attack] began 14:05 with a vigorous attack by the Egyptian and Syrian air forces on Israeli air bases and ground positions. Sixteen days later, on October 22, a UN-sponsored ceasefire took effect.

The Ramadan War (Yom Kippur War as Israeli call it) was similar in duration to the second war between India and Pakistan that began on September 6, 1965. Egyptian president Anwar Sadat had planned his war for 1971 but the onset of the third India-Pakistan war caused him to change his plans. Several lessons can be drawn from what is now called the October War.

The first lesson is that defeat in one war often leads to a new war. Chaim Herzog, a former president of Israel, states that “Israel’s brilliant military victory [in 1967] gave rise to a delusion of power on the Israeli side and a deep sense of humiliation on the Arab side.” Reflecting this complacency, when asked about the threat posed by the Egyptian air force, the Israeli chief of air staff had asked petulantly, “what Egyptian air force?”

Second, the impact of tactical surprise can be devastating. It acts as a force multiplier, as Israel had shown with its preemptive air strikes in June 1967. It is not always easy to achieve, as Pakistan had discovered on December 3, 1971 when the PAF’s air sorties into India failed to achieve any results since the Indians had anticipated them.

To prevent an Egyptian crossing of the Suez Canal, Israel had constructed a 110-mile fortification known as the Bar-Lev line along the Canal. It consisted of 26 forts and an enormous continuous sand rampart that rose to a height of 75 feet in places. Like any static fortification, the line proved vulnerable in the end. However, unlike the Maginot line which the Germans outflanked by going through Belgium in the second world war or the Great Wall of China, which Chengez Khan found could be opened easily by bribing the Chinese guards, this one was breached by a remarkable feat of engineering.

At 0400 hours on October 7, Egyptian sappers cut passes in the Bar-Lev line with German water pumps, allowing 500 Egyptian tanks to pour into the Sinai. They had trained in secret for nearly six years in the western desert to develop techniques for creating sixty openings on each side of the Canal. Gradually the Egyptian engineers perfected the operation, enabling them to effect such an opening within five to six hours. Sadat had been prepared to absorb 10,000 deaths in the crossing of the Canal but the success of the sappers allowed him to achieve this objective with only 208 deaths.

Third, success in war is ultimately tied to the accuracy of intelligence estimates about the enemy’s capabilities and intentions. In October, 50,000 Egyptian troops were away on Umrah and Israeli intelligence had rated the probability of war breaking out on October 5 as “the lowest of the low.” Even Henry Kissinger was duped; he is on record as having stated that “nothing would happen in October.” Expecting an attack in May, Gen. David Elazar, the Israeli chief of staff, had ordered a partial mobilisation costing some US$11 million. He wanted to carry out a preemptive strike but was forbidden to do so by then-Israeli prime minister Golda Meir. When the Arab attack did not materialise, the Israeli intelligence was quick to say, I told you so. The vindication of their estimate in May would be a major factor in the mistaken Israeli evaluation in October.

Fourth, a pressed enemy is likely to launch a counter-thrust. Israeli forces led by Maj.-Gen. Ariel Sharon crossed the Canal into Egypt proper on October 15 and within a day were endangering the Egyptian Third Army. However, according to General Saad Al Shazli, the Egyptian chief of staff who later authored “The Arab Military Option,” this counter-attack could have been forestalled if Egyptian forces had pressed ahead with their march into Sinai and captured key passes in the Sinai before the arrival of the Israeli reserves. For such bold thinking, he was relieved of command.

Fifth, wars cannot be fought without the right technology. To overcome Israeli advantages in air power and armour, Egypt deployed mobile SAM-6 and SAM-7 missiles and the Sagger and the RPG-7 anti-tank missiles. Indeed, the scale of Israeli tank casualties led some to argue (prematurely) that the tank had been rendered obsolete in modern warfare.

Sixth, third world countries cannot ignore the realities of Great Power politics. To overcome Israeli losses, America flew US$2.2 billion worth of arms and ammunition to Israel aboard its giant C5 Galaxy planes. The airlift brought 22,000 tons of tanks, artillery, helicopters and ammunitions to Israel over a one-month period. Involving more than 560 sorties, it was the biggest such operation since the airlift to Berlin after the end of World War II.

In retaliation, eleven Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal imposed an oil embargo on October 17. They agreed to cut production by five percent from the September level with a pledge to continue cutting five percent a month until their results had been achieved. They also imposed a total ban on oil exports to the US, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa, and Rhodesia. The embargo reduced oil supplies in the “free world” by nine percent and world trade in oil by fourteen percent. The embargo ended in January 1974 once Egypt and Israel agreed to cessation of hostilities.

Seven, it is best to learn the lessons of war when they are still fresh. Shmuel Agranat, president of the Israeli Supreme Court, headed a Commission to apportion responsibility for the war. When a 40-page extract from the Agranat Commission was released to the public in April, it caused the dual resignations of Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan. Gen. Elazar was blamed for Israel’s early set backs in the war and ordered to resign. He died two years later, a brokenhearted man.

Sadat succeeded in regaining the Sinai but in his anxiety to make peace with Israel, he split Egypt from the rest of the Arab world. When he flew to Israeli-occupied Jerusalem on November 19, 1977 and addressed the Knesset, he alienated himself from many of his own countrymen. As he took the salute at a military parade to commemorate the war on October 6 in 1981, three Egyptian soldiers gunned him down for having failed to liberate Jerusalem.

AHMAD FARUQUI is an economist and author of “Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan”. He can be reached at faruqui@pacbell.net