Tanks give way to missiles

The battlefield has been transformed in the 40 years since the Yom Kippur War.

Israeli tank column moves in the direction of the Suez Canal (photo credit: RON ILAN / GPO)
Israeli tank column moves in the direction of the Suez Canal
(photo credit: RON ILAN / GPO)
According to Jewish tradition, the “10 days of repentance” from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur should be devoted to soul-searching and contemplation. The somber mood is deepened in Israel by the commemoration of the 1973 Yom Kippur War during which 2,700 Israeli servicemen were killed, thousands were injured and almost 300 captured.
The heavy casualties and initial successes of the Egyptian and Syrian armies traumatized the Israeli public. Since then, Israel has struggled to recover and heal its wounds, despite the 40 years that have gone by.
In recent years, the State Archives and the Israel Defense Forces Archives have declassified most of the material relating to the war. The floodgates have been opened, and documents, cabinet meeting transcripts, intelligence secrets, audio tapes of military radio communications and the like have come pouring out. Yet, the more we are exposed to the new revelations, the less we need them. The basic facts have been with us since a few years after the war ended.
We knew that Israel’s political and military leadership were euphoric during the six “good’ years (which, in retrospect, turned out to be the “lean” years) following the stunning victory in the 1967 Six Day War when the IDF captured the West Bank from Jordan, Sinai and Gaza from Egypt, and the Golan Heights from Syria. The decision-makers, together with the public, were dazzled by the victory. Israel perceived itself as an “empire” and was swept along by ultra-nationalistic and religious sentiments that still stubbornly remain in place.
The Israeli leaders, especially the military chiefs, had shown a lack of respect, bordering on contempt, for Arab military capabilities. The prevailing assumption (“concept” in the post-1973 war jargon) was that the Arab leaders were paralyzed from the shock inflicted upon them in 1967 and that their armies were weak and incapable of launching another round of hostilities.
The politicians, led by prime minister Golda Meir and her defense minister, Moshe Dayan, refused to compromise and declined any purported diplomatic solutions offered by Arab leaders and international intermediaries. The attitude was summarized by Dayan, who commented a year before the war, “Our situation has never been better.”
Israel’s complacency was highlighted when just hours before the Egyptian and Syrian armies launched their simultaneous surprise attack and, despite all the signs and indications, the head of Military Intelligence, Major General Eli Zeira, still asserted that the chances of war were “low.”
Two strategic results emerged from that terrible war. Despite their limited military achievements, the Arab nations felt their pride had been restored following their humiliating defeat in 1967. This paved the way for Egypt and, eventually some 20 years later, for Jordan and the Palestinians to make peace and sign agreements with Israel. The second development was that 1973 was Israel’s last war in the classic sense.
Ever since the traumatic War of Independence in 1948, and because of the country’s small size and limited resources, Israeli strategists had developed a military doctrine that stressed the following points.
• The battle has to be decisive and last just a few days.
• The battlefield must be on enemy territory.
• Israel must take the initiative – take the lead and search and destroy the enemy.
• To that end, the key combat tools are the air force and armored formations moving fast with superior firepower. In a sense, this doctrine was based on the German blitzkrieg (lightning war) of World War II.
• The purpose of the military campaign is to destroy the enemy’s military capabilities intelligence report all these battles and confrontations have undermined the original military doctrine and changed the nature of Israel’s wars and force an end to hostilities, preferably under Israel’s terms.
Since the Yom Kippur War, Israel has fought or has been involved in another seven campaigns: The First Lebanon War (1982- 2000); the first Palestinian intifada in the West Bank and Gaza (1987-1991); during the 1991 Gulf War, Israel was attacked by Iraqi Scud missiles; the second Palestinian intifada (2000-2004); the Second Lebanon War (2006); two campaigns against Hamas in Gaza (2009-2010 and 2012).
All these battles and confrontations have undermined the original military doctrine and changed the nature of Israel’s wars.
In all of them, Israel did not fight against regular armies but against popular uprisings (in the case of the two Palestinian intifadas) or militia and guerilla forces – the PLO and Hezbollah in the First Lebanon War and Hezbollah again in the Second Lebanon War and twice against Hamas in the last four years.
Large scale battles have been transformed into “low intensity conflicts,” a term that refers to a level of hostilities or use of military power that falls short of a full-scale conventional or general war.
Another significant characteristic of Israel’s recent military campaigns is that the distinction between “the frontline” and “the home front” has diminished. Israel’s densely populated urban areas have been transformed into battle zones. This started in 1991 with Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator who launched 39 Scud ballistic missiles against Haifa, the Greater Tel Aviv area and in the direction of the nuclear reactor in Dimona. The missiles caused extensive damage to property but luckily enough very few people were killed or injured.
It was the first time since 1948 that the Israeli home front had been attacked. The Israeli public was shocked and traumatized.
Yet for good and justified reasons – namely US pressure and concern for the integrity of the anti-Saddam international coalition – Israel, at the receiving end remained passive and did not retaliate.
The Iraqi attack set a precedent. Israel’s enemies learned that the urban centers are its weakest link. During the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Hezbollah rained down more than 4,000 rockets and missiles at Israeli towns and villages. The might of the Israel Air Force and ground forces could not prevent it. The glorious armored and tank divisions that were victorious in the wars of 1967 and 1973 proved to be useless.
The scenario was repeated by Hamas in its violent confrontations with Israel.
Nowadays, Hezbollah is in possession of some 60,000 rockets and missiles of various ranges. The disintegrating Syrian Army, entangled in its bloody civil war, is armed with a few thousand improved Scud missiles and the Iranians hold some 600 Shihab 3 missiles in their arsenal. Every Israeli city, strategic site, airbase or military installation is within their range.
The next war or wars will involve missiles fired from land, sea and air at populated areas, with Israel’s sophisticated anti- missile defense systems trying to counter them. The future battlefields will take us into cyber warfare conducted from air- conditioned control centers. The major instruments, which ensure that Israel will remain the strongest military force and maintain its superiority, are the air force and military intelligence.
The tank, once the admired machine of the old and classic Israeli wars, is becoming more and more redundant. The Yom Kippur War was probably the last hurrah of this old war horse.