WARGAMES & HISTORY

Some little tinny things may create great moments

Tactics in Arab-Israeli Wars 1967-1973

From Bruce’s Quarrie book – Tank Battles In Miniatures

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…In the Six Day War the position  is relatively clear-the Israelis  were attacking in a blitzkrieg  manner which  would have made Rommel or Patton  happy, and the Egyptians and Syrians  were predominantly on the defensive.  Israeli  armoured doctrine  at this  time  had  been heavily influenced  by the 1956 Sinai  campaign, in which their  tanks  had  proved themselves for the first time. It was, indeed,  very similar  to that of one of the great World War 2 armoured leader’s, relying on concentration against a selected  point, and a rapid  breakthrough into the enemy’s  rear echelons,  leaving the mopping-up process to the following infantry. Outflanking and encircling manoeuvres were also, of course, a firm part of Israeli armoured theory,  but they were largely unable to use them in the Sinai in 1967 because of the Egyptian dispositions.

The Egyptians  at this time  used the Soviet  linear  system, alternating fortified positions  to  block  the  passage  of  armour with  natural obstacles-soft  dunes, etc-and artificial  ones,  ie, minefields. The  fact  that  Yaffe’s  force succeeded  in passing over ground  which the  Egyptians considered impassable to tanks  was a major contributory factor  in the  Egyptian defeat,   just  as  French   complacency regarding  the  Ardennes  virtually  sealed  their  fate  in  1940.  ‘Linear’, in Soviet parlance,  does not mean a single thin line, it merely indicates a tactical disposition which cannot, theoretically, be outflanked. It is, in fact, a defensive system of great depth, consisting of three main sections:a front line where the majority of the tanks, guns and anti-tank weapons are concentrated; a central tank  killing ground; and a rear support line designed to hold if the front  line gives way and provide a secure base for counter-attacks. Both the front and  rear lines are deeply entrenched and fortified   with   anti-tank  and   machine-gun  bunkers   protected   by   extensive minefields, providing a formidable challenge to an aggressor, who can only attack frontally. In 1967 a variety of circumstances combined to render these preparations useless:  the  sheer  speed  and  ferocity  of  the  Israeli   assault,  which  led  to  the unexpected appearance of Israeli tanks  in the Egyptian rear echelons  almost before they knew war was upon them;  lack of co-ordination between Egyptian forces,  in particular between their tanks and their infantry; and poor Egyptian  morale due to the low quality  of the  raw human material and  bad  leadership. The  Egyptian soldier is as brave as any but the majority in1967 came from peasant backgrounds with little or no education and lacked  the sophistication to fight a modem war. By 1973 things  were radically  different. However,  the  officer  material was,  by and large,  little  better-if at  all-and the  campaign  revealed  several  instances of Egyptian  officers simply abandoning their  men in order  to save their  own  skins. Lacking leadership, what could  the Egyptian soldiery do except flee or surrender?

The three  Israeli armoured commanders, Tal,  Yoffe and Sharon, each adopted dHferent tactics for dealing  with the Egyptian  linear  dispositions. Tal,  as we have seen, utilised a combination of frontal breakthrough coupled  with outflanking tactics; Yaffe succeeded in a hidden  manoeuvre through ‘impassable’ terrain and achieved the same objective; while Sharon  used a classic three-pronged tactic-a pinning  force  to  the  front,   a  wide  outflanking   manoeuvre  by  armour  and mechanised infantry, and a surprise helicopter landing in the Egyptian rear. Wargamers,  in my experience, are rarely so sophisticated!Israeli tactics are, and always have been, firmly grounded in the basic assumption that  war must  be carried  into  the  enemy’s  territory,  since  Israel is  too small a country to allow an invader a foothold. Their tactics, in offence and in defence, therefore,  are  based on high  mobility,  high  firepower concentration  and  high morale. After the Six Day War, both the Egyptians and the Syrians realised that they would have difficulty in beating the Israelis at their own game-although the Syrians were to try, with disastrous results. In both countries a great deal of thought was devoted to methods of defeating  the Israeli tactics; training  and  education methods were brought up to date, ‘political’ appointments in the officer corps were weeded out,  and especial attention  was devoted to ways and  means of defeating Israeli armour  since it had  become so abundantly  clear that  Soviet AFVs were inferior to the Israeli Centurions and Pattons in a stand-up fight. The Israelis, on their part, were guilty of a degree of complacency following the 1967 war. Its results bad been so devastatingly swift and so unexpectedly rewarding that the IDP became blinded to its own shortcomings.

The Egyptian answer to the lessons of the Six Day War relied on a variety of factors. First, they bad learned the supreme advantage of surprise and initiative.The next war had, therefore, to be fought at a time and place of their own choosing. Secondly, they acknowledged their own limitations in mobile armoured warfare-a difficult thing for an army to come to terms with, and  to their credit that they managed it. Their  plan was therefore based on a fast surprise attack on a broad front which would overwhelm the thinly spread Israeli defenders on the east bank of the Suez Canal, followed by consolidation into a strong defensive line against which the Israeli armoured  forces would, hopefully, batter  in vain, wearing themselves down in a battle of attrition. To counter the Israeli armour,  the Egyptians placed heavy reliance on the new generation of anti-tank guided missiles-ATGWs-in the hands of infantry formations, massing their armour in reserve for a later breakthrough when the Israelis had worn themselves out.

These tactics were sound in principle and initially, as we have seen, the campaign went very well for the Egyptians. As they had hoped, Israeli armoured forces threw themselves vainly against the ATGW positions, with heavy casualties. The Israelis had, of course, been aware for some time of the Arab acquisition of ATGWs but, lacking experience of their effectiveness, had decided on an erroneous and often fatal method of dealing with them-the massed high-speed tank charge to close the range quickly, followed by machine-gun fire to eliminate the infantry.The sensible  wargamer  will avoid such  tactics!  After  their  initial  failure,  Israeli armoured units evolved a new system, popularly known as ‘watch and dodge’. One tank  in each  platoon  is given the sole task  of observing for  missile launches. Immediately one is sighted,  an alert  is radioed to the  rest of the platoon,  who scatter, using the terrain to block the ATGW operator’s line of sight and high-speed evasive manoeuvres to throw off his aim. At the same time, the ‘watchdog’ tank lays down rapid HE fire on the observed ATGW operator’s position, to distract if not kill him.Firing at the observed launch site of an ATGW is not always effective, since the operator can be comfortably installed several metres away, but it is difficult for the most highly trained and motivated soldier to concentrate  on steering his missile towards an elusive and rapidly jinking target while tons of high explosive are falling all around  him.

Laying smoke is another obvious counter-ATGW tactic to further  confuse the operator’s aim. Salvoes of missiles are, of course, far harder to dodge than a single rocket, and the chances of a hit-deliberate or accidental-are increased, so the Egyptian operators soon adopted this tactic. By this time, unfortunately for them, it was too late, because the Israelis were already across the canal.

Syrian and Iraqi  tactics in 1973 were far less sophisticated  than  those of the Egyptians, relying on the Soviet ‘steamroller’ to eliminate  resistance,  using numerical superiority to counter technical superiority. This is, naturally,  very wasteful in terms of both men and machines, and the tactic was further  rendered impotent because of the difficult terrain and the height advantage which the Israelis enjoyed. Jordanian forces fought more scientifically but their efforts were negated by lack of co-ordination and co-operation from their allies. What tactics a future conflict will bring to light remain to be seen although,  of course, one hopes that such an eventuality will not come to pass. President Sadat’s unprecedented speech to theKnesset (the Israeli parliament) gives one hope despite the difficulties encountered  in subsequent  talks,  but the Israeli  attack  on PLO bases in the Lebanon shows that they are not prepared to be pushed around even while negotiating a settlement. Arab ‘hawks’  certainly deny the impression  that  peace will be easy. Military journalist Mahmud  Azmi has been widely reported  as saying that  every future conflict ‘will  necessarily be a total confrontation. It should  be  prepared  on  the assumption that it will be a prolonged and comprehensivewar …Our cities, villages, industries, agriculture, communications-aU should be ready for a prolonged war.’ Similarly, another leading Arab strategist, Haytham al-Ayubi, has stressed the need to force Israel by negotiation to give up strategically important  terrain advantages which would ‘considerably strengthen the Western [ie, Suez Canal] Front. In order to strengthen the Eastern Front we must organise reinforcements by Iraqi and Saudi troops and open a third front by the incorporation  of Jordan.’ It hardly sounds promising, does it?…

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This entry was posted on May 28, 2013 by in Arab-Israeli Wars, Articles.

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