Going to War in Denial: A Look Back at Yom Kippur

Israel entered the Yom Kippur War in denial, unlike the Egyptians, who realized they do not need an air force to math the IAF.

Moshe_Arens_cropped-150x150By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on October 2, 2012.)

Every year on Yom Kippur our thoughts turn to the Yom Kippur War. The initial shock, the mounting casualty list, the early defeats, the crossing of the Suez Canal and the final victory. And the mistakes by our leadership and the heavy price that had to be paid for these mistakes.

Some of the analyses point a finger at those who are to blame for the mistakes, others insist that the war could have been avoided. All agree that it was our soldiers’ heroism that saved the day, snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and laid the foundation for the peace treaty with Egypt.

But almost unnoticed is the fact that there was a basic error, an unwillingness to face the facts that were staring us in the face, that underlay the mistaken thinking at all levels, civilian and military, before the war. Israel entered the Yom Kippur War in a state of denial, refusing to recognize that the deployment of Soviet surface-to-air missiles west of the Canal had neutralized much of the Israel Air Force’s potential in case of war.

In October 1967, U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. John McCain, a future Republican candidate for president of the United States, flying an A-4 Skyhawk aircraft on a bombing mission over Hanoi, saw what looked like flying telephone poles coming up from the ground. They were Soviet SA-2 missiles. One of them hit his plane, slicing off its right wing and forcing him to eject.

It was the beginning of a deadly duel between attack aircraft and Soviet surface-to-air missiles that was to take a heavy toll on American aircraft over Vietnam. In the final months of the War of Attrition, in 1970, the IAF faced a similar threat. Under Soviet tutelage, a large number of Soviet surface-to-air missiles had been deployed in Egypt.

When an agreement was reached on a cease-fire in August of that year, it was clear that the IAF had not been successful in subduing these missiles, which had taken a toll on Israeli aircraft during the last months of that war. The cease-fire agreement stipulated that no side was to change the status quo in a zone extending 50 kilometers on either side of the Canal. Within minutes after the agreement came into force, the Egyptians, in violation of the agreement, began moving surface-to-air batteries close to the Canal.

When the Yom Kippur War broke out, the IAF faced a massive deployment of SA-2, SA-3, SA-6 and anti-aircraft guns west of the Canal, which were to provide a protective umbrella for Egyptian forces crossing the Canal. The IAF had no adequate answer to this threat.

The prevailing conception in Israel, still under the impression of the IAF’s dramatic achievements during the Six-Day War, was that as long as the Egyptians were unable to field an air force capable of meeting the IAF on more or less equal terms, they would not go to war against Israel. And if, nevertheless, they were to go to war and try to cross the Canal, the IAF would serve as “flying artillery,” responding instantly and providing support to the small regular army units stationed in the Sinai – support that would enable these units to throw the Egyptian forces back across the Canal.

That was the conception that ruled among the civilian and military leaders. It was at the root of the Israelis’ strategic and tactical mistakes.

They were in a state of denial, refusing to face the painful events of the War of Attrition, which had made clear something the Egyptians had learned from that war. The Egyptians realized they did not need an air force to match the IAF to fight a war against Israel. Their many batteries of surface-to-air missiles were, they thought, a match for the IAF. They provided the cover for the Egyptian forces that crossed the Canal while the IAF was incapable of providing air support to the Israeli ground troops.

Nine years later, during the first Lebanon war, the IAF dramatically demonstrated that it had learned to deal with Soviet surface-to-air missiles when it destroyed every surface-to-air battery the Syrians had deployed in Lebanon without losing a single aircraft.

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