(September 7, 2023 / JNS) In its largest release of documents from the 1973 Yom Kippur War to date, the Israel State Archive has provided a new and painful reminder of the disastrous intelligence failure that predated the combined invasion of Israel by Egypt and Syria.
The war, its casualties and the ability of Israel’s adversaries at the time to surprise the Jewish state have left a multi-generational scar on the Israeli national psyche. On the other hand, the ability of the Israel Defense Forces to eventually repel the dual attack, overcome the shock, call reserves to the fronts and go on the offensive, ending the war some 60 miles from Cairo and 25 miles from Damascus, is a testament to the astonishing resilience and bravery of the soldiers and commanders of that time.
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On the eve of the war, Israeli intelligence failed to accurately gauge enemy intentions despite multiple warning signs, and also underestimated the evolving capabilities of Egypt and Syria, such as their ability to use Soviet-supplied anti-aircraft and anti-armor missiles to rain destruction on Israeli forces. These tactics denied Israel the ability to move freely in the air and on the ground, representing lessons learned by Israel’s adversaries from their defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War.
As the newly-released archive documents show, in the hours leading up to Yom Kippur, on Oct. 5, 1973, a security discussion took place in Prime Minister Golda Meir’s office. The primary issues discussed were the evacuation of Soviet families from Syria and Egypt and the joint military exercise conducted by both nations. There was near consensus among those present that war was not imminent.
Eli Zeira, the head of Military Intelligence, who presented an overview of Egypt and Syria, summarized the findings by stating that “the assessment that the [enemy] preparedness primarily arises from fear of us, remains.” He further highlighted uncertainty about the ongoing Russian exercise, wondering about its purpose. IDF Chief of Staff David Elazar, known as “Dado,” shared a similar sentiment. “I still believe they aren’t going to attack; we have no concrete proof. Technically, they are capable of acting. I assume if they were going to attack, we would receive better indicators,” he said.
A week and a half before the outbreak of the war, Meir met with King Hussein of Jordan. He informed her that “from a very sensitive source, it has been made known that all preparations and plans related to a Syrian operation have been completed. The units have been in position for two days, including the Air Force and missiles.”
Notably absent from the meeting was the head of Mossad, Zvi Zamir. According to Zeira, Zamir urgently flew to London to meet “his friend,” apparently referring to Ashraf Marwan, a close associate of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan informed attendees at the meeting that aerial photographs had identified Egyptian forces’ equipment for crossing. Dayan suggested informing the Americans that the Syrians were planning to attack Israel, advising them to relay to the Russians that Israel had no offensive intentions.
Later that day, another consultation was held in Golda’s office. Zeira provided another overview, but remained firm in his belief that war was not imminent. “We still see a high likelihood that Syrian and Egyptian preparedness stems from fear of us, and a high probability that Egypt and Syria’s real intention is to carry out limited offensive operations,” he said.
Then and now
In 2023, the nature of the threat facing Israel has changed dramatically. The danger is no longer centered on formations of enemy tanks and infantry aiming to penetrate Israel’s borders. Instead, the current threat revolves around terror armies.
These quasi-military terror factions possess enormous firepower, and can launch mass projectile attacks on Israeli cities, having identified the civilian front as Israel’s vulnerable underbelly. Hezbollah in Lebanon, and to a lesser degree the Gazan terror factions and Iranian-backed militias in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, all have the ability to target the Israeli home front and crucial strategic locations. Iran, too, possesses such capability.
Hezbollah’s unprecedented arsenal of some 200,00 warheads, and its use of bunkers and launchers embedded in civilian areas, represents an entirely different threat. Its elite Radwan force threatens northern communities with cross-border raids, but its main element of surprise, namely cross-border assault tunnels, was eliminated by Israel in recent years, as was Hamas’s tunnel network.
Israel’s multi-layered air defense system, fed by advanced radars, is on guard around the clock for any attack.
While gauging enemy intentions remains a challenging endeavor in 2023, the technological capabilities and breadth of Israel’s modern intelligence network means it is far harder for enemies today to surprise it.
In the years since the Yom Kippur War, Israel has embarked on an unparalleled intelligence revolution. Today, the IDF is informed by a network of state-of-the-art sensors, with vast information-gathering capabilities in space, air, on land and at sea.
The IDF employs artificial intelligence and big-data analysis to detect anomalies and shifts in enemy movements and behavior, and receives automatic alerts when these appear.
The August 28 announcement by the Israeli Defense Ministry regarding the progress of the Oron intelligence-gathering aircraft—the most advanced type system of its kind—is a case in point. Fueled by artificial intelligence, the Oron can gather intelligence on thousands of enemy targets, spanning thousands of kilometers, in a matter of seconds.
Nevertheless, the potential for surprises has not been eliminated, and one of the key lessons of the 1973 war is to never assume that all of the threats are known, and never to fall victim to complacency.
Adversaries evolve, and their ability to develop new ways to threaten Israel, its population, its cities, should never be trivialized. At the same time, Israel’s own evolving intelligence capabilities, when mixed with its ability to deliver mass, precise firepower based on that intelligence, represents a major leap forward, and reduces the chances of a catastrophic strategic surprise.
The shadows of 1973 serve as a humbling reminder of misjudged intentions, but the strides made by Israeli intelligence and firepower today offer a robust shield.