Arab Military Forces Quietly Modernize
With Russian Exports
Moscow has significantly boosted sales of advanced weapons systems in a move designed to drive increased funding that will deliver much-needed support for a sweeping military industry consolidation strategy. The Russian arms export agency Rosoboronexport has been quietly making major arms deals with the larger Arab State power brokers who are the new benefactors of this broad initiative. According to recent statements by CEO Anatoly Isaykin, the Middle East and North Africa now make up 36% of Rosoboronexport’s total deliveries. The order backlog now stands at $45 billion with deliveries for air force weapons 41%, land forces 27%, air defense systems 15%, and naval weapons 13%.
Numerous export successes have begun to fill the capability gap of Arab military forces, enabling new war fighting proficiency while raising eyebrows at the Pentagon. Russian main battle tanks (MBT’s), S-300 advanced air defense systems, Mistral-class landing ships, Kamov-Ka-52K assault helicopters and air superiority fighters are a few examples of the latest Russian technology that is now becoming operational in the South West Asia theatre. These developments are causing considerable consternation for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) who recently discovered vulnerabilities with their presumed military technology superiority in a brief skirmish with Lebanon. In fact, it was 43 years ago that the IDF paid a heavy price in devastating loss of life for underestimating their regional adversaries in the Yom Kippur War.
Lets go back in time three and a half decades to October 1973. The Israeli military had become dangerously complacent and even smug regarding their technological and war fighting capabilities. They had defeated their Arab neighbors in war on every occasion. They had destroyed their enemy on the ground and in the air in 1956 and 1967 and were confident of repeating victories.
For an in-depth analysis of the 1967 Six Day War, please see our previous editorial entitled: The IDF in Operation Moked
The Israeli military command had not accurately attributed General Gamal Abdel Nasser’s determination and the renaissance of the Egyptian Army. Since October 1967 Egypt had spearheaded a so-called War of Attrition against Israel. She had constantly probed the Israeli defensive positions along the Bar-Lev Line and had instigated numerous small-scale Special Forces raids into the occupied territories. More importantly unknown to Israeli intelligence, Egypt had rearmed with the latest generation of Soviet anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles.
Initial plans for the re-crossing of the Suez Canal, initially codename Operation Granite Two but subsequently renamed Operation Badr, demanded the complete rebuilding of the Egyptian Army. Officers studied Hebrew and Israeli topics at university while the educational and technical skills level of the average soldier was markedly improved. The man-portable RPG-7 anti-tank and SA-7 anti-aircraft missiles were introduced into front line service in great numbers while selected troops were taught the intricacies of the revolutionary wire guided AT-3 Saggar missile.
Under the command of Chief of Staff General Sa’ad Es-Din Sha’azli, the Egyptians were honed to a level of fitness and confidence never before seen in an Arab Army. Final planning was as meticulous as it was impressive until, by October 1973, the entire war machine was ready to go on to the offensive. Aided somewhat by alarming gaps in Israeli military intelligence, the Egyptians succeeded in keeping their intentions secret. Having completed their final training exercises against facsimiles far to the west, troops were moved into their battle positions out of sight of Israeli border watchers. Canal guards continued to swim, play games and sunbathe in their time-honored lethargic fashion while behind them the assault engineers, tasked with the breaching of the canal defenses silently formed up.
The Syrian preparations for war along the Golan Heights were less well concealed. For weeks Israeli reconnaissance aircraft reported a steady buildup of armor and artillery in the area but this was discounted as empty saber-rattling. Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan moved an additional armored brigade to the area and placed the army on general alert, but otherwise did nothing. When the cabinet met a few days before Yom Kippur, the possibility of war was not even discussed.
On 4 October the thousands of Russian advisers in Egypt and Syria began to evacuate their families. Syrian armor and artillery began to advance to the border and the Israelis, by now thoroughly alarmed, ordered the armed forces to the highest state of readiness. On the eve of one of the most solemn occasions in the Jewish calendar, military leave was canceled. Men on leave were recalled and preparations were made for general mobilization.
The Arab attack was launched at precisely 1400 on the afternoon of 6 October. Syrian armor rolled across the Golan Heights in the north and Egyptian commandos and engineers crossed the Suez Canal in small boats in the south. Despite early heavy losses, the Syrians in the Golan came close to attaining their objectives. The 30,000 troops and 1,000 tanks which followed the mine clearing tanks and MTU-55 armored bridge layers across the border defenses were decimated by the Israeli 7th Armored Brigade artillery. Notwithstanding, they pressed on regardless of casualties, demonstrating a newfound bravery and resilience that took the defenders completely by surprise.
The Yom Kippur War was fought on two fronts. At 1400 on 6 October Syrian armor rolled across the Golan Heights in the north while Egyptian commandos and engineers crossed the Suez Canal in small boats in the south. Despite early heavy losses the Syrians came close to attaining their objectives. The Israeli front line was broken and Mount Sinai captured by special forces. However Israeli armored reinforcements gradually regained the initiative throwing the Syrians back behind their own borders.
In the south the Egyptians made excellent headway across the Suez Canal until they too, were stopped in a series of bloody firefights by Israeli reinforcements. On 14 October the Israelis in the south took the initiative forcing their own crossing of the Canal to cut off the Egyptian fighting troops from their bases. Panic ensued within the Arab camp as they began to realize their predicament and withdraw, pursued by the Israelis. The fighting ended in stalemate when the superpowers intervened to enforce a cease-fire.
As the Syrian armor broke free of the Israeli forward defenses, it deployed into a straight line and, with the mechanized infantry following, began to threaten the main Israeli positions. The Israeli Centurions and Patton’s began cutting great swathes into the Syrian lines with their superior 105mm guns but were too few to halt the advance alone. When the Chel Ha’ Avir (IAF or the Israeli Air Force) was summoned to redress the balance, its pilots found themselves flying into an intense and wholly unexpected missile barrage, losing 34 aircraft in the first few hours of fighting. Only after they discovered and destroyed the missile radar installations were the Israeli pilots able to grab the initiative and go on to the offensive. By then, however, they had lost a staggering and irreplaceable 80 aircraft.
During the afternoon’s fighting, Syrian Special Forces launched a series of ambushes in the Israeli rear, destroying a number of tanks and killing the second-in-command of the Barak Armored Brigade. Twenty-five Frog-7 surface-to-surface missiles were launched ineffectively against Israeli strategic ground targets including airfields. Mount Hermon, sacred to all Israelis, was captured by helicopter-borne paratroops.
By nightfall the position on the Golan looked bleak. However the Air Force had managed to gain air superiority and armored reserves, having driven through the night, were about to enter the battle. Throughout the next day the Syrians were held, their position weakened considerably by the death of Brigadier General Omar Abrash, the inspirational commander of their 7th Infantry Division. By Monday morning the Israelis, now fully up to strength, were ready to take the initiative.
The initial Arab attack across the Suez Canal came even closer to success. At 1345 on 6 October, Sha’azli launched his attack. Fifteen minutes later the first of 30,000 Egyptian troops, spearheaded by paratroops and As-Sai’qa ‘ lightning or special forces began crossing the Canal. Commandos, many of them veterans of earlier action in the Yemen, swam across the Canal under cover of the initial artillery barrage to set up anti-tank mines and defenses against armored counter-attack. Explosives were ferried across to knock holes in the huge sand walls on the far bank to allow access to the swarms of amphibious PT-76 light tanks that followed. Specially trained commando groups then attacked the 30 static fortifications along the Bar-Lev Line, destroying any vehicle which moved with their seemingly endless supplies of RPG-7s and AT-3 Saggars.
Egyptian engineers rapidly built a number of pontoon bridges across the Suez Canal that took the Israeli forces on the east bank by surprise.
Simultaneously, the 130th Amphibious Brigade forced a crossing of the Little Bitter Lake. Relying totally on untried Soviet doctrine and tactics the brigade ferried 37 PT-76 light tanks, 74 BTR-50 PK and PU APCs and command vehicles and 18 PTRK Malyutkas to the east bank where they formed up and began to head immediately for the Giddi Pass.
Fortunately for the Israelis, in so doing they ran straight into Colonel Dan Shomron’s 401st Armored Brigade. Overwhelmed and outgunned, the Egyptians were forced to withdraw with heavy losses after an hour-long battle. Elsewhere, Egyptian commando raids also experienced severe reverses. Attempts to transport a battalion sized group by helicopter into the Ras-Sudr area of the Sinai, well behind Israeli lines, failed when the Israeli Air Force intercepted the slow-moving Mi-8 Hip helicopters. Fourteen were shot down and more than 250 men killed, wounded or captured.
Although the battle for the peripheries of the Sinai went well for Israel, the crucial battle for the Canal itself did not and within a few hours had become critical. Having secured the east bank, the Egyptians moved high pressure hoses into the area to smash down the remnants of the sand ramparts. PMP mobile bridging was then brought forward and a total of ten pontoons constructed by nightfall. Under cover of darkness, five Egyptian divisions and 500 tanks crossed into Sinai while battered and confused, the Israelis withdrew their armor inland to the protection of the passes.
Shortly after sunrise on the morning of 7 October, the Israeli Air Force went on to the offensive against the Egyptian forward positions only to receive a severe rebuff. Sixty percent of the attacking aircraft were destroyed by batteries of SA-6 surface-to air and SA-7 shoulder-fired missiles which had been brought forward during the course of the night.
The sheer success of the Egyptian offensive took both sides by surprise. Sha’azli had anticipated 30 percent casualties on the first day but in fact suffered no more than 300 dead. Had he been more positive, he could almost certainly have stormed the passes on 7 October, breaking the back of the Israeli Army in the process. Instead he delayed, preferring to consolidate under the protective umbrella of his missiles and in so doing afforded the Israelis a vital breathing space.
During the days of stalemate that followed, first the Soviet Union and then the United States began to flood the area with new munitions. Egypt received new tanks and artillery, and Israel was supplied with much needed replacement aircraft, TOW anti-tank and anti-radar missiles.
By 14 October the Israeli Army under the command of Sharon and Dayan recalled to active service and now replenished and up to strength, was ready to take the initiative. A force of three mechanized brigades, their armored strength reduced to 200 tanks, a mechanized parachute brigade and a team of assault pioneers was secretly brought together with orders to smash west across the Canal, deep into the Egyptian rear. Once there they were able to cut off the Egyptian fighting troops from their bases, starving them of re-supply and logistical support. The plan bore the simplicity of despair. One brigade was to make a feint against the Egyptians while a second seized a critical road permitting the third brigade and the rest of the force to reach the canal. A bridge would then be constructed over which the entire force would cross.
Initially the plan went askew. The diversionary brigade drew the enemy fire so well that a full-scale tank battle ensued in which the Israeli armor was annihilated. Nonetheless its sacrifice enabled the rest of the force to succeed in its objective of reaching the canal, albeit well behind schedule. The initial crossing was made at 0100 on the morning of Tuesday 16 October against little opposition. However the defenders soon recovered and began to bring down heavy fire on the Israelis, causing the destruction of several tank-laden ferries. Notwithstanding their heavy losses, by 0900. the Israelis had established an unassailable bridgehead upon which they continued to build forces strong enough to take the offensive.
Although Egyptian command in the area was adequate, it soon became clear that her control and communications were not. Sharon was left alone to reinforce his position, hampered only by the occasional localized counter-attack. He was able to send his armor with virtual impunity on raiding excursions into the enemy lines destroying installations wherever they were able to find them. Four missile command centers were located and destroyed, granting the Israeli Air Force a window through the previously impenetrable Egyptian air defensive umbrella.
During the next 24 hours, three fresh armored brigades, under the command of General ‘Bren’ Adam, crossed the canal into Egypt until the force became strong enough to repel even the most concerted of counter-attacks. On Wednesday night the Egyptians attacked in strength, the 140th Parachute Brigade engaging the 247th Parachute Brigade in fierce close quarter combat, but to no avail. The next morning 8,000 men and 200 tanks broke out north and south from the Israeli bridgehead and went on an orgy of destruction annihilating every military installation in sight.
By now the Israelis had seized the initiative along the Golan Heights and had begun to force the Syrians back. Iraq and Jordan both joined the battle with mixed results. While the Iraqis were ill trained and of poor quality, the Jordanian armored brigade was excellent if dogged by bad luck and the incompetence of its allies. On 16 October it spearheaded an armored thrust through the Israeli positions. This would almost certainly have succeeded had it not been shelled by Iraqi artillery and strafed by Syrian fighters which mistook its Centurion tanks for the Israelis.
Slowly but perceptibly, panic began to overtake the Arab camp as they began to realize that early success was quickly turning to failure with the very real possibility of defeat. Simultaneously the major powers began to sense the danger of escalation. As if to compound the West’s problem, Saudi Arabia threatened to cut off oil supplies until the restoration of peace in the Middle East. On 22 October a hurried cease-fire was agreed, to the relief of both the Arabs and the Israelis, although fighting continued in the Sinai for three more days.
The Yom Kippur War provided a valuable lesson for the Israelis. It taught them that the Arabs were not the ill trained and poorly equipped adversaries they had fought before. As today’s advanced Russian technology once again finds new customers within the Arab states military forces and the din of anti-Israel rhetoric grows, the IDF could well be seeing a case of history repeating itself.