Australia/Israel Review


From 1973 to Israel’s next war

Sep 28, 2023 | Ehud Eilam

Israeli tanks in the Sinai Desert, 1973 (Image: Public domain)
Israeli tanks in the Sinai Desert, 1973 (Image: Public domain)

This October, Israel will mark 50 years since the 1973 war, fought primarily with Egypt and Syria. That war, known as the Yom Kippur War, because it was launched on Judaism’s holiest day, had an enormous impact on Israel. It is still remembered there as a traumatic event, given Israel was caught by surprise at the start of the war, the IDF’s military setbacks and the high human cost of the war. 

Today, the IDF is focused on preparing for a possible war with its current foes, mostly Hezbollah and Hamas – both non-state actors while the 1973 war was fought against Arab states. The different types of enemies lead to clear differences – along with some similarities – between the challenges the IDF faced in 1973 and those it is facing today. 

Among the IDF’s challenges in 1973 which are still relevant today: maintaining relations with the United States; the need to be able to fight on more than one front at the same time; taking into account the regional balance of power; suppressing enemy fire such as anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles; the threat of an invasion into Israeli civilian areas; and the crucial importance of the support and motivation of Israeli society as a whole. 

The 1973 war was a major test of US-Israeli relations. Israel required US support on both the political and military levels. Most notably, Israel urgently needed US material aid during that war, in light of the massive aid from the Soviet Union that was going to the Arab side. Since then, Israel and the US have continued to develop their relationship, and US military aid to Israel has continued to grow. The same military and political backing from the US would again be essential for Israel in a future conflict. 

Current ongoing tensions between Jerusalem and Washington, due to disagreements over the Palestinian issue, US negotiations with Iran and the internal political crisis in Israel, could undermine US assistance to Israel, especially politically, if a new war breaks out. Washington might also seek to shape Israeli policy in return for its support. Israel will be forced to consider its response to any such US request, while taking into account the level of dependency on US assistance and support during such a war.

In the 1973 war, Israel had two main fronts – the Golan Heights and the Sinai Desert (there was another very minor front, vis-a-vis Lebanon). In a future war, Israel is likely to again face enemies on more than one front. In a worst-case scenario, Israel might have to fight on as many as five such fronts: Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and inside Israel. Missiles and drones might also be fired at Israel from distant states such as Iraq, Yemen and Iran. 

In the 1973 war, Israel faced several Arab militaries, mostly those of Egypt and Syria, which also received support from other Arab states, the most important of which was Iraq. The Egyptian military alone had 800,000 troops. In a new conflict, Israel is likely to have to fight several non-state actors (NSA) – but none are comparable to a large national military. The most powerful NSA Israel currently faces is Hezbollah, which has up to 60,000 fighters. The IDF, therefore, may be dealing with a much smaller number of enemy troops than in the 1973 showdown. It should also be noted that in 1973, around three million Jews were living in Israel. Today there are more than seven million Jewish Israelis, allowing the IDF to mobilise many more troops than in 1973, while some non-Jewish Israelis also serve in the IDF. Moreover, due to major improvements in military technology, the IDF can complete many of its missions with fewer soldiers than in 1973. 

The IDF has large amounts of aircraft, tanks, artillery etc. while NSAs don’t have comparable weapons systems, unlike the Arab militaries in 1973. However, Hezbollah and the other NSAs have mortars, rockets and missiles that could inflict heavy military and civilian casualties, cause substantial damage to infrastructure and property, destroy weapons systems and disrupt operations. Protection of Israeli armoured vehicles has improved significantly since 1973, but so too has the effectiveness of anti-tank missiles such as those known to be in the hands of some enemy NSAs. As in 1973, suppressing anti-tank missile fire would be a complicated task, dependent on tactical constraints, terrain, military circumstances, and the tactical steps taken by both sides. Some old-fashioned measures from 1973, such as using smoke to obscure troops from enemy view, would likely be helpful in Israel’s next war.  

Israel today relies upon its Air Force to a greater degree than ever before (Image: Shutterstock)

In the 1973 war, Israel’s Air Force (IAF) faced major difficulties in confronting the dense and highly effective air defence systems deployed especially by Egypt. The IAF lost more than 100 aircraft – a huge cost. There is also disagreement about how much the IAF was able to assist the ground forces in 1973, given the dangers posed to planes by these Arab anti-aircraft systems. 

Current Arab NSAs don’t have powerful air defences. Hezbollah does have some effective anti-aircraft missiles such as the SA-17. These systems may be able to shoot down a few Israeli jets, which could be marketed as a propaganda achievement for Hezbollah. Yet, all in all, it would not stop or suppress IAF operations and supremacy. This is a major advantage for the IDF because today the IAF plays a larger role in the army’s tactical plans and strategic doctrine than it played in 1973. 

In fact, today’s IDF relies heavily on the IAF. Before the 1973 war, Israel invested heavily in the IAF, yet the ground forces, and especially the IDF’s armoured units, were also quite powerful. Over the last decade, the IDF has focused more on the IAF and, to some degree, the infantry, at the expense of armour. The rationale is that large scale and accurate air bombardment, together with infantry operations to hold territory, could replace the massive armour attacks that were central to IDF operations in 1973. This is a calculated risk, because if the IAF fails to meet IDF expectations, the army might struggle to carry out major ground offensives. 

Yet the IAF could potentially be crippled if its airfields were to come under heavy attack, or be partly neutralised by waves of missiles, rockets and drones. There are also some weather conditions in which the IAF is less effective. 

In addition to the current iterations of the IDF’s long-standing challenges, there is also a new problem that was not relevant in 1973. The deep political crisis in Israel with respect to controversial proposed judicial reforms has led to protests, including by reserve IAF officers, which might ultimately undermine the airforce’s capabilities. For the moment, however, the IAF is very strong and can inflict devastating blows on Israel’s enemies. 

In 1973, Arab militaries managed to penetrate into Israeli-held territory but only in areas that were not officially part of Israel proper at the time – the Golan Heights and Sinai. In the Golan Heights, the Syrian military managed to penetrate quite deeply, but in a few days, it was pushed out, and the IDF then seized more land in Syria, which was later returned. The Egyptian military retook only a tiny part of the Sinai Peninsula, and neither the Syrian nor the Egyptian armies ever got close to Israel’s major population centres. 

In a future war, Hamas and Hezbollah are likely to seek to send their elite fighters on ground raids inside Israel. To counter such a scenario, Israel has been building obstacles along the border with Lebanon that would help delay any such attacks. Some raiders might nonetheless penetrate Israel, harm Israelis, and cause damage – but are not expected to be able to hold on to territory. It would be only a matter of time before all of them were killed, captured or driven out of Israel. Nevertheless, Israel must be prepared to try to prevent and contain such attacks to the greatest extent possible.

In the 1973 war, the Israeli home front was quite safe. The Arab militaries made a few failed attempts to strike targets deep inside Israel, without much effect. By contrast, Hezbollah has 150,000 rockets and missiles that can potentially hit every spot in Israel, including the Tel Aviv area, Israel’s biggest population centre. Hamas’ arsenal is much smaller, but can also strike a large part of Israel. 

Israel’s current sophisticated missile defences – such as this Arrow battery – are required to counter new threats to the Israeli heartland that did not exist in 1973 (Image: Isranet)

To counter this threat, Israel has developed sophisticated missile defences. One part of these, the short-range Iron Dome system, has proven itself in battle hundreds of times over the past few years. Other systems that target longer-range missiles, the Arrow and David’s Sling, have so far seen very little actual combat use. Furthermore, against Hamas, Israel’s missile defence systems can do quite well, but Hezbollah’s large stockpile of rockets and missiles is likely to be able to overwhelm Israeli defences, meaning a considerable number may be able to penetrate and hit Israeli sites.

If that happens, it would be very costly for Israel, and would also likely have a significant impact on war-related decision-making. If Israel’s civilian population were to take heavy casualties, this would likely bring fierce Israeli retribution. 

In the 1973 war, Israel lost around 2,500 soldiers. In the next war, the cost will probably be much less. Nevertheless, Israel has become much more sensitive to casualties since 1973.

Another difference could potentially be in motivation. Many IDF soldiers, as in the 1973 war, will of course be willing to risk their lives if war again breaks out. However, if the ongoing political crisis in Israel worsens, this could undermine the motivation of some soldiers, particularly among the reservists. Given the current divisions and lack of trust in Israeli politics, some opponents might argue the government of the day could have prevented the war, or even accuse it of starting the conflict for political reasons. If some reservists come to believe this, their lack of motivation could severely impact the IDF’s performance. It is vital Israelis work to prevent any such problem. 

All in all, Israel’s next war might well be highly demanding, especially if its enemies include Hezbollah. Yet, based on lessons from past wars, including the 1973 war, the IDF and Israel’s political leadership should know how to anticipate and avoid critical mistakes that could cost Israel dearly. 

Dr. Ehud Eilam has been a strategic analyst focusing on Israeli national security for the last 35 years. He served in the Israeli military and later worked as a researcher for the Israeli Ministry of Defence. He has a Ph.D. from Bar-Ilan University and is the author of eight books including, most recently, Israeli Strategies in the Middle East: The Case of Iran (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022). 

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