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Israel Air Force’s Relative Failure in Yom Kippur War Comes to Light

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Benny Peled, left, the air force chief during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Benny Peled, left, the air force chief during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Credit: IDF Archive at the Defense Ministry

Nearly 1,000 books, a cautious estimate, have been published about the 1973 Yom Kippur War, more than half of them in Hebrew. Prof. Uri Bar-Joseph is the author of two of the most important.

“The Watchman Fell Asleep,” whose English-language version came out in 2005, is the classic account of the history of the surprise to Israel’s intelligence community at the start of the war. “The Angel: The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel” (English 2016) adds what was banned for publication about Israel's spy among Egypt’s leaders, Ashraf Marwan, and about how he tried to warn Israel of the impending war.

In the past year and a half, Bar-Joseph researched a subject that has drawn surprisingly little attention from historians of the war: the role of the air force in the campaign. The results are found in a trenchant new Hebrew-language book whose title translates as “A War of Its Own: The Air Force in the Yom Kippur War.” The air force chief during the war, Benny Peled, gets the same critical and thorough treatment that Military Intelligence chief Eli Zeira got in the two earlier books.

Let’s put it this way. If you’re ever responsible for a major security snafu, make sure Bar-Joseph doesn’t write a book about you.

In the years before the 1973 war, about half the defense budget was invested in the air force, which emerged from the 1967 Six-Day War basking in glory. But after the ‘73 war, contrary to the air force’s splendid tradition, not even an internal investigation was undertaken. Only one researcher, Shmuel Gordon (who flew a Phantom jet in the war), authored a study, the Hebrew-language “Thirty Hours in October,” about the air force at the beginning of the war.

In 2013, on the war’s 40th anniversary, a meeting took place between the current air force headquarters staff and the 1973 headquarters officers. Peled was no longer alive but his spirit, one participant says, still hovered in the room. His subordinates were afraid to speak openly.

Bar-Joseph told Haaretz on Thursday that in his research he discovered “an exceptional air force that suffered in the war from failed management and a series of mistaken decisions. The air force’s system of command is highly centralized. The control center in fact controls every movement of a plane in the air. In these circumstances, the force’s commander wields vast influence.

“Peled was very assertive but lacked operational experience compared to his predecessor, Motti Hod. He refused to listen to other opinions or criticism from the people under him. He was fixated on destroying the Arabs’ air forces, as was done in 1967. The commanders of the bases sat with him in meetings every evening. It was clear to them that mistakes were being made, but few of them dared speak out.”

David Elazar, the military chief during the Yom Kippur War. Credit: IDF Archive at the Defense Ministry

The result, Bar-Joseph says, “was an operational conception that after two days of combat pushed aside the preoccupation with the enemy’s surface-to-air missile systems, which were the major obstacle to the air force’s aid to the ground troops. Instead, the focus was on the Egyptian airfields as a main target for attacks by the Phantom squadrons.” Those forays produced limited results, while the threat posed to the Israeli rear by the Egyptian planes was negligible (because they had to cross the Sinai Peninsula), and the danger they posed to the Israeli planes was limited.

Bar-Joseph quotes an astonishing conversation between Peled; the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, David Elazar; and two other senior air force officers at midday on October 18, 1973, 12 days into the war. Elazar said bitterly: “For some reason I believed until now that in a war all efforts should be concentrated in joint, active efforts, and that we should spare our forces regarding everything secondary …. Today I’m learning from you that in the air force it works differently and that the main thing is to deal with the periphery.”

In the background was the IDF’s crossing to the western side of the Suez Canal. After three days of fighting at the bridgehead, the IDF had lost nearly 600 combat troops and was having a hard time advancing. Elazar expected the air force to focus on attacking the surface-to-air missile batteries in the area, to help him assist the ground forces. But Elazar discovered that Peled had chosen to bomb Qantara to the north, a less relevant sector. Six planes were lost in that raid.

According to Bar-Joseph, Elazar didn’t dictate operational efforts to Peled. “He disagreed with him sometimes, but he didn’t run him. That might be due to personal dynamics between them, but it was also the result a 20-year operational culture in which the air force enjoyed full autonomy in the IDF. I worry that the air force enjoys a similar degree of freedom today.”

In another jolting episode in the book, Peled sometimes deliberately reported a lower number of able planes – and also lower estimates of the number of planes that had been hit and were quickly being repaired. But Peled apparently knew the real figures. He later explained that he noticed poor morale among his General Staff colleagues, who were reluctant to launch a counterattack over the canal, so he tried to spur them to act quickly before the planes that would enable that crossing ran out.

Some of the conclusions in the book are relevant today, Bar-Joseph believes. “Today the leadership and the public recoil from land battles and the casualties they entail. At the same time, there is a strong belief in the air force’s ability to cope with the threats,” he says.

“The biggest threat in the next war will be the firing of missiles and rockets at the civilian rear. After one day of combat dozens of buildings in the center of the country will be badly hit. The air force is perceived as a panacea for that.

“The public expects us to inflict extremely heavy damage on Hezbollah in response – which is logical – with these airstrikes stopping most of the firing at the rear. A vast gap regarding expectations will emerge. In reality, it will be impossible to deal with each launcher, and then will come the disappointment. That’s a point that also has to be taken into account when Israel takes offensive steps that could bring a war closer.”

Another question relates to decision-making under pressure, something the current political and military leadership has no experience with. As Bar-Joseph puts it, “The IDF of 1973 was an excellent army, highly experienced. A tank commander in the 11th Reserve Brigade had more combat experience than the chief of staff and the major generals today. The same holds for the gap between Golda Meir and [minister and adviser] Israel Galili and the experience of Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid. They’ll have to make extremely difficult decisions while casualties are being inflicted, and all of it under a hysteria offensive on social media.”

This week the defense minister and chief of staff chose Tomer Bar as the next air force chief. Not that Maj. Gen. Bar needs this recommendation from a newspaper, but Bar-Joseph’s book seems to be required reading before he takes over one of the most important positions for Israel’s security.

The American way

Amid the dispute that flared up again this week between the political leaders and the Health Ministry over coronavirus policy, let’s have a look at what’s happening in the United States. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, was grilled in a Senate hearing about the Americans’ chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. He admitted that the event was a “strategic failure.”

Milley isn’t necessarily the paragon of an impartial public servant. A little more than a year ago he was lambasted for accompanying President Donald Trump on a bizarre visit to a Washington church after anti-Trump demonstrators were violently dispersed near the White House.

U.S. military chief Mark Milley, center, with his Israeli counterpart Aviv Kochavi and Defense Minister Benny Gantz in Tel Aviv last December.Credit: Ariel Hermoni / Defense Ministry

He later apologized, and the books published this summer about Trump’s wacky presidency contain plenty of revelations of unusual actions by Milley during the president’s final year in office. It seems the general, who undoubtedly was a major source for some of the books, breached many of the accepted rules of behavior in his efforts to protect the armed forces from the stain that marked such a deviant presidency.

In Israel, the U.S. chief of staff’s comments remind us of the COVID dispute, and further back, the disagreement at the end of the ‘90s between Ehud Barak and the IDF High Command over the prime minister’s decision to withdraw from southern Lebanon. (Though today most of those generals admit he was right.)

Milley was asked about the confrontation with Joe Biden over the withdrawal from Afghanistan. “The president doesn’t have to agree with that advice. He doesn’t have to make those decisions just because we’re generals,” he said in reply to a question by Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican. “This country doesn’t want generals figuring out what orders we’re going to accept and do or not.”

Milley commented on top officers’ qualms about the order to evacuate Afghanistan immediately while leaving behind many people who had served the United States loyally. According to Milley, “it would be an incredible act of political defiance for a commissioned officer to resign just because my advice was not taken.” He added, “My dad didn’t get a chance to resign at Iwo Jima. And those kids there at Abbey Gate [in Kabul], they don’t get a choice to resign.”

You can say plenty of bad things about the Americans, but it’s hard not to admire the relations between the president, the Senate and the armed forces in their democracy as seen in the hearing and the exchange between the general and the senator. Here, too, it seems, Israel can still learn from the United States.

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