By Leonardo Palma
The 1973 Yom Kippur War has been regarded by traditional historiography as an intelligence failure. Western intelligence services, as well as Israeli military intelligence, failed in anticipating President Anwar Sadat’s intentions, to the point that the war provoked the intervention of both the US and the USSR and the risk of a nuclear confrontation. However, declassified archive materials, interviews, and memoirs allow us to tell a different story: though it is true that the Israelis underestimated the Egyptians, the former had all the information they needed to anticipate the invasion. Western intelligence services correctly sensed Sadat’s intentions in waging war but failed to grasp Egypt’s military capabilities and misread the expulsion of Soviet advisors. The Italian foreign Intelligence Service (SID), however, communicated to its Israeli military counterpart (Aman) in 1971 how Egypt would attack. Thanks to intelligence gathered in Eastern Germany and a brilliant order of battle analysis of the Egyptian Army, the SID inferred that Sadat’s generals would intend to use a new concept of tactical movement tested by the Soviets to cope with Israel’s air superiority: the static coverage of the battlefield. After having examined British and American intelligence evaluations, misconceptions, and cognitive dissonance, this post will assess the Italian order of battle analysis, Egypt’s tactical concept, and the delicate balance between failure and success in military intelligence.
Foreseeing the War. Western Military Intelligence before October 1973
Between 1970 and 1973, military intelligence failure was not due to an inability to understand motivations and intentions, as previous historiography has argued, but rather capabilities. Sadat, facing domestic turmoil, low-popularity, and the risk of being overthrown, needed a limited military action to bolster his role as president. Moreover, he knew that it would not be possible to ensure the Israelis’ withdrawal from the Sinai without Soviet-US mediation. Therefore, in the second-half of 1973, Sadat sought a war that could allow him to reinvigorate Egyptian prestige by demonstrating its military prowess on the battlefield and the ability to negotiate from a renewed position of strength. In effect, it was necessary to prove that the Israeli invincibility was a false myth. While British and American intelligence analysts broadly understood that fact, they still failed when it came to judging Egypt’s ability to carry out such goals, and the result was the same as not having understood Sadat’s intentions in the first place – an erroneously reduced perception of threat.
It happened because they could not distinguish the ʺsignalsʺ correctly (that is, Egypt’s true intentions and capabilities) from the ʺnoiseʺ (that is, the boisterous and frequently pompous political rhetoric emanating from the region). The British and the Americans rightly applied a cultural approach to their analysis, but the latter had a double-edged effect. At the same time, the ʺspecificity of Arab political culture were a major contributing factor to analytical strengths in reading Sadat’s intentions in 1973, yet similar cultural beliefs culminated in a fundamental misreading of Egypt’s military capabilitiesʺ. Western intelligence services, as well as their Israeli counterparts, believed that the Arabs were not good fighters and that even if rhetoric and intentions overlapped, capabilities were largely scarce. Further, they also misread the Soviet role in the crisis after Egypt expelled them in early 1972. As long as Soviet advisors were in Cairo, analysts consciously resisted the temptation to look at the USSR-Egypt relationship only through the prism of the Cold War; instead, they focused on regional dynamics. Ironically, as soon as the Soviets left, these analysts reversed to a more simplistic assessment of Egypt’s capabilities within a Cold War-framework, in which they lacked Soviet backing, In such an assessment, Egypt stood no chance of military success.
Whatever the reasons for failure, Richard Aldrich, a leading intelligence historian, concludes that the war “was not foreseen by any of the world’s major intelligence services”. We know now that that is not the case, since the Italian SID correctly predicted not only the war but even the tactical concept beneath the Egyptian army doctrine of operation.
The Italian Job. SID Order of Battle Analysis and Predictions
At the beginning of the 1970s, thanks to NATO intelligence-gathering network, the Italian SID acquired details about some Soviet military exercises in Eastern Germany. The 8th Guards Combined Arms Army was a Soviet elite unit comprised of mechanized and armoured divisions and deployed nearby the Fulda Gap. The latter had tested a new kind of anti-aircraft defence that Italian analysts had labelled as ʺstatic coverage of the battlefieldʺ. The Army moved at a slow pace, a few miles per day, which was nothing compared to the speed of the Nazi armoured divisions during the 1940 French Campaign. However, slowness was compensated by a five-layered anti-aircraft coverage: four SAM (Surface-to-Air) systems at various heights and one of mobile anti-aircraft artillery. This new approach to manoeuvre was a Soviet answer to the Western air-superiority in the European theatre.
Nonetheless, the Soviets had thousands of military advisors in Egypt and Syria, and Italian intelligence tracked the shipment to Cairo of several SAM-1, SAM-2, SAM-3, SAM-6, SAM-7, and self-propelled anti-aircraft guns. Admiral Fulvio Martini, Chief of the Service, recalled in his memoir that his analysts foresaw the connection between Sadat’s strategic goals and the ʺstatic coverage of the battlefieldʺ. The latter could indeed serve the purposes of the former.
Italian SID adopted a more pragmatic mindset than their British and American counterparts, leaving aside cultural aspects while focusing on the material ones. They assumed that Sadat would behave as any leader would do once he had assessed that, to survive politically, he needed to wash the shame of the 1967 naksah (setback) and recover the Sinai Peninsula. If he could have managed to keep even one soldier beyond the Canal before a ceasefire, he would not only have avenged the 1967 defeat but altered bargaining positions to his favour too. Accepting this assumption, it was only a matter of understanding how the Egyptian President intended to do so tactically. Egypt had to cope with three problems: ensuring surprise, combating Israeli air-superiority, and creating a strategic cushion of time before the superpowers would inevitably get involved. Yom Kippur celebrations and the operations’ secrecy (platoon commanders knew that they were going to war only five hours before the beginning of the invasion) guaranteed surprise. The ʺstatic coverageʺ offset Israeli air-superiority, allowing ground troops to cross the Bar-Lev Line, consolidate strategic positions and earn time waiting for international diplomacy to work things out.
Between 1971 and 1973, Israel was aware that both Egypt and Syria needed only 6-hours to shift from defensive to offensive posture along the borders. Conversely, Tel Aviv required at least 30-hours for a full-scale mobilization, and its operational doctrine was built on the assumption that air-superiority was enough to halt enemies’ advance and gain time. This ʺstrategic conceptʺ revolved around the assumption that Egypt would not attack Israel without acquiring Soviets fighter bombers to provide air-superiority. However, the use of static coverage rendered Israeli air-superiority less efficient.
Admiral Martini, then Chief of the ʺUfficio Situazioneʺ (Situation Section, i.e., the Directorate for Analysis), presented his analysts’ conclusions in 1971 to General Shalev. The latter, his counterpart within the Aman and a close friend of prime minister Golda Meir, rebutted the warning, claiming that Egypt could not put in place such a complex tactical manoeuvre and that war was simply not possible.
The ambiguous utility of military intelligence
The case of Israel in the 1973 war is altogether singular and shows the flaws beneath the idea that knowledge superiority, or a lack of it, is essential to military success. Tel Aviv possessed objective superiority over its enemies and, thanks to Western intelligence services and a presumed mole, knowledge superiority as well. What it lacked was flexibility in political and military thinking, which, matched with a misplaced sense of hubris, pushed the military evaluators to underestimate Egypt. Nonetheless, after the US airlift and the start of the counter-offensive, Israel’s military strength remained unmatched throughout the remainder of the war. Therefore, we should remember that knowledge of the enemy’s intentions ʺcannot destroy or deflect or damage or even defy an offensive initiative by an enemy unless the possession of knowledge is also allied to objective forceʺ.
Leonardo Palma attended the Military Academy of Modena (196th Commissioning Course) and holds a MA in International Relations and a BA in Political Science from University of Roma Tre. He has been visiting student at King’s College London (War Studies).