Israel's Intelligence Assessment Before the Yom Kippur War
By: Audrey Kuhnle - Student
Book Review: Israel's Intelligence Assessment Before the Yom Kippur War
Summary of Events
On the morning of October 5th, 1973, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) learned that Soviet advisors were evacuated from their respective Egypt and Syria regions. At this time, the IDF was not acknowledging that this would be a signal for conflict. While they admitted that this was an irregular action, it was ultimately not enough justification to move IDF forces. During that night, geospatial intelligence showed the Egyptian Army had deployed in an irregular mass in the Suez Canal western part. This intelligence triggered the Defense Minister, Moshe Dayan, to authorize Chief of the General Staff (CGS) Lieutenant General David Elazar to place the IDF on alert level C - the highest possible without pulling into the reserves. A combination of lessons learned from the Six-Day War and the new border lines further from the population centers, taught the IDF and civilian leaders that the regular forces could hold defense against any border conflict.
On October 6th at 14:00, Egypt and Syria attacked their respective regions leaving IDF forces outnumbered. In the Golan Heights, attacked by Syria, the IDF halted the attack by the night of the 6th. On October 8th, the IDF launched a counterattack that ended on October 11th, 45 kilometers away from Damascus. On the Egyptian front, the IDF counterattack on October 8th failed, and on October 14th, Egyptian forces crossed the Suez Canal and attacked again. The IDF was able to halt this attack and continued to put pressure on the Egyptian troops until finally encircling them on October 23rd. On October 22nd, the UN declared a ceasefire that led to a war of attrition until Israel made separation of forces agreements with Egypt and Syria in January 1974 and May 1974, respectively.
Ultimately, the military victory did not change the fact that the IDF failed to anticipate the attack, mobilize the reserve forces, or take necessary preparations. Due to this, the government created the Arganat Commission. The commission concluded that liability rested within the IDF's Intelligence Division, specifically the Intelligence Branch director and the Intelligence Branch's research department's Chief deputy director.
Overview: Use of Intelligence
The intelligence branch, until the early morning of the day of attack, believed that war was not happening. They thought thoroughly, based on their assessments, that the massive formation in Egypt was just an exercise. They also believed that Syria was in a new position that could be both offensive and defensive, which was guided by the Syrian connection to the Soviets at the time.¹ Still, based on a meeting with King Hussein, Syria would only go to war with cooperation from Egypt. Since they fully believed that Egypt would not act, the IDF deemed that Syria would not launch a war.
Decisions and Capabilities
The Intelligence branch of the IDF constantly struggled over if Syria was going to attack the Golan Heights and if Egypt was going to attack the Sinai. This decision was informed by what the Intelligence branch deemed as the "concept" for each country. The concept was supposed to be a flowing and inclusive brief of both a political and military assessment. These "concept" assessments were significant factors in the intelligence decision around the possibility of war.
The IDF's intelligence capabilities were mainly within their collections department, one of four departments within their intelligence branch. The collections department had a SIGINT unit, HUMINT unit, and OSINT unit (focused on political and diplomatic affairs). Mossad also supported the IDF's intelligence branch for information regarding happenings outside of Israel's borders. Critical raw information gathered leading up to the Yom Kippur War included imagery collected through air force flyovers and multiple human sources and reports.
Breakdown of Critical Intelligence Failures
Inability to assess Sadat and the Failure of the Egyptian "Concept"
Based on the Egyptian "concept" that IDF intelligence held, President Sadat would not go to war without military support (primarily weapons acquisition) from the Soviets. The assessment issue was that they did not put a time frame on how long the time of "no peace and no war" would last - leaving the situational awareness in a hopeful reality. The assessment did not understand Sadat's impatience with the time of "no peace and no war." Sadat was ready to accept "the calculated risk" of going to war.² While this intelligence was not privy to this conversation, they did know that Sadat replaced the minister of war. This is an indicator that there was a level of disagreement within leadership.
This should have triggered an alter in the Egyptian "concept" at least slightly. The "concept" did not change from this or from the aerial imagery that showed the irregular mass of forces. The Egyptian "concept" understood most Egyptian military assessments (minus the Sagger missiles and SA-6 Surface-to-Air missiles) but ultimately failed to make the correct political assessments.³ Because of the roots in Soviet Doctrine, offensive and defensive formations could be interchangeable, making the trigger of war primarily a political decision.
Over-reliance on High Placed Sources
High placed sources played a significant impact on the stagnant Egyptian "concept." According to the Research Department, the specific high-placed sources that the IDF gathered information from were constantly reliable. This value and reliability perceived by the Research Department repetitively negated other reports. Rather than assigning overall assessments on all useful reports, the Research Department constantly refuted less reliable reports, which led to the decisions to launch a war never being considered. This leads to preferred sources, which leads to the lack of consideration of limited information - or possibly even deception.
Structure of the Agency
The structure of the intelligence branch of the IDF helped cause these issues. The Research Department's Reporting Center received raw information from Collections. The Reporting Center then examined the information for completeness (looking specifically for the "five 'w's" - who, when, where, what, and why) and that the information was understandable. After this evaluation, Collections would move the information to the Research Department, which would assess the source's quality, content, urgency, and complete a comparative examination. The Research Department did this in two stages. The processing of all this information took time. This contributed to information not making it to the Research Department until after it was helpful.
A prime example of this issue was Sadat's War Room preparations on October 4th. This report did not reach the Intelligence branch until months after the war. The information was not understood by the Collection Unit and was therefore not initially moved. This demonstrated a failure in the processes of intelligence tasking and dissemination which was being used – otherwise meaning that the intelligence cycle was failing. More detrimental, such information would have been more likely to change the calculations for war probability.
The Impact of the American Assessment
The American influence on Israeli intelligence was great. The American assessment on the situation found that war was "highly unlikely." ⁴ The American assessment took a hard stance both before and after the war - the "Arab fighting capabilities were … extremely low." ⁵ When the King of Saudi Arabia stated that he convinced Sadat not to go to war, this only reinforced the American assessment. Like the issue stated before with high placed sources, this led to the total negating of any information that declared otherwise. Furthermore, even when Egypt and Syria made the military preparations, the capabilities were still not substantive as there was such a low probability of success.
Up to less than a week before war broke out, the CIA still reported that Sadat's past activities were a sign of "unreadiness to make war." ⁶ DIA reports also stated that the military preparations were "not designed to lead to major hostilities." ⁷ The type of firm ground the American assessment held was a significant influence on the Israeli intelligence assessment. The impact could have led to biases in the evaluation of information.
Egypt and Syria ran extremely successful deception campaigns. With Israeli intelligence's history of evaluating the Egyptian military, they assessed that Egyptian military communications would provide a strong indicator of the likelihood of war. Egyptian senior leaders set up the military exercise where even commanders were not informed of action until five days before. This type of limitation on the plan's knowledge helped ensure it was not leaked. This also led to all SIGINT collection and collection by human sources being almost useless. If a source reported that war was imminent, it would have been negated by the volume of sources stating the opposite.
The author of this was ultimately held accountable for the intelligence failure. This brings up an important question - is intelligence supposed to make the final strategic decision? Shalev argues that intelligence should play a positional role in informing the final strategic decision. However, the final strategic decision does not fall into the expectations of intelligence. To counter, intelligence should be able to give answers. A holistic assessment should inform decision-makers of the correct decisions to make. This responsibility in the structure of the IDF's intelligence branch falls onto the research division's lap. Without giving the decision-makers the best course of action, the assessment is no more than information. Intelligence must be able to provide courses of action from both sides.
The debilitating inability to assess Egypt's decision to go to war rests in balancing military assessments and political assessments. While the book takes a hard stance on this, there is no perfect balance. Decisions to go to war can be purely based on a military assessment, while in other situations, it can be strictly political. More than likely, it is a battle of both evaluations. One could likely be more important than the other, but both are imperative to understanding the complete picture. Understanding the total concept is one of the most criticized aspects of intelligence because it usually lacks it. All failures examined were based on an overreliance on a fact rather than working to build an all-inclusive image of the problem at hand.
1. Aryeh Shalev, Israel’s Intelligence Assessment Before the Yom Kippur War (Sussex Academic Press, 2014), 41.
2. Ibid., 48-49.
3. Ibid., 159.
4. Ibid., 160.
5. Ibid., 161.
7. Ibid., 30.