The Importance of the Tactical Level: The Arab-Israeli War of 1973

This article was originally published by The Strategy Bridge.
Syrian T-55 tank after an unsuccessful assault on an Israeli position (Israel Defense Forces/Wikimedia)
Edit: Slightly cropped by blog owner


It is widely agreed that there are three levels of war.[1] From the general to the local, they are the strategic, operational, and tactical levels. Strategy is the alignment of means and ways to accomplish a political end. Strategy is about winning the war. Tactics consist of locally achieving victory through a series of actions that, taken globally, participate directly or indirectly in the accomplishment of strategy. Tactics are typically about winning battles. Finally, operations consist of connecting the tactics to the strategy. To do so, the operational level aims to create campaigns—a series of tactical actions which pursue specific operational aims—to ultimately accomplish specific strategic goals. The operational level is typically about winning a series of campaigns to accomplish the stated strategy.

Each level of war is essential to achieve success, and are all equally important. The Arab-Israeli War of 1973 provides an illustration of why the tactical level is essential. This article will first provide elements to understand the broader aspect of the conflict, before demonstrating how the lack of tactical skill doomed the attackers.

Strategic Context and Objectives

After the Six Day War of 1967, Israel took the Sinai from Egypt and the Golan Heights from Syria. Egyptian leader Muhammad Anwar el-Sadat wanted to resolve the Egyptian-Israeli conflict diplomatically, but failed. Consequently, he decided to use force.[2] Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad also wanted war with Israel, in part to avenge the Syrian defeat of 1967.[3]

While al-Assad initially sought the destruction of Israel, Sadat persuaded him to agree to limited objectives: the recapture of the Sinai and the Golan, a settlement of the refugee problem, and the recognition of a Palestinian entity.[4] The Egyptian leader considered that these objectives did not pose a threat to the vital interests of Israel, and would not provoke a nuclear retaliation.[5]

Egyptian military trucks cross a bridge laid over the Suez Canal on October 7th, 1973, during the Yom Kippur War/October War (Central Intelligence Agency/Wikimedia)

The Egyptians designed a set-piece offensive to accomplish these objectives. They were to surprise the Israelis, cross the Suez Canal, push 8 to 16 kilometers into the Sinai, then dig in. They would then defend their gains against the Israelis and wear them down with entrenched infantry equipped with anti-tank equipment covered by a comprehensive anti-air defense system.[6] To compensate for past difficulties with combined arms, initiative, and tactical improvisation, the Egyptians scripted the entire operation down to the last detail. Every squad and platoon had scripted orders to follow, and the troops rehearsed the operation.[7]

The Syrians wanted to conquer the Golan Heights within 24 hours then prepare defenses to face a counterattack. Specifically, they wanted to achieve two breakthroughs in the area north of Quneitra and in the south-central region at ar-Rafid, and exploit these to move into the Israeli rear.[8] The plan also called for a stabilization of defensive lines along the Jordan River or on the Western slopes of the Golan by seizing the small number of entry points into the Golan from Israel, sealing the plateau to prevent a counterattack and trapping the defenders in the Golan itself.[9] Like the Egyptians, the Syrians scripted their offensive in great detail, and they learned the operation until they knew it by heart.[10]

The Egyptians and the Syrians were to launch the offensive at the same time, on two different fronts, and catch the Israelis by surprise. Indeed, Israeli intelligence failed to anticipate the threat. As a result, Israel was largely unprepared for a two-front strategic offensive. Moreover, the attackers had an absolutely crushing advantage in numbers.

Strengths on Each Front

On the Egyptian side, the attackers had 300,000 soldiers, over 2,400 tanks, and 2,300 artillery pieces, of which about 200,000, 1,600, and 2,000 soldiers, tanks, and artillery pieces, respectively, were part of the initial assault.[11] Facing them were about 18,000 soldiers, 300 tanks, and 90 artillery pieces, with the nearest significant reinforcements 24 hours away.[12]

On the Syrian side, the attackers had 60,000 soldiers, 1,400 tanks, 600 artillery pieces, and, like the Egyptians, a large anti-air defense system.[13] The defenders had about 6,000 soldiers, 170 tanks, and 60 artillery pieces.[14]

Clearly, the Israelis were at a terrible numerical disadvantage, with a ratio of roughly 1 to 11 in the Sinai, and of 1 to 10 in the Golan, considering soldiers, tanks, and artillery pieces altogether. Only in the air did they roughly have a 1-to-1 ratio, but this parity only considered one attacker at a time. Taking both the Egyptian and Syrian Air Forces together, the Israelis had half the aircraft of their adversaries.[15]

Execution of the Offensives

The attackers launched their two-front assault on October 6th. The Egyptian offensive proceeded far better than expected. Within 18 hours, 90,000 soldiers and 850 tanks crossed the Suez Canal.[16] After crossing, the attackers began consolidating and expanding their bridgeheads.[17] The Egyptians beat back every counterattack, and by the end of the first two days, the Israelis lost 200 of their 300 tanks.[18] However, the Egyptians abandoned their secure positions as their political leadership decided to come to the aid of their Syrian ally who was being badly mauled by the Israelis. Consequently, a new offensive, this time not scripted or rehearsed, was launched on October 14th.[19] The attack was a catastrophe, and the Israelis soon counterattacked and severely damaged the Egyptian forces.[20] The fighting stopped on October 28th, when Israel agreed to a ceasefire in part due to international pressure.[21] The Egyptians lost their initial gains and were pushed back to the west bank of the Suez canal.

Map depicting the war in the Sinai from October 6th to October 15th, 1973 (Department of History, U.S. Military Academy/Wikimedia)

On the Syrian side, the assault was catastrophic from the start and achieved few gains while suffering enormous casualties. The Israeli tanks were shooting faster and straighter, and the destruction of advancing Syrian vehicles led to a massive traffic jam.[22] The first day of the battle was an overall failure for the Syrians, though they did manage to penetrate the general defensive line and seize portions of the Golan to within a few kilometers of the Jordan River passages. They also captured the Mount Hermon outpost.[23] Specifically, the northern sector of the Golan was holding, but the southern sector had been penetrated.[24]

Map depicting the war on the Golan Heights from October 6th to October 24th, 1973 (Department of History, U.S. Military Academy/Wikimedia)

On the second day of the battle, the Syrians were far behind schedule; they had not yet descended the plateau and had given up on seizing the bridges overnight.[25] The failure to take the bridges allowed the Israelis to continue rushing reserves into the Golan.[26] The next day, on October 8th, the Israelis amassed enough forces to mount a counterattack to push the Syrians back, and fighting ensued.[27] The Israelis managed to push the Syrians all the way back into Syria through October 14th.[28] The belligerents then accepted a United Nations-brokered ceasefire on October 23rd.[29]

Tactical Ineffectiveness

The attackers had perfect conditions to accomplish at least their operational goals. Indeed, they enjoyed strategic surprise, crushing numerical superiority, a simultaneous two-front attack, and the complacent overconfidence of their enemy. Yet, they were dramatically beaten on the battlefield. Their crushing defeat can be primarily blamed on catastrophic tactical skill.

The Egyptians were initially successful during the scripted part of the conflict, but even then the Israelis only had about 30 reservists defending each fort of the Bar Lev line, as opposed to about 100 professional soldiers in times of tension.[30] Towards the end of the initial offensive, Egyptian difficulties started to appear.[31] As soon as the effects of surprise, numerical superiority, Israeli unpreparedness, and the script faded, the tactical dearth of the attackers started showing.[32] During the improvised offensive to help the Syrians, the Egyptians were slow and rigid. Units attacked piecemeal, battlefield commanders were not adaptive, assaults were only frontal with no maneuver, and there was little to no combined arms integration.[33] Mechanized infantry never dismounted, artillery barrages were ineffective, tanks did not maneuver and merely tried to frontally overwhelm the Israelis with firepower.[34] During the ensuing Israeli counteroffensive, the Egyptians failed to adequately scout their attacks; their armor launched clumsy frontal assaults, failed to maneuver, and were unable to adapt when caught from the flank or rear.[35] In the air, the Egyptians suffered a ratio in casualties of about 25 to 1.[36]

The Syrians performed even worse, and repeatedly proved incapable of tactical skill, even when the offensive was scripted. When the lead armored vehicles were destroyed during the first assault, the others kept driving forward, refusing to stop or move off the roads to bypass the destroyed vehicles, causing numerous collisions which made the traffic jam even worse.[37] The Syrians refused to retreat unless ordered by higher command to do so, even if it was for mere maneuver.[38] Like the Egyptians, they failed to use combined arms integration to their advantage.[39] Notably, they did not give their infantry a larger role other than merely accompanying armored units, although they were in theory and, in terms of equipment, perfectly capable of destroying Israeli tanks.[40] For instance, the Syrian 43rd Mechanized Brigade, by its own initiative, tried to take the defenders from the rear around Quneitra, but failed to deploy adequate scouts or flank guards. As a result, the unit was repeatedly ambushed and mauled by only seven tanks, while the attackers fielded 45, of which only five remained intact at the conclusion of the engagement. After this encounter, the Syrian unit pulled back.[41] In the air, the Syrians suffered casualties at a ratio of about 1:16.[42]

Destruction in the al-Qunaytra village in the Golan Heights, after the Israeli withdrawal in 1974 (The Online Museum for Syrian History/Wikimedia)

Material Advantage is not Tactical Effectiveness

The Arab-Israeli War of 1973 is an illustration that victory in battle does not depend solely on numbers or equipment. What matters the most is the ability to adapt to the situation and implement effective combined arms integration, initiative from officers, the doctrine employed, the quality of training, and familiarity with the equipment. Specifically, this conflict is an illustration of what can happen when a defender who implements the “modern system” is fighting attackers who did not. According to Stephen Biddle, the modern system is a “tightly interrelated complex of cover, concealment, dispersion, suppression, small-unit independent maneuver, and combined arms at the tactical level, and depth, reserves, and differential concentration at the operational level of war.”[43] In other words, the modern system is a military attribute which emphasizes force employment–the doctrine and tactics–that a military uses, rather than the quality of the used equipment or numbers per se.[44]

A military using the modern system consequently prioritizes non-material factors such as tactics, doctrine, skill, morale, and leadership over material elements to achieve victory in battle.[45] In 1973, Israel possessed such a system, unlike Egypt and Syria. Because of that, the overwhelming numbers of the attackers were not enough to overcome. The combination of the modern system and the lethality of modern weapons quickly showed that numbers were not enough.[46]

Explaining Egypt and Syria’s Tactical Ineffectiveness

The tactical ineffectiveness of the attackers in 1973 can be explained by a critical dearth in key non-material factors necessary to optimal performance in battle. Egypt and Syria arguably could not implement the modern system, mainly because of cultural and behavioral factors inherent to their societies.[47] Egypt was initially successful because it scripted the entire operation, which prevented negative behavioral factors from playing a part in the execution of the offensive. But when the Egyptians were unable to use their script, they had to improvise, which brought these factors back into play, to the dismay of Egypt.[48] Syria had to adapt from the beginning, as its scripted plan failed, which meant that such factors impacted the conduct of the operation right away, with infamous consequences.


The Arab-Israeli War of 1973 showcases what can happen when an attacker, despite crushing numerical superiority and key advantages such as strategic surprise and a two-front offensive, is unable to prevail because of poor tactics. No operational or strategic decision from the military leadership to change the situation helped or could have helped. Egypt and Syria were doomed to fail as long as their scripted plan was seriously disrupted. Good tactics could have changed the situation, as the attackers could have adapted to the events on the ground to pursue their—sensible and realistic—operational and strategic objectives. However, the Egyptian and Syrian forces demonstrated a critical lack of adaptability, combined arms integration, maneuvering, and comprehensive training, among other things. In other words, a critical lack of tactical skill. Surprise, crushing numbers and (inaccurate) firepower could not compensate for this flaw.

[1] For example, see Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History, New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, 72-5, 201-13; Général Michel Yakovleff, Tactique théorique, 3rd edition, Paris: Ed. ECONOMICA, 2016, 35-7; Daniel Sukman, “The Institutional Level of War,” The Strategy Bridge, 2016,

[2] Kenneth M. Pollack, Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness, 1948-1991, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004, 98.

[3] Ibid., 478.

[4] Simon Dunstan, The Yom Kippur War: The Arab-Israeli War of 1973, Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2007, 17-8.

[5] Ibid., 18.

[6] Pollack, Arabs, 102.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 481.

[9] Brig. Gen. (res.) Dr. Dani Asher, “Halting the Syrian Attack,” in Inside Israel’s Northern Command: The Yom Kippur War on the Syrian Border, edited by Brigadier General Dani Asher, IDF (Ret.) (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2016), 127; Pollack, Arabs, 481.

[10] Pollack, Arabs, 482.

[11] Ibid., 107.

[12] Ibid., 106-7.

[13] Ibid., 483.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 107, 108, 484; Dunstan, The Yom Kippur War, 127.

[16] Pollack, Arabs, 111.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Kenneth M. Pollack, Armies of Sand: The Past, Present, and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness, New York: Oxford University Press, 2019, 134-35.

[19] Pollack, Arabs, 115-16.

[20] Ibid., 116.

[21] Ibid., 123.

[22] Abraham Rabinovich, The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter That Transformed the Middle East, New York: Schocken Books, 2004, 153; James L. Young, Jr., “The Heights of Ineptitude: The Syrian Army’s Assault on the Golan Heights,” The Journal of Military History 74, no. 3 (July 2010), 861; Dunstan, The Yom Kippur War, 150.

[23] Eyal Zisser, “Syria and the October War: The Missed Opportunity,” in The Yom Kippur War: Politics, Legacy, Diplomacy, edited by Asaf Siniver (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 75.

[24] Asher, “Halting,” 161.

[25] Rabinovich, The Yom Kippur War,194.

[26] Pollack, Arabs, 489.

[27] Dunstan, The Yom Kippur War, 183.

[28] David Rodman, Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press, 2017, 47.

[29] Pollack, Arabs, 498.

[30] Ibid., 106.

[31] Pollack, Armies, 136.

[32] Pollack, Arabs, 113-14.

[33] Pollack, Armies, 138.

[34] Pollack, Arabs, 117.

[35] Ibid., 119.

[36] Pollack, Armies, 141.

[37] Pollack, Arabs, 486.

[38] Dunstan, The Yom Kippur War, 164.

[39] Young, “The Heights,” 862.

[40] For more details on the Syrian infantry’s anti-tank equipment, see ibid., 858.

[41] Pollack, Arabs, 487.

[42] Ibid., 500.

[43] Stephen Biddle, Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004, 3.

[44] Ibid., 2.

[45] Ibid., 17.

[46] Ibid., 69.

[47] For an argumentation on how culture negatively impacted military effectiveness, see Kenneth M. Pollack, Armies of Sand: The Past, Present, and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness, New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

[48] Ibid., 472-75.