The modern state of Israel, created in 1948 as a result of a United Nations resolution, is a classic case of a country which possesses no strategic depth, no space with which to trade for time. From the moment of its inception, Israel was under attack by neighboring forces from all sides. For the two decades prior to the Six-Day War in 1967, much of Israeli territory, including its urban and political centers, was subject to artillery fire from the territory of its hostile neighbors. In some places, the distance from one side of the country to the other was only a few miles. The Israeli victory in 1967 resulted in annexation of Sinai, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights, creating buffer zones envisioned to protect Israeli population centers from future conflicts.
Based on its strictly limited geographic extent and the vulnerability of its critical centers, Israel was a classic example of a country which could have benefited from a reliable and effective, forward-positioned barrier. Yet for several reasons, including economics, the length of its threatened borders, and the general political and psychological situation inthe Middle East, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) always relied primarily on an effective reserve and mobilization system for a mobile counterattack force, on an effective Air Force, and when expedient, on pre-emptive strikes.
Only once in its first 40 years of existence did Israel invest significantly in a major barrier fortification system. This was the Bar-Lev Line, named after General Bar-Lev, the Israeli Chief of Staff at the time of its creation, established along the eastern bank of the Suez Canal beginning in 1968. Ironically, this was also both the only time when the Israelis were in possession of a significant buffer space in which they could trade space for time (the wastes of the Sinai Peninsula), and the only time when they suffered astrategic surprise.
The Sinai provided a desert barrier 150 miles wide between Egypt and Israel bounded by the Suez Canal. The IDF constructed defensive positions along the Israeli side of the canal. The Bar-Lev Line consisted of regularly- spaced fortifications interspersed with observation posts and backed by tanks and artillery. The West Bank added depth from Jordanian attack and the Golan Heights provided defensive high ground from which to defend against Syria.
The Suez Canal is a unique water obstacle 170 kilometers in length, with an average width of 200 meters and a depth of about 18 meters. Its sides are covered with layers of cement and iron, and the water level varied with the tidal flow, which changes direction at six-hour intervals. The Sand Barrier on the East bank, a result of dredging, was increased by Israeli engineers to a height of up to 30 meters. The Israelis established a defensive area to a depth of 35 kilometers to the East of the Canal. The Bar-Lev line represented the most forward part of it.
During the striking Israeli victory in the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel occupied all of the Sinai Peninsula up to the banks of the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. As has been the case in all of the Arab-Israeli conflicts, however, military victories by the Israelis did not reconcile their Arab foes to the long-term defeat of their aims. The Egyptians, in particular, learned the bitter lessons of their defeats in 1967. They re-armed rapidly and began along-term plan to harass the Israelis in a war of attrition through artillery shelling, minor raids, and continued political pressures. At the same time, the Egyptians began thorough preparations leading to a planned eventual attack across the Suez Canal and the reconquest of the Sinai.
One major Israeli response to this war of attrition, and to the recognized threat of a future Egyptian invasion across the Suez Canal, was the design and construction of what came to be known as the Bar-Lev Line. Although it was never completed according to original designs, it still became the single largest engineering project ever undertaken by Israel. Like many other defensive systems, however, its purpose became blurred over time and its construction proved a mixed blessing.
The proximate cause for the creation of the Bar-Lev Line was the protection of the Israeli observers on the east bank of the Suez Canal who were suffering casualties from Egyptian artillery shelling. The fortifications eventually built were designed to provide nearly complete personnel protection from direct hits. The engineering and construction on these strong points was properly done and they performed this sheltering function well, both before and during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Their prospective and actual strategic value was another story, however, and has been the subject of a considerable debate, debate which began even before the construction of the so-called Bar-Lev Line.
The Bar-Lev line consisted of 31 strong points, each a complex multi-layeredfortification consisting of several floors, and containing several reinforced concrete bunkers with all round fine positions. Wire entanglements and mine fields surrounded each strong point and extended to a depth of 800 meters. Some points were equipped with napalm tanks giving the ability to cover theCanal locally with fuel, which would produce a sheet of flames one meter in height and raise thetemperature of the water to a boiling point. It was impossible to assault the Suez Canal and the Bar-Lev line except fromthe front. This is contrary to the traditional method of attacking fortified areas.
The Bar-Lev strongpoints, primarily forward observation posts, were spaced at 7-mile intervals along the line of the Canal, with good visibility for both human and electronic means of observation. They were planned for a garrison of 15 men and were to function partially as a warning (trip-wire) outpost line, as well as to provide observation of Egyptian activities. They were to be supported by mobile armored forces held further back from the Canal for the purpose of counter-attacking any Egyptian incursions.
Opposition to the construction of any such line was expressed by Generals Ariel Sharon and Israel Tal at the time of its creation. They believed that the fixed posts only provided permanent targets for the Egyptians. They instead felt the defense of the Canal should be maintained by armored maneuver units alone, in keeping with the previously successful IDF tradition of emphasizing mobility and rapid responses to hostile action.
Israel changed its military strategy of offensive / preemptive strikes on the enemy's territory to an active defense that relied heavily on its superiorair forces and the new Bar Lev line defensive bunkers built along the east bank of the Suez. The Bar Lev line would be the first line of ground defense and alerting mechanism against an Egyptian attack with the IAF on ready alert to back itup. The Bar Lev Line was primarily a holding position until the IAF arrived and full Israelimobilization could occur. As tensions increased before the 1973 war, Israel's doctrine seemed to be working. The Bar Lev line had prevented any new major offensives across the canal by Egypt.
Surprisingly, even though the period between the beginning ofthe Bar-Lev Line in 1968 and its wartime test in 1973 was only 5 years, the Bar-Lev Line suffered the same kind of neglect and changes in policy over its utilization that have afflicted numerous other peacetime barriers through their lifetimes. Nearly half (14 of 30) of the fortifications constructed by the Israelis had been closed up and were unmanned at the time of the Egyptian attack in 1973. The planned armor, artillery, and air support was also not at hand when the attack took place. This was partly because the Egyptian surprise was nearly total, despite the massive and visible nature of their preparations.
Like most other barrier systems, the performance of the Bar-Lev Line, once it was attacked, was far below that hoped for by either its designers, its builders, or the political authorities who governed its use. During their several wars with their Arab neighbors beginning in 1948, the Israelis had themselves frequently overcome avariety of most formidable-appearing defensive fortifications in the Sinai, along the Gaza Strip, and in the Golan Heights. They thus should have been less surprised then they were in 1973 when the Egyptian forces readily crossed the Suez Canal in a surprise attack, basically uninhibited by the existence of the expensive Israeli defensive barrier. Like so many other countries, even the militarily effective and efficient Israelis had been lulled into complacency by their previous successes and the existence of their new "barrier."
Israel seriously underestimated Egypt's armed forces. It would take a significant tactical ability to breach the water, mine, and embankment obstacles along the Israeli defenses of the Suez Canal known as the Bar Lev line. Most senior Israeli, US, and Soviet leaders did not think that Egypt's military had the capability to integrate the engineers, special forces, air defense, armor, infantry, and artillery necessary to conduct the complicated and difficult Suez Canal crossings.
Before the detailed planning of their cross-canal attack, the Egyptians created a counter to the construction of the Israeli defensive line which was representative of the typical fate of a static defensive system. In order to pinpoint and conduct counter-observation on the Bar-Lev observation posts, the Egyptians elevated the rampart on the western side of the Canal to 130 feet, so they could overlook the opposing, but lower, Israeli rampart. This simple and direct expedient enabled the Egyptian observers to receive a clear view of Israeli positions and activities. This Egyptian maneuver was not noted by the higher Israeli commanders until the newly appointed Israeli commanding general spotted it on his initial inspection tour shortly before the outbreak of the 1973 war. He promptly ordered construction of counter-vailing 230-foot high observation towers, but this response came too late and the Egyptian attack took place before the towers were built.
Under the command of Field Marshal Ahmed Ismail Ali, Egypt planned to attack across the Suez Canal, capture the Bar-Lev Line, and establish five bridgeheads 10 to 15 kilometers deep on the eastern bank of the canal. Then they would hold their positions while defeating Israeli counterblow. Simultaneously, Syria would overwhelm the Israeli center of gravity in the north at the Golan Heights. Egypt identified five principal military objectives: (1) to destroy Israeli armed forces; (2) weaken Israeli air superiority thus depriving land forces of air cover and preventing a decisive counter strike; (3) confuse Israeli command and control to prevent rapid mobilization and concentration of Israeli forces; (4) prevent Israeli movement along internal lines against more than one front at a time; and (5) immediately neutralize the Bar-Lev line to handicap Israel's defensive maneuver and flexibility.
The Egyptian President was also keenly aware of his country's critical vulnerability - the need for surprise. If the Israelis uncovered the Egyptian attack plan they could either mobilize and reinforce the Bar Lev line or conduct a pre-emptive spoiling attack. The Egyptians successfully used their annual autumn maneuvers to mask their intended build-up along the Suez Canal by announcing the movements well in advance. The exercises began on 26 September 1973, the day before the Jewish New Year, and were to conclude on 7 October. The exercises appeared normal and did not arouse Israeli suspicions. The high sand ramparts of the east bank of the canal effectively concealed preparations. In fact, regular IDF forces manning the Bar-Lev line, replaced by reservists, departed for Yom Kippur.
Suddenly, at 1405 hours, 4,000 guns, rocket launchers, and mortars opened up all along the Suez Canal on the Egyptian front. This artillery barrage was supported by strikes from over 300 aircraft. Fifteen minutes later, 8,000 troops in 1,000 rubber boats were crossing the Suez Canaland the first fortress on the Bar-Lev line was captured by elements of the Second Field Army at 1500 hours exactly. Many others fell soon afterwards. Simultaneously the engineers with their water cannons were breaking down the sand ramparts on the eastern bank of the Canal and in 4.5 hours had breached it in 80 places.
Five Egyptian armored divisions crossed the canal and in an innovative display of combat engineering, breached earth works up to 60 feet high by use of high-pressure water cannons. Seventy breaching groups opened separate passages to accommodate temporary heavy and light bridges, ferries, and boat landings. At 1710 units of the Second Division North of Ismailia took the first officer prisoners. By 1930 hours the first formation of the two Egyptian Armies were established on the East bank along a front of 170 kilometers. Eighty thousand men in 12 waves had penetrated Sinai to a depth of three to four kilometers and were well dug in inside the Bar-Lev fortified area.
When the Egyptians launched their attack in October 1973, it took place along the full length of the Canal. Even though the still-active Israeli outposts only contained 15 men, and were not equipped with the artillery which would have made them true strong points, the Egyptians took pains to make their crossings in the totally un-defended intervals between the manned front-line Israeli positions. When the Egyptians did attack the Israeli positions as part of their continuing offensive, the defenders gave a good account of themselves but were unable to significantly hinder the Egyptian advance. The Israeli outposts provided no useful warning of the Egyptian attack, nor did they succeed in slowing it or channelling the Egyptian offensive in paths advantageous to the Israelis. In the words of oneeminent Israeli observer, Chaim Herzog "...the fortifications proved to be a liability. Over the years,they had become a compromise - between strongpoints designed to hold the Canal against Egyptian attack, and warning and observationoutposts. As the former they were too weak and dispersed; as thelatter they were too strongly manned."
Israeli armor forces failed to deploy until two hours after the start of the attack. Then they were unable to find the Egyptian center of mass. The Egyptians defied conventional tactics and attacked all across a broad front. In the resulting confusion, Israel failed to evacuate strong points along the Bar-Lev Line resulting in heavy losses due to encirclement by the attacking Egyptians.
Due to the small size of the Israeli population and the ethos of the IDF, the 436 Israelis pinned down in the static defensive positions along the Canal represented important resources to Israel, forcing rescue efforts torecover those soldiers who could be brought back behind Israeli lines in theSinai. Although the Israelis eventually recovered and went on to mount an effective counter-attack into Egypt itself, the successful initial stages ofthe Egyptian attack in the Yom Kippur War represented the most significant Israeli defeat in the extended series of 20th-century Arab-Israeli conflicts.
Israel suffered significant personnel and materiel losses, and major damage was done to the professional futures of those military and political leadersdeemed responsible for the atypical lack of Israeli preparedness.
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