During the Six Day War of 1967, Israel routed Syria, Jordan and Egypt and occupied the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights and the West Bank in order to provide a buffer against further Arab attacks. Six years later the humiliated Arab states were seething for revenge. On 6 October 1973, Arab armies, mostly from Egypt and Syria, launched Operation Badr, an attack on Israel while most of the Israeli Defense Force was on leave for the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. The attack was a complete surprise to Israel.
To make matters worse, the Arabs were well equipped with new Soviet equipment including tanks, planes, infrared night vision, surface-to-air missiles, and anti-tank guided missiles (which were making their first appearance on the modern battlefield). The Israeli Defense Force’s initial losses were devastating. Egypt ingeniously penetrated the Israeli defenses along the Suez Canal by using high pressure water to “cut” through Israeli sand berms and then quickly pursued Israeli troops into the Sinai. Moreover, Syrian armour nearly broke out of the Golan Heights. Had it not been for determined and near-fanatical resistance, hard decisions on the use of reserves, and ad hoc counterattacks, the Syrians would have penetrated into the hills of Galilee and the cities of Israel’s northern coastal plain beyond. For the next 19 days, the largest air and armored battles since the Battle of Kursk during the Second World War took place.
Israel’s initial counterattacks were disastrous, but they did buy time for reserves to mobilize. The fighting was so bad that Israel seriously considered using its then-secret small nuclear arsenal to stop the advancing Arab nations, especially Egypt. However, a combination of hard fighting, Israeli airpower, Arab mistakes and their unwillingness to move beyond their static SAM belts allowed Israel to blunt the offensive and counterattack. Eventually, the Egyptians in the Sinai were surrounded and Cairo was threatened. The Syrian Army was broken and only the Iraqi and Jordanian armies prevented Israel from seizing Damascus. The war ended with a ceasefire on 25 October.
The Israelis however had suffered horrendous losses and the Arab armies acquitted themselves well. Israel found itself a new respect for the Arab armies, in particular Egypt’s and would eventually sign a peace accord as military equals. In the United States, military leaders still reeling from a decade of war in Vietnam, saw the Yom Kippur War as a validation of tank and artillery-centric conventional war. This perception was reinforced in 1975, when North Vietnam overran South Vietnam, not through a popular insurgency, but from a conventional attack with massed tanks, infantry, artillery and airpower. For the next 33 years after the Yom Kippur War, future American doctrine would completely disregard the counter-insurgency lessons of Vietnam and focus on the conventional warfare exemplified by the Yom Kippur War.