This day, October 6, marks the 24thanniversary of the Egyptian-Syrian invasion, which surprised the Israel DefenseForces with a sudden war. This invasion led to very significant military andpolitical repercussions.
The surprise two-front attack, theworst-case scenario, entirely shattered one pillar of Israeli military doctrine- early warning. This 1973 strategic surprise led to a reassessment of thestructure and performance of the national intelligence bodies. One of thelessons learned and stressed by the Agranat Inquiry Commission (whichinvestigated why Israel was so caught by surprise) was that the intelligenceestablishment needed both to expand and diversify.
Subsequently, there was an attemptto strengthen the Mossad and the Foreign Ministry’s research unit, as well asthe IDF’s military intelligence branch. An intelligence advisor to the primeminister was also appointed, in line with the Agranat Commission’srecommendations, but this only lasted for a short time.
After the intifada broke out in1987, another research and evaluation unit was established in the GeneralSecurity Services, assigned to deal primarily with the Palestinians.Nonetheless, military intelligence remained the most influential intelligenceactor, and the provider of the national intelligence assessment.
Since the Yom Kippur War, Israelhas expanded considerably its capabilities in the area of data collection andanalysis, personnel and equipment. In 1976, Israel expressed an interest inpurchasing a satellite from the United States for intelligence purposes. Thisrequest was turned down, and according to a well-known pattern in thedevelopment of Israeli military equipment, this American denial provided theimpetus for indigenous research and development leading to the launching of theIsraeli-made spy satellite, Ofek, in 1989.
One area where Israel could notdevelop an independent capability was in early warning measures againstballistic missiles, which became critical to providing a measure of defense tothe Israeli population against conventional and non-conventional warheads after1991. Such a project is beyond the means of a small state such as Israel and,as a result, Israel is still dependent on the United States. Israel madeefforts to shorten the time required for the US to provide information from itsown satellite back to Israel. A missile attack does not require lengthypreparation and even if detected by the American satellites, such an attackcould surprise Israel nevertheless.
Largeinvestments which enhanced Israeli intelligence have not, however, sparedIsrael a few strategic surprises, such as the 1977 Sadat visit, the 1987intifada, and the 1991 missile attacks. In addition, the war in Lebanon was, toa great extent, a result of faulty intelligence analysis: The Christians’military and political power and their willingness to fight were grosslyoverestimated. Iraq’s progress in building a nuclear device, revealed by anIraqi scientist who defected in the spring of 1991, similarly surprised Israeliintelligence.
Indeed, Israel reconciled itself tothe idea that it is impossible to establish a foolproof mechanism againstsurprises. Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Hofi, with the hindsight of eight years asthe head of the Mossad, reached the conclusion: «We will never be able toknow with certainty about an impending attack.»
It is extremely difficult to supplyadequate warning about decisions taken by Israel’s rivals. Real-time assessmentof the intentions of very centralized decision-making establishments, sometimesjust one leader, is indeed very difficult. Academic research, generated bystrategic surprises in the Middle East and elsewhere, supports Hofi’spessimistic conclusion. It has a clear underlying lesson: Human organizationscan be deceived.
At the military level, Israel canminimize, through good intelligence, the chances of its enemies launching asuccessful surprise. Yet, it should also have enough forces on alert to meet anunforeseen challenge. Moreover, it must maintain a strong military capacity todeter regional rivals. In the case of a deterrence failure and/or anothersurprise, the IDF must be able to administer the enemy a decisive defeat.
At the political level, improvingrelations with our neighbors lowers the chances for military action againstIsrael. However, for the near future the best we can expect in our region is anarmed peace.