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More than two decades later, the former Commander-in-Chief of Egyptian Naval Forces looks at the role his navy played in the 1973 October War. The Egyptian Navy scored some spectacular successes.
The assault of the Suez Canal, the destruction of the Bar-lev Line, and the fierce battles that took place in repulsing Israeli counterattacks constituted the most spectacular aspects of the 1973 October War. But the other Egyptian armed services brought several of their own specialties to bear, as well. In fact, naval activities had a profound strategic effect on the results of the war. The Egyptian Navy started combat actions several days before the rest of Egypt’s armed forces and continued operations well into January 1974.
The initial victories achieved by the Egyptian Army in the assault were by no means the first round of hostilities between Egypt and Israel, but this was, indeed, the first time the Egyptian side planned for an offensive war. It was also the first time any real coordination had been accomplished between the political leadership and the military command, a situation at variance with previous rounds. For the first time, Egypt had estimated the capabilities of Israel realistically. It was also the first time the choice of combat missions was limited to those within the capabilities of the Egyptian armed forces. Long gone were the optimistic plans to liberate the whole of Palestine in just several days of combat. The main objective was to change the military situation by assaulting the Suez Canal, destroying the Bar- lev Line and establishing bridgeheads on the Eastern Bank. Egyptian leaders considered this sufficient to create a substantial change in the military situation and hence result in a negotiated resolution of the conflict. For once, the Egyptian military forces were able to effect surprise; for the first time, the Israelis had to face combat on both the Egyptian and Syrian fronts simultaneously. Furthermore, Egypt achieved a marked improvement in relations with other Arab states, a fact that resulted in the Egyptian Navy’s being able to extend its combat activities into the strategic depths of the Arab world, both in the Red Sea and in the Mediterranean.
Preparing for War
Preparations for the 1973 War stretched back a number of years. Ever since the humiliating defeat of June 1967, the Egyptian armed forces had been striving hard to achieve a high standard of combat readiness. Actually, having not been subjected to the 1967 defeat, the Egyptian Navy was in a much better state than the rest of the country’s forces. In fact, the standards of combat training, military discipline, and will to fight were quite high. A comparison of forces to those in 1967 clearly favored the Egyptian Navy, which had large numbers of submarines, destroyers, and, more important, several Soviet-built missilelaunching boats, of which Israel had none.
The Egyptian Navy proved its effectiveness soon after the June War, when
on 21 October 1967, Egyptian missile boats launched a surface-to-surface missile attack against the Israeli flagship, the destroyer Eilat. Two missiles sank the ship on the outer limits of Egyptian territorial waters to the northeast of Port Said. Nevertheless, the Egyptian Navy’s defense plans and security measures
needed much improvement.
The war of attrition that broke out toward the end of 1969 provided a useful opportunity to try out new tactical procedures and to test the effectiveness of available Styx surface-to-surface missiles, especially against small targets. On the strategic level, Egypt held talks with various Arab nations to ensure the possibility of alternative stations in the Red Sea, positions that would enable the Egyptian Navy to carry out naval tasks at long distances from home bases.
Planning for the October Offensive
Serious planning for the October operations started in January 1972. The actual war plan—code-named “Granite”— was adjusted and altered a number of times to ensure that all combat missions assigned were within the capability of the forces. For the first time, special attention was given to deception, which was recognized as an important factor for success, especially in light of the fact that Israeli forces required only from 48 to 72 hours to achieve full readiness.
A fairly accurate and unbiased estimate of enemy combat capabilities and distribution dictated the plan of action. All these factors were quite opposite of what had happened in 1967, when it seems that no proper planning was carried out.
Missions Assigned to the Navy
Nearly every possible combat mission that can be assigned to naval forces was specified in the operational directive to the Navy. This document stated in general the various combat tasks to be executed, with the details being left for the naval operations staff to work out. The only missions specified clearly were those to be carried out in support of the Army offensive, such as participating in the preparation for the assault of the Suez Canal and the provision of fire from the sea against the flanks of particular enemy ground defensive positions. Also specified was assisting in some small tactical landing operations using light craft east of Port Said and across the Gulf of Suez.
During the preparatory period, naval headquarters carried out continuous studies in order to determine the possible combat missions that could be carried out successfully and at the same time assist in the achievement of the general strategic objectives of the armed forces. The following are some of the problems that were the subject of close study.
Naval Tactical Landings
Although achieving a successful tactical landing on the northern coast of Sinai behind the Bar-lev Line would have been of great value to the Second Field Army, the Navy had to insist that it was not practical without sufficient air cover and air support. Since the resources of the Egyptian Air Force were insufficient to provide this, the idea of an amphibious landing was abandoned. But Egyptian forces resumed amphibious training and demonstrative action as a deceptive tactic against Israel. Instead of true amphibious operations, small, commando- type operations were to be attempted, using light craft and rubber boats.
Fire Support Missions for the Army
During the War of Attrition in November 1969, Egyptian destroyers carried out an artillery bombardment against an Israeli logistic area east of Port Said. The attack was successful, but the destroyers taking part were subjected to heavy air strikes, and only luck allowed them to beat off the attack and return to harbor unscathed. The Israeli response was fairly quick and effective enough to convince naval staff that such destroyer action without air cover was going to be very risky, even at night and even though some Israeli planes had been hit. In order to provide an alternative method, some torpedo boats were equipped with unguided surface-to-surface multiple missile launchers, which proved quite effective and quick in delivering fire against coastal targets. High accuracy was not really required, since the idea was to attack large-area targets from seaward. Besides, the attacking boats were much more difficult to locate than destroyers.
Problems with the Styx Surface-to-Surface Missile
When the Styx missiles were first used against the Eilat in 1967, they were very successful. But as the years went by, they became obsolete and thus, no longer dependable. The missile was intended to be fired against medium and large targets and was inaccurate against anything else. Furthermore, Egyptian forces had to assume that Israel was familiar with its capabilities and had worked out suitable countermeasures. Attempts to improve the sensitivity of the homing system were largely unsuccessful, and all that could be done was to accept the superiority of Israeli missile boats and to avoid clashes with them as much as possible. In case of Israeli penetration close to naval bases, Egyptian forces depended heavily on coastal artillery, with missile boats firing a larger number of missiles per salvo to allow for inaccuracy.
Lack of Air Support
The superiority of Israel in aerial warfare was recognized at all levels. General headquarters in Cairo decided that whatever effort the Egyptian Air Force could mount, the priority was the successful assault of the Suez Canal and the support of the Second and Third Field Armies in their offensive actions. Thus, the Navy had to plan its combat activities without depending on air cover or air support. The only protection would be provided within the established Air Defense Zones.
In light of this situation, much depended on submarine warfare, mine warfare, and special forces action. At the same time, destroyer operations were extended well outside the reach of Israeli aviation, which restricted naval activities, especially since shipbome air defense capabilities were limited.
Mission Against Israeli Maritime Lines of Communication
The Egyptian Navy recognized the weakness of the Israeli Navy in the Red Sea early in the planning stages. Israel had deployed no missile boats, no minesweepers, and no antisubmarine ships there. At the same time, the configuration of the Gulf of Suez and the Red Sea provided an ideal stage to mount combat actions directed at disrupting enemy lines of communication. The dependence of Israel on oil from the Persian Gulf passing through the Bab-el- Mandeb, the southern entrance to the Red Sea, and oil from the Gulf of Suez, passing through the Straits of Jubal at the entrance to the Gulf of Suez, made it clear that intense pressure could be brought to bear on Israel if these sources were turned off.
On the Mediterranean side of operations, Israel did not have an effective antisubmarine defense. Therefore, the Egyptian naval staff decided that the employment of submarines in this direction would be very effective in hindering maritime traffic.
Operational Deployment of Forces
Since the October War was an offensive operation, the Navy would have sufficient time to deploy its forces, even though some of the operational areas lay far from the home bases. In order to ensure secrecy, deployment would be reduced to a minimum, with the distribution of forces being achieved beforehand. Consequently, deployment of forces was smooth and quiet, making full use of deceptive measures. The basic operational deployment plan was to provide sufficient forces at all naval bases so that
In the Central Command Post of the Egyptian Navy in Alexandria, the author (right) briefs Vice Admiral Fouad Zikry, Commander- in-Chief of Naval Forces, and General Ahmad Ismail, Minister of War, at the height of the October War in 1973.
each base could carry out its combat missions without reinforcement. As for formations and units in combat against maritime lines of transport, the concept called for having these forces placed as close as possible to their combat areas, making use of stationing facilities in Arab countries such as Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen.
Concept of Naval Operations
The general concept of naval operations was to employ the full force of the Navy on three levels:
>• In the tactical zone: to concentrate operations in support of the Army.
> On an operational level: to ensure naval security in the operational zone of the naval bases by carrying out all types of defense, directing activities at prevention of enemy naval penetration, and repulsing such enemy action.
> On a strategic level: to concentrate naval effort against enemy lines of maritime communication both in the Red Sea and in the Mediterranean. The objective was to prevent the transport of oil to the Israeli port of Eilat in the Gulf of Aqaba. This was achieved by controlling passage of ships, especially tankers, through the Bab-el-Mandeb—using destroyers, with submarines deployed farther north in the Red Sea as a backup to engage ships proceeding to Eilat.
A second concept was to cut off the supply of oil from Israeli-held Egyptian oil wells inside the Gulf of Suez, mainly by using mine warfare to block the entrance. In the Mediterranean the objective was to reduce and hinder traffic to Israeli ports by using submarines south of Cyprus and by the employment of destroyers south of Malta. These destroyers were instructed to make themselves noticed by all shipping that proceeded eastward toward Israeli ports, with the idea that their activity would certainly be reported to Israel and consequently reduce traffic, besides wasting Israeli efforts in a secondary direction.
Naval Actions in Support of the Army Offensive
Naval activities directed at the support of the Army offensive consisted of participating in fire preparation for the assault of the Suez Canal, using mainly naval coastal artillery in the direction east of Port Fouad on the Mediterranean side and in the direction of Suez-Eion Mussa on the Red Sea side. Rocket assaults were also carried out against coastal targets at the request of Army Command. Many of these raids were concentrated during critical stages, mainly to divert Israeli attention and especially to draw Israeli aviation away from the main direction of the Second and Third Field Armies’ assaults. Furthermore, naval assistance provided for small tactical raiding operations by commando forces from the Second Field Army behind enemy defensive positions east of Port Said and across the Gulf of Suez by special forces from the Red Sea Military Command.
Securing the Operational Zone
Naval activities in this respect consisted of carrying out defensive procedures against submarines, against mines, and against frogmen, using forces from the naval bases. Coastal artillery, coastal missile defense batteries, and in some cases Egyptian missile boats repelled penetrations by Israeli missile boats. In this type of combat the Israeli Navy had the upper hand, using more modem boats and effective support from its air force, especially helicopters.
Disruption of Enemy Lines of Communication
The Egyptian Navy gave this mission major attention, because it foresaw the strategic effect it would have on Israel, especially since intelligence reports indicated that oil reserves were somewhat limited.
To secure results in this field, the
Egyptian Navy successfully surprised Israel with a new method of combat it was not accustomed to itself. The usual artillery strikes on the southeastern Mediterranean coast were no longer the theme of action; now, operations were carried out more than 1,000 miles away from Israeli bases; in the Bab-el-Mandeb, south of Malta, etc. In fact, for once the Israelis found themselves outwitted and with no capability to retaliate. Thus, this mission achieved spectacular results. First and foremost, it proved to Israel that the occupation of Sharm-el-Shiekh would not necessarily guarantee the safety of supplies to the port of Eilat. The flow of oil, which Israel needed badly, was no longer reaching Eilat. Attempts to force a passage through the Strait of Jubal resulted only in further losses caused by mines. The Egyptian Navy did succeed in carrying out this mission, depending mainly on declaring areas unsafe for maritime navigation because of the hostilities, and avoided declaring a blockade of any international straits.
These operations continued long after the cease of hostilities on the Suez Canal front. The Navy continued its control of traffic in the Bab-el- Mandeb, warning all ships not to proceed northward into the area declared dangerous to navigation. This continued well into January 1974, and the effect of this on the negotiations that took place after the cease fire was most prominent. Lifting the blockade off Bab-el-Mandeb was one of the first Israeli requests, clearly indicating the effectiveness of Egyptian naval action in that area.
Although the Egyptian Navy had to fight its battles without air support and using outdated missile boats and ineffective missiles, it managed to achieve some spectacular successes, especially on the strategic level. Israel was caught unaware by new and effective operational planning for combat actions miles away from Israeli bases, and thus out of Israeli missile boat or aviation range.
In closer areas, the Egyptian Navy made full use of mine warfare, which also caught the Israeli Navy in a very weak position, having not been equipped with any mine countermeasures. The strategic deployment of the Israeli Navy left the
Red Sea very poorly equipped to handle this new type of warfare. In the Mediterranean, it was impossible to provide maritime transport to carry much needed strategic supplies from western European ports, thus forcing Israel to depend on a U.S. “air bridge.”
True, the Israeli Navy managed to achieve some success in combat against Egyptian missile boats, but these actions did not secure any operational or strategic benefits. Israeli frogmen managed to penetrate the defenses of some forward bases and inflicted minor losses, but it cost them some lives. On many occasions, Israeli boats shelled Egyptian fishing boats and villages on the pretext that they were Egyptian naval bases.
On the whole, the Egyptian Navy managed to accomplish most of its missions successfully. Further missions with more ambitious offensive aims were commenced but not completed because of technical failures. These successes can be attributed to sound operational planning for employment of all available forces; even ships of World War II vintage participated and achieved results.
Conclusions and Lessons > The vital importance of achieving surprise and delivering the first blows was demonstrated amply. Surprise must be achieved on a strategic and operational level, bearing in mind that secrecy and deception can be valuable in this respect. >• A clear understanding on both political and military levels was critical.
V In missile-boat warfare, boat-versus- boat was no longer feasible, and additional factors, such as helicopter support, had to be brought to bear.
>• With new, sophisticated weapons being used in naval warfare, the importance of electronic warfare cannot be overstated. >• Mines can still play an effective role in modern naval warfare.
> Proper strategic composition and deployment always will have a vital bearing on naval warfare.
>■ Naval forces should not be limited to supporting the land theater of operations.
► Sea power cannot be exercised effectively without air support.
► The importance of proper planning, according to recognized methods of operational art, and adherence to long-established principles of war still stands.
> Taking into account Egypt’s outstanding strategic position and its leading role in the Arab world—aside from its extensive coastlines on two seas—the need for an effective navy was made abundantly clear.
A veteran of four wars and 30 years’ distinguished service in the Egyptian Navy, Rear Admiral Refaat served as the Commander-in-Chief of Egyptian Naval Forces from 1976 to 1978 and as Chief of Naval Operations from 1969 to 1976, the time period covered here. He is now retired and living in Alexandria, Egypt.
No Problem, Sir
The crew of a fleet tanker operating in the Formosa Strait was having the evening meal when someone on the bridge accidentally set off the general-quarters alarm.
The Officer of the Deck was stunned. He had to pass the word that sounding the alarm was a mistake.
The boatswain’s mate came to the rescue. “I know what to say, sir. He promptly went to the loud speaker and announced, “This is no drill.”
F. W. Furland
★ ★ ★ ★
The U.S. Naval Institute will award cash prizes of $1,000, $750, and $500 to the authors of the three winning essays in the recently announced seventh annual Marine Corps Essay Contest.
The Naval Institute created this contest to encourage discussion on current issues and new directions for the Marine Corps.
Essays must be postmarked no later than 1 May 1995.
Essay Contest Rules:
1. Essays must be original and no longer than 3,000 words.
2. All entries should be directed to Editor-in-Chief, Proceedings (USMC Contest), U.S. Naval Institute, 118 Maryland Avenue, Annapolis, MD 21402-5035. Questions: Call, 410-268-6110; Fax, 410-269-7940.
3. Essays must be postmarked on or before 1 May 1995.
4. Letters notifying the three award winners will be mailed on or about 1 July 1995.
5. All essays should be typewritten, double-spaced, on 8-1/2" x 11" paper. Include address, phone number, biographical sketch, and social security number with each entry.
6. The Naval Institute will publish the winning essays in Proceedings, its monthly magazine. Some entries not awarded prizes may also be selected for publication. Their authors will be compensated at regular rates.
7. The Naval Institute Editorial Board will judge the competition.