The theories of Basil H. Liddell Hart emphasized the importance of maneuver, surprise, and technology in combat. These concepts were developed by Hart into a concept of warfighting termed the indirect approach. His theories were proved with overwhelming success by Israel in the Six Days War against the combined strength of Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian forces. After achieving overwhelming initial surprise against the enemy, the Israelis built on their momentum and maneuvered their forces to gain territory and cripple the various Arab militaries against which they were arrayed. The successful adaptation of Liddell Hart’s theories of warfare allowed the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) to achieve an overwhelming strategic and tactical victory against its enemies, redefining the regional balance of power in the Middle East in Israeli’s favor.
Liddell Hart’s theories were inspired by the devastation of the Great War, which led to a rethinking of military strategy in an attempt to circumvent the carnage of the frontal attack. After a brief initial period of maneuver, the Great War remained static and enormously costly in manpower and equipment for four years. General officers, incapable of adequately adapting to the modern battlefield, clung to Napoleonic strategies while sacrificing a generation of men in constant frontal attacks against fixed positions. Moving away from the 19th Century theories of Jomini and Clausewitz, discredited by the realities of modern warfare, new theorists emerged, challenging the status quo. The classical theorist Jomini had demanded that overwhelming force brought to bear at a decisive point, the failed tactic of the Western Front. Clausewitz had theorized that the nation must seek to reign in political, popular and military support under a great leader who would seek decisive victory on the battlefield. These theories were now unacceptable in the face of modern weaponry and combined arms. The new theorists focused on the advantages of technology and the use of maneuver in combat. Basil H. Liddell Hart, a British officer and veteran of the Great War, was the foremost military strategist of the interwar period. Highly influential before and after the Second World War, Hart’s theories on mobility in war would influence combat operations and strategy throughout the 20th Century. His concepts of maneuver warfare distill into three components: the use of grand strategy and tactics to paralyze the enemy, the adopting of the indirect approach, and the importance of technology in combat (Wheeler 2).
Liddell Hart, drawing on his experiences from the Great War, believed that technology made the defense superior to the offense, rendering the massive frontal attack obsolete. However, he believed armored or mechanized forces brought to bear against the enemy in a moment of surprise could achieve a breakthrough if the enemy was unable to adequately maneuver (Bond 612). The necessity of surprise, coupled with maneuver, would build momentum in combat, paralyzing the enemy in indecision (Carver 797). After the Second World War, Hart believed that the attack would be successful if the indirect approach was adopted, which not only focused on surprise and maneuver, but on the psychological dimension of warfare. Wheeler summarizes Hart’s focus on the mental side of war:
That the dimension in which wars are really won or lost is essentially a psychological dimension. Wars reflect conflicts that grow out of human relationships, and human relationships are but a manifestation of the influences which human beings exert, one upon the other. So far as a study of war is concerned, then, the central truth implied by this state of affairs is that ‘the real target in war is the mind of the enemy commander, not the bodies of his troops.’ (Wheeler 2)
The theory of the indirect approach had expanded from avoiding a frontal attack, to the use of surprise and maneuver to overcome the inherent strength of the defensive position. Once maneuver was employed and surprise achieved, the enemy would be psychologically devastated, paralyzed into inaction by the momentum built through the application of the indirect approach (Danchev 313-315).
After the Second World War, Liddell Hart’s writings came to terms with the new reality of nuclear deterrence. He believed that the overwhelming destructive capability of nuclear war would prevent a resumption of total war, as was experienced in the First and Second World Wars. Therefore, nations faced the reality of limited war, where attacks would be conventional and likely limited or restrained by the superpowers (Carver 781). Limitations would force belligerents to use conventional forces in combat, reinforcing the importance of the indirect approach. Furthermore, the fear of escalation and the potential that the Great Powers could be drawn into an expanding limited war implied that conflict would be quickly restrained by the superpowers, likely through the United Nations or direct pressure from the United States or the Soviet Union.
Liddell Hart theorized that technological achievements would allow a nation to employ the indirect approach against an enemy force. Advances in technology could overcome the power of defensive positions, aid the achievement of surprise and increase the effectiveness of maneuver. Shortly after the conclusion of the First World War, Hart recognized the enormous potential of tactical air power, writing in 1922:
In view of the transcendent value of aircraft as a means of subduing the enemy will to resist, by striking at the moral objective, the question may well be asked: Is the air the sole medium of future warfare? That this will be the case ultimately we have no doubt, for the advantages of a weapon able to move in three dimensions over those tied to one plane of movement are surely obvious to all but the mentally blind (Wheeler 2).
Airpower, in Hart’s belief, possessed the enormous strength of mobility, the potential to strike behind the enemy’s lines, and the opportunity to cooperate with ground forces. However, he identified fatal flaws in the employment of airpower as well, pointing to the extreme weakness of aircraft on the ground, the inability to fly undetected, and a very limited hitting power. Ironically, while being one of air power’s greatest initial proponents and a believer in the value of technology in modern warfare, Hart greatly underestimated the ability of technology to overcome all the weaknesses he identified(Wheeler 2). In fact, the Israeli ability to evade radar, use precision bombing, and seize on the weakness of Egyptian aircraft on the ground, led to the greatest demonstration of Hart’s theories, the achievement of surprise through maneuver, to build momentum and psychologically devastate the enemy into ineffectiveness.
In 1967, a state of open hostility and perpetual crisis existed between Israel and its surrounding Arab neighbors. Nasser, the President of Egypt, champion of Arab-unity and leader of the strongest Arab power, had moved his country into the Soviet sphere. The Soviet Union had increased its aid to the Egyptians since 1965, realizing the importance of the Suez Canal to the supply effort of its communist ally, North Vietnam. Cynically, the Soviet Union sought to counter Western support to Israel by bolstering Egyptian and Syrian arms, turning a blind eye to nationalistic ideology even to the point of ignoring Ba’athist suppression of local communist parties (Smith 195). Nasser had taken advantage of Soviet sponsorship to equip the Egyptian military with modern Soviet fighters, bombers, and SA-2 GUIDELINE surface-to-air missile systems. Egypt possessed the largest Air Force in the region. However, in armor and mechanized infantry capabilities, the Egyptians lagged behind Israel, relying on mainly ill-equipped and poorly led infantry units. Military officers in Egypt had been promoted more for political reliability than for professional abilities or leadership qualities. The Egyptian Army numbered between 150,000-180,000 soldiers, fielding approximately 900 tanks and 800 artillery pieces. The Egyptian Air Force boasted 242 fighter aircraft but suffered from a shortage of trained pilots and maintenance difficulties (Morris 312). Low altitude radar coverage was poor, focused on the approaches to Cairo across the Sinai Peninsula. Exasperating early warning deficiencies, the Egyptian intelligence services were focused domestically on bolstering the regime’s power, with limited focus on Israeli military operations.
Syria and Jordan possessed much smaller militaries than their Egyptian ally, 70,000 and 56,000 troops respectively. The Jordanians possessed 264 tanks, reinforced with an Iraqi brigade adding an additional 30 tanks, and less than 200 pieces of artillery. The Jordanian Air Force consisted of 24 British Hawker Hunter fighter aircraft. The Syrians possessed 300 tanks, 265 artillery pieces, 92 Soviet fighter aircraft and two bombers. Both the Syrian and Jordanian Armed Forces suffered from reliance on unmechanized infantry units, poor training, and politicized leadership (Morris 312-313).
The IDF numbered 250,000 troops, with the vast majority being reserve units and conscripts. However, the IDF was highly professionalized, well equipped and well trained. In 1967, the Israeli Air Force had 192 fighter and fighter-bomber aircraft, plus an assortment of combat-capable trainers. The IDF maintained a ratio of three trained pilots per aircraft, excellent maintenance, and coordinated command and control. The ground forces were all armored or mechanized, fielding 400 artillery pieces and over 1,100 tanks (Morris 311-312).
Through the spring of 1967, Nasser used increasingly violent and extreme rhetoric against Israel, calling for the reestablishment of the 1948 borders, before the nation of Israel had been carved out of the Eastern Mediterranean littoral. Nasser requested that United Nations peacekeepers, which had maintained a presence in the Sinai Peninsula since the Suez Crisis in 1956, withdraw from Egypt. Surprised that the United Nations would comply with his demands, Nasser found himself once again in control of Sharm-el-Sheikh, a strategic port located on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, and promptly closed the Straits of Tiran to shipping bound for Israel (Nye 190-191). It is likely Nasser aimed at securing a political victory and was not aiming for war with Israel in 1967. However, with the withdrawal of United Nations peacekeepers from the Sinai, Nasser was forced to make good on his many threats and close the Straits of Tiran (Gat 609). The closing of the Straits on 22 May 1967, publicly declared by Israel to be a casus belli, in conjunction with strident Syrian and Egyptian war rhetoric and troop movements, led the Israeli government to believe war was inevitable (Morris 306). On 30 May 1967, King Hussein of Jordan signed a mutual defense pact with Egypt. This was quickly followed with the deployment of two Egyptian Commando Battalions to Jordan, an Iraqi tank brigade reinforcing the Jordanian positions, and an Egyptian General assuming command of the Jordanian armed forces (Morris 309).
The Israeli government and general staff, seeing the combined Arab forces arrayed against them and mindful that mobilization, which had recently been ordered, had brought the Israeli economy to a halt, decided to initiate the war on 5 June with a massive surprise attack on the Egyptian Air Force to seize air superiority (Smith 199). The IDF intended to attack the Egyptian Air Force on the ground, a few hours after dawn, when the bulk of Egyptians fighters were completing their morning combat air patrols. The Israelis would fly over the Mediterranean Sea, and attack the Egyptians from the northwest at low altitude, exploiting the poor Egyptian radar coverage, which was trained north and eastward, over the Sinai Peninsula and towards Israel. Every Israeli fighter, save 12 which maintained a patrol over Israeli air space, participated in the attack, which achieved complete surprise. Six Egyptian air bases were made inoperable, eight radar stations eliminated, and 197 aircraft were destroyed, 189 of which were still on the ground. The second wave of Israeli attacks would destroy an additional 107 aircraft. 75 percent of the Egyptian Air Force was destroyed within a few hours. Later in the day, the Israeli Air Force attacked Syrian, Iraqi and Jordanian aircraft. Half of the Syrian Air Force was eliminated on the ground or shot down, all 28 Jordanian fighters were destroyed, and 10 Iraqi aircraft were brought down as well (Morris 316-318). The Israelis achieved complete surprise against their enemies and secured air superiority over the Eastern Mediterranean and Sinai within a few hours of the opening of hostilities. The momentum of these first air attacks would propel the ground forces over the next five days into an assortment of victories in the Sinai, West Bank and Golan Heights securing territory while assisted by Israeli air dominance.
After the initial air campaign, Israeli strategy called a ground assault into the Sinai Peninsula to destroy the Egyptian ground forces, their greatest threat. Since the Israelis were aware that the international community would most likely force a ceasefire on the belligerents shortly, they would focus on the Jordanian and Syrian ground forces after the destruction of the Egyptian Army. Beginning on 5 June 1967, and continuing through the imposed ceasefire on 11 June, Israeli armor units, supported by air-to-ground fire and mechanized forces, conducted several breakthroughs in the Egyptian lines. 36 hours into the conflict, the Egyptian Army ordered a general retreat across Sinai, while senior leadership authorized units to cross the Suez Canal if necessary (Morris 319). The success of the initial attack, followed by the relentless armored drive through the poorly trained and largely unmechanized Egyptian forces, led to panic within the Egyptian government. The general order to retreat demoralized the Egyptian units still fighting. Egyptian forces suffered enormous casualties, further demoralizing forces and degrading their ability to maintain an effective defense. The Egyptian leadership was paralyzed by indecision as the surprise and momentum of the IDF advance allowed Israel to seize the Gaza Strip on 7 June and reach the Suez Canal on the fourth day of the war (Morris 320-321).
Despite the fact that Israeli planning had called for defensive actions against Jordan and Syria, the overwhelming success of the 5 June air and ground operations led the army to assume the offensive and attack Jordanian and Syrian positions by the end of the first day. The initial success of the war presented the opportunity to secure the West Bank and Jerusalem, psychologically important territory for Israel, about which Labor Minister Allon wrote before the war, “In… a new war, we must avoid the historic mistake of the War of Independence [the 1948-49 War] and must not cease fighting until we achieve total victory, the territorial fulfillment of the Land of Israel (Morris 321).” Mindful of the international consequences, Israel now pursued seizing East Jerusalem and the West Bank, protected by the Israeli Air Force which brought withering fire on the Jordanians and their Egyptian and Iraqi allies. Despite the protests of the director of the Mossad, General Amit, who foresaw the political and demographic implications of the occupation of the West Bank, the government, flush with success, ordered the complete conquest of all territory to the Jordan River. By 7 June, Jerusalem was secured and the Jordanian governor surrendered the city to the IDF (Morris 324-325). Aware that the United Nations Security Council was pressing Jordan to accept an imposed ceasefire which King Hussein accepted on 8 June, the IDF hurried to secure the West Bank (Smith 200). At the end of 8 June, Nablus, Hebron, Jericho and Bethlehem were secured. On 9 June the bridges over the Jordan were demolished by Israeli engineers, psychologically severing the West Bank from Jordan (Morris 324-325).
With Egypt and Jordan incapable of waging offensive actions, the decision was made on 9 June to begin ground operations against Syria in the Golan Heights. Despite strong defensive positions, the Syrians had been under constant Israeli air and artillery bombardment since 5 June. Furthermore, they knew that Egyptian and Jordanian forces were routed and effectively out of the war which further demoralized the Syrian troops. Syrian resistance quickly crumbled, and on 10 June, with an imposed ceasefire imminent, the IDF raced as far east as possible, securing the Golan Heights for Israel (Morris 326).
At sea, the Israeli Navy held back Egyptian and Syrian vessels, with limited combat taking place. The IDF Navy sunk an Egyptian missile boat at the northern entrance to the Suez Canal and conducted commando raids on Egyptian ports. To the regret of Israel and the United States, on 8 June, USS LIBERTY, an intelligence collection vessel assigned to the US Sixth Fleet was mistakenly attacked by Israeli forces, leading to the death of 34 US sailors (Morris 327). The Six Days War was overwhelmingly an air and ground campaign. The Egyptian naval blockade of the Straits of Tiran, so instrumental in the beginning of the war, was broken not by Israeli sea power, but ground forces taking the city from the Sinai desert.
On 10 June, as the Israelis were consolidating their hold on the Sinai, West Bank, and the Golan Heights, a ceasefire was imposed by the United Nations Security Council at the behest of the United Sates and Soviet Union which did not want the war to escalate any further (Nye 191). By November, United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 ambiguously demanded the return of the occupied territories, which Israel now was prepared to do in response to recognition by the Arab States and permanent peace. The Israeli success in the Six Days War ended the imminent threat of Egyptian regional hegemony and afforded Israel large amounts of territory, some of which it would later return to Egypt for peaceful recognition in the Camp David Accords, after the War of Attrition and the Yom Kippur War. The occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, along with the dislocation and expulsion of more than a hundred thousand Palestinians, continues to cause instability in the region today. Furthermore, the overwhelming victory of the Six Days War and the occupation of spiritually important Jerusalem and the West Bank immediately began to take on a religious aspect in Israel, leading to a resurgence of right-wing Zionism (Jones 30-31). Finally, the humiliation of the Arab regimes in 1967 would lead to their rearmament and the subsequent Wars of Attrition and the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
The Israeli victory in the Six Days War successfully demonstrated the military theories of Liddell Hart in practice. The indirect approach, theorized by Liddell Hart, called for a military force to achieve surprise through indirect methods, paralyzing the enemy into inaction while leveraging technology and maneuver to secure strategic goals. Liddell Hart described the indirect approach in his work, Strategy: “Throughout the ages, effective results in war have rarely been attained unless the approach has had such indirectness as to ensure the opponent’s unreadiness to meet it. The indirectness has usually been physical, and always psychological (Danchev 315).” The Israelis, in meeting the Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian threat with the overwhelming 5 June air strikes, assured air superiority while destroying the air forces of the Arab States. In so doing, the Israelis achieved surprise and were able to maintain the initiative throughout the Six Days War. Psychologically decimating the enemy, the Israelis immediately followed the successful air strikes with ground operations into the Sinai Peninsula, using maneuver units, supported by uncontested air cover, to maintain the momentum. Within a few days, the Israeli armor and mechanized infantry units had eliminated the ability for the Egyptian forces to coordinate an effective defense, driving to positions along the Suez Canal. Liddell Hart theorized that a force adopting the indirect method would achieve surprise, and then use the momentum and psychological devastation of surprise to pursue and defeat the enemy. The Israeli Air Force flying well into the Mediterranean Sea, before turning south to strike its initial targets in Egypt while avoiding radar coverage, recalls Liddell Hart’s maxim on maneuver warfare where “the longest way round is often the shortest way home (Danchev 315).”
The psychological element of the indirect approach is to shock the enemy into a state of ineffectiveness or indecision. The Israelis used their surprise air strikes to force the Egyptians into an immediate defensive posture, which by the end of the first day became a disorganized retreat. Hart wrote in the 1930s, “As the submarine was primarily an economic weapon, so was the aeroplane primarily a psychological weapon (Wheeler 4).” He recognized at an early stage in the development of airpower that the airplane, with the power to strike deep into the rear areas of enemy territory, could have an enormous psychological impact on the enemy’s ability to maintain momentum and stage an effective defense.
At the end of the Great War, Liddell Hart began to theorize on the power of tactical aircraft to allow an armed force to achieve the indirect approach in war. He identified two essential strengths in air power: unrivaled mobility and cooperation with ground forces. In spite of the inherent strengths air power possessed, Hart identified several weaknesses: poor defensive position while on the ground, ease of detection, and inaccurate or ineffective firepower (Wheeler 2). The Israelis capitalized on Hart’s identified strengths, while mitigating the weaknesses. They exploited gaps in the Egyptian radar coverage over the Mediterranean to overcome the difficulty of flying undetected across the Sinai. They flew at very low altitude to further reduce Egyptian radar effectiveness and eliminating the threat posed by the SA-2 GUIDELINE surface-to-air missile system by staying beneath its minimum attack altitude. The Israelis took advantage of improvements in air-to-ground attack capability to destroy runways, stranding the Egyptian aircraft on their tarmacs. Finally, the IDF capitalized on the great weakness of aircraft identified by Hart as vulnerability on the ground, to destroy the Egyptian Air Force while stranded. Hart wrote in 1934, “The large ground organization of a modern air force is its Achilles’ heel,” which the Israelis capitalized upon to devastating effect (Wheeler 6).
Maneuver warfare, described by Liddell Hart, is necessary to achieve surprise and paralyze the enemy. The seizing of land for the sake of making territorial gains was to be avoided, for holding positions is worthless if it does not participate in defeating the enemy. Hart wrote in 1925, “We are far too much absorbed with the idea of ‘positions’ both of taking them and of occupying them. Navies have always commanded vital arteries without occupying them; is there any reason why the mobile armies, the land navies, of the future should not do the same (Danchev 318)?” The Israelis, although conquering an enormous amount of territory in the Six Days War, initially did not seek territorial gains. The strategy was to destroy the war fighting ability of the Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian armed forces, eliminating the combined Arab threat to Israel. Israeli armored and mechanized units, fighting against the largely unmechanized Arab units, were initially able to force the Sinai based Egyptian forces into a general retreat. The initial surprise achieved by the IDF, supported by almost continuous air-to-ground attacks against the Egyptians, allowed the Israelis to maintain the momentum against the Egyptians while expanding the fight to the West Bank and Golan Heights. The ground combat in the Six Days War pressed by the Israelis was overwhelmingly armored, mechanized, and coordinated with artillery support and constant air supremacy. The Israelis followed Hart’s theories, ignoring the taking of territory to focus on the destruction of the enemy’s forces through the indirect approach. The taking of enormous amounts of territory was a byproduct of the destruction of the enemy’s forces and a result of the successful strategy adopted by the IDF.
Hart believed that the reality of a bipolar world, in a fragile balance of nuclear deterrence, was limited warfare. The fear of escalation to nuclear conflict was too great to allow combat to rage among the superpower’s client states (Carver 781). Israel, aware that offensive actions would be seen by the superpowers as escalatory and destabilizing, moved quickly to destroy the three armed forces arrayed against them. Almost immediately after the beginning of the Six Days War, the international community was pushing for a ceasefire. This drove the Israelis to destroy the fighting capability of the Arab States as quickly as possible, before the imposing of a ceasefire, fulfilling Hart’s prediction.
Liddell Hart developed his concept of the indirect approach decades before the Six Days War. However, the combat operations begun by Israel fulfilled Hart’s calculation that maneuver units could leverage technology to achieve surprise against the enemy. Once surprise was achieved, momentum could be brought constantly to bear, paralyzing the enemy into a state of ineffectiveness. The overwhelming success of Israel in the Six Days War and the subsequent humiliation of the Arab regimes, would define the strategic situation in the Middle East to the present day. The seizing of Egyptian, Jordanian, Syrian, and Palestinian territory, with the following displacement of several hundred thousand Palestinians from newly acquired land, significantly altered the political reality of the Israeli-Arab Conflict. The 1973 Yom Kippur War would later show the Arab recognition of Liddell Hart’s indirect approach, when in a surprise attack the reequipped Arab forces initially decimated the IDF, securing the momentum for a time early in the war. It was only after the Yom Kippur War that the Israel’s abandoned the 1967 inspired reliance on the offensive and readopted a more flexible strategy, again similar to Hart’s theories which were so successful in 1967 (Finkel 790-793). This redefinition of the strategic picture led to several more wars, the eventual land for recognition agreements which arose from the Camp David Accords, and a Middle East Peace Process which continues with limited success to the present day.
© J.B. Wilgus 2008
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