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Strategy and Air Power Part 4: From Lust to Dust – Peter Layton

In the last of his four part series on air power and strategy, Peter Layton argues strategies must be dynamic or they are doomed.

In earlier posts we discussed three fundamental characteristics of strategy. This post completes the series in examining an often-neglected characteristic of strategies: they are dynamic, with a finite life.  Sometimes strategies are seen as immutable; once started they continuing unchanged for a protracted period. This is a serious misunderstanding.

A strategy involves interacting with intelligent others, all seeking their own objectives. It will inevitably decline in effectiveness and efficiency over time as others take actions that oppose it, either deliberately or unintentionally.  Moreover, the complex environment within which strategies operate remains continually evolving and changing.

Strategies should be continually adjusted to meet the ever-changing circumstances. They have a distinct life cycle: strategies are conceived, implemented, purposefully evolved through learning and at some point ended. A strategy may finish when it reaches its desired objective although, an earlier termination may be as likely. Adjustments can only go so far to address changing situations and eventually the extant strategy may reach a point at which its utility is less than its costs.

Clausewitz’s culminating point captures this idea.  At some time in its life cycle a strategy will reach a culminating point where it has achieved the greatest effect for the effort expended. Beyond this point greater efforts will yield diminishing effects and bring only marginally greater benefits. The strategy may then be terminated, transitioning to a replacement strategy or some other approach. Conversely, the strategy may be continued if it seems it will still reach the desired objective. The focus then moves to optimising the strategy’s effectiveness and efficiency, shifting its culminating point further into the future.

Strategy’s dynamic nature is well illustrated in the longest war Israel has ever fought: the War of Attrition (March 1969-August 1970). The Six Day War of June 1967 (see first post) ended with a ceasefire not a negotiated peace settlement. Egypt in particular was not reconciled, even after losing 80% of the Army’s equipment and most combat aircraft.  In “the phase of defiance” (July 1967-March 1968) Egypt built a defensive line on the Suez Canal’s west side, concentrating some 150,000 troops there. In “the phase of confrontation” (March 1968-March 1969) the Egyptian armed forces rebuilt and began periodic artillery fire and hit-and-run commando raids into the Israeli occupied east bank of the Suez Canal. Israel dug in, constructing the Bar Lev line of defensive fortifications. On 8 March 1969, Egyptian artillery fire became continuous, beginning the War of Attrition.

Egypt aimed to prevent the ceasefire line along the canal becoming the new border through raising the cost to Israel of its occupation of the Sinai. Egypt’s strategy sought to exploit its relatively advantages in artillery and manpower while avoiding Israel’s land manoeuvre and air warfare strengths.  Israel’s initial strategy involved responding in kind with artillery duels and special force raids aiming to raise Egyptian costs, but by June 1969 the need for an adjustment was worryingly evident.

In July, Israel doubled down, commencing a major air campaign, principally to increase the rate of attrition of Egyptian forces. The Israeli Air Force (IAF) was used as “flying artillery” to destroy the Egyptian artillery batteries and the fighters and surface-to-air Missile (SAM) systems defending them. Tactically this campaign was very successful but strategically less so. Israel’s economy, society and military force could fight short, sharp wars but this protracted war was becoming unexpectedly painful.

Israel now changed its strategy. In January 1970 the IAF began undertaking deep penetration raids into the Egyptian hinterland principally aiming to pressure the Egyptian leadership into abandoning the war.  Egypt’s air defences were insufficient to adequately protect its rear areas in Cairo and along the Nile valley. The IAF’s coercive diplomacy worked but Egypt’s leaders rather than ceasing hostilities decided to seek direct assistance from Egypt’s ally, the USSR.

Soviet/Egyptian SA-3 (S-125) surface-to-air missile system near the Suez Canal. [Image credit: Wiki commons]
Soviet/Egyptian SA-3 (S-125) surface-to-air missile system near the Suez Canal. [Image credit: Wiki commons]

In Operation Kavkaz (“Caucasus”) the Soviet Union deployed unattributed air defence units to Egypt. By early March 1970, the Soviets had deployed three SAM brigades and five squadrons of MiG-21MFs to Cairo, Alexandria, and Aswan. In addition, to more effectively defend against IAF low altitude attacks, upgraded SA-2, SA-3, and SA-7, as well as ZSU-23/4 anti-aircraft artillery, were provided to Egypt together with embedded Soviet personnel. The Soviet forces greatly strengthened rear area air defence while the Egyptians maintained attacking the Bar Lev line. Together they steadily pushed SAM systems ever closer to the Suez Canal, providing a defensive screen for Egypt’s artillery forces.

In mid-April Israel ceased deep strikes to avoid confrontations with Soviet forces and its strategy switched back to the earlier attrition focussed one practised before January 1970.  With the emphasis returning back on canal zone operations, air battles sharply intensified.

In early July 1970 the IDF chief noted that IAF had recently lost three aircraft attacking upgraded SA-2 sites jointly manned by Egyptians and Russians whose tactics now included launching salvos not just single missiles. By late July, Soviet aircraft were trying to engage IAF aircraft conducting attacks on the west bank of the Suez Canal while also flying combat air patrols in support of Egyptian aircraft attacking Israeli positions to the east. IAF air superiority was becoming in doubt.

To deter the Russians, on 30 July, in Operation Rimon (Pomegrante) 20 an IAF force of four F-4s and ten Mirages ambushed 24 Soviet Mig-21s, shooting down five. Three days later however, three SA-2 and one SA-3 were moved undetected within 15km of the Canal, shooting down an IAF F-4 and damaging another. The SAM radars were using frequencies that IAF electronic warfare equipment did not cover. Worse, the new SAM sites could now engage IAF aircraft flying east of the canal.

Israel suddenly decided to accept the Rogers Plan, brokered by the United States, and end the War of Attrition on 7 August 1970. Immediately before it came into effect, Egyptian forces hurriedly deployed another 17 artillery units and 13 SAM batteries close to the canal, covering the entire front. The IDF chief noted there was now “a hell of a lot of artillery, all covered by missiles.”

Even though IAF losses were half those of the preceding Six Day War and much less than Egypt’s — 20 IAF aircraft lost (mostly to SAMs) compared to some 110 lost by Egypt — Israel ended the 17-month War of Attrition worse off than it started. During the war, both side’s strategies were dynamic: they were adjusted, changed, and even reverted as circumstances required. Strategies inherently have a finite life as all sides learn and adapt. They are not set-and-forget.

The War of Attrition nicely illustrates all four fundamental characteristics of strategy discussed across our four posts. Strategy has defined ends; it is all about interdependent interaction between all involved; it is simply an idea, the ‘ways’ in ends, ways and means; and it has a life cycle, it arises, evolves through learning and finishes. Remembering these four attributes can bring some clarity to your future strategising. Making strategy is not an easy task but being sure of what strategy is will help.

Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. His PhD is in grand strategy and he has taught on this at the US National Defense University. He is the author of the book ‘Grand Strategy’.


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