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Model general whose best defense was offense

by Edward N. Luttwak

Had Ariel Sharon never entered politics, he would still be known around the world as a military commander and tactician.

In both roles, he was extraordinary, because his methods diverged from normal military practices, even in the unconventional Israeli Army.

Consider the Yom Kippur War. On Oct. 16, 1973, 10 days after Egypt’s Army surprised the Israelis by crossing the Suez Canal, Sharon turned defeat into victory by leading his own troops across the canal through a narrow gap in the Egyptian front. The Israelis swiftly spread out behind the Egyptians, overrunning anti-aircraft batteries and blocking supply and reinforcement routes.

Within six days, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had to plead for an immediate, unconditional ceasefire: so many Egyptian units were cut off, wrecked by airstrikes, under attack, or fully encircled that no major forces were left to stop the advancing Israelis — not even to guard the road to Cairo.

The Egyptian high command was convinced that Sharon’s crossing was only an overnight raid by light forces. Their reasoning was sound: The Israelis did not control even their own side of the canal, so they could not possibly reinforce the first wave of a few hundred men with a handful of tanks.

Rather than pulling their units back across the canal to chase the raiding Israelis, the Egyptian commanders believed that their forces could capture all of them by converging toward one another, thus closing the 3.2-km gap that Sharon had exploited.

Sharon’s superiors agreed with their Egyptian counterparts. They ordered Sharon to stop sending forces across the canal, and instead to widen the gap on the Israeli side.

Sharon did not obey, pleading communications difficulties while sending as many of his forces as possible across the canal. He calculated that attacking the Egyptians from their own rear — destroying the missile batteries that impeded the Israeli air force, ambushing reinforcements and supplies, and simply causing massive confusion across the entire front — would induce organizational collapse in the Egyptian Army.

That is exactly what happened. But Sharon’s fellow generals were furious at him, as was often the case.

In 1953, at the age of 25 and already a wounded veteran of the 1947-49 War of Independence, Sharon was recalled to active duty to establish Israel’s first commando unit.

Arab raiders were crossing Israel’s unfenced borders to rob cattle and steal farm implements, sometimes attacking civilians. Guarding Israel’s elongated borders would have required 20 times more troops than Israel had.

So Israel chose to mount punitive raids against Egyptian and Jordanian military outposts and villages that harbored marauders.

Sharon was given a free hand to raise and train his unit. Instead of insisting on discipline, his men wore whatever they liked, never saluted anybody, and never drilled. But they launched devastating night raids while suffering few casualties, even when going up against Jordan’s Arab Legion, by far the best Arab military force.

Sharon sought natural fighters rather than dutiful soldiers, and he carefully planned each raid, always sending some men well beyond the target of the attack to ambush any reinforcements.

The main assault force advanced toward the target in the darkness until detected, then rushed forward, firing every weapon, while mortar and machine-gun emplacements remained in the rear, firing just ahead of the advancing troops.

Within three years, Sharon commanded an entire brigade in the 1956 Sinai campaign, which he led in a swift advance across the desert to link up with a paratroop battalion that had been dropped deep into Egyptian territory at the entrance to the strongly defended Mitla Pass.

There Sharon was to stop but did not, instead fighting a bloody battle to conquer the pass. His immediate superiors wanted him out, but the top leadership instead promoted him to command a division.

That is how Sharon came to plan and fight the extraordinary battle of Umm Katef in the June 1967 war.

The battle lasted only one night, but it was unique in its complexity. The Egyptian defenses blocked the central highway across the Sinai with a fortified box containing powerful artillery and more than a hundred tanks, fronted by three parallel trench lines manned by thousands of infantrymen and anchored on sand dunes and high ground at each end.

Sharon had his troops climb over the sand dunes to enter the trench lines at their top end and attack down their length — a simple maneuver that the Egyptians could have defeated had they not been pinned down by an artillery barrage and Israeli tanks firing directly at them.

The Israeli infantrymen had taped flashlights to their helmets so that the tank gunners could direct their fire at the Egyptians just ahead of them.

Still, the Egyptian artillery was superior, and should have at least silenced the tanks firing at the trench line. But paratroopers, flown in by helicopters, suddenly jumped the Egyptian gun crews, who never had a chance in hand-to-hand combat.

The Egyptians’ tanks could still have counter-attacked, but they were engaged by an Israeli tank battalion that appeared from well behind the trench lines, having crossed supposedly impassable sand dunes.

Then the Israeli tanks that had been shooting up the trench lines crossed over them to enter the box, and finish off Egyptian resistance.

The road through Umm Katef was opened. Sharon had once again broken the basic rules of warfare, yet won total victory.

But even for the unconventional Israeli Army, Sharon was too unconventional. When he was passed over for promotion to army chief of staff and retired from active duty (he fought his epic 1973 battle as a reservist), a wise Israeli general warned his colleagues that he would return as defense minister, and that if he lost that office — as he did after the 1982 Lebanon War — he would return as prime minister.

Only now has Sharon met an enemy that he cannot outmaneuver.

Edward N. Luttwak, a military strategist and consultant, is senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington. © 2014 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)