Mission command dates back to the mid-19th century, when the Chief of Prussian general staff, Helmuth von Moltke, first conceptualized the decentralized operational framework known as Auftragstaktik.[i] German doctrine adopted Auftragstaktik in 1888, which later served as the foundation for the infamous German Blitzkrieg of WWII.[ii] Today, Auftragstaktik provides the foundation for mission command, which U.S. doctrine defines as having seven key principles: competence, mutual trust, shared understanding, commander’s intent, mission orders, disciplined initiative, and risk acceptance.[iii] These principles are compounding, with each one enhancing the efficacy of the next. This article analyzes MG Ariel Sharon’s effective employment of mission command during the Yom Kippur War, specifically through the principles of competence, mutual trust, disciplined initiative, and risk acceptance.
History is riddled with tragic ironies, not least of which was Israel’s adoption of Auftragstaktik – a byproduct of the failed Third Reich. As a result, mission command in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) “...evolved as a framework within which officers who possessed the necessary skills, could be trusted to operate independently in the chaos of war.”[iv] Despite Israel’s notable use of mission command throughout various conflicts during its formative years, the IDF only officially adopted this operational framework in 2006.[v] The lessons gleaned from Israeli tactics during the 1967 and 1973 Wars exemplified the ‘Apogee of Blitzkrieg,’ and ultimately served as a foundation for future U.S. doctrine.[vi] MG Sharon’s employment of mission command in the Sinai Front of the Yom Kippur War, offers one of the most extensive case studies in modern military history.[vii] The immensely devastating consequences of the conflict, coupled with Israel’s nuclear capability and the risk of U.S. or Soviet great power intervention, made this conflict a uniquely complex.
In September 1973, Egypt and Syria mobilized their reserves and conducted military exercises along their respective borders with Israel - a cover for their impending attack. Despite Israeli leadership receiving early warning of a likely multi-front assault by the Arab coalition, Prime Minister Golda Meir decided against conducting preemptive strikes against the Arab states.[viii] In stark contrast to Israel’s aggressive preemptive strikes during the 1967 Six Day War, Meir’s decision was indicative of the widespread toxic risk aversion that plagued the country’s senior leadership. Although MG Sharon retired from active duty prior to the war in 1973, he continued to serve as a Commander of the 143 Armored Division in the IDF reserves. Although his superiors described him as ‘reckless’, ‘unbalanced’, ‘undisciplined’ and ‘too independent’, Sharon is widely regarded the Hero of the Yom Kippur War.[ix] His complex ground maneuver proved crucial to Israeli victory, as he isolated the Egyptian Third Army just 62 miles outside of Cairo, forcing an immediate U.S.-brokered peace agreement with Egypt.[x]
On October 6th, Egyptian forces crossed the Suez Canal to execute their initial assault but were met with fierce resistance from Israeli defensive positions along the Bar Lev line. Despite Egypt’s 9:1 force ratio advantage, the IDF were able to stabilize the front lines which held fast for nearly a week.[xi] Following Egypt’s failed attack on October 14th, Sharon appealed to his superiors at Southern Command to take rapid offensive action. He believed a rapid and aggressive attack would stifle Egyptian initiative, while maintaining a defensive posture would only provide Egypt more time and space to regain combat power.[xii] Ultimately, Southern Command directed Sharon to occupy defensive battle positions and prepare to secure and establish bridgeheads on either side of the Suez Canal. Securing the bridgeheads was considered a critical shaping operation, as it would allow Israeli forces to gain freedom of movement and posture themselves to conduct deep maneuver penetrations into Egypt.
On the evening of October 15th, Sharon conducted a wet gap crossing, transporting 750 paratroopers, 20 tanks and 7 armored personnel carriers across the Suez Canal using ferries.[xiii] The paratrooper brigade, led by COL Danny Matt, was reassigned to augment Sharon’s division just a day prior to the operation. The operation’s success was a true testament to the mutual trust shared between these two commanders. The Egyptians were clearly unprepared for the deep maneuver of Israeli tanks, which attacked 12 kilometers behind Egyptian front lines, destroying Surface to Air Missile (SAM) sites with impunity. Egyptian and Israeli leadership alike were astounded with Sharon’s rapid and efficient crossing of the Suez Canal. Sharon later revealed that between the 1967 and 1973 wars, he anticipated one day needing to cross the canal into Egypt, so decided to build a large staging area.[xiv] The crossing was Sharon’s first of many critical accomplishments during the war, as until that point the Soviet-produced Egyptian SAM systems prevented Israeli air power from shaping the battlefield. Sharon’s bold and aggressive deep maneuver enabled heavy Israeli air and artillery strikes, which quickly neutralized Egyptian air defense capabilities.
Up until this phase of the operation, the Sinai Front provided a textbook case study of mission command employed at echelon. Southern Command leadership, MG Shmuel Gonen and Chaim Bar-Lev, provided clear direction and commander’s intent, while Sharon exercised disciplined initiative and overall competence to achieve his commanders’ objectives decisively. However, this was a major turning point, as risk aversion once again overtook Southern Command, which in turn began suppressing Sharon’s initiative and tactical recommendations. With the bridgeheads secure and IDF crossing the canal, Gonen and Bar-Lev repeatedly ordered Sharon to send forces back across the canal to widen the corridor along the eastern bridgehead. However, Sharon's tactical competence and situational awareness led him to oppose Southern Command’s direct orders. He believed such a move would provide no significant tactical value and posed a significant risk to his force, while allowing the Egyptians to regain the initiative. Conversely, Sharon argued, if he were allowed to expand and break the bridgehead on the western bank it would swiftly cause the collapse of the Egyptian Second Army, “...thereby eliminating any Egyptian threat to the Israeli corridor and bridgehead.”[xv] In response, IDF Chief of Staff, LTG David Elazar, reiterated Southern Command’s orders, but to no avail – Sharon stood firm in his position. To avoid any further delays, Sharon bypassed his chain of command and directly contacted Defense Minister, Moshe Dayan, who endorsed Sharon’s plan to press forward and capture Ismailia.[xvi]
On October 18, Sharon launched an offensive from the western bank bridgehead toward Ismailia, with one of his brigades driving the Egyptians north, until they were within 8km of the city. If Ismailia were captured, it would effectively sever the logistical and supply lines for the Egyptian Second Army. However, this time it was Dayan who attempted to slow Sharon’s progress, as he countermanded Southern Command’s orders to continue the attack. Once again, Sharon relied on his intuition and tactical competence rather than blindly obeying orders, only this time he aligned himself with Southern Command and ignored the Defense Minister. By October 22nd, the bridgeheads were expanded, the Egyptians occupied their final defensive line in Ismailia and the Israeli divisions adjacent to Sharon were imposing massive destruction upon the enemy. The United Nations scrambled to pass Resolution 338, calling for a ceasefire to come into effect within twelve hours, 18:52 local time. Several minutes prior to the ceasefire, Egypt fired three Scud missiles at Israeli targets. The Israelis responded by launching an aggressive offensive, culminating with Sharon and his forces completely encircling the Egyptian Third Army. Upon learning of Egypt’s dire situation, Kissinger immediately pressured Israeli leaders to refrain from completely neutralizing the Egyptian threat. Ultimately, Kissinger viewed the situation as a tremendous geopolitical opportunity for the U.S. to mediate a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, effectively subverting Soviet influence in the region.
The foundation of mission command is directly contingent on the presence of competence across a formation. Leaders develop holistic competence within their organization through training, education, sharing past assignment experiences, and structured professional development.[xvii] Competence can be both quantitative and qualitative in nature, providing an additional dimension of complexity to achieving it. Sharon demonstrated the utmost competence when anticipating the future requirement to cross the Suez Canal into Egypt, as well as preparing a vehicle staging area for future operations.[xviii] However, the presence of tactical and technical competence transcended senior leadership, as each subordinate brigade of the 143 Armored Division achieved their tactical objectives, enabling the remaining Israeli forces to cross the Suez Canal. To truly appreciate the competency of Sharon’s formation, it's important to note that they were a reserve division mobilized during a time of war, with less than twenty four hours’ notice. The presence of collective competence cascades throughout an organization, directly influencing the development of mutual trust, both between senior leaders and across the greater formation.
The presence of mutual trust, which inherently requires competence, is critical to the effective employment of mission command in large scale combat operations. Organizations in which subordinates and commanders have complete trust in one another fosters a culture that encourages innovation and initiative. Subordinates are more likely to exercise initiative if they trust their leader’s judgement and believe their chain of command will support the outcome of their decision.[xix] The absence of mutual trust results in a lack of collective initiative; a byproduct of fearing potential retribution for poor decision-making. In this case study, mutual trust was abundantly present at all echelons, both vertically and horizontally. Prior to their disagreement, Sharon’s superiors trusted him more than any other division commander. Afterall, they selected Sharon to lead the most critical aspect of their operation - securing the bridgehead to facilitate crossing the Suez Canal. Additionally, mutual trust was observed within the 143 Armor Division itself, as demonstrated through the interoperability between COL Danny Matt and MG Sharon. COL Matt’s paratrooper brigade was attached to Sharon’s primarily armor-heavy formation. Within twenty-four hours of COL Matt’s brigade augmenting Sharon, they stealthily crossed the canal, resulting in immense destruction of key Egyptian weapon systems.[xx] The high level of mutual trust between a division commander and his inorganic subordinate brigade commander is demonstrative of both leaders having complete confidence in the competence of one another.
While disciplined initiative is a core principle of mission command, it is also a byproduct of those outlined above. First, competence builds mutual trust throughout an organization. Then, mutual trust directly enables the development of a commander's intent. The commander's intent ultimately defines the limits within which subordinates may exercise initiative, instilling in them the confidence to employ their own judgement in ambiguous situations.[xxi] Two key elements when exercising disciplined initiative are perceived risk and assessed reward. A subordinate leader must ask themselves whether the “...benefits of the action outweigh the risk of desynchronizing the overall operations and whether the action will further the higher commander’s intent.”[xxii] Sharon’s complex maneuver and decentralized control over his formation embodied the pinnacle of disciplined initiative. He had the utmost confidence his formation’s competence, trusted his own judgement as well as that of his subordinates, empowering them to achieve all the necessary operational objectives. Regardless of whether he had Southern Command’s approval, Sharon trusted his instincts above all else and repeatedly exercised disciplined initiative throughout the Sinai Front.
Sharon’s most notable principle of mission command, even according to his critics, was his high threshold for accepting prudent risk. As Carl von Clausewitz points out “given the same amount of intelligence, timidity will do a thousand times more damage in war than audacity.”[xxiii] The implication is that commanders who are willing to accept risks, in exchange for gaining the initiative and a position of relative advantage, will undoubtedly experience greater operational success. Sharon demonstrated risk acceptance from the very beginning, as he lobbied for approval to secure the bridgehead and cross the canal at the very onset of the war.[xxiv] Sharon argued doing so would allow them to gain the initiative, impose an element of surprise, and control the tempo of the operation against the Egyptian forces. Unfortunately, Southern Command denied his request and opted to wait for the Egyptian attack.[xxv] This was both the first and last time that Sharon allowed the incompetence and risk aversion of his superiors to compromise his formation’s lethality. From that point on, Sharon exercised disciplined initiative and accepted prudent risk, regardless of whether his actions were sanctioned by the chain of command. Following the war, the President of the Israeli Supreme Court, Shimon Agranat, led an inquiry into the events surrounding the conflict and its potential mishandling. The Agranat Commission recommended the removal of six senior leaders, including IDF Chief of Staff David Elazar and Southern Command’s MG Shuel Gonen, both of whom Sharon repeatedly defied.[xxvi] Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan resigned shortly thereafter.
Israel’s defeat in the Yom Kippur War appeared imminent, to the point where Prime Minister Golda Meir, at the behest of Moshe Dayan, authorized the assembly of Israel’s nuclear weapons.[xxvii] Fortunately, Sharon’s tactical and strategic prowess were paralleled only by his profound commitment to the preservation of the State of Israel and survival of the Jewish people. MG Sharon fully understood the existential consequences associated with losing the war - the annihilation of the only Jewish state. For Sharon, it was the history and lasting impacts of the Holocaust that instilled in him a profound sense of commitment to protect Israel and her people. His mission was always clear, even when the way forward was not. In his dissertation, Dr. Frank Isaacs best captures the essence of Sharon’s impetus during the Yom Kippur War:
To live for those who perished in the Holocaust means to teach the world the message of their death; to hope where there is no hope; to live humanely in an inhuman world; not to stand by silently; to act with courage; to restore the sanctity of life, the life of every child, of young and old, of men and women; not to kill, not to murder, but to honor life; to channel science and technology not to destroy but to save lives; not to kill but to heal; to fight bigotry, injustice, oppression, hatred, degradation and cruelty. This is a message of the dead that must be brought to the land of the living.[xxviii]
MG Ariel Sharon acted with courage and refused to stand by silently in the face of defeat. He maintained hope during a time when the destruction of the Jewish state seemed imminent. He isolated the Egyptian Third Army and ended the Yom Kippur War. Ariel Sharon’s life was defined by doing the dirty work that was necessary for the state of Israel to be born, to survive and to exist in an inhuman world.[xxix]
Abraham Rabinovich. The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter That Transformed the Middle East. Schoken Books. 2004.
Ariel Sharon, Whose Life and Career Shaped Israeli History, Dies. NPR.com. Middle East. January 15, 2014. Ariel Sharon, Whose Life And Career Shaped Israeli History, Dies : NPR
Charles Mohr. Israeli General Tells How Bridgehead Across Suez Canal Was Establish. The New York Times. November 3, 1973.
Dr. George W. Gawrych. The 1973 Arab-Israeli War: The Albatross of Decisive Victory. Combat Studies Institute. Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. 2000. 221.
Lis, Jonathan. Ariel Sharon, former Israeli prime minister, dies at 85. Haaretz. Archived. 2014.
MAJ Ronnie Coutts. Deep Maneuver: Past Lessons Identified For Future Bold Commanders. Fort Leavenworth, KS: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. 2003.
Shevi Peters & Adam Milstein. The Yom Kippur War: Behind The Valley of Tears (Part 1). History of Israel Explained. 2019.
The Yom Kippur War 1973 (2): The Sinai, By Simon Dunstan, Osprey Publishing, 20 April 2003
Uzi Ben-Shalom & Eitan Shamir. Mission Command Between Theory and Practice: The Case of the IDF. Research Gate: Defense and Security Analysis, 2011.
[iv] Uzi Ben-Shalom & Eitan Shamir. Mission Command Between Theory and Practice: The Case of the IDF. Research Gate: Defense and Security Analysis, 2011. 107.
[vi] MAJ Ronnie Coutts. Deep Maneuver: Past Lessons Identified For Future Bold Commanders. Fort Leavenworth, KS: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. 2003. 72.
[viii] Abraham Rabinovich. The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter That Transformed the Middle East. Schoken Books. 2004. 50.
[ix] Lis, Jonathan. Ariel Sharon, former Israeli prime minister, dies at 85. Haaretz. Archived. 2014.
[x] The Yom Kippur War 1973 (2): The Sinai, By Simon Dunstan, Osprey Publishing, 20 April 2003
[xi] Shevi Peters & Adam Milstein. The Yom Kippur War: Behind The Valley of Tears (Part 1). History of Israel Explained. 2019.
MAJ Ronnie Coutts. Deep Maneuver: Past Lessons Identified For Future Bold Commanders. U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. 2003. 69
[xiii] Abraham Rabinovich. The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter That Transformed the Middle East. Schoken Books. 2004. 374-375.
[xiv] Charles Mohr. Israeli General Tells How Bridgehead Across Suez Canal Was Establish. The New York Times. November 3, 1973.
[xv] See Note 14.
[xvi] Dr. George W. Gawrych. The 1973 Arab-Israeli War: The Albatross of Decisive Victory. Combat Studies Institute. Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. 2000. 221.
[xvii] See Note 3.
[xviii] See Note 14.
[xix] See Note 3.
[xx] Rabinovich. The Yom Kippur War. 2004. 389-391.
[xxi] Department of the Army. ADP 6-0. Mission Command: 1-13.
[xxii] See Note 20.
[xxiii] See Note 21.
[xxiv] MAJ Ronnie Coutts. Deep Maneuver: Past Lessons Identified For Future Bold Commanders. 2003. 48
[xxv] See Note 14.