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4 Lessons for Leaders from The Heights of Courage

By  |  January 29, 2017, 02:00pm  |  @briansikma

The Heights of Courage: A Tank Leader’s War on the Golan by Avigdor Kahalani is a worthwhile read for any young military leader, and a must-read for any armor officer. Kahalani, who retired from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) as a brigadier general, served as a company commander in the Six Day War of 1967, leading tanks in the Sinai, and during the 1973 Yom Kippur War – which is the focus of this book – led a tank battalion on the Golan Heights as a lieutenant colonel.

The Heights of Courage shines as a rapid retelling of near-peer armored combat, offering insight into a type of warfare today’s U.S. Army has trained for, but not engaged in for decades. The lightening quick Gulf War in 1991 pitted well trained, ably led and technologically advantaged U.S. tank formations against poorly led, poorly equipped Iraqi armored units that, by the time the ground war started, were generally locked into static defensive positions. Before and after the Gulf War, in Vietnam and then Iraq and Afghanistan, tanks served as heavy support for infantry and, in the few instances when they engaged in armor-on-armor fights the overwhelming superiority of American formations meant there was no near-peer threat from armored opponents.

It is little wonder then that with its lack of recent institutional history of engaging in peer-to-peer tank warfare, the U.S. Army has chosen, through its Maneuver Self Study Program, to include The Heights of Courage on its combat operations reading list for maneuver officers.

Several aspects of the fighting in and around the Golan during the Yom Kippur War mirror what some top leaders today think the next U.S.-involved conflict could look like. Counter-insurgency tactics, honed and taught during the height of the Global War on Terror, are no longer a pressing topic on the Army’s mind. The next big fight could involve engaging in combat against a relatively well equipped, well trained force that is able to challenge American military superiority on the ground and in the air.

Current Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley believes “Multi-Domain Battle,” as the concept is called, will involve fighting against near-peer forces potentially without the benefit of air superiority and nearly unrestricted communications. “Land-based forces now are going to have to penetrate denied areas to facilitate air and naval forces. This is the exact opposite of what we have done for the last 70 years, where air and naval forces have enabled ground forces,” Milley said in an October speech.

While history is not prophecy, lessons from history can inform thinking about future problems. With that in mind, here are some key lessons gleaned from Kahalani’s The Heights of Courage.

Lesson 1: Leading from the front emboldens subordinates but can degrade situational awareness.

Once the war broke out on October 6, Kahalani, never had a consistent headquarters location where he and his battalion staff monitored and managed the fight. Amid nearly continuous combat operations he monitored his battalion over the radio and called company commanders, occasionally platoon commanders, and staff officers together in various locations near forward positions or resupply areas for quick conferences to exchange information and give orders. Often orders were transmitted via radio or other signals which minimized the number of times small unit leaders had to leave their units to attend briefings and meetings. Leading from the front like this inspired subordinates, but at several points Kahalani is candid about his inability to grasp where every subordinate unit was at during a particular fight. Part of this is no doubt due to the natural chaos of war, and part of it is due to the fact that Kahalani was himself acting as a tank commander, with he and his crew knocking out numerous Syrian tanks during the course of the war.

Lesson 2: Perfect situations never exist, so adapt and overcome.

Conspicuously missing for much of the fight during the first three quarters of the war was the Israeli Air Force, which was preoccupied with missions elsewhere. Kahalani and his subordinates were forced to deal with harassing attacks by Syrian aircraft. With no native air defense capabilities, the armor brigade was left vulnerable to air attacks and tanks crews were reduced to using their mounted machine guns as a haphazard defense, although one tank crew managed to down a Syrian helicopter via their tank’s main gun. In addition to lack of air cover, significant shortages of artillery shells early in the war meant that field artillery was a limited asset that could not always be employed. Despite these challenges, Israeli tank crews and leaders managed to successfully wage a containment battle that resulted in Kahalani’s battalion destroying an entire Syrian armored division before switching to the offensive and driving into Syria near the end of the conflict.

Lesson 3: Ambiguity will always exist, assess the situation and then be decisive.

The next level up will not tell you everything you need to do. Orders will establish what you are supposed to do, but they will not eliminate ambiguity. Ambiguity is present at every level of leadership, and it is what leaders get paid to manage. How many vehicles should be sent back for resupply? What is the likelihood of a night attack? Should you advise higher that a better defensive position exists nearby and you believe part or all of your element should be placed there? When vehicles keep breaking down do you press on with the mission or does your reduced strength require you to hand the mission off? Those are all some of the real-life situations that Kahalani relates in a matter-of-fact way. Through the recounting of actual events he illustrates the kind of decisions that leaders at the tactical level must constantly make.

Lesson 4: Training won’t eliminate technical failure, but it will increase combat effectiveness.

There are more than enough mission and operational variables beyond a leader’s control to create chaos in any situation. No matter how ready a unit is, vehicles will break down and technology will fail, but one way to mitigate the negative affects of these factors is to insist on good training prior to entering the fight. Israeli tank crews in the Golan benefited from extensive gunnery training. Even when heavily outnumbered and lacking the advantages provided by close air support and field artillery, crew proficiency gave Israeli forces a decided advantage over their Syrian counterparts, who had to rely on sheer numbers instead of crew competence to carry the fight home.