The Influence of Foreign Wars on U.S. Domestic Military Policy: The Case of the Yom Kippur War

  • Published

The Influence of Foreign Wars on U.S. Domestic Military Policy: The Case of the Yom Kippur War by Robert W. Tomlinson. Rowman & Littlefield, 2022, 118 pp. 

In his latest offering, retired US Air Force Colonel Robert Tomlinson, a Naval War College associate professor, tackles the concept of a military learning organization, specifically how that organization’s ability to learn impacts its ability to adapt to the modern battlefield. Harnessing learning tenets adapted to a military organization, Tomlinson reviews the learning culture of the US Army, Air Force, and Navy through the lens of the 1973 Arab-Israeli conflict known as the Yom Kippur War (3).

To be clear, this book is not about the Yom Kippur War—American involvement, resupply airlifts, nuclear DEFCON alerts, geopolitical ramifications, or otherwise. At its core, this study is about change and the ability to use accounts of change, specifically change via indirect lessons learned, to walk back the key elements present in a military organization at that time. While the concepts Tomlinson introduces are not new, his framework of employing a modern conflict to provide context to the larger organizational concept of adaptation and a learning institution is a quick, helpful tool for military academics and practitioners alike.

Structured thematically, Tomlinson’s review moves from service to service with introductory chapters on learning concepts and a summary of the ’73 conflict. For his theoretical framework, Tomlinson draws a connection between organizational learning expert Peter Senge’s findings captured in The Fifth Discipline (1990), those of international relations scholar Robert Downie’s study on post-Vietnam US military operations in Learning from Conflict (1998), political scientist Kimberly Martin’s study of Soviet innovation in Engaging the Enemy (1993), and his own operational command experiences, to identify five elements found in a military learning organization (2–4). These elements are the use of nonemotional systems thinking to draw in outside lessons learned; the demonstration of personal mastery by military leadership through a commitment to life-long learning; the ability to routinely question internal cultural assumptions; a shared, clearly communicated organizational vision; and team-learning as demonstrated by shared, commonly accessible lessons (3). Based on his hybrid model, Tomlinson concludes that the US Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps each learned and adapted based on lessons either learned from or validated by the ’73 conflict, while the Navy, due to cultural differences and a sea-based focus, was less applicable to the Yom Kippur land war, did not. 

Many of the examples cited by Tomlinson include initiatives that grew out of failures in the Vietnam conflict, such as the establishment of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) in the summer of ’73 or the Air Force’s Red Flag air-to-air exercises in ’75. While not a direct result of the Yom Kippur War, those initiatives were enhanced by lessons gained from the joint United States Military Operational Survey Team (USMOST), dispatched to Israel shortly after the end of the conflict. Regardless of the direct motivating factors behind advancements across the American military in the years following Vietnam and the Yom Kippur War, as Tomlinson demonstrates, the tactical and operational lessons were best absorbed by military cultures primed for change.

Beginning with the Army, the service that gained most from this outwardly influenced introspection, Tomlinson discusses the service’s shift away from Vietnam back toward a Soviet-dominated battlefield, culminating in the post-Cold War AirLand Battle concept (32–33). Led by its chief of armor, Major General Donn Starry, and the manager of the M1 Battle Tank weapons system, Brigadier General Robert Baer, the USMOST team collected first-hand accounts of the battles through Israeli Defense Force witness interviews and leadership after-action accounts (22). Tomlinson concludes that the influence of Starry and Baer, coupled with the forward systems thinking of elements like TRADOC (24), the shared organizational message (32), the clear desire to change following Vietnam (20), and the use of professional military education (PME) as a venue to enhance personal mastery (26), enabled the Army to quickly pivot efforts to meet the emergent challenges demonstrated in ’73. 

Like the Army, the Air Force was primed to learn post-Vietnam. Citing the service’s foundation as a learning organization, Tomlinson identifies the importance of air superiority, doctrinal training needs, the challenging of logistical assumptions, and the need to incorporate each into training as the primary lessons for the Air Force (48). In this vein, one of the largest proponents of gaining expertise through the lessons of the Yom Kippur War was Colonel John Warden, who pulled from the conflict to develop his systems approach to air campaigns. Taught in PME, and widely adopted throughout the service, Warden’s concept was a foundational element of the successful Operation Desert Storm air campaign (88–89). 

Because the Navy did not pivot as strongly toward Vietnam, remaining focused primarily on the Soviet Union as their primary adversary, the service’s need to change was not as heavily weighted (nor necessary) following the Yom Kippur War (67–71). As the service was not as primed as their ground and air counterparts, the Navy’s lessons focused primarily on tactical lessons learned through Israel’s employment of the A-4 Skyhawk, a shared platform (90). The Marine Corps, within the Department of the Navy, did, however, pull similar lessons as the Army and Air Force. Upon observing the challenges in infantry and armor movement, the Marine Corps realized a need to move away from contested amphibious landings, which proved too costly on a modern battlefield enabled by precision-guided munitions and anti-tank missiles, toward their role as a combined arms entity, as captured by the Marine-Air-Ground Task Force (77).

Overall, Tomlinson’s Influence of Foreign Wars is a useful case study on the ability of American military organizations to adapt based on outside lessons learned as opposed to directly experienced personal service trauma akin to the shock of Pearl Harbor or the more recent First Battle of Fallujah. Furthermore, his work does not require in-depth knowledge of the ’73 Yom Kippur War as it is less about the conflict and more about the ability of American military services to learn and adapt. As centered on Tomlinson’s five tenets of a learning organization, The Case for Yom Kippur serves as a useful model for future like-studies and is a welcome addition to professional military education as it helps to fill gaps in study between the end of the Vietnam War and the emergence of the modern US military. 

Lieutenant Colonel Jill E. Hopkins, USAF, PhD

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."