The Weekly Reflektion Week 11 / 2020

This week’s Reflektion considers the failure of Israel to correctly interpret the intelligence signals leading up to the Yom Kippur War of 1973 because of their basic assumptions concerning their enemy.

Do you regularly challenge the basic assumptions underlying your decisions? Would a ‘Tenth Man’ be a useful tool?

In October 1973, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel in what was to become known as the Yom Kippur War in Israel, and the Ramadan War in Arab countries. The war began with a massive and successful Egyptian crossing of the Suez Canal. Egyptian forces crossed the existing cease-fire lines, then advanced virtually unopposed into the Sinai Peninsula. After three days, Israel had mobilized most of its forces and halted the Egyptian offensive, resulting in a military stalemate. The Syrians coordinated their attack on the Golan Heights to coincide with the Egyptian offensive and initially made gains into Israeli-held territory. Within three days, however, Israeli forces had pushed the Syrians back to the pre-war ceasefire lines.

The inquiry into the war preparations held by the Israeli authorities was highly critical of the interpretation of intelligence information with accusations of ‘self-inflicted blindness’. It found that the information in the possession of Israel was good but was poorly evaluated. Israel had developed a set of governing assumptions based on a ‘Concept of Arab Intentions’ which was a pre-set world view that did not contemplate the possibility of an all-out assault from the adjacent Arabic countries. The Israelis belief in their military superiority did not allow consideration of this approach from their enemies. In the days prior to the start of the war, the Soviet Union, an ally of Egypt and Syria, began evacuating their personnel from the area. This was noted by the Israelis, but an advisor told Golda Meir that, it the Soviets were leaving because they feared war “they do not know the Arabs very well”. The Israelis failed to put themselves in the shoes of their enemies.

The post war inquiry recommended changes in the way the Israeli military did its business, with the addition of a ‘Tenth Man’. The role of the Tenth Man, assuming there was 9 people in the team tasked to make a decision based on a set of intelligence data, was to disagree, and point out the flaws in whatever decision the group has reached. The tenth man challenges conventional wisdom. The team was forced to consider alternatives including less probable intentions of the enemy. This allowed exploration of a number of alternative assumptions, and worst-case scenarios, and, as it was a formal role, this challenge could be done without risk to anyone’s reputation and career.

When performing risk assessments in preparation for drilling a well, or for other operations involving Major Accident risk, it is easy to adopt assumptions previously made because ‘things went well last time’. Adopting the same assumptions may lead to identification of the same risks, and the same mitigating actions. We may find ourselves ‘going through the motions’, rather than identifying the relevant issues for the operation and performing a ‘new’ risk assessment. The utilization of the ‘Tenth Man’ thinking in your risk assessment process, a ‘Devil’s Advocate’, may help the team to reconsider assumptions and to challenge accepted truths. If you have no natural ‘devil’s advocates’, perhaps you should ask one of your more experienced people to undertake that role.

Reflekt AS