Friday, January 19, 2007

Inside the Merkava

Rear door of Merkava 4 tank, a feature that experts say helps the IDF save lives.

On a recent visit to Israel, I spoke with a member of the IDF's most elite tank unit. I'll call him Amit. My interest in the state of tank warfare in the region had been piqued back in Berkeley by a conversation with an American reserve tank driver. He had contended that the Lebanon War last summer had debunked the myth of the Israeli-made Merkava tank's near invincibility, citing in particular the destruction of the tank, along with all of its personnel, which followed Hezbullah operatives over the border in the conflict's opening moments. The American Abrams tank, he told me, while lacking many of the Merkava's capabilities, had never been known to lose all of its crew in a single hit.

When I tattled on the Merkava to Amos, he quickly pointed out that the tank destroyed by Hezbullah likely wasn't the newest version, the Merkava 4. In Israel, the IDF's Amit confirmed that this tank was in fact an older version, the Merkava 2. The bomb placed under the tank weighed some 500kg. "Would a Merkava 4 have suffered the same fate?" I asked Amit. "No," he said. In fact, he claimed that a Merkava 4 had been hit by a charge nearly as powerful. Of the seven crew members inside, only one, sadly, a close friend of Amit, had perished.

From my conversation with Amit I gained some anecdotal insight into what went wrong in the last war -- at least with regard to tanks. Amit's unit, which only trains on Merkava 4, which is the most prestigious tank unit, and the first sent into combat, had not been inside a tank in full year when the fighting broke out! Why hadn't these soldiers, who went immediately to the front, to Kiryat Shemona and on to Metulla, been in a tank in so long? Quite simply, according to Amit, they had spent their time setting up roadblocks and manning checkpoints in the West Bank, in other words, doing police work.

Of course, the Merkava also faced world-class anti-tank weapons, launched by mobile, elusive two-man teams. Tank drivers, it seems, prefer to engage other tanks. The role of tanks in the so-called "asymmetrical warfare" of contemporary battles remains in flux.


Jeha said...


That was another "feature" of the past war. In addition to lousy logistics and bad coordination, many of the best units are being wasted on police work. They got too complacent. Cordesman, Schiff, had been warning against this.

Still. Tanks alone, like airpower alone, would not be sufficient in the next round (and it looks like there will be one). The key is better readiness, and better leaders. Not like the PR-manufactured types you have.

My interest in this is simple; as a Lebanese, if we're going to be ennemies, I would rather deal with a smart ennemy. If we're going to be good neighbours, a smart one would be even more preferable.

On the downside, I can't really help the idiots who are in charge of my side. Save but a few smart leaders, our options are far too limited, and we may have our own civil war and make the next invasion all the easier.

Amos said...

Great post, Noah. This gives some substance to the critiques in Ha'aretz about the debilitating effects of the "police work" in the territories on the army's preparedness for combat.

Jeha has a good post on his blog about the "Lessons of the War," where he writes about the tank fighting doctrine. As you point out, Noah, tank commanders still envision the great tank battles of the past Arab-Israeli wars. I think tanks will continue to be important - the era of inter-state war is not yet over, although it seems like lately it's been all non-state actors vs. armies - but there obviously has to be some revision at least of tactics, if not strategy, considering the experience in Lebanon.

Jeha - I agree with you that the current leaders are a disaster, though I'm not sure why you call them "PR-manufactured types."

Jeha said...


They are "PR manufactured" in the sense that, countrary to their predecessors, they had little "background" to speak of. At least not the kind that would warrant national office; there is a world of difference betweem Sharett and Livni, and even Olmert and Sharon or Netanyahu, whom I though strayed too far to the "right".

Others had their share of PR (recall the "Sharon / Shalom" pun during the elections), but those guys just seem to limited to making good speeches, with little to back them up. They are just "salesmen" with little vision of where they were going and why they are leadign their people there.