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.