Following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, armchair pundits determined that the age of the tank as king of the battlefield had come to an ignominious end. They argued that the introduction of anti-tank guided missiles rendered the tank obsolete. How wrong they were. Several post-war studies of the conflict demonstrated that the tank was still indispensable to modern warfare and when employed in a combined arms manner with artillery and mechanized infantry, still reigned supreme.
Israel learned many lessons from the Yom Kippur War and incorporated those lessons into the development of its own indigenous tank, the Merkava (Chariot). The Merkava 1 entered service with the Israel Defense Forces in 1978 and first saw action in 1982 during Operation Peace for Galilee when it engaged and destroyed no fewer than nine Soviet-made, Syrian T-72 tanks without sustaining a single loss. It also reportedly succeeded in downing a Syrian anti-tank helicopter with its main gun.
Since that time, the Merkava has undergone several modifications and improvements, the latest iteration of which is the Merkava 4. The Merkava 4 is considered by armored warfare experts to be among the finest tanks in the world, and in terms of crew survivability, the safest.
In the summer of 2006, Israel was forced to go to war again, this time with the notorious terrorist organization Hezbollah. On July 12, two Israeli reservists were killed and their bodies snatched during a Hezbollah cross-border attack. Israel could not allow the outrage to go unanswered and decided to launch an offensive against Hezbollah. Nearly 400 Merkava tanks, mostly of the older II and III variants, were haphazardly deployed in the latter stages of the 34-day conflict.
During the course of the war, Hezbollah guerrillas fired thousands of anti-tank missiles – from the first generation Sagger to the highly advanced Kornet – at static Israeli infantry and tanks but only succeeding in damaging some 40 tanks and of these, there were only 20 penetrations. Despite these encouraging numbers, so-called experts began to once again challenge the utility of the tank and its place in modern warfare.
IDF planners saw things differently. They went back to the drawing board in an effort to draw conclusions from the performance of the Merkava and tactics employed by its crew members.
With at least 1/3 of its fighting force permanently stationed in Syria, the probability of Hezbollah initiating war against Israel in the near future is low. Even in the absence of the Syrian conflict, Hezbollah will soon not forget the thrashing it took at the hands of the IDF during the 2006 campaign. Nevertheless, most experts agree that the next Lebanon war is not a question of if, but when, and when it does begin, Israel’s latest Merkava variant, the vaunted Merkava 4 will be in the thick of it.
The Merkava 4 incorporates many sophisticated design features including advanced electro optics that ensure a 100% first-hit kill capability from its formidable 120mm smooth-bore gun. The Merkava also features an internally operated 60mm mortar to deal with missile-armed infantry. The Merkava is also capable of firing the long-rang, third generation LAHAT laser homing, guided missile from its main gun, an advantage lacking in the Merkava’s contemporaries. Another feature possessed by the Merkava but lacking in its competitors is the ability to accommodate up to eight infantry soldiers or three litter patients.
But among its most outstanding features is its emphasis on crew safety and ability to negate anti-tank missile threats. The tank, whose well-sloped armor is composed of advanced spaced and composite materials, is arguably the best protected in the world.
Unlike other tank designs, the Merkava’s 1,500hp diesel engine is located in the front, providing the crew with an additional layer of protection from frontal hits. Learning from past experience, the Merkava’s vulnerable underbelly was up-armored to provide additional protection against anti-tank mines and Iranian supplied explosively formed projectiles (EFP), which have been used to devastating effect by Iraqi and Afghan insurgents against American forces, claiming no fewer than 500 American lives. In addition, the Merkava 4’s armor is modular, allowing for quick battlefield repair and tailoring the armor for the tank’s mission-specific purposes.
But perhaps the Merkava’s most outstanding feature is its use of the Trophy active self-protection missile defense system, which acts like the tank’s personal Iron Dome missile defense shield. The system is designed to shoot down incoming missiles before the projectile reaches the tank’s armor. The IDF is the first military to deploy such a platform and all Merkava 4s and Namer (leopard) and Eytan armored personnel carriers (APC) are equipped with it. The United States Army is currently testing the Trophy system for use and adoption in its M1A2 Abrams tanks and other armored fighting vehicles such as the Stryker wheeled APC and the Bradley tracked APC.
The Trophy’s first baptism under fire occurred on March 1, 2011 when it successfully intercepted an RPG-29 anti-tank rocket fired by a Hamas terrorist from Gaza. Three years later, during Operation Protective Edge, the system proved itself again, shooting down no less than five anti-tank missiles fired by Hamas terrorists. Not a single Merkava tank was damaged thus depriving the enemy of any psychological or propaganda victory.
But the Trophy is more than just a missile interceptor. It simultaneously calculates the trajectory of the incoming rocket to determine the location of the source of fire and instantly transmits the coordinates by interfacing with another Israeli innovation known as the Tzayad battle management system. Soldiers in the theater or aerial platforms hovering above are instantly apprised of the enemy’s position and can quickly engage the belligerent seconds later. This seamless integration of battlefield technology has dramatically reduced the sensor to shoot cycle, enabling rapid elimination of the enemy.
While war with Hezbollah is not likely on the horizon due to the terror group’s efforts to prop up Assad, any miscalculation by Hezbollah in underestimating Israeli resolve, such as that which occurred in July 2006, can trigger a massive conflagration. When that occurs, it’s a sure bet that Israel’s fleet of formidable Merkava 4s will be at the tip of the spear.