Israel and her Chariot

By Abdur Rahman Bilgili


The power of the IDF is based in part on its American weapons, and American money.  But Israel also has its own domestic arms industry, having produced such legendary weapons as the Uzi submachine gun.  It produced its own domestic fighter, the Lavi (later sidelined in favor of American fighter jets), and perhaps most importantly, its Merkava tank. 

The Merkava is much vaunted by the Israelis, touted as the world’s best tank.  In fact, the modern variant of the Merkava is frequently referred to by Israelis as impregnable.  However, the reality of the Merkava is much less spectacular. 

Merkava means “chariot” in Hebrew.  It has been in service since 1978.  The tank uses a derivative of Rolled Homogenous Armor and Chobham armor (used in America’s M1 tank).  There are a few special design features designed to provide increased crew protection, for example the engine is in front of the crew compartment, unlike most tanks.

The Merkava design effort was headed by Israel Tal, an IDF commander during the 1973 war, who tried to incorporate the lessons of that war into the tank. 

The tank has a 120mm smoothbore gun which is among the most powerful in the world.  However the Merkava is relatively slow compared with first rank tanks such as the American M1 and the German Leopard.  The Merkava has a road speed of about 40mph (the Abrams can reach 60mph).  Offroad in rough terrain, however, the Merkava is slightly faster than the M1 Abrams.

There are several unique modifications, for example an air conditioned cabin that can transport several infantry soldiers in addition to the tank crew, and the modern Merkava IV has an “electronic battlefield” information system.

The Merkava has specialized tracks that are designed in Israel but made to order by Caterpillar in the United States.

The Merkava has several variants, including an armored personnel carrier, a self-propelled howitzer, and a bulldozer.

The most recent Merkava is the Merkava IV, which rolled off the production line in 2004.  They were in limited supply during the 2006 war, but were in action there.  In fact, almost half (18 out of 52) of the tanks damaged in 06 were Merkava IVs.

The Merkava IV has striking capabilities, like the ability to shoot down helicopters.  The Merkava IV was designed with the capacity to shoot down the French Gazelle and the Russian Mil Mi-24,owned by Israel’s rival neighbors.

There is a v-shaped underside attachment available for the Merkava IV that is designed to deflect IED explosions.

The 2006 war with Hezbollah was in essence a disaster for all, where Lebanese infrastructure was splintered, and thousands died needlessly.  But it was also a disaster for the IDF–Hezbollah was able to damage about 10% of Israeli tanks used in the attack, and was able to stall an offensive close to the Israeli border.  The war prompted a complete revision of Israeli battle tactics that is as yet untested in a major war, but that is said to rely more heavily on blitzkrieg tactics, combined air and armor operations, and massed and aggressive use of firepower, and more combined training of tanks and anti-tank infantry.

This tactical rethinking reflects the reality of the Merkava, including the most modern version, which is that it is susceptible to being destroyed despite its hype.  During the 2006 war against Hezbollah in the south of Lebanon, according to the IDF 52 Merkavas were damaged.  18 of those damaged Merkavas were the most recent Merkava IV.  22 Merkavas were penetrated during 2006–which is a significant number given that a tank penetration is likely a life-ending event for someone inside the tank–and in fact 23 IDF personnel died in those 22 tank penetration incidents.  Five of those penetrated were the most recent Merkava IV’s. 

10 of the 18 Merkava IV’s that were damaged were not able to return to action immediately.  2 Merkava IV’s were completely destroyed and never returned to service (one of those had been hit by an IED and one by an anti-tank guided missile, likely a modern Kornet). 

The Merkava IV that was completely destroyed by a buried IED was equipped with underside armor, which did protect the tank’s crew so that only one out of the seven people inside the tank died, despite the tank’s being destroyed.

In total five Merkavas were destroyed completely in ‘06, and never returned to service, two the most modern tank and three of the older Merkavas.

The IDF actually had plans to dismantle its Merkava fleet in early 2006, in favor of buying tanks from allied nations like for example the United States.  However, after the 06 war the IDF decided that the Merkava was not at fault for the losses in Lebanon–they blamed their losses on the tactics and training of their tank crews.  This may be correct since prior to the 06 Lebanon war the IDF had focused its military on fighting Palestinians with very limited resources–when facing a better equipped military force the tactics that had worked in Palestine no longer were effective.
IDF analysis of the damaged Merkavas showed that Hezbollah had specifically targeted the tank’s weak points. 

Hamas apparently learned from the Hezbollah successes, as the IDF recently announced that in December Hamas in Gaza launched a Kornet missile that penetrated a Merkava IV. This attack prompted the IDF to deploy to Gaza the most modern variant of the Merkava, a battalion of Merkava IV’s armed with the TROPHY anti-missile system.

The TROPHY anti-missile system is quite a miracle of science.  The system, which costs $250,000 for each tank that it equips, was driven in part by the tank losses in Lebanon.  TROPHY explodes as it senses an incoming missile, and is able to shred the incoming missile before it can execute the mathematically timed series of explosions that is able to penetrate armor–therefore the missile is destroyed “harmlessly” outside the tank.  The feasibility of this system is somewhat questionable given that it will likely be compromised after it has been used once, and it is abundantly clear that the expense is prohibitive since only one battalion of 30 IDF tanks has been equipped with the system.  Also it appears that the system will be detonated whenever an inexpensive potshot is taken at the tank, even by an RPG that is unable to penetrate the armor.

Al Jazeera produced a fascinating documentary about the Merkava, called “The Failure of the Merkava,” available on the TMO website.  They document the genesis and deployment of the tank and its performance in Lebanon.  The Al Jazeera documentary also shows that one Merkava was destroyed in Palestine by a lucky but modest RPG-7 shot to the relatively weakly armored back door, a shot which somehow found its way to the munitions inside the tank and destroyed it completely.

Perhaps this is a symbol of the Merkava tank–a behemoth of planning and protection that succumbed to a modest blow.  Perhaps a little like David and Goliath. 
In fact, to belabor the metaphors from holy books, the “chariot” was more the symbol of one man than any other, namely Pharoah of Egypt.  How ironic.


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