Four types of Merkava tanks
were in action in Lebanon 2006, including Merkava Mk4, the Merkava
Mk 2D (with its distinctive sloped turret), the standard Mk2
(mostly with reserve units), and Merkava Mk3Baz.
Towards the end of the fighting, Brigadier General Halutzi Rodoi,
the chief of the IDF Armored Corps was asked to assess the performance
of his tank force and especially the lessons drawn from the
fighting against advanced anti-tank missiles fired by Hezbollah
on the coveted Merkava Mk4, which saw its first combat engagement
in Lebanon. According to General Rodoi, the Merkava proved to
be well protected and designed to minimize the risk even when
it was penetrated.
IDF employed several hundred tanks in combat. According to official
reports, about ten percent were hit by various threats. Less
than half of the hits penetrated. In overall assessment, the
potential risk to crewmen would have been much higher, if the
tank would be of a conventional design. A colonel commanding
an armored brigade, which bore the brunt of battle, mentioned
in an interview that during the war that hundreds of antitank
missiles were fired on his unit and in total only 18 tanks were
seriously damaged. Of those, missiles actually penetrated only
five or six vehicles and according to statistics, only two tanks
were totally destroyed, however, both by super-heavy IED
unique Merkava design uses various types of hybrid
armor as well as additional protection to defeat penetration
by kinetic and shaped charges, and minimize the risk of spall,
generated by the shaped charge plasma jet. All Merkava types
use fire retardant containers to store and protect heavy small-arms
ammunition, preventing high-lethal secondary explosion.
Even when the armor was penetrated, its unique design
contributed to contain and diffuse the effect, thus reducing
the damage and lethal risk to the crew
Furthermore, tanks are equipped
with rapid fire extinguishing system that eliminates sympathetic
detonation of ammunition. As result, the risk to crew
members is reduced, even when the armor is penetrated.
During the fighting, and only few tanks encountered catastrophic
fire hazards after being penetrated by anti-tank missile,
substantially reducing lethal burn casualties
to crew members. Only few hits penetrated the frontal arc, where
the tank has the heaviest armor. Realizing this, Hezbollah aimed
their missiles to the sides, and rear, when possible. While
the flanks were designed to withstand significant threats they
are not designed to defeat all threats, but are capable of defusing
and reducing the risk to the crew and tank, even when they fail
to defeat the threat. Therefore, both frontal and side armor
demonstrated very high effectiveness against all threats. One
of the major lessons of the war is the importance of an active
protection system, which can be used to augment current armor
and extend the maximum protection, currently limited to the
frontal arc, to the full 360 degree region.
Some of the tanks
were equipped with ad-on belly plates to protect against heavy
mines and belly charges. Despite the extensive use of these
charges by the Hezbollah, since the IDF did not use existing
roads and paved new routes to the objectives, only few Merkava
tanks and heavy AFVs encountered these charges, some weighing
well over a hundred kilogram. While heavily armored vehicles
can hardly be expected to survive such an attack, the latest
versions of the tank demonstrated effective protection for the
crew, which, in some cases, even managed to survive such attack
with only minor injuries. In one instance, a Merkava tank was
hit by such heavy belly charge, killing one crew member and
wounding the remaining six, (some traveling in the rear compartment).
Despite the loss of one crew member, this incident is considered
proof of the effective protection of the new tank.
To reduce the threat of such "super charges",
heavily armored D-9 bulldozer were employed to pave new routes
for the armored vehicles, and precede the tanks over high-risk
tracks, causing IEDs to blow up with minimum damage thus clearing
the way for the following tanks.
The IDF Armored Corps has traditionally invested considerable
effort in examining hit after-battle statistics on its tanks,
in order to establish new tactics and techniques. The founder
of this procedure was Major General Israel Tal, "Father
of the Merkava" and one of the leading tank experts of
word-wide recognition. After the 1973 Yom Kippur War General
Israel Tal led a development team which took into consideration
Israel's unique battlefield characteristics and lessons learned
from previous wars. On General Tal's orders a special team of
experts examined every single tank hit, while still on the battlefield
and on the findings an in-depth investigation was made to develop
effective means for crew protection, which formed the basis
of the unique Merkava project. A similar investigation team
has already recorded all hits on tanks received during the Lebanon
crisis and a full report was made available for further detailed
assessment team of experts which is already examining these
reports in detail, in order to make the necessary amendments
without delay, pending the resumption of the conflict, should
the presently fragile cease fire fall apart.
were frequently required to support infantry units, with heavy
direct fire which exposed them to missile attacks. During the
war, Merkava tanks used various types of ammunition, particularly
the APAM, anti-personnel/Anti-Material
rounds, developed by IMI. These rounds, originally developed
for 105mm guns, were used by Merkava 2 tanks.It was used effectively
against Hezbollah targets identified in buildings and bunkers.
Several hundreds of APAM projectiles were fired during the war.
APAM proved to be the most effective anti-personnel and anti-structure
weapon available to the combined arms forces, proving its effectiveness
at all realistic combat ranges. Merkava 3 and 4s were equipped
with 120mm guns, used modified Flechette for similar anti-personnel
roles. These rounds 105mm projectiles are fitted with a 120mm
sabot to fit the larger barrel. The projectile used all combat
ranges. It is filled with 5,000 steel darts, providing the tank
an effective open-area AP capability, and has a high kill probability.
IMI is expected to complete development and production of a
120mm version of the APAM which will offer more advanced features,
compared to the 105mm type.
MEDEVAC modified Merkava tanks were configured early in the
conflict and were used to evacuate casualties. The IDF also
used artillery fire to protect infantry and armor units exposed
to enemy fire, but even the artillery consumed its stocks of
smoke ammunition, revealing a serious deficiency in IDF requirements
assessment. It took some time, until the units began to work
in combined arms teams, an art of war abandoned by the IDF in
recent years. This included sending dismounted infantry over
suspected high-risk ground and take out enemy positions with
close-in fighting, using tanks and attack helicopters to support
such operation with direct fire, while using heavy armored D-9
for recovery action under fire.
During the last six years, in which the bulk of
the IDF was constantly engaged in low intensity urban counter
terrorist warfare in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, all regular
forces, including tanks crews were retrained for small unit
infantry policing activities, which was mostly dismounted action.
This proved extremely painful, when young conscripts, which
make up the bulk of the regular IDF were rushed into battle,
after hasty retraining. Israeli tankers had to quickly re-adapt
old-new procedures during combat.
During the Intifada, the armored corps did not receive top priority
among senior defense establishment officials. Short-sighted
budget cuts took a heavy toll on armored units. As result, at
the beginning of the war, tanks were lacking basic countermeasures
such as instantaneous smoke canisters, laser warning detectors
and infrared jammers. While some of these devices were urgently
supplied later during the war, the damage was already done.
Armored Corps officers blamed authorities after the war, expressing
their frustration over the defense establishment's refusal to
fund the installation of a rocket defense system on Israeli
tanks and claiming that soldiers were paying the price with
their lives. The officers were referring, among others, to the
Trophy a new and unique, locally developed active protection
system that creates a hemispheric protected zone around armored
vehicles such as the Merkava 4 tank. If those measures would
have been available, Merkava tank crews would have fared a much
better survival chance against even third-generation weapons
thrown at them.
Summing up the performance of Merkava tanks,
especially the latest version Merkava Mk4, most tank crews agree
that, in spite of the losses sustained and some major flaws
in tactical conduct, the tank proved its mettle in its first
high-saturation combat. The overall consensus was that with
less well-armored tanks, the toll would have been much higher.
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Read David Eshel's past commentary here