The Israeli War of Independence (1948–1949) was primarily an infantry war, with tanks performing a supporting role. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had 15 tanks, 280 half-tracks, and some 20 other armored vehicles that carried guns. The Arabs had 45 tanks and some 620 other armored vehicles, of which 180 carried guns.
The 1956 Sinai Campaign was the first true armored war between the Israelis and the Arab states. The IDF deployed about 200 tanks in the Sinai and lost 40. The Egyptians deployed about 150 and lost 30. Although Israeli losses were greater, the actions of the 7th Armored Brigade at the Dyka Pass and Abu Ageila convinced IDF chief of staff Moshe Dayan that rapidly striking armored forces were the best way to defeat the rigid and linear Arab command systems.
Following the Sinai Campaign, Israel methodically built up its Armored Corps under the leadership of General Israel Tal, who later headed the design team that created the Merkava tank. The Armored Corps became an elite organization on the same level as the air force and paratroopers. But IDF leaders soon realized that they did not have the resources to maintain a state-of-the-art air force and an elite corps of paratroopers and develop a well-balanced mechanized ground force. As a result, the tank branch of the mechanized force acquired modern British Centurion and American Patton tanks, while the mechanized infantry branch still rode in ancient World War II–era open M-3 half-tracks that had limited mobility and increasing maintenance problems. Tal believed that the balanced tank-mechanized infantry team, then the standard in the North At – lantic Treaty Organization (NATO), was a requirement of the European terrain and not all that important in the classic tank country of the Middle East.
The IDF’s experiences in the 1967 Six-Day War seemed to confirm the relatively low value of infantry. Both sides deployed a combined total of 2,500 tanks during that short war, with the Israelis losing upwards of 200 and the Arabs losing almost 1,000. During the armored exploitation to the Suez Canal, the World War II–era half-tracks could not keep up with the modern tanks, and the Israeli Air Force’s (IAF) air supremacy seemed to make field and air defense artillery all but useless, especially in highly fluid situations.
IDF leaders came to see the tank–fighter-bomber combination as the key to battlefield success in all situations, the same mistake the Germans made in World War II. Between the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the IDF Armored Corps grew from 9 armored and 2 mechanized brigades to 16 armored and 4 mechanized brigades. In the early 1970s, the IDF even turned down an opportunity to purchase American TOW missiles because the Israelis were convinced that the best way to kill a tank was with another tank.
When he became chief of the Armored Corps in 1969, Major General Avraham Adan tried to upgrade the mechanized infantry branch by improving recruiting standards and purchasing American- made M-113 armored personnel carriers (APCs) to replace the decrepit M-3 half-tracks. Tal, who was still a senior IDF commander, opposed spending scarce resources on the M-113s. He believed that the proper role of mechanized infantry was to fight mounted. Since the M-113 was designed to carry troops to the battle who then fought dismounted, it was not the proper armored infantry fighting vehicle (AIFV) that Tal believed the IDF needed. The tank–fighter-bomber combination continued as the IDF’s primary tactical focus.
Egypt, meanwhile, had very carefully analyzed its defeat in 1967 and totally rebuilt its force with Soviet equipment and doctrine that relied on large numbers of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and the new ATGMs, especially the Soviet Sagger. When the Egyptians attacked across the Suez Canal on October 6, 1973, they advanced only about 2.5 miles and established defensive positions well within their massive SAM umbrella. When the Israelis launched immediate counterattacks to relieve their cutoff outposts on the Bar-Lev Line, the IAF ran into the most withering air defenses they had ever encountered, and the almost pure IDF tank forces ran into a solid wall of ATGM fire. With the fighter-bombers separated from the tanks and with the tanks having no infantry or field artillery support, the Israeli tankers and pilots both paid a high price.
Israeli tanks cross a pontoon bridge built by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) over the Suez Canal, October 21, 1973.
On the Golan Heights, meanwhile, the Soviet-equipped Syrians launched a massive attack that moved forward on a rigid schedule characteristic of Soviet doctrine, which presented the Israelis with massed targets. The Syrians had better tanks—and many more of them—equipped with the latest night sights, which the IDF tanks did not have. Although the IDF units on the Golan Heights were also almost tank-pure during the initial stages of the war and the IAF ran into the same problems with Syrian SAMs, the Israelis had the advantage of fighting from well-prepared hull-down positions. As much as possible, the IDF tanks did not maneuver during engagements, only moving between engagements to rearm, refuel, and reposition.
After their initial attack failed, the Syrians made a desperate plea to the Egyptians to increase the pressure in the Sinai. Thus, on October 14 the Egyptians attacked eastward from their defensive positions and eventually came out from under the cover of their fixed SAM sites on the other side of the canal. By that time, the Arabs had completely lost the element of surprise. The IDF was mobilized and deployed and ready to carry the fight to its enemies. More than 6,200 tanks on both sides were committed to the Yom Kippur War. The Israelis lost close to 800 main battle tanks and 400 other armored vehicles. The Arab armies lost more than 2,500 main battle tanks and more than 850 other armored vehicles.
The Yom Kippur War was a watershed in the development of modern armored warfare doctrine. An intense study of the IDF experience started the U.S. military on the road that led to the M-1 Abrams tank and the doctrine of AirLand Battle. The Israelis too learned from their mistakes in 1973 and rebalanced their force, placing a greater emphasis on fire support and mechanized infantry and acquiring thousands of the M-113 APC and its variants. Convinced that they had to achieve self-sufficiency in the production of tanks, the Israelis began development of the Merkava series.
During the long and protracted fighting in southern Lebanon between 1982 and 2000, the IDF lost approximately 150 main battle tanks, mostly M-48s and M-60s, and between 5 and 10 Merkavas. Arab losses amounted to more than 350 main battle tanks and the same number of other armored vehicles. As of 2002, the IDF had 3,930 main battle tanks (including 1,280 Merkavas) and some 6,300 APCs and other armored vehicles. Syria had 4,700 tanks and 5,600 APCs and other armored vehicles. Lebanon had 327 tanks and 1,450 APCs and other armored vehicles. Jordan had 1,058 tanks and 1,150 APCs and other armored vehicles. And Egypt had 3,860 tanks and 4,200 APCs and other armored vehicles.
An Israeli tank employing a smoke screen to protect against antitank missiles during operations on August 1, 2006, on the Israeli side of the Israeli- Lebanese border.
The 2006 Lebanon War produced some of the same rude surprises for the IDF as they experienced in the Yom Kippur War 33 years earlier. Israel started its campaign against Hezbollah almost entirely from the air, apparently trying to replicate what they saw as the successful U.S. air campaign in Kosovo in 1999. When the air campaign failed and the IDF moved into southern Lebanon, it encountered deeply entrenched Hezbollah fighters well supplied with state-of-the-art Russian-made ATGMs, including the Sagger AT-3A, the Metis-M, and the Kornet. Israel claims that of more than 400 IDF tanks operating in southern Lebanon, Hezbollah fighters only managed to hit a few dozen, of which only 20 were penetrated. Thirty IDF tank crewmen were killed. Arab sources claim that the Israelis lost more than 120 tanks. The 2006 Lebanon War may have shown that the highly vaunted Merkava has been overrated.
References Herzog, Chaim. The Arab-Israeli Wars: War and Peace in the Middle East from the War of Independence to Lebanon. Westminster, MD: Random House, 1984. House, Jonathan M. Toward Combined Arms Warfare: A Survey of 20th Century Tactics, Doctrine, and Organization. Fort Leavenworth, KS: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1984. Kahalani, Avigdor. The Heights of Courage: A Tank Leader’s War on the Golan. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1992. Ripley, Tim. Tank Warfare. Drexel Hill, PA: Casemate, 2003.