Israeli Armored Corps II

Lieutenant-Colonel David Eshel was a founding member of the Israeli Armored Corps and its Chief of Signals. On retirement, he became proprietor and Editor-in-Chief of the magazine, Defence Update International. In his book, Chariots of the Desert, he comments on the 1967 conflict: “The Egyptian handling of their armored forces was totally ineffective and unimaginative. With almost three times as many tanks as the Israelis, their armor was kept static, far behind the battle-front. Such armor as was used was engaged piecemeal and reluctantly without precise orders about their objectives. The state of supreme confusion under which the Egyptian Command operated was signified by the handling of their crack 4th Armored Division, a force which, had it been employed decisively, could have caused the Israeli armored commanders considerable headaches. Still, some credit must be handed to the Egyptian formations operating under complete Israeli air supremacy, which deprived them of any operational movements in daylight.

“At the tactical level, the Israeli tank gunners showed that they were more than a match for their Egyptian counterparts, even when heavily outgunned. For example, the 90mm Patton gunners were so effective against the monster 122mm JS-3s that they knocked them out without losing a single tank themselves. Similarly, the AMX-13 crews showed that they could out-shoot the 100mm T-55 at night by out-manoeuvring them and penetrating their superior sloped armor from a flank with their 75mm high velocity guns.

“On the other hand, the Israeli armored infantry proved insufficiently trained, as had also been the case in the 1956 war. With the exception of the 9th regular battalion, the rest of the armored infantry performed poorly, a fact which was to have far-reaching consequences in the future shaping of the Israeli armored forces. The Israelis also found out very quickly how badly they suffered from the lack of modern night fighting equipment, in contrast to the well-equipped Egyptian T-55s. Xenon searchlights proved extremely dangerous to the crews.

“There was marked disparity in the standards of tactical leadership between the two sides. Whereas the Israeli commanders led from the front, sometimes even too much so, with brigadiers moving immediately behind their vanguards, ready to intervene at once when necessary, and battalion commanders leading each assault, exercising their battle leadership by personal example, the Egyptian commanders normally remained in their headquarters—confused by conflicting reports from the front and unable to influence the battle by exercising their authority to support actions or to move their reserves to endangered sectors.

“Lack of initiative or motivation caused their armored attacks, those that were executed at all, to peter out at the first enemy response. Egyptian tank crews usually fought buttoned down and so with limited visibility. Hence, at Jebel Libni, a complete brigade of T-55 tanks was outflanked and destroyed. While the Israeli crews sometimes fought for more than sixty hours without rest, the Egyptians were employed on short sorties only. Nevertheless, in spite of their fatigue, the better trained and motivated Israeli crews outfought the relatively fresh Egyptian crews in all battles.”

In the years after the Sinai Campaign, the pioneers of the Israeli armor force, and especially Major-General Tal, began the lengthy process of planning and developing a tank weapon of their own, an indigenous vehicle that would be tailored to their particular needs, the Merkava (Hebrew for chariot).

Tal and the Israeli tank planners well understood the predicament that has faced all tank designers since the development of the first British vehicle in World War I; the inevitable compromise between the three great tank requirements: mobility, firepower, and crew protection. It was the substantial losses of tank crews that Israel suffered in their October 1973 War which caused them to give crew protection the highest priority in early planning for the Merkava. Their challenge was to find a way to design in the required degrees of firepower and mobility, but not at the expense of crew survivability. It may have been the only occasion in the history of the tank when a nation has chosen to approach the problem in this way.

Their extensive experience of armored warfare has taught the Israelis much about what happens to tanks and their crews in battle. That experience enabled them to conduct what may be the most thorough and exhaustive studies of ballistics as related to the tank, ever attempted. Their conclusion was that it is just as important for the tank itself to be protected, as its crew—something even more difficult to achieve. Greater protection, they reasoned, would enable the tank to get in closer to the enemy.

To provide maximum crew protection, the designers of Merkava positioned the entire crew at the center of the tank so that they would be surrounded not just by the armor of the vehicle, but also by all the other elements and materials, for additional layers of shielding from incoming fire. Most modern main battle tanks have the engine located at the rear of the hull. For Merkava it was decided to place the engine and transmission towards the front of the tank, adding another barrier between the crewmen and their enemy. The designers’ guiding precept was that every operating part of the vehicle had to function optimally and be positioned in such a way as to add to protection. Even the diesel fuel tanks are designed into the walls of the Merkava hull which consist of an outer layer of cast armor and a welded inside layer, with the fuel contained between the two layers. In a brilliantly innovative concept, the fuel tanks have been developed to generate a hydrostatic pressure on impact from an incoming projectile. This pressure turns the fuel itself into a more resistant medium which actually pushes back at the projectile, turning the projectile’s own energy against it.

To further expand the protective characteristics of Merkava, Israeli designers developed a system of panels of high explosive sandwiched between metal plates, which explode outward when hit by an incoming projectile. This Explosive Reactive Armor was in place on the early Merkavas but has been superseded on the most recent generation of the tank by a newer passive system of modular panels that can be quickly and easily replaced.

The Merkava driver is positioned forward and to the left, with the engine to his right. The engine, a Teledyne Continental AVDS-1790-6A is an uprated version of that used in the American M60 tank, which is also part of the Israeli arsenal. The later generation of Merkava is equipped with an Israeli-designed Ashot transmission system, so efficient that the tank’s range has been increased by the changeover from the early mark’s Allison to the Ashot. The tops of the tracks are shielded by steel covers which are backed with plates of a “special” armor to protect the tracks and the suspension from damage by HEAT (High Explosive Anti-Tank) weapons.

The turret of the Merkava is well-sloped at the front and has a small cross-section, offering a minimal target to enemy gunners, and it is also protected with a layer of the special armor. Inside the turret, to the right, sit the commander and the gunner, with the loader to the left. While many Merkavas feature an Israeli-produced licensed version of the British1.7 105mm gun as their principal armament, the current version of the tank has been fitted with a new 120mm high-pressure smoothbore gun that is said to be capable of amazing accuracy. The gun is equipped with a tracking device which can lock it onto a target and keep it aimed accurately even when the tank is moving at speed.

There are other aspects of this impressive vehicle that contribute to it being truly special. It can accommodate additional personnel and has a low-level entrance at the rear, making escape or the ability to evacuate infantrymen under fire easier. It is also one of the most fire-proof tanks. It is believed that few, if any, Merkava crewmen have suffered burns in the tank resulting from combat. This is partly due to the crew being positioned in a dry, electrically operated fighting compartment, and to the employment of fire-proofed munitions containers. The Merkavas, Marks III and IV, are probably the safest tanks in the world, affording their crews protection and confidence never before known by tankers of any army. The Merkava Mk IV is slightly larger than the Mk III. The IV entered service with the Israel Defense Force in 2004 and the Israel Ministry of Defense is believed to be purchasing up to 400 of the tanks. The IV is capable of carrying eight infantry soldiers or three litter patients, in addition to its four-man crew. It is built with a new all-electric turret and mounts an advanced version of the 120mm gun developed for the Merkava III, which can fire high-penetration projectiles and guided shells and is also able to fire French, U.S. or German 120mm rounds. The commander’s station is fitted with a stabilized panoramic day-night sight and an integrated advanced data communications system and battle management system. His station is also equipped with a laser warning system and threat warning display. The Merkava IV is powered by a V-12 diesel engine rated at 1,500 hp, 25 percent more powerful than the engine powering the Mk III. Redesign of the Mk IV hull around the powerpack has resulted in a better field of view for the driver and improved frontal armor protection against air-launched precision-guided missiles, advanced and top-attack anti-tank weapons.

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