ADAPTIVE ARMOR

IDF Merkava Mk 4M main battle tank

“Start moving,” Lieutenant Colonel Effie Defrin, commander of the 401st Armored Brigade’s Ninth Battalion, yelled into the radio.

It was August 11, 2006, the beginning of what would become known as the Battle of the Saluki, a controversial last-ditch effort by the Israeli military to gain ground before a cease-fire went into effect and ended the Second Lebanon War against Hezbollah. The idea, hastily hatched at military headquarters in Tel Aviv, was to cross the Saluki River in southern Lebanon and conquer the territory believed to be used by Hezbollah for most of its rocket attacks against Israel. The expansion of the ground operation, Israel believed, would give it more leverage in the cease-fire talks at the United Nations. The war was coming to an end, but the government believed this last operation was worth the risk.

The Israeli tanks moved slowly along the narrow mountain path, vulnerable and exposed to anti-tank missile fire. The noisy and creaking tank tracks rolling over the rocky terrain put thoughts of Hezbollah squads out of the soldiers’ minds. As it turned out, the IDF’s prized tanks were rolling straight into an ambush.

Hezbollah reconnaissance teams identified the convoy of tanks as it approached the mountain crossing and immediately passed the information on to anti-tank squads waiting patiently in nearby villages. Because Defrin was the commander, his tank stood out with its numerous antennas. The Hezbollah fighters took up their positions and waited. They followed the customary procedure—identified the commander’s tank, placed the Kornet missile target crosshairs on it and fired. Seconds passed. Suddenly, a muffled noise rocked the tank, and dust rose to the ceiling. Defrin kicked the gunner and turned to him angrily: “Are you out of your mind? You fired a shell?!”

“No way,” the gunner stammered. “I didn’t fire … I think we were hit by a missile.”

The Merkava Mk-4 tank continued rolling. “There’s no way we were hit by a missile…” Defrin mumbled to no one in particular. He then looked to the rear and saw three anti-tank missiles whizzing toward him. The static talking over the radio drowned out the buzz of the missiles. One hit the tank but did not penetrate. A second flew right over and missed. Defrin remembers only the noise from when the third missile struck. After that, everything turned black.

#

Israel hadn’t been looking for war with Hezbollah, but on July 12, 2006, it was left with little choice. Hezbollah guerrillas crossed into Israel, attacked an IDF border patrol and abducted two reservists. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, using the attack as justification to try to change the situation along Israel’s northern border, led the country into its first war in more than 20 years.

A few months before the war, the IDF General Staff had met for a two-day seminar to debate a series of proposed structural changes to the military; which, in the more immediate term, would include the closure of a number of units.

The forecast for the Armored Corps was grim. At the time, the IDF was focused on curbing Palestinian terrorism in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Tanks were perceived as irrelevant, and the General Staff was considering closing several armored brigades and reducing the number of tanks it manufactured annually. An hour after the Hezbollah abduction, another nail was driven into the Merkava coffin when a large explosive device detonated underneath a tank deployed along the Lebanese border. The tank crew was killed instantly, and the pride of the Israeli defense industry was shattered.

Defrin had originally planned to follow in the footsteps of his older brother, a paratrooper who had been seriously injured in a clash with Hezbollah guerillas several years before Defrin’s draft date. The paratroopers were seen as the IDF’s elite class. Members of the unit went on to fill top IDF brass positions, and several became chief of staff. In high school, Defrin jogged and lifted weights and passed the paratroopers’ grueling two-day tryouts. But then the IDF doctors decided he was unfit for parachuting and while he asked to become an infantryman, they instead sent him to the less-prestigious Armored Corps.

In May 1991, Defrin was drafted into the Armored Corps’ Seventh brigade and sent to basic training in the Arava Desert in southern Israel. The sandstorms and dry weather reflected his mood. He did not want to be there. At the entrance to the base, he saw a steel machine covered with a tarp that was supposed to conceal a state secret: Israel’s new tank. Defrin could care less. The glimpse of the tank merely intensified his feeling of a missed opportunity. He continued to dream of running over hills with his face covered in camouflage and an M-16 slung over his shoulder. He filed several requests to move to the infantry corps, but they were all rejected. Months passed, and Defrin slowly came to terms with his sentence. By the end of advanced training, he had been selected as the unit valedictorian.

The unit’s sergeant major used to yell at Defrin and his fellow soldiers regularly during roll calls. One day, as the soldiers stood outside in the Golan Heights rain and mud, soaked to the skin, the sergeant major screamed as he pointed toward the border. “There is Syria and here is Israel. You are in the middle. If anyone is protecting this country, it’s you and the tanks. There is no one else,” he said.

Defrin and his fellow soldiers got the message. On the other side of the border was the Syrian military, the last conventional Arab military with which Israel was still in a state of war. Surprise emergency drills, held day and night, were therefore part of the Israeli military’s weekly routine. The commanders wanted to instill in the fighters the understanding that when Syrian divisions advanced toward the northern towns, every minute it took the fighters to get into their tanks counted. The question was when, not if, Syria was going to attack. The soldiers were always on alert.

It was with religious awe that the commanders spoke with the soldiers about the tank. On Fridays they would welcome in the Sabbath by preparing the tank, cleaning its inside and polishing it on the outside. The intimacy between the soldiers and their tanks was formed during combat training but also as the soldiers cleaned the tanks with buckets of soapy water and sponges. The tanks, they were told, had souls and needed to be cared for gently.

The early 1990s was a time of incessant fighting. Israel was bogged down in southern Lebanon, and when Defrin returned from officer training, he was sent on a series of raids against Hezbollah terrorist strongholds. There, for the first time, he encountered the tank’s bitter enemy—the anti-tank missile. One night, Defrin was parked in his tank outside a Lebanese village; his mission was to provide cover for an infantry force on a nearby reconnaissance mission. He passed the time eating pita and hummus while his head jutted just a bit out the commander’s hatch. Suddenly, a cloud of smoke flew right over his head. It had come from a Sagger anti-tank missile, which missed Defrin by just a few feet. Two weeks later, another missile was fired in the same sector. This time, though, the tank crew was not as lucky, and an IDF officer was killed.

At the time, the Merkava Mk-2 was the IDF’s most modern and innovative tank, having entered service to replace the aging Magach, upgraded American Patton tanks that had been in use since the 1960s.

Now a company commander, Defrin was summoned one day in 2004 to the Nebi Musa training base in the Judean desert to see the new Merkava Mk-4 tank. Everyone knew that the IDF was working on a new tank, but none of his fellow officers had seen it. The tank was one of the most closely guarded state secrets at the time, and rumors were running amok about its revolutionary design and capabilities.

The officers were instructed not to take pictures of the tank and not to circulate any details of its performance. To many of them, it looked like a spaceship. It was larger than the tank they were used to operating and had a new and more powerful cannon than its predecessor. Its 1,500-horsepower diesel engine significantly enhanced the tank’s speed, giving it the ability to cross complex terrains in record time. The sophisticated command-and-control systems gave tank commanders the ability to identify and fire at targets faster than ever before.

In 2000, the Second Intifada erupted, and the IDF was sent back into Palestinian cities in the West Bank. Budgets needed to be diverted to routine security patrols, the construction of checkpoints and security barriers. Among the IDF top brass, there was talk of restructuring the military, of abandoning the mandatory draft and creating a smaller, smarter and more professional army with significantly fewer tanks.

The number of tanks dropped to its lowest level since the Yom Kippur War. Training regimens were dramatically cut, and Armored Corps soldiers got to see their once-beloved machines only at ceremonies and in PowerPoint presentations projected in classrooms. Instead of defending Israel’s borders from a Syrian invasion, the soldiers were sent on routine security patrols in the Gaza Strip, in the West Bank and along Israel’s border with Egypt, where they looked for illegal immigrants and drug smugglers. Defrin began to forget what the inside of a tank looked like.

In the summer of 2006, all of that suddenly changed. The Second Lebanon War broke out, and Defrin’s battalion was sent to the North for a short training drill to regain some of the basic skills needed to operate the Merkava. It took a few days, but soon enough Defrin and his soldiers regained their confidence and felt prepared to be sent into Lebanon. The tank was like a bike, some soldiers joked. You never forget how to ride.

For years, Defrin and the other tank crews had heard about the anti-tank missile arsenal that Hezbollah had accumulated since Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 and that was supposedly waiting for them on the other side of the border. The Hezbollah arsenal was said to include some of the most sophisticated anti-tank missiles in the world—the Metis, the Fagot and the RPG-29, with its tandem explosive warhead. But one missile frightened them the most—the Kornet. The nightmare of Western armored corps, the Kornet was sold by Russia to the Syrian army and passed on secretly to Hezbollah as a personal gift from President Bashar al-Assad. This laser-guided missile, one of the most dangerous and accurate in the world, came with a seven-kilogram tandem warhead, giving it the ability to penetrate up to 1,300 millimeters of armor. The missile is fire-and-forget, meaning that once locked onto a target, it will hit.

#

The operation on which Defrin was being sent—to the Saluki River—had been on the table since the war broke out, in mid-July, but was continuously modified and postponed until the night of Friday, August 11. Israel received word that the UN Security Council was going to meet that night to declare a cease-fire and end the war. After 34 days of fighting, Israel would have to comply. But Prime Minister Olmert wanted to try and sweeten the UN resolution, and get a better deal, with a more robust international force to monitor southern Lebanon. A last-minute Israeli push deep into Lebanon could do the trick.

Defrin didn’t like the plan. It was already after midnight when the final orders came in to push all the way to the Saluki, some 10 miles from the Israeli border. This meant that his tanks would arrive in daylight and would be completely exposed to Hezbollah anti-tank squads. While soldiers from the Nachal and Golani infantry brigades were supposed to be helicoptered to the other side of the ravine to provide cover for the approaching tanks, Defrin and his men would still be exposed on a narrow pass they needed to cross to get to the other side of the Saluki.

The day before, Defrin, his company commanders and a few reserves officers sat around a sand tray simulating the operation and discussing its weak points. The reserves officers warned Defrin that he would be a sitting duck in the valley. “War is not an insurance plan,” Defrin told them, predicting that one or two tanks, at most, would be hit. His prediction was based on IDF intelligence claiming that Hezbollah would have no more than two anti-tank missile squads in the area.

They were all wrong. After the first missile hit, Defrin managed to shout through the radio: “Commander here—do not stop under any circumstances…” His tank continued moving, but then the second missile flew by, and right after that, the third one hit. Defrin felt like he was suffocating, as if he had swallowed something too big for his throat. He blacked out.

“Commander is down. I repeat: commander is down,” the operations officer in Defrin’s tank yelled into the radio. No one knew Defrin’s exact condition, but it didn’t make a difference. There was no time to waste. The tanks had to keep moving. Hezbollah anti-tank squads were still out there with more missiles.

Defrin woke up spitting blood—a lot of blood. His lungs contracted, and once again he lost consciousness. The Kornet missile did not penetrate his Merkava Mk-4 tank, but the fight for Defrin’s life had just started. An IDF doctor carried the battalion commander out into the open and started operating on him. From that moment, it was a race against time. Defrin was evacuated, under fire, back into Israeli territory to Ziv Hospital in Safed.

The battalion’s operations officer pulled himself together, took command of Defrin’s tank and pushed forward toward the Saluki. In the end, they got there with deadly results: 12 IDF soldiers were killed by missiles fired from nearly 20 Hezbollah anti-tank missile squads, and 11 tanks were hit. The IDF claimed that in the ensuing battle it killed dozens of Hezbollah guerillas. On the following day, the parties declared a cease-fire.

Defrin was hospitalized in intensive care for almost three weeks. The recovery was tough. Upon discharge, he returned to his battalion, debriefed his commanders and soldiers and then went to meet the bereaved parents, to look them in the eye and explain what had happened.

While Defrin slowly recovered, the Armored Corps had embarked on a new fight for survival. The Battle of the Saluki, with its casualties, wounded soldiers and damaged tanks, sent shock waves through the defense establishment. The arguments of 2004, supporting the downgrading of the Armored Corps, were once again heard in Defense Ministry corridors. The future of the tank was at stake. Budget cutbacks seemed inevitable.

A couple of weeks after returning to his base, Defrin was invited to the Merkava Tank Directorate, the branch of the Defense Ministry that oversees the design and production of Israel’s tanks. While he had been confined to a hospital bed, tossing and turning in pain, his Merkava Mk-4 tank was undergoing meticulous inspections—each scratch was examined and X-rayed. Whole sections were disassembled and then put back together again. The military and Defense Ministry wanted to understand everything they could about the tank and the missile onslaught.

A senior officer in the unit placed a gray folder labeled “top secret” in front of Defrin and pulled out a photograph. It showed his tank, and the impact points of the two missiles that had hit it were marked with red arrows. Seeing the black and beaten tank for the first time was, for Defrin, like being thrown right back onto the battlefield.

“I see where I was standing and where the missile hit the tank … how is it possible that I’m still here? How come I’m not dead?” Defrin asked.

The senior officer explained that despite the multiple hits, not a single missile had penetrated his tank. The Merkava had withstood one of the most aggressive attacks known to date on a single tank. This Israeli machine had made history.

The picture provided all the convincing Defrin needed to get back behind the wheel. It was, as he later told us, confirmation that the Merkava is the epitome of “cutting-edge technology.”

A few months later, the officer who had once dreamed of becoming a paratrooper was promoted to the rank of colonel. It would take Defrin a few years to open up about the Battle of the Saluki, but he would become one of the Merkava’s strongest advocates.

But not everyone shared Defrin’s faith in the tank. The media lashed out at the Armored Corps. “The turret is exposed,” ran one headline in a leading Israeli daily. British and American newspapers reported on the failure of the once-strong Merkava and questioned “how the vaunted tank became so exposed to Hezbollah rocket fire.”

A lobby was growing within the military to cut back tank production. “They are irrelevant,” these officers claimed. The army, they argued, needed to invest in developing new, better-protected and faster armored personnel carriers. Anything but tanks.

The debate was bitter. Budgets were limited after the war, and a cut in tank production would actually open up scarce resources for other IDF necessities, like increasing training for the infantry, renovating bomb shelters, developing missile defense systems and more. The news coming out of Europe had a similar narrative. Western armies were reexamining the future of their tanks. The United States, as an example, was drafting plans to withdraw the tanks it had stationed in Europe, from bases where they had been since World War II.

Hoping to see part of the defense budget diverted to education, welfare and the health system, some politicians compared the Merkava to the Lavi, the fighter jet that had been developed by Israel in the 1980s and became the pride of Israel’s defense industry but was later canceled by the government. That decision followed a fierce intragovernmental battle, after which the state decided to purchase combat aircraft from the US and invest its own money elsewhere.

The same, claimed some experts, should be done with the Merkava. The Ministry of Defense received proposals to consider alternative, reasonably priced tanks that could be purchased from the US and Europe. Another proposal called for moving part of the Merkava production line to the US. While this would cut costs, it would also increase the risk that some of the tank’s secrets would leak out.

Defrin and his Armored Corps colleagues fought back. They knew that the tank was still relevant—that ultimately, during battle, only a tank could cover ground quickly enough to conquer territory. Yes, there were risks. But that didn’t mean that the IDF should give up on the Merkava.

It took some convincing, but the defense minister and IDF chief of staff eventually agreed. They didn’t close the Merkava program but also didn’t simply keep things as they were. They did something even more interesting—they adapted.

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