Centurion Part I

By the end of the First World War in November 1918, the concept of the tank had been fully vindicated as an indispensable weapon of war. The tank was a British invention, and at the war’s end Britain led the field in tank design and tactics, with France coming a very close second with innovative designs like the Renault FT. 17, one of the best-selling tanks of the interwar years.

The British Centurion tank – a magnificent fighting vehicle that finally proved that Britain’s tank designers were capable of getting things right after years of producing tanks that were at best barely adequate and at worst disastrous – traced its lineage back to a change of armoured warfare doctrine that came about in the early 1930s, when the British Army, which had previously concentrated on developing dual-role medium tanks, took the decision to develop two separate types of armoured fighting vehicle, one an infantry tank to operate in support of ground forces and the other a `cruiser’ tank whose role was to break through enemy defences and then exploit the breakthrough by making surprise attacks on command and communications behind the forward battle area.

The British Army’s armoured warfare doctrine was based on these two different types of tank. The first, the so-called `cruiser tank’, was fast and lightly armoured, its purpose being to break through enemy defences or bypass them. The second type, the so-called `infantry tank’, more heavily armoured and with a speed slow enough to enable dismounted infantry to keep up, would then exploit the success of the cruiser tanks, which by now would be roaming around the enemy’s rear areas and causing as much disruption as possible. This doctrine, which was sound enough in principle, was refined in 1919 by a senior officer of the Royal Tank Corps, Colonel J. F. C. Fuller, who produced a plan that envisaged a large-scale armoured offensive designed to achieve multiple armoured penetrations of an enemy’s forward defences and totally disrupt his command and control system in the rear. The plan was virtually ignored by the British War Office but enthusiastically adopted by a reborn German Army, whose tank commanders used it to excellent effect in the Blitzkrieg of 1940.

The revised doctrine was influenced by various considerations, some technical, others political. The main political consideration reflected the need to police the more remote parts of the British Empire in the Middle East and Northwest India, where the disintegration of other pre-war empires had resulted in a rise of nationalism and its accompanying unrest. To achieve this, armoured cars were ideal, often working in cooperation with aircraft, whereas tanks were useless in the terrain where most of the problems arose. In the 1920s the production of armoured cars assumed priority over the development of other armoured vehicles, and it was not until the rise of Nazi Germany and its emphasis on the development of a strong Panzer force that production of new types of tank in Britain was accelerated.

The technical considerations involved the choice of armour, armament and motive power. One bold decision of the 1930s was to provide the new generation of cruiser tanks with a 40mm (2-pounder) main gun in addition to a secondary armament of one or more machine guns; the main gun, with armour-piercing shells, would be more than adequate to cope with the Panzer I and II tanks under development in Germany, armed respectively with machine guns (Panzer I) or a 20mm cannon (Panzer II). The problem here was a lack of foresight; British tanks were still using the 2-pounder gun well into the Second World War, by which time the Germans were deploying the Panzer III and IV armed with a main gun of up to 75mm calibre. One senior British officer, General Percy Hobart, Deputy Director of Staff Duties (Armoured Fighting Vehicles) persistently called for British tanks to be armed with a 57mm 6-pounder gun in 1938, but no formal requirement for such a weapon was issued until after the fall of France in the summer of 1940.

Armour protection for the new generation of British cruiser tanks was also sacrificed to reduce weight, it was decided that vehicles would be powered by modified petrol engines of the type being produced for existing commercial vehicles.

The first cruiser tank, designed by Vickers in 1934, was the Mk I (A9), which entered production in 1937, albeit on a fairly limited scale. Its turret was power-traversed and the vehicle carried a six-man crew. Its main armament was a 40mm 2- pounder gun, supplemented by three machine guns, two of which were mounted in small subsidiary turrets. Production of the Mk I ended with the 125th vehicle, the early model seeing service in France and North Africa. It was followed by the Heavy Cruiser Tank Mk II, which had begun life as the A10 Infantry Tank based on the A9, but with thicker armour and other refinements, including the deletion of the subsidiary turrets.

The next cruiser tank design, the A13 Cruiser Tank Mk III, was the product of Nuffield Mechanizations Ltd and represented an important step forward in British tank development, as it used a suspension system based on that devised in the United States by J. Walter Christie. A prototype made its appearance in 1937 and proved to have an excellent performance, the Christie suspension making a huge difference. (The Christie system was also adopted by the Russian BT series of tanks, culminating in the excellent T-34.)

The Mk III’s armament comprised one 40mm gun and a single machine gun, which made it possible to dispense with two crew members. Its big drawback was its inadequate armour, which led to substantial losses when it encountered German Panzer IIIs in France and the Western Desert, and this deficiency led to the development of the Cruiser Tank Mk IV (A13 Mk II) in which the thickness of the armour was increased to 20 or 30mm (0.79 or 1.18in). This was still not very substantial, and the vehicle was fast but very vulnerable. Nevertheless, it acquitted itself well against Italian AFVs in the Western Desert, where it saw considerable action. The next British cruiser tank in the series was the Cruiser Tank Mk V (A13 Mk III), which had a redesigned turret, better armour and a higher top speed. However, it was still armed with the puny 2-pounder gun, which had weaker armour penetration and could not fire high-explosive rounds. The Mk V was known as the Covenanter.

The next cruiser tank, also designed and built by Nuffield, was the A15 Mark VI Crusader, which played an important part in the desert war, despite being outclassed by its German opponents. The Crusader I entered service in 1941 and it was immediately apparent that its 40mm (2-pounder) main armament was inadequate, so plans were made to replace it with the new 57mm (2.24in) 6-pounder. It was this version, designated Crusader III that became the most important tank in the desert battles, first seeing action at the Second Battle of Alamein in October 1942. As more effective tanks such as the Churchill and the American M4 Sherman became available, the Crusader was gradually relegated to secondary duties and specialist roles. Yet even the Churchill – the most important British-designed tank of the Second World War – was plagued by many shortcomings in its early service, being underpowered and fitted with the same weak 2-pounder gun that had been fitted to the earlier cruiser tanks. The appearance of the Churchill Mk III, armed with a 6-pounder gun, finally resulted in an effective fighting vehicle that was to prove its worth in the last battles of the desert war in Tunisia, the invasion of Normandy and the advance across northwest Europe.

Meanwhile, the War Office persevered in its efforts to develop a British-designed cruiser tank that would be operationally acceptable and reliable. Vauxhall’s offering was the A23, a scaled-down version of the A22 Churchill infantry tank with the same suspension. It would have frontal armour of 75mm (3in) thickness, be powered by a twelve-cylinder Bedford engine and carry a crew of five. Nuffield submitted the A24, heavily based on the Crusader design and powered by a version of the V-12 Liberty engine, a powerplant dating back to the latter days of the First World War and by now thoroughly outdated; its only advantage was that it could be put into production quickly, as it used many of the Crusader’s components. The final entry was submitted by Leyland, whose design was similar to Nuffield’s but with different suspension and tracks. All these designs were intended to mount the Quick-Firing (QF) 6-pounder gun.

The design competition was won by Nuffield’s A24 in January 1941. It was expected to be in service by the end of 1942, but there was a snag. The War Office, at last recognizing the obsolescence of the Liberty engine, now insisted that the tank be reengined with the Rolls-Royce Meteor, a version of the excellent Merlin Mk III. Refitting the A24 with the new engine was beyond the capacity of Nuffield, so the job was assigned to Leyland, working with the Birmingham Railway Carriage and Wagon (BRC&W) company. The new tank would emerge as the A27M Cromwell. In fact, the name Cromwell had already been allocated to Nuffield’s Liberty-engined A24; originally designated Cromwell I, it was later known as the Cavalier. The A27L Cromwell II was another variant to bear the name. Based on the Cavalier chassis, it was armed with a 95mm howitzer and, renamed Mk IV Centaur, was deployed in time to support the Allied landings in Normandy in June 1944.

The closing stages of the Second World War saw the emergence of the A34 Comet cruiser tank, a final attempt to rectify the deficiencies that had been revealed in the design of earlier cruiser tanks during combat in the Western Desert and Italy. The first attempt at redesign resulted in the Challenger, comprising a 17-pounder anti-tank gun mounted on a Cromwell chassis. The mounting of this larger gun carried its share of penalties, the biggest of which was that there had to be a reduction in armour protection, so ultimately the Challenger was not a success. In the Comet design, the gun was a 77mm version of the 17-pounder, with a lower muzzle velocity; the engine was uprated and the armour welded rather than riveted. The prototype Comet was rolled out in February 1944 and the first examples were delivered in September, in time to take part in the British XXX Corps’ dash to the Rhine at Arnhem. The Comet went on to see action during the crossing of the Rhine at Wesel in March 1945. Production by the end of the war totalled 1,200 units, some of which were supplied to foreign armies.

The real solution to the British Army’s tank design headaches, however, lay in a decision to combine the requirements of the infantry and cruiser tank and merge them into the design of a single vehicle, a so-called `universal’ tank. In 1943 the War Office, conscious of the vulnerability of existing cruiser tank designs to the formidable German 88mm anti-tank gun and a new generation of German tanks – in particular the heavy Tiger and the Panzer V Panther – instructed the Directorate of Tank Design led by Sir Claude Gibb to come up with a proposal for a new heavy cruiser tank under the General Staff designation A41. It would be known as the Centurion.

The “Fahrgerät” FG1250 IR Night Vision equipment

“Solution B” It’s only a model!”

The Germans started experimenting with Night Vision technology in a date as early as 1936.

The first night driving tests by Wa Pruf 8/I occur in 1937. The Army considers the device ludicrously expensive for driving around at night.

Before the war the use of IR sights for gun aiming is discussed with the Army who set its IR sight requirement as the ability to hit bunker embrasure at 1000 meters with a 30cm / 100 watt searchlight. (Searchlight size and power consumption dictates the size/weight and battery life span of the equipment).

IR driving and gun aiming sights were again demonstrated to the Army in 1940, just after the French campaign, fitted to a Panzer I. Here it can be said the military were just uninterested. This subject was not discussed for two years however the Wa Pruf 8/I still continued work on other devices for the military particularly thermal detecting applications for Army coastal artillery.

Summer 1942 the Army came knocking on door of Wa Purf 8/I asking for a way to take on the Russian night time tank attacks (which greatly impressed the Germans). Dr Gaertner shows them the current gear can hit targets at night using a 36cm searchlight out to a range of 300 meters.

The man on the spot at the Wa Pruf General der Artillerie Heinz ZIEGLER (RK; DKiG) decides that range is sufficient and approves development. This is the well know Pak 40 ZG 1221 sight pictured on a Marder II. That shot dates from about November 1942 when firing tests confirm the set-up will work. Development continued and Gaertner notes development on IR in general increases at this point.

However, it was 1943 when one of such devices was finally tested on a Panther tank. It was named “Fahrgerät” (German for “driving equipment”) FG1250 although it was referred to as “Puma” by the allies in the post-war and also known as “Sperber”, a name deriving from the composite “Sperber” units that would be formed by mixing different Night Fighting equipped troops (Vampir, Falke, Uhu and Panthers ).

This equipment comprised an Infra-Red 200-Watt Headlamp and a IR receiver/sight capable of “seeing” in and converting the IR wave length to visible light. It is reported of having a range of up to 500 meters. The set was mounted on a mounting base installed in the commander’s copula and it could be used in a fixed 12 o’clock position traversing with the turret, or unlocked to provide 360° of rotation.

When installed the Commander’s copula, the hatch would not close and the equipment was fed from a battery/generator set installed inside the turret in the place used by the aft right munition rack, with a cost of 3 rounds less in total munition for the main gun.

During daytime the whole equipment would be taken down for protection and installed in a characteristic armoured box in place of the right standard storage bin on the back of the hull.

Such a setup was known as “Solution A” and offered Night Vision capability only to the Commander, the rest of the crew had to rely on his instructions for movement. For targeting the device was locked to the turret’s 12 o’clock position. The Commander would search for targets traversing the turret. Once acquired the crew had to calculate gun elevation by means of a steel “tape” riveted to the IR device mounting base that entered the turret by a small opening. Such a tape would slide up or down depending on the elevation of the IR headlamp/receiver and by measuring the size of the tape the crew would determine the main gun elevation from within the turret. Once everything was in place the shot was ordered by the Commander.

Soon enough a “Solution B” was promptly drafted, allowing the driver to use another set of IR beam/receiver in order to drive the tank under low light conditions, just like it was done with the “Falke”. The “Solution B” is just a fantasy that could maybe only have existed in the very beginning on some training Panther perhaps, but never in active service.

According to the “Germany’s Panther Tank: The Quest for Combat Supremacy” by Tom Jentz,book some 44 Panther tanks and its crews from at least 4 different units were equipped and trained to use Night Fighting gear by the end of WW2, however there are no records or evidence that they were actually used in combat. Interestingly enough some sources state that a trailing “F” was added to the serial number of all of those Panther tanks prepared of mounting Night Vision equipment.

The active units that fought in April 1945 used ONLY the IR-equipment for the commander – BUT one unit (1. Komp. Pz. Rgt 29 ) with 10 IR-Panthers used the – fahrgerät 1253 – for the driver also. He could just simply switch from normal periscope to the F. G. 1253 and use the same “halterung”. The F. G. 1253 was stored beside (on the left) the driver during the day. Nothing was needed to be rebuild outside. He could see the ground with help from the Commander’s spotlight when he had the IR-filter on, or from the light of the UHUs. It is correct that the commander could turn his IR in 360 degrees – the steel band was easy to remove and put on a holder over the periscope guard. Then he could focus on a target and the turret was turning to this position and the commander install the steel-band again, and begins the complicated communication with the gunner that saw nothing outside.

The Allies of course had their own IR and the Germans knew about it, for that reason IR was not used in the west. The British actively looked for IR on the east bank of the Rhine with specially equipped IR Mosquitos before the March crossings, finding none. The British also manufactured and held large numbers of cheap IR detectors close to the front should the Germans deploy their IR.

The Merkava Tank Development I

To this day, the Merkava tank is classified as one of Israel’s most top-secret projects. For decades it has been kept under a veil of secrecy, so that on “doomsday” it can be thrown like an iron monster onto the battlefield and defeat Israel’s enemies.

Many were involved in the development and production of the Merkava, but one IDF officer stands out: Major General Israel “Talik” Tal, the father of the Merkava tank.

Born in Israel in 1924, Talik learned early on what danger meant in the Land of Israel. It was 1929, and Arabs were rioting across the country. More than 100 Jews would be killed. One day, the doors to Talik’s home in the northern city of Safed were sealed off by a mob, and the house was set on fire. It seemed like the end, until Talik’s uncle ran up the street with a group of British policemen, who dispersed the mob. The uncle ran inside the house and rescued his five-year-old nephew. This near-death experience helped shape Talik’s life.

He volunteered for the British Army at the age of 17 and fought as a tank gunner in World War II. After the war, he joined the Israeli underground and helped purchase weapons for the soon-to-be state. In the War of Independence, he served as commander of a machine-gun unit and quickly climbed the IDF ranks—serving as commander of the Armored Corps, head of the Operations Directorate and the Southern Command and, eventually, a special advisor to the defense minister. Talik passed away in 2010. A plaque with his name hangs on a wall in the Patton Museum of Cavalry and Armor in Kentucky, celebrating him as one of the five greatest armor commanders in modern history.

Israel’s search for a tank started with the establishment of the state. During the War of Independence, for example, soldiers from the IDF’s Seventh Brigade set off in unbearable heat to conquer Latrun, a former British police fort taken over by the Jordanian Legion. Despite numerous attempts, the IDF repeatedly failed to conquer the key site, which straddled the Jerusalem–Tel Aviv Highway. It simply lacked the means of penetrating the Jordanian fortifications.

Senior Israeli defense officials, politicians and lobbyists tried talking to Western countries about purchasing tanks for the IDF. Deals were reached, but threats of embargos were always in the air. Then came the Six Day War in 1967, during which Israel nearly doubled in size, conquering the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. Israel knew it was only a matter of time before its neighbors tried to reclaim their lost territory. If it was going to win again, it would need a stronger Armored Corps.

After the war, the IDF received its first batch of French and then American tanks. In the late 1960s, Israel bought the Centurion, at the time the backbone of the British Army. Israel made a few modifications to the tank, installing an impressive 105-millimeter cannon and transforming its turret, giving it the name “Shot,” Hebrew for “whip.”

As part of the deal, Israel also received two Chieftains—Britain’s top-secret tank, still under development and equipped with a 120-millimeter cannon. After a series of trials, Israel was ready to make a deal for more, but then the British backed away, citing political considerations.

The British decision startled Israel. The Soviet Union was continuing to arm Egypt and Syria. Israel needed new tanks but didn’t have anywhere to buy them.

Cancellation of the deal left a deep impression on Talik. He understood that Israel had no one to rely on and came up with a revolutionary idea: Israel would build its own tank. Most people thought Talik was crazy. Until then, Israel had not built any of its primary military platforms—aircraft, navy ships or armored vehicles. But Talik insisted that it was possible. The study of the Chieftain had created some expertise in Israel, and Talik felt that there was a strong enough foundation to build on. He found a few partners and started creating a sketch of a tank. By 1969, the idea seemed viable. The question was whether it made financial sense and whether Israel really had the technology needed to develop a tank that could compete with the Soviet ones being supplied to Syria and Egypt.

In the summer of 1970, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, the Israeli war hero, and Finance Minister Pinhas Sapir met to rule on Talik’s tank idea. The meeting came after a team of security and economic experts had reviewed the proposal. All aspects of the project were studied: Was the tank Talik suggested even possible? and Would its development make economic sense for the fledgling state? For Sapir, the Merkava project had the potential to serve as a critically needed economic engine. The security benefit was secondary.

“I am for it,” Sapir told Dayan. “Do you want it or not?”

Dayan was concerned that the financial investment would overshadow other military projects and limit procurement plans. But in the end, he agreed and gave the green light for the first stage: development.

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The blaring ring from the phone startled Lieutenant Colonel Avigdor Kahalani. It was the spring of 1971, and on the phone was a woman who identified herself as “Talik’s secretary.” A driver, she said, would be coming in the morning to pick up Kahalani for a meeting. He should be ready early in dress uniform.

The next day, a dark-green Plymouth Valiant—the army-issued car at the time for senior officers—stopped at the curb outside Kahalani’s home. The driver motioned for him to sit in the backseat. Kahalani did not have a clue what the meeting would be about, but it didn’t really matter. Talik was a legend in Israel. If he calls, you come. The car stopped at the entrance to a big warehouse in the Tzrifin Army Base south of Tel Aviv. Kahalani got out of the car just as Talik appeared swinging open the large iron gate, startling a flock of pigeons resting on a nearby building. He motioned for Kahalani to follow him inside as he pulled back a camouflage net covering something in the center of the large hall.

At first, Kahalani wasn’t sure what he was looking at, but after a few seconds it started to become clear. It was a tank, but not a regular one. This one was made of wood. The shape was strange as well. “The tank hasn’t got an ass,” Kahalani said. “Where’s the engine?”

Talik explained the rationale behind the new tank while walking in circles around his wooden creation. “It’s a new design. Engine and transmission in the front and an exit hatch in the rear,” he said. This was revolutionary. Until then, all tanks had their engines in the rear, and the entrance and exit from the tank was at the top of the turret, not at the back.

Talik had asked Kahalani to come see the tank so he could get the young officer’s support. Kahalani was one of the IDF’s up-and-coming armored commanders. He fought valiantly on his Centurion tank during the Six Day War and received the Medal of Distinguished Service. In 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, Kahalani would make history as commander of the 77th Battalion, when he succeeded in repelling the Syrian assault on the Golan Heights.

When the Yom Kippur War broke out, Kahalani was already on the Golan. He managed to pull together about 150 tanks from various units and led them into battle against a Syrian force nearly five times the size of his. After several days of intensive fighting, Kahalani succeeded in stopping the Syrian assault, destroying hundreds of enemy tanks and reoccupying the dominant positions Israel had initially lost on the Golan. For his actions, Kahalani received the Medal of Valor, Israel’s highest military decoration. The meeting in 1971 was meant to reassure Talik that the tank he was building would be something young tankers—the likes of Kahalani—would want to fight in.

Even before the first kilogram of steel was poured, Talik envisioned the tank standing on the military parade ground ready for action. He didn’t let the pessimists—mostly the Treasury officials who were concerned that their money was going to waste—get to him. Step-by-step, he obtained the funding, knowledge and connections needed to establish a production line that could cast the tank body, manufacture the cannon and develop optics and fire-and-control systems.

At the end of 1979, the first Merkava tanks were ready. Disagreements about upgrading the tank and correcting some remaining faults threatened to delay the project, but Talik’s determination and charisma swept obstacles aside. Three years later, the tank demonstrated its operational capabilities on Israel’s northern front during the First Lebanon War, and two years after, the second version—the Merkava Mark II—was already rolling off the production line. The Israeli tank had been born.

 “We have the Jewish genome,” Talik used to tell his soldiers at the Merkava Tank Directorate. “This is what differentiates us from the rest of the world. However, this does not absolve us from learning. Only fools refuse to learn.”

Talik liked to surround himself with brilliant engineers like Yaron Livnat, a member of Israel’s “armor elite,” whose father had served as the head of the IDF tank maintenance unit. Livnat enlisted in the IDF as an academic and studied electronic engineering at the Technion. His dream was to invent new innovative missiles. But dreams only go so far, and after completing officer’s training, Livnat was assigned to the Tank Directorate. He thought it couldn’t get worse, but then Livnat was sent to join a real armor unit, out in the field.

Talik believed that technicians needed to be connected directly with the battlefield so they could understand the challenges soldiers faced and then come up with solutions that addressed real and not theoretical problems. Distance—whether cultural or physical—could not be allowed. Livnat was assigned to the Seventh Brigade for two months. He ran over hills while under fire, crawled in the sand, loaded tank shells and listened to the battle stories of his commanders and fellow soldiers. In his head, he was making a list of possible improvements that could later be implemented in the tank.

“No one understood what I was doing there. They thought there was something wrong with me. They told me it was idiotic to leave my office and go to the Golan Heights,” Livnat recalled. “I fully understood what I had to see and feel in the field. Not to mention the operational ties that I established with the soldiers and officers who later became battalion and brigade commanders.”

Talik liked Livnat since he saw that the young engineer had chutzpah, that he didn’t always toe the line, that for him, rules were usually just recommendations. Talik saw a bit of himself in Livnat. One day, Talik invited the young engineer for a talk and asked him to serve as his chief of staff.

Despite the compliment, Livnat politely refused, but insisted on explaining: “I am a young engineer. The technological side fascinates me. I must stay in this world.”

Talik wasn’t used to being rejected, but he appreciated Livnat’s candor.

“People like you, who tell me ‘no’; it is usually the end of their career. In your case, you’ll become my protégé,” he told Livnat.

Talik’s hard-soft demeanor enabled him to capture the IDF’s best and brightest. He was also a man of his word, and from that day forward, Livnat received backing to develop breakthrough systems. Talik nurtured him, and Livnat was appointed head of Merkava Mk-3’s Fire Control Project, a job that would ultimately win him the prestigious Israel Defense Prize.

The Merkava Tank Development II

Merkava Mark II

The father of the Merkava project continued following global tank developments, and in the late 1980s he noticed that militaries were trying to come up with ways to make their tanks more accurate in motion. Talik understood that ground battles would not be the static engagements of World War II. The tanks needed the ability to shoot accurately at faraway targets not just while moving but while moving fast.

“You have to make the accuracy of shooting on the move like shooting when static. I want identical results,” Talik told Livnat one day. “The systems must give the commander operational freedom. I don’t want the commander to have to stop the tank in order to shoot and hit a target.”

Livnat was startled by Talik’s new request and dared to suggest that it was impossible. A tank in motion would not be able to hit targets as accurately as when standing still. “It’s delusional…” he said. But Talik believed it was possible and forced the engineers to hunt for a solution. Their work culminated in the development of a new fire control system called “Baz,” Hebrew for “falcon.”

“Talik didn’t have a strong tech side, but he had a sixth sense that wasn’t based on science,” Livnat told us. “Talik was a gunner in World War II and had a leather portfolio in his office with shooting tables, graphs used to track a tank’s hits and misses. He fired so many times in World War II that it became a second nature to him.”

What helped Livnat and his team find a solution was Talik’s recommendation that they focus on shooting-error factors, the reasons why the tank couldn’t stabilize the gun when in motion. Research revealed that the causes included the accuracy of the tank shells, the stability of the gun and the gunner’s ability to identify targets clearly while on the move.

Livnat ran dozens of experiments and discovered that the existing fire control system knew how to correct itself and overcome changes but that the gunner didn’t know how to take all of that into consideration. What this meant was that while the tank crew could measure the range, aim and shoot, the gunner couldn’t stay focused and would miss.

In 1989, Livnat and his team made their breakthrough. They developed an automatic tracking system combined with a video camera, which relieved the gunner from having to calculate the range and direction and allowed him instead to focus simply on when to pull the trigger. Only when confident that he was locked onto a target would he launch the shell.

Talik always pushed the needle a bit farther than it appeared able to go. This way, by demanding what seemed impossible, he would at least get a result close to what he wanted.

At the same time, Talik also gave independence to his engineers. He believed in his people, knew that they were experts in their specific fields and that, often, they knew better than he did what needed to be done to improve the tank. Once, when Livnat came to him with 30 proposed tank modifications, Talik had him split the list in half based on importance. When Livnat came back an hour later with the new list, Talik, who was busy reading some other documents, didn’t even look up. “Priority A is approved, priority B is not approved,” he said, determining the future of the tank as if ordering a deli sandwich.

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From the beginning, Talik emphasized the need for the tank to be flexible and able to adapt constantly according to the changes Israel encountered on the battlefield.

For that reason, the tank underwent upgrades every few years until 2003, when the IDF deployed the Merkava Mk-4. A major improvement over earlier models, it could drive and shoot faster and, more importantly, it came with a new modular armor kit. This meant that the tank could be fitted with the armor it needed based on the specific mission it was heading into. An area known to have anti-tank missiles required heavy armor. An operation without the threat of anti-tank missiles meant less. This also allowed tank crews to replace damaged pieces of armor on the battlefield without having to bring the tank back to a repair shop in Israel.

The ability to adapt is a prominent characteristic in the IDF and stems from Israel’s limited resources. Unlike the US or some European countries, Israel cannot afford to simply shut down and open up projects as warfare changes. Instead, it needs to be able to extend the lifespan of its aircraft, navy vessels and tanks beyond the norm while ensuring that they adapt and remain relevant on the modern battlefield.

One change, for example, is in the targets Israeli tanks find themselves up against. In the past, tanks attacked other tanks. In today’s Middle East, Israel doesn’t have any enemies with tanks. Syria’s military is almost completely eroded after years of civil war, and Hamas and Hezbollah don’t operate tanks. This means that for tanks to remain relevant they have to be able to engage targets like a Hamas rocket cell hiding on the third floor of an apartment building or a Hezbollah terror squad hunkering down in a schoolyard.

To meet these challenges, the IDF has developed new weapons—sometimes satellite guided—that provide tank crews with the ability to strike buildings, anti-tank squads and even aircraft accurately. One such innovative weapon is the Kalanit, which can explode midair over terrorists hiding behind cover, or, alternatively, breach concrete walls and detonate only once inside a building.

What makes the Kalanit unique is the tank crew’s ability to choose two different modes for the way it wants the shell to detonate. On the one hand, it can be used like a traditional shell to target fortified structures or other vehicles and detonate on impact. On the other, it is useful for targeting terror squads, which cannot be effectively targeted by a standard tank shell. In this mode, the Kalanit can be programmed to stop midair, just over the terror squad, and then explode with six different charges, scattering thousands of deadly fragments.

Today’s tank also comes with the IDF’s advanced Tzayad (“hunter”) battle management system, basically a computer screen in the tank, which soldiers can use to see the locations of friendly and hostile forces. If a new enemy position is detected, all a commander needs to do is insert the location on the digital map. The position will then be seen by all nearby IDF forces—tanks, artillery cannons and attack helicopters.

A new version of the Tzayad software enables the system to recommend the type of munition that should be used to attack a specific target as well as the route a commander should take when leading forces into a combat zone.

Tzayad shortens the sensor-to-shooter cycle—the time it takes from when an enemy force is detected until the point when that force can be engaged. According to some estimates, the IDF has the cycle down to just a few minutes.

The biggest change, though, came in 2012, with the introduction of the Trophy, a system that could intercept anti-tank missiles fired at Merkava tanks. Until then, the world had heard of defense systems that could intercept ballistic missiles like the Arrow, but not one that could protect a single tank.

The idea was actually born in the 1970s, after the Yom Kippur War, during which IDF tanks suffered heavy losses at the hands of Egyptian anti-tank squads. One officer came up with an idea to install hollow explosive belts around the tank, which would detonate if struck by an incoming missile. This way the missile would explode outside the tank and fail to penetrate.

With the introduction of the Merkava tank a few years later, the idea was put on ice. The Merkava had unprecedented armor. It didn’t need an expensive active-protection system like the explosive belt.

But then came the Second Lebanon War and the Battle of the Saluki. While Defrin’s tank remained intact, the threat Hezbollah’s anti-tank arsenal posed needed to be dealt with. Intelligence showed that in Gaza, Hamas was learning the lessons from the war in Lebanon and was accumulating its own stockpile of advanced anti-tank missiles. And Syria was reportedly purchasing hundreds of motorbikes and training special forces how to ride and fire anti-tank missiles at the same time. These small, slippery targets would be difficult for tanks to locate and engage.

The belt idea was dusted off and handed to Rafael, a government-owned leading missile developer. The result was Trophy, a defense system that uses a miniature radar system to detect incoming missiles and then fires off a cloud of countermeasures—metal pellets—to intercept them. Trophy’s radar also interfaces seamlessly with the Tzayad battle management system. This means that Trophy can automatically provide the tank crew with the coordinates of the anti-tank squad that fired the missile so it can immediately be attacked.

In the summer of 2014, the IDF used Trophy for the first time in combat when Israel launched Operation Protective Edge against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. It was the most extensive use of Merkava tanks since the Second Lebanon War eight years earlier, when Effie Defrin almost died trying to reach the Saluki River. This time, though, the tanks were unstoppable. Dozens of anti-tank missiles were fired at Israeli tanks. Most missed and 20 were successfully intercepted by Trophy. Not a single tank was damaged.

Israel was once again changing modern warfare.

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But why Israel? Why did Israel understand, over time, what other countries didn’t—that tanks could adapt and remain relevant even on the modern battlefield?

Part of the answer can be found in an old army base outside Tel Aviv. Called Tel Hashomer, the British base was captured by Israel during the War of Independence and became home to a number of units, including what is known as Masha, a Hebrew acronym that stands for the 7100th Maintenance Center, the place where the Merkava tanks are assembled and repaired.

Brigadier General Baruch Mazliach, commander of the Merkava Tank Directorate, recalls how as a young engineer he would wait in the field—sometimes even crossing enemy lines—for the tanks to return from operations. The engineers would examine every detail and debrief each tank crew member, thirsty for knowledge that would help them come up with ways to improve the tank. The engineers didn’t sit in air-conditioned offices and wait for the soldiers to come to them. They learned from Talik that the connection to the field was critical.

In his office, Mazliach keeps a brown file marked “Top Secret.” Its contents tell a story of a tank that was ambushed by Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in 1994. At one point, more than a dozen different types of missiles were fired at the tank, including mortar shells, which scored direct hits. Witnesses of the combined strike assumed that the tank would evaporate. There was no way, they thought, that the crew could sustain such an assault and survive. Clouds of smoke covered the entire area. The tank crew was feared dead.

Mazliach pulled a dusty photograph of the tank from the folder. “Each of the circles is a missile hit,” he told us. “This tank was mercilessly attacked from every direction, yet only one of the soldiers was killed. On the one hand, the outcome was fatal and harsh, but on the other hand, it proved how well-protected the Merkava really is.”

For the engineers like Mazliach, the tanks are not built for hypothetical scenarios. Those engineers spend time in the field, developing close relations with the soldiers and officers who serve in the tanks; often, the engineers’ own children are drafted into the Armored Corps. One engineer’s son was killed in an attack on a Merkava Mk-3. “We are like a family,” he explains. “That’s why everyone works 300 percent with their entire heart and soul.”

Being on the front lines of conflict since its inception, Israel often is the first Western country to face evolving and new threats, sometimes years before the rest of the world. The firing of Sagger missiles at Israeli tanks in the Yom Kippur War was the first real use of the advanced Soviet anti-tank weapon in war. The use of Kornet missiles by Hezbollah in 2006 marked one of the first times a terror organization had used tactics and characteristics that traditionally belonged to conventional militaries.

This leaves Israel with little choice but to constantly adapt to changing reality and to develop weapons, like Trophy, that can be applied as necessary. Israel doesn’t have the luxury to wait for these weapons to be developed somewhere else. It needs its tanks to fight, and it needs them to be protected.

That is why, in 2012, the IDF established a technical team to begin designing its future tank—aptly named “Rakia,” Hebrew for “heaven.” The significant expected changes will be in its mobility, crew size and fire-and-control systems.

But despite Israel’s continued technological developments, in January 2015, the IDF received a painful and stark reminder of the advanced arms that are circulating throughout the region. Hezbollah fired five Kornet missiles at an Israeli military convoy patrolling the border with Lebanon. Two soldiers were killed and seven were injured. Similar anti-tank squads are believed to be scattered throughout the nearly 200 villages in southern Lebanon, waiting for a future Israeli invasion. The guerillas are dressed in civilian clothing, living in regular homes. Attacks in a future war could come from anywhere—schools, hospitals and even ambulances.

In the Middle East, warfare is constantly changing. In Gaza in 2014, the IDF watched as Hamas terrorists jumped out of cross-border tunnels in surprise attacks; ISIS fighters in Syria drive commercial vans when attacking villages, and radical Salafi groups in the Sinai have succeeded in seizing armored personnel carriers for attacks on Egyptian military posts.

The key word for Israel remains “adaptation.” With the winds of war blowing along Israel’s borders, the next test of the Israeli Merkava is only a matter of time.

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.

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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.

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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.

Soviet-German Cooperation

Chancellor of Germany Joseph Wirth (2.from left) with Krassin, Georgi Chicherin and Joffe from the Russian delegation.

The Rapallo Accord

In April 1922, long before Hitler and the Nazis, another treaty was signed between the Soviet Union and the Weimar Republic in which both countries gave up any territorial and financial claims against each other. The treaty also contained several secret clauses that dealt with cooperation in the fields of armor, military aviation, and gas warfare. Both countries were to benefit from this arrangement. Germany had the capability to develop these fields on its own, but it was impossible to do this in Germany itself, under the nose of the observant Versailles Treaty’s overseeing committee. The Soviet Union was remote enough for this purpose, and anyway there were no foreign forces on its land to report what really went on. Among other things, German engineers worked in the Soviet Union and the two armies exercised together.

This cooperation lasted for about ten years, and in spite of the obvious differences in their ways of thinking and approaches to problem solving, both sides gained handsomely. German engineers, military officers, and pilots spent time in the Soviet Union designing advanced weapons and trying them in the field. The Soviets got modern technology and the opportunity to cooperate with a technological power with a tradition of excellence. The gas warfare work was stopped after a short time, but the cooperation in armor and aviation continued until Hitler came to power.

The work with the Germans solved for the Soviets the problem of technologically catching up. They also examined successful designs abroad and in 1928 bought two experimental tank hulls from Walter Christie, an American engineer.

Christie, a prolific inventor, developed a suspension system for tanks that was revolutionary at the time. It contained large wheels on which the tank could move at high speed on favorable terrain. When necessary, for travel in the field, tracks could be mounted on the wheels. Although the U.S. Army considered his designs and bought some prototypes, these were never put into mass production. Christie then turned to foreign governments, and finally a deal was consummated with the Soviet Union, which started an accelerated program of tank development of its own. In 1938, they also started using diesel engines of local design in their tanks.

In the twenties and thirties, tank warfare theory made great strides in the Soviet Union. Soviet military literature discussed at length the required characteristics of modern tanks, which have not changed even today—protection, firepower, and mobility—and the Soviets applied the conclusions from these discussions to the establishment of a large armored force. From 1928 till 1935, the number of tanks in the Soviet Union grew from ninety to ten thousand.

The Spanish Civil War and the Soviet Visit to Berlin

In 1933, Hitler unilaterally abrogated the Versailles Treaty, and Germany started rearming. During the Spanish Civil War, the Western Powers imposed an embargo of weapons, which affected only the republican government, but the Italians and Germans supported Franco and did not care who knew about it. The Italians sent a large force of “volunteers,” and Germany sent tanks, instructors, and most importantly, the Condor Legion. This was a force of pilots and technicians, and of course a variety of aircraft, for which Spain served as a large, real-life training field and proving ground for the machines, the people, and the operational theories. Since the communists in Spain participated in the republican government, Stalin decided to aid them and sent fighter aircraft, various types of equipment, and instructors. Included were about fifty Soviet-developed tanks, and it quickly became apparent that the pupils had surpassed their teachers. At that time, the Soviets had not yet made up their minds whether tanks should support infantry, like in World War I, or serve as an independent striking force, which advanced thinkers were advocating (and the Germans later adopted). But one thing was clear: on the whole, the Soviet tanks were better than the German ones they faced. This did not prevent Franco from winning, but that happened mostly because of the ineptitude of the republican government and its military commanders.

When the Spanish Civil War ended, everybody tried to understand the lessons it provided. World War II started shortly afterward, and the conquest of Poland and the fall of France gave birth to a new term: Blitzkrieg. But it was also discovered that French tanks were better than German ones. True, German tank commanders knew better how to use the tools at their disposal, but the German ordnance engineers and tank designers were very conservative, both in the design of the tanks themselves and in the design of the tanks’ main armament.

After the failure of the Luftwaffe to beat the RAF, Hitler turned to the Soviet Union, which anyway was on his plan of conquests. The invasion was to start in the spring of 1941 but was postponed a little because of Hitler’s decision to teach Yugoslavia a lesson after they refused to join the Axis Powers.

In April 1941, two months before the intended Soviet invasion, for which the Wehrmacht was industriously preparing, Hitler directed the senior German officers to invite two foreign delegations of armor specialists, one American and one Soviet, to Berlin to show them everything about German armor. This invitation was probably a ruse, hatched by German intelligence, to see foreign reaction to the might of German armor, which the Germans truly believed was the best in the world (Guderian 1961, 119; L. Kirkpatrick 1987, 63–64; Suvorov 2004, 220–221).

The American delegation came first, and as expected, they were astounded by German capabilities in armor. The Soviet delegation, which came after the Americans, was also shown everything: armor training facilities, equipment, production plants, and so on.

It is possible that the Germans had another reason for this invitation. The Red Army had not yet recuperated from its recent purges. The Soviet invasion of Finland (the Winter War, November 1939 to March 1940), which had ended recently, had also brought to the fore the less-than-sterling performance of the Red Army. Admittedly, the Finns asked for the ceasefire and lost some territory, but they retained their independence. It is possible that Hitler thought these officers, most of them new to their jobs, would be impressed by the might of the German army and upon their return spread some defeatism in the ranks.

The visit ran its course, but the Germans were disappointed. Unlike the Americans, the Soviet officers were not impressed by what they saw. They refused to believe that the Panzer III and the Panzer IV were the most advanced German tanks. They were already familiar with the Panzer III (they received several examples as part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty) and thought it to be ornate, too comfortable, and most importantly, inferior to their own T-34 (which the Germans knew nothing about) in all three important parameters—protection, firepower, and mobility. They of course did not say that much to their hosts but asked that this “junk” be removed and, as per Hitler’s directive, be shown the really advanced tanks. Furthermore, from the astute questions the Soviets asked, their hosts—SS General Walter Schellenberg (head of SS Foreign Intelligence and probably the one who came up with the idea of inviting the delegations), the German ordnance people, and the manufacturers’ representatives—concluded that the Soviets must have had something better up their sleeves. But these suspicions stopped there and never got down to the German intelligence apparatus, and, worse, not to the operational branches.

German intelligence failed too. The lessons of the cooperation with the Weimar Republic were still remembered, and the lessons of fighting in Spain and the excellent qualities of the Soviet tanks (though in contrast with their conservative use) were also known to the Germans. Furthermore, the Soviets developed at that time an amphibious tank and had shown it around (Suvorov 2004, 221). All these facts should have drawn attention to Soviet capabilities, or were they all so blinded by the “subhuman” rhetoric of the Nazi leadership.

A KV-1 and a T-34 tanks.

The Development of the T-34

Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, and pretty soon it became clear what the Soviets knew about tank design. The T-34 was developed between 1936 and 1940 and had its baptism by fire at the end of July 1941. The Germans, who became used to the mediocre (by then) capabilities of the Soviet tanks (the T-26, T-28, and BT), were confronted with a new tank and were stunned by it (Guderian 1961, 179; McCarthy and Syron 2002, 124–25)

German tank shells simply ricocheted off its armor, but the T-34’s gun was able to penetrate the frontal armor of German tanks even at longer ranges, and its wide tracks enabled travel in mud and later in snow. Admittedly, its tactical employment in combat was poorly managed, there was a lack of ammunition for its main armament, and many of the crewmen were not adequately trained, but the tank itself was better than any German tank, and its sudden appearance caused shock and even spread panic. Even in November, four months after its debut, the Germans were still at their wits’ end (Guderian 1961, 190).

This raises another question: Is it possible that the information on the appearance of the T-34 was not properly distributed to everyone who might run into it, and for four long months nobody considered the question of how to tackle the new threat? This affair points to difficulties in the German intelligence service, but this time not on the strategic but on the tactical level. Just the revelation of a new and efficient threat should have spread like a wildfire.

The Germans entered the war in the east with full confidence that the quality of their equipment would compensate for the admittedly numerical superiority of the Red Army. How did it happen that the Soviets developed a good tank, one that was better than standard German equipment?

Already during the war in Spain, the Soviets started working on a new tank. The design was upgraded as a result of lessons from that war and of the very harsh lessons from the Winter War against Finland, particularly with regard to tank vulnerability. In that war, the Soviets lost 1,600 tanks in less than four months. The initial design, dictated from above, still combined Christie-style road wheels on which tracks could be mounted when necessary. The tank was powered by a diesel engine and armed with a 76-millimeter gun. Michael Kushkin, the chief designer, proposed that the ability to move without tracks be eliminated and the saved weight go to improving armor protection. Stalin, who was personally involved in the T-34 project, agreed, and here the T-34, in its final version, was born. The first two prototypes were ready in January 1940 and sent, in midwinter, on a two-thousand-mile trip for testing. Both tanks accomplished the journey, production blueprints were completed, and serial production commenced in September 1940 (Hughes and Mann 1999, 35–36).

It is interesting to note several other failures of German intelligence. By April 1940, the existence of the T-34 and its outstanding qualities (and of the heavier KV-1 tank) were common knowledge among the senior officers of the Red Army. In sessions discussing the failures of the Winter War, presided over by Stalin himself, many officers expressed their wish to receive the T-34 as soon as possible. Dmitri Pavlov, at the time chief of the Red Army Directorate of Yank and Armored Car Troops, answered them, “As for the new makes, I deem it my duty to warn comrade commanders: do not flood the People’s Commissariat and Comrade Stalin with telegrams. Give us, in Moscow, a chance to deal with organizational matters in a proper way. In practice it often happens that as soon as people hear about a new machine they immediately start saying that the old machines are no good. They say: Give us T-34s or KVs, they alone suit our theatre, others do not suit” (Kulkov and Rzheshevsky 2002, 261). Initiating the production of a new tank is a large project by any means. The only explanation for the German intelligence failure, illogical as it seems, was that, more than a year before the coming campaign, they were not interested in or failed to gather information about what the intended enemy was doing.

As mentioned above, the Germans were astonished by the appearance of the T-34.[31] This leads to the inescapable conclusion that they expected to meet the same tank types they saw in Spain. Based on this assumption, they were sure that the quality of their tanks would compensate for the quantities of Soviet tanks. The number cited for Soviet tanks before the war was ten thousand (Kahn 1978, 457). But here we also run into a problem of arithmetic. Guderian (1961, 119) writes that in 1933, he visited a Soviet tank factory that was producing twenty-two tanks a day. Even if we consider obsolescence and accidents, we are still talking about some twenty thousand Soviet tanks in 1941, and later estimates do in fact go up to twenty-four thousand Soviet tanks at the beginning of the war (Kahn 1978, 458). The Germans also failed to discover that by 1940 the Soviets were producing a diesel powered tank (BT-7M) and were showing a growing interest in heavier guns as the main armament for tanks. As shown time and again, the German approach to intelligence in general, and to technological intelligence in particular, was less than successful and bordered on amateur.

To what extent German technological intelligence was disorganized can be understood from the following example: In the beginning of the war, they tended to confuse the T-34 (a medium tank) and the KV-1 (a heavy one). They eventually realized that these were two different tanks. But when intelligence identified these tanks in a certain sector of the front, they did not bother to inform adjacent sectors of the new threat and left it up to them to find this out on their own (Handel 1989, 137).

The Dreadnought of Raseiniai

The Northwest Front had two mechanized corps available to counterattack Heeresgruppe Nord’s invasion of the Baltic States on June 22, 1941, but only two battalions of KV-1 and KV-2 tanks in the 2nd Tank Division. At 1730 hours on June 22, the 2nd Tank Division was ordered to advance westward toward Raseiniai, as part of a larger counterattack against the German spearhead, Panzergruppe 1. After an approach march of over 100km (62mi) along dusty side roads, the division approached Raseiniai from the east on the evening of June 23. However, the KVs had suffered badly on the road march from clogged air filters and balky transmissions, with most of the KV-2s and about ten of the KV-1s falling out along the way. On the positive side, the German 6. Panzer-Division was caught spread out after capturing Raseiniai, with Kampfgruppe Raus and Kampfgruppe Seckendorff having thrown bridgeheads across the nearby Dubysa River. The 2nd Tank Division concentrated all available armor, including 21 KV-1s and a few KV-2s, against Seckendorff’s bridgehead. 

The Soviet attack began just after dawn on June 24. Kampfgruppe Seckendorff had the Kradschützen-Abteilung 6 and the 2. Kompanie of Panzerjäger-Abteilung 41 in its bridgehead, with 12 3.7cm PaK and four 5cm PaK. The Panzerjäger were stunned by the appearance of the huge enemy tanks approaching, but waited until they were within 200m before opening fire. However, they were even more shocked when the standard armor-piercing rounds bounced off the thick frontal armor of the KVs, with no effect. Despite the fire of all weapons, including artillery, the KV-1 tanks managed to overrun most of the German motorcycle troops and their accompanying PaK unit – the first time during World War II that German infantry had been overrun by enemy tanks. Many of the surviving German troops were so terrified that they simply hid, although one Leutnant immobilized a KV-1 with Teller mines. Even worse, a number of KV-1 and KV-2 tanks got across the Dubysa River with some Soviet infantry and smashed into Schützen-Regiment 114 (mot.) and overran some of the divisional artillery. A KV-1 platoon led by Major Dmitri I. Osadchy pushed toward Raseiniai:

The column [of the 1st Platoon], consisting of four tanks moved in the direction where the recent fighting was. Examining the next grove of trees, we came upon the enemy’s artillery firing positions. Advancing from the flank, we poured fire from the machine guns and the enemy gunners began to panic. When we hit the fourth artillery piece something unexpected happened: my tank was off the ground and hanging on it. The driver, Sergeant Andrei Yasnyuk, worked hard to shake the tank, and move it. Finally, after crushing the cannon, the tank treads touched solid ground again. Once the artillery firing positions were eliminated, we moved into a clearing to return to the starting area.

After hours of the KV-1 tanks running rampage on Kampfgruppe Seckendorff the Germans were able to get a few 15cm howitzers and 8.8cm Flak guns into action, which succeeded in immobilizing some of the Soviet heavy tanks. One KV required 13 hits from an 8.8cm Flak before it was stopped. Major Ivan Ragochy, commander of the 3rd Tank Regiment, was killed by splinters when a heavy shell hit the side of his KV-1’s turret; the round did not penetrate but caused spalling on the interior. By late afternoon the Soviet tanks were running out of fuel and ammunition and those still capable of moving retired back across the Dubysa River. A lone KV-2 that managed to bypass the German artillery pressed on toward Raseiniai and managed to infiltrate behind Kampfgruppe Raus before it, too, ran out of fuel.

North of Raseiniai, Lithuania, 24-25 June, 1941: On the second day of Operation, the German units moving into Lithuania became embroiled in tank vs tank battles of increasing intensity. Panzer Divisions 1 and 6 – sprinting ahead in an attempt to take Leningrad by – ran afoul of the Soviet 12th Mechanized Corps and 2nd Tank Division. The Germans discovered to their dismay that many of the tanks in these Soviet formations were the new T-34 and KV types. These vehicles seemed impervious to the standard 37mm PaK 36 anti-tank guns. Fire from the 75mm guns of the Panzer IV types also appeared ineffective. In the initial encounters, the Soviet tanks thundered forward like steamrollers, in many cases simply driving over the impotent German anti-tank guns, grinding them into the earth. At the end of the second day of fighting, after destroying some 40 panzers and a like number of guns, the Soviet 2nd Tank Division withdrew to a point north of the Dubissa River to replenish its exhausted fuel and ammunition. 6. Panzer-Division attempted to exploit this lull in the fighting by seizing two bridgeheads over the Dubissa, threatening the now-vulnerable 2nd Tank Division’s flank. In an effort to gain time, the 2nd Tank Division’s commander, General Solyalyankin, launched minor frontal attacks against the German units in these bridgeheads to pin them down. Additionally, Solyalyankin dispatched a single KV-2 heavy tank through the German lines in an attempt to interdict the supply lines of the two bridgeheads. This KV-2 reached a road junction just north of Raseiniai where it halted, in effect cutting off both German units. On the morning of 24 June, a resupply convoy that was sent to replenish the northern bridgehead was wiped out by fire from the KV-2. This only served to emphasize the isolation of the Germans on the far side of the river, who were coming under increasing attacks by the 2nd Tank Division. The order of the day for 6. Panzer-Division became the removal of the roadblock presented by the KV-2…

That afternoon, a battery of new 50mm PaK 38 anti-tank guns were brought down from one of the isolated bridgeheads to deal with the KV. The guns were moved to a point some 600 meters from the quiet Russian tank, and opened fire as soon as they were set up. As the German shots bounced off the KV’s armor, the Russian tank traversed its turret and opened fire, knocking out each gun in turn. The same treatment was accorded to an 88mm FlaK 18 anti-aircraft gun brought forward from Raseiniai: as the German crew scrambled to bring the “88” into action, both the gun and its tractor were destroyed before the Germans could fire a shot. Later that night a group of engineers from Panzer Pioniere Bataillon 57 attempted to deal with the KV-2 in their own way, placing a double charge of explosives on the tank. After detonating the charge. the engineers were scattered by machine gun fire from the tank. A lone engineer returned later that night to observe the results: the vehicle had been immobilized by a broken track, but the armor was unscathed. This engineer placed another charge on the gun barrel of the KV, but it too had no visible effect. The next day, as 1. Panzer-Division was brought to the aid of the beleaguered 6. Panzer-Division and a massive tank battle was fought with the Soviet 2nd Tank Division, a group of tanks was dispatched from the southern bridgehead to distract the KV while another “88” could be brought into play. This FlaK gun scored six hits on the KV-2, apparently silencing the menace. As the Germans congregated around the Russian tank, marveling at its strength, they were shocked to find that only two hits from the “88” had penetrated its armor! Suddenly, the Russian tank’s turret began turning towards them, and the Germans scattered. An engineer on the scene, however, was calm enough to put several grenades into the vehicle via the two holes in its armor, finally finishing off the KV for good. This unnamed KV crew, [probably commanded by Leytenant Vladimir A. Smirnov], while paying the supreme sacrifice, had made an immeasurable contribution to the defense of Leningrad, since their roadblock had diverted 1. Panzer-Division from its swift advance to come to the aid of 6. Panzer-Division.