Armor: Merkava Muddles and Miracles in Lebanon

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January15, 2007: During the Summer of 2006, Israeli tanks saw their first heavy combat in 24 years. It was also the first combat for the new Merkava 4. Actually, it was the first heavy combat for the Merkava 2 (introduced in 1983) and Merkava 3 (1989). In 1982, 180 Merkava 1s saw action during the war with Lebanon. Since then, the Merkavas have only been used in peacekeeping and counter-terror operations with the Palestinians.

The Israelis, as they have in all past wars, collected detailed information on each tank that was hit by enemy fire. Israel won't, for obvious reasons, release all this information. But they have provided some data. There were "several hundred" Merkavas sent into southern Lebanon in 2006. Of those, ten percent were hit by enemy fire (including mines and roadside bombs). Merkava faced modern anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM) for the first time in 2006. Only 18 tanks were seriously damaged, and only a third of those were from several hundred ATGMs fired by Hizbollah. Only two of the 18 heavily damaged tanks were destroyed, and both of those were damaged by roadside bombs. In those two cases, the tank was over the bomb when it was detonated.

The experience in Lebanon again proves that ATGMs tend to be overrated. Israel first encountered ATGMs during the 1973 war, and quickly adapted. ATGMs were much less effective in the 1982 war, and didn't do all that well in 2006 either. Hizbollah quickly learned that the Merkava frontal armor was impervious to their Russian Kornet ATGMs. Getting side and rear shots was more difficult, and not a lot more successful. While the ATGM warhead often penetrated, the Merkava was designed to take these kind of hits and survive, and survive it did. In addition to fire extinguisher systems, the ammo and fuel are stored in such a way that secondary explosions are rare. Thus the crew normally survives these hits, as does the tank.

About half the Merkavas were the older models, with the 105mm gun. These were able to fire the APAM (anti-personnel/Anti-Material) rounds and the "shotgun shell" round that carried 5,000 tiny metal darts. The shotgun shell was fitted with a 120mm collar to enable it to be fired from the 120mm gun of Merkava 3 and 4. The APAM was most useful in taking care of Hizbollah fighters fighting from buildings or bunkers. The U.S. has had the same experience in Iraq, where the the M-1 tank uses the M1028 "shotgun shell" for its 120mm gun. The M1028 shell holds 1100 10mm tungsten balls that are propelled out of the gun barrel and begin to disperse. The tungsten projectiles are lethal at up to 700 meters. The official requirement of the XM1028 is to kill or disable more than 50 percent of a 10 man squad with one shot and do the same to a 30 man platoon with two shots.

The U.S. Army is using hundreds of APAM like M830A1 120mm tank gun shells in Iraq each month. This shell is a multi-purpose HEAT (High Explosive Anti-Tank) weapon, that is designed to destroy tanks, as well as soft targets (trucks, bunkers or buildings.) The fuze on the M830A1 can be set for different types of targets, including tanks. The shell also has a proximity fuze, for use against helicopters. A proximity fuze is a miniature radar set, which will detonate the shell when it comes close to something (like a slow moving helicopter.) The M830A1 is the most commonly used shell in Iraq, where it has proved very effective in urban combat. Most M830A1 rounds have been modified (with a concrete penetrating cap), to become M908 shells. This makes the shell more lethal against bunkers and buildings. American and Israeli tank and ammo designers keep a close watch on each others work.

One of the biggest problems with Israeli tanks in Lebanon had to do with the crews. Because of the heavy use of Israeli troops in counter-terror operations since 2000, most tank crews have spent a lot of time without their tanks, serving a security troops (light infantry). The lack of training in their tanks reduced the effectiveness of the Merkavas in Lebanon. This was not a critical factor, but it annoyed the tank crews quite a lot.

The tankers were also peeved at the lack of protective devices, like smoke grenades on some tanks, or active defense systems, like the Trophy. This was because so much money was diverted to counter-terror operations. While only six tanks were destroyed in Lebanon, over a hundred tank crewmen were killed or wounded by ATGMs. Hizbollah would often use a missile just to get the vehicle commander, who often was standing up, with his head and chest out of the turret hatch (to get a better look at what's going on.) Tank commanders would like to see some money spent on sensor systems (cameras) that enable the tank commander to get a good look around the tank, from inside the tank. Thus the Lebanon operation was a wakeup call for the Israeli government, to stop shortchanging efforts to improve their tanks.

 


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