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The Merkava in the Second Lebanon War
by Lt. Col David Eshel (retired)
from Tank Magazine December 2006
Merkava Mark IV
The Merkava Mk IV is the very latest version of Merkava (Chariot) and as with earlier models it armour and survivability have been given very high priority. Fully operational since 2004, it has a combat weight of 65 tonnes. Its front-mounted 1,500hp diesel engine is new, with an improved top speed and power-to-weight ratio over the 1,200hp diesel that powered the Mk III. The driver sits to the immediate front of the turret on the left side (he has a camera for improved reverse driving), the turret contains the rest of the crew and the 120mm smoothbore gun (48 rounds carried) and a coax MG, plus an internally mounted 60mm mortar. Additionally there is a roof-mounted MG that can be fired by the commander from under armour. The main gun has a new compressed gas recoil system and a thermal sleeve. The Tank Sight System (TST) provides video coverage of the surrounding terrain day and night, through 360dgrees, via four cameras in hardened cases. The Merkava Mk V is already under development and it is thought to be armed with a 140mm gun.
The Battle of Wadi Saluki
This battle will be remembered as one of the fiercest fights of the second Lebanon War, one in which Merkava IV proved its mettle in its first, but ultimate combat test.
It was during the push to the Litani River - a few hours before the UN-brokered cease-fire went into effect - that a column of Merkava tanks from 401 Armoured Brigade began crossing Wadi Saluki in the face of fierce Hezbullah resistance. The battle order described the canyon like Saluki as the "gateway to the Litani river", an essential objective in the hurried sweep across southern Lebanon placed before the brigade, before the cease-fire went into action- a fateful decision by the political decision-makers, which would have crucial repercussions after the war.
Military experts criticised the "Battle of the Saluki" as a microcosm of all the mistakes that were made during the war in Lebanon. Soldiers waited for a week, like sitting ducks, for orders that were twice received and twice cancelled, reflecting
a total lack of clarity and confidence within the General Staff, and the political echelon directing the war.
Crossing the Saluki meant the troops and tanks had to climb a steep hill while exposed to attack from mountains on every side. Understanding the risk to his tanks, Brig-Gen Guy Zur, commander of Division 162, deployed Nahal Brigade infantrymen on the high ground outside the villages Andouriya and Farun, to provide cover for the armoured column advancing below.
Commanded by Colonel Moti Kidor, 401 Armoured Brigade Merkava tanks had been waiting for the push to the Litani for close to a week. Twice, they had received the word to go, but were immediately ordered to stop, as soon as they started rolling. At last, on August 11, just before 1500 hours, orders came, but made no sense to the brigade staff: 'why push to the Litani hours before the UN was set to approve a cease-fire? However, orders were firm and by 20,00 Hours the tanks began to move. The problem was, that during the passing week Hezbullah fighters were waiting, watching every step that Kidor's forces made. Knowing the ground, the guerilla commanders realised that the only way westward would have to cross the steep wadi slopes, where they had deployed their advanced Russian-made AT- 14 Kornet anti-tank missiles en-masse in excellent firing positions.
Hezbullah had prepared well for this kind of warfare. On 22 November 2005 when Hezbollah attacked the village of al-Ghajar in an attempt to capture IDF soldiers. The then commanding general Udi Adam said in his after action report, that " it was the first time that Hezbollah used its entire tactical arsenal", revealing that one of his Merkava tanks received no less than seven hits from different anti-tank missiles, none of which penetrated its armour and all the crew escaped unhurt. Iranian instructors had taken the al-Ghajar incident very seriousely and reacted by sending antiarmour specialists from Tehran to their training base located in the Lebanese Beka'a valley. Iranian tank experts examined Hezbollah video shots from the action at al-Ghajar, clearly displaying hits on the Merkava tank, carefully studied these displays by looking for "blind" spots in which Merkava could be vulnerable to AT- 14 Kornet and RPG-29V fire, which they wished to introduce in future engagements.
As the tanks started moving downhill into the Wadi, two tanks of the leading company were immediately hit, one of the tank commanders mortally wounded, caught in the sights of scores of Kornet anti-tank missiles with their lethal tandem laser-beam warheads penetrating the advanced armour of the Merkava Mk 4. It was the first engagement this tank had faced. A reserve commander rushed to the rescue with six tanks leading them to climb up sheer slopes to the top of the gorge, an ascent angle few other tanks, than Merkava Mk 4 could navigate. By now all hell was breaking lose from the high ground as hundreds of missiles were pouncing on the advancing tanks, now moving up the far slope. In all. two companies, some 24 tanks, participated in the operation. and 11 were hit by anti-tank missiles.
Evacuation of wounded from the battle
The Hezbullah fighters were firing missile after missile from vantage positions at the
vulnerable points in the armour. Tank commanders were frantically calling for air and artillery support, but because of the large number of Nahal infantrymen present, Northern Command refrained from calling for assistance from artillery or helicopter gunships, fearing to hit friendly forces. The tanks were left to fend for themselves until they reached the top and stormed the Hezbullah anti-tank positions. When this was achieved, the brigade commander making his rounds, found
to his surprise, that in all, only four crewmen were killed, but scores wounded, fortunately most of them suffering minor wounds. Later summing up the battle of Saluki, Colonel Kidor said that it had been "an unqualified triumph of his Merkava Mk 4. Had those tanks been of an earlier generation, not equipped with state-of-the-art technology and active self-protection mechanisms, 50 crewmen might well have perished", the colonel emphasised with satisfaction.
Two rather remarkable incidents happened in the heat of battle and are worth recounting: one Mk 4 tank was hit by a tandem missile which penetrated into the rear compartment, hitting a stored HEAT round setting it on fire, which activated the automatic fire suppression system, but wounding two of the turret crew, who were evacuated and replaced by a reserve crew - the tank then continued to fight. Another tank had its main armament 120mm barrel blown off by a "lucky" shot, but the crew managed to drive it back to the border, where a field ordnance repair team exchanged the barrel and sent the tank back into battle within hours.
The tank that recieved the "lucky" shot to its barrel
An overall assessment of Merkava in the second Lebanon War 2006
Four types of Merkava tanks were in action in Lebanon 2006, including Merkava Mk 4, the Merkava Mk 2D (with its distinctive sloped turret), the standard Mk2 (mostly with reserve units), and Merkava Mk3 Baz.
Towards the end of the fighting, Brigadier General Halutzi Rodoi, the chief of IDF Armoured Corps was asked to assess the performance of his tank force and especially the lessons drawn from the fighting against advanced anti-tank missiles
fired by Hezbollah on the coveted Merkava. Mk4, which saw its first combat engagement in Lebanon. According to General Rodoi, the Merkava proved to be well protected and designed to minimize the risk even when it was penetrated.
The IDF employed several hundred tanks in combat. According to official reports, about ten percent were hit by various threats. Less than half of the hits penetrated. In over-all assessment, the potential risk to crewmen would have been much higher, if the tank had been of a conventional design. A colonel commanding an armoured brigade which bore the brunt of battle, mentioned in an interview that during the war that hundreds of antitank missiles were fired on his unit, and in total only 18 tanks were seriously damaged. Of those, missiles actually penetrated only five or six vehicles and according to statistics, only two tanks were totally destroyed, however, both by super-heavy IED charges.
The unique Merkava design uses special aims to minimize the risk of spall (flakes coming off the inside of the turret), generated by the shaped charge plasma jet. All Merkava types use fire retardant containers to store ammunition preventing high-lethal secondary explosions. Furthermore, tanks are equipped with rapid fire extinguishing system that eliminates sympathetic detonation of ammunition. As result, only few tanks encountered catastrophic fire hazards after suffering penetrating missile attacks on ammunition, but substantially reducing lethal burn casualties to crew members.
Some of the tanks, especially those outfitted with the LIC urban combat kit are equipped with bottom hull plates to protect against heavy mines and belly charges. Several Merkava tanks and heavy AFVs encountered a number of these charges, some weighing over 150 kg. While heavily armoured vehicles can hardly be expected to survive such an attack, the upgraded vehicle types demonstrated effective protection for the crew, which, in some cases, even managed to survive such attack with only minor injuries. In one instance, a Merkava tank was hit by a belly charge weighing over 150kg of explosives, killing one crew member and wounding the remaining six., (some travelling in the rear compartment). Despite the loss of one crew member, this incident is considered proof of the effective protection of the new Merkava 4. To reduce this threat the heavily armoured D-9 bulldozer was employed to precede the tanks over high-risk tracks in order to cause IEDs to blow up with minimum damage and clear the way for the following tanks.
The IDF Armoured Corps has traditionally invested considerable effort in examining hit after-battle statistics on its tanks, in order to establish new tactics and techniques. The founder of this procedure was Major General Israel Tal, "Father of the Merkava" and one of the leading tank experts of worldwide recognition.
After the 1973 Yom Kippur War General Israel Tal led a development team which took into consideration Israel's unique battlefield characteristics and lessons learned from previous wars. On General Tal's orders a special team of experts examined every single tank hit, while still on the battlefield and on the findings an in-depth investigation was made to develop effective means for crew protection, which formed the basis of the unique Merkava project. A similar investigation team has already recorded all hits on tanks received during the Lebanon crisis and a full report was made available for further detailed assessment team of experts which is already examining these reports in detail, in order to make the necessary amendments without delay, pending the resumption of the conflict, should the presently fragile ceasefire fall apart.
Assessing Hezbollah anti-armour tactics and weapons Hezbollah fighters used the heavier, more capable missiles, including Metis M and AT- 14 Kornet to engage Merkava 4. The Konkurs, Fagot and RPG-29 were mostly used against less protected Merkava 3 and 2 while non-tandem weapons, such as Tow, Fagot and RPG were left to engage other targets, such as AIFV. The least used were AT-3 Sagger and non tandem RPGs, which are considered obsolete, but proved quite lethal against troops seeking cover in buildings.
Overall, almost 90% of the tanks hit were by tandem war-heads. In general, Hezbollah militants prioritized Merkava Mk 4 over Merkava Mk 2 and 3, and in general, targeted tanks over AIFV. At the beginning of the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict, the main Israeli concern was a report that Hezbollah possessed Russian Kornet antitank missiles. However, it also saw the RPG-29 Vampir with a tandem HEAT that had stolen the show. There were even rumours that Hezbollah had received the notorious TBG-29V thermobaric rounds, but these could not be confirmed in action.
An estimated 500 to 600 members of their roughly 4,000-strong Hezbollah fighting strength in South Lebanon were divided into tank-killer teams of 5 or 6, each armed with 5-8 anti-tank missiles, with a further supply stored in small fortified
well camouflaged bunkers, built to withstand Israeli air attacks. In another tactic, Hezbollah tank-killer teams would lie in wait in camouflaged bunkers or houses, having planted large IEDs on known approach routes. Once an Israeli tank would detonate one of these, Hezbollah would start lobbing mortar shells onto the scene to prevent rescue teams rushing forward, also firing at outflanking Merkava tanks by targeting the more vulnerable rear zone with RPG. The IDF tried to respond with heavy artillery fire, smoke and advancing special MEDEVAC Merkava tanks, to evacuate casualties. It took some time, until the Merkava crews could change tactics and lower losses from Hezbollah tactics. This included having dismounted infantry advancing over suspected high-risk ground and take out the enemy bunkers with close-in fighting and using heavy armoured D-9 for recovery action under fire.
Inadequate combat training in tank crews and short-
sighted funding priorities
During the last six years, in which the bulk of the IDF was constantly engaged in low intensity urban counter terrorist warfare in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, all regular forces, including tank crews were retrained for small unit infantry policing activities, which was mostly dismounted action. This proved extremely painful, when young conscripts, who make up the bulk of the regular IDF were rushed into battle, after hasty retraining. It soon turned out to their commander's dismay, that tank combat in Lebanon, fighting a highly prepared and equipped enemy was a totally new "ballgame" for those youngsters, courageous as they proved themselves in battle. As result, Israeli tankers had to quickly readapt old-new procedures during combat. At the beginning of the war, several tanks lost tracks due to driver's inexperience, especially when travelling in the mountainous and rugged terrain trying to avoid the heavily mined paved roads and tracks.
Moreover, during the Intifada, the armoured corps did not receive top priority among senior defence establishment officials. Short-sighted budget cuts took a heavy toll on annoured units. As result, at the beginning of the war, tanks were lacking
basic countermeasures such as instantaneous smoke canisters, laser warning detectors and infrared jammers. While some of these devices were urgently supplied later during the war, the damage was already done. "Money kills" was what several senior Armoured Corps officers blamed authorities after the war, expressing their frustration over the defense establishment's refusal to fund the installation of a rocket defense system on Israeli tanks and claiming that soldiers were paying the price with their lives. The officers were referring, among others, to the Trophy a new and unique, locally developed active protection system that creates a hemispheric protected zone around armoured vehicles such as the Merkava 4 tank.
The Trophy design includes four flat-panel antennas and a search radar mounted on the vehicle. When properly mounted, the combined radar view is a full 360 degrees. When a weapon is fired at the vehicle, the internal computer uses the signal from the incoming weapon as an approach vector. Once the incoming weapon is fired, the computers calculate the optimal time and automatically fire the neutralisers. The response comes from two launchers installed on the vehicle, one on each side. The launchers have a pivoting/rotating ability and thus are able to fire in any direction the computer requires. The launchers fire the neutralizing agents which are usually small metal pellets like shotgun shot.
If those measures would have been available, Merkava tank crews would have fared a much better survival chance against even third-generation weapons thrown at them.
Summing up the performance of Merkava tanks, especially the latest version Merkava Mk 4, most tank crews agree that, in spite of the losses sustained and some major flaws in tactical conduct, the tank proved its mettle in its first high-saturation combat. The overall consensus was that with less well-armored tanks, the toll would have been much higher.