Security and Defense: Powering ahead

Brig.-Gen. Yigal Slovik tells 'Post’ that tanks will play a critical role in any future war in Lebanon.

July 12, 2012 22:26

MERKAVA tank 370. (photo credit: Michael Shvadron/IDF spokesperson)

When Brig.-Gen. Yigal Slovik climbed into his Merkava Mk 4 battle tank on the border with Gaza on the night of January 3, 2009, predictions within the military were that it could take up to a day for the column of tanks he was leading to cross the entire Strip.

It only took five hours and, before dawn broke the following morning, Slovik, then commander of the 401st Armored Brigade, had reached the sandy Gaza beaches on the Mediterranean coast.

Slovik’s brigade had been sent into Gaza in Operation Cast Lead’s ground offensive with the objective of splitting the strip in two and preventing Hamas from transferring weapons from the South to the besieged North.

More than three years after the operation, Slovik stepped down this week as commander of the IDF’s Armored Corps to take up his post as head of personnel in the Ground Forces Command. While he expressed concern over the proliferation of sophisticated anti-tank missiles throughout the region and particularly in Lebanon and Gaza, he is confident that Israel’s tanks will continue to be unstoppable in any future war.

“Hezbollah’s anti-tank missiles can’t really stop an IDF ground offensive,” Slovik said during an interview at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv. “We have very good capabilities to make sure of that and will soon have even better ones.”

Slovik has spent the majority of his military career thus far in the 401st Brigade, serving as a company, battalion and eventually brigade commander.

When he took over the brigade after the Second Lebanon War, its officers were still traumatized by the heavy losses they sustained during the socalled Battle of the Saluki, a key component of Israel’s last-ditch effort to gain ground in the final 48 hours of the war. Hezbollah anti-tank missiles killed 12 soldiers and hit 11 tanks.

Today, he says, IDF armored units are better prepared to deal with similar scenarios to the crossing of the Saluki River even though he anticipates extensive anti-tank missile fire.

According to intelligence reports, Hezbollah has built up a significant arsenal of anti-tank weapons, mostly based on Russian systems such as the Kornet, which has a range of up to 5 kilometers and can penetrate Israel’s Merkava tanks.

According to Slovik, the capabilities the IDF has created since the war are split into two categories: technological and operational.

In the first, the Merkava – one of the best-protected tanks in the world – has been equipped with reactive armor especially designed to absorb the impact of an explosion and prevent it from penetrating the vehicle.

In addition, the IDF recently completed the installation of the Trophy active protection system on all of the 401st Brigade’s tanks and is now planning to install the system in other armored units.

Developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, the Trophy creates a hemispheric protected zone around armored vehicles such as the Merkava tank by unleashing a cloud of countermeasures that destroys the incoming missile. The system successfully intercepted a rocket-propelled grenade that was fired at a tank last year along the border with the Gaza Strip.

Lastly, the IDF is now considering a new concept called “formation defense” to protect not just one tank from anti-tank missiles but a large area where a number of tanks as well as infantrymen are deployed.

In terms of operational capabilities, the IDF has made significant changes to the way it trains its units and prepares its soldiers for the anti-tank threat.

“While the tank-against-tank threat is still the basis for our training, the anti-tank threat is now a part of everything that we do,” he explained.

The IDF has, for example, purchased advanced simulators from Elbit Systems, which come in the form of caravans that are hooked up to tanks, take over their internal command- and control-systems and run anti-tank drills for crews.

In addition, the Armored Corps recently established a “red team” to impersonate enemy anti-tank missile squads during large tank exercises. To make the threat real, the red teams are made up of soldiers who serve in the IDF’s Orev Units, the Israeli equivalent of anti-tank-missile squads.

“We invest a lot in trying to make this threat as real as possible during training so our commanders and soldiers will know how to cope with it in a war,” Slovik said. “In the past, there was a tank battalion on one hill lined up opposite another tank battalion on another hill. Today, the main challenge we face is that the enemy hides and embeds itself within the civilian population.

The problem is that we in the tank are seen but we don’t always know how to identify who we see.”

Despite the challenges, Slovik said that tanks are a required platform for all militaries – whether fighting conventional wars or in asymmetric urban warfare.

“Anyone who thinks you can win a war without tanks doesn’t appreciate the power of an armored vehicle and what it can do with its armor and firepower on a battlefield,” he said. “It can identify targets, attack them, destroy them, move fast, take over territory and is cost-effective by using relatively cheap ammunition.

It also has presence and is able to control territory once it is there.”

In a future war with Hezbollah, Slovik said, the use of tanks will be even more important since Israel will need to capture territory in Lebanon.

“The next war will need to be quick since missiles will be falling on the home front and tanks can move the fastest on the ground in capturing territory to stop the rocket fire,” he said.

A senior officer in the Northern Command backed up Slovik’s prediction. As an example, he referred to a number of hilltops in Lebanon that overlook the city of Kiryat Shmona.

“If we don’t capture those, Hezbollah will be able to fire straight into Kiryat Shmona from those hills,” the officer explained.

Looking back at his 26 years in uniform, Slovik said that the greatest improvement has been in the lethality of the IDF Armored Corps. Slovik recalled how when he was drafted in 1986, it took a tank crew an average of three to four shells to hit and destroy a target. Today, he said, the average is 1.1 shells.

“This means that nearly every shell that is fired hits its targets,” he said.

“With the right protection, a tank becomes a significant force.”

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