Man and machine

As the Merkava III tank celebrates 25 years in use, its crews still describe it as every bit as relevant today as it was when it entered service.

By
December 10, 2015 12:01
A Merkava III tank

A Merkava III tank is driven by Maj. Idan Nir at the 188th Barak Armored Brigade base in the Galilee. (photo credit: LAURA KELLY)

 
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The interior of a Merkava Mark III tank is disconcerting. It’s all metal latches, handles, buttons and cold steel. There is nothing warm here, nothing plush.

Everything is functional, stripped down, with few creature comforts. But most of all, it is the massive breech of the main gun, the size of a small oven, sticking back into the interior of the turret.

On one seat is the gunner; standing behind the breech, the loader; and seated just behind and above, the commander of the tank. Somewhere to the front, obscured by a metal wall, is the driver.

The crackle of the radio in the ear and the humming engine give the impression of being part of a massive metal organism.

The commander grasps a joystick. The turret rotates, the tank lurches forward.

But for the gun loader, it’s like being in a metal closet – disorienting. Perhaps we are going backward, forward, pointing to the left or right? Above, the sky shines through the open hatch.

Maj. Idan Nir directs the metal beast forward. He’s smiling. On his head is the trademark tanker’s helmet, like a green half-melon, pregnant on both sides with earmuffs. The redheaded colonel is in his element. The chief of operations of the 188th (Barak) Armored Brigade, he’s keen to show off what his prized weapon can do.

It’s Monday. The sun is rising. There is a war in Syria. Israel’s armored columns stand ready.

‘I FELT we would fly,’ says former brigade commander Moshe Shitrit. (IDF Spokesman)
‘I FELT we would fly,’ says former brigade commander Moshe Shitrit. (IDF Spokesman)

THE MERKAVA III entered service in 1990 and is celebrating 25 years of service. One of the first commanders to be put in charge of testing out and using the vehicle in the field was Moshe Shitrit. A veteran of some 25 years in the IDF, almost all of them with the 188th, he has served as a grunt soldier, a gunner in a tank, and eventually brigade commander and reserve officer.

Today he looks back with fondness. “I trained on the Centurion [a British-made tank] Mark III and IV, and was a company commander.”

Shitrit served in Lebanon in the late 1980s and recalls the first experience he had with the Merkava III was when his brigade commander sent him to an exercise of the prototype.

“I was a former company commander of Centurions, and I stood at the loader position [of the new Merkava] and they did some maneuvers, and I felt we would fly… I felt it would turn upside down, but the tank went smoothly and it was magnificent.”

At the time the challenges Israel faced were not only planning for the possibility of a conventional war with a country like Syria, but principally fighting in terrain in southern Lebanon or on the Golan Heights.

“It was not an airplane or something. There was dust, and heat and warm and cold – you feel the ground.”

But he describes a maneuverable machine that covered distances on hilly terrain faster than a 4 x 4. New 120-mm.

munitions and an accurate firing system “enabled shooting on a small target on the move. All of this made the capabilities overlap and made it one hell of a machine.” Over the years the armor protection afforded the soldiers was also improved and replaced.

Shitrit found the tank impressive in its capabilities for use in the kinds of “low intensity” conflicts that Israel was facing.

“There were improvements in the firing system, aiming and other new challenges.”

After training with the 188th, Shitrit first deployed these new armored columns in the Gulf War, when Iraq’s Saddam Hussein threatened Israel.

“We were on the Golan with the First Company and took the position at the Golan border, January 1991. We stood there, during the war with Iraq, nothing actually happened, but it was the first time we operated the tanks operationally.”

Soon after that alert, the new tank would see action in Lebanon and then in the West Bank. During Operation Defensive Shield in the second intifada, Shitrit, then second-in-command of the brigade, put them to use in the West Bank.

“We were all over the place when the conflict was going on, although we faced a lot of restrictions; we had to be very careful with using our firepower, for instance.”

Using a tank in a conflict that involves many Palestinian civilians meant reducing the use of the main gun and maximizing accuracy.

THAT ISN’T the kind of conflict Israel was born fighting. Today the Golan Heights that overlook Lake Kinneret is a kind of living memorial to tanks.

At the entrance to Kibbutz Deganya, an abandoned Syrian tank is a living reminder that in 1948 it was Israel that was outnumbered, and the enemy that had armored vehicles.

Battle scars from the 1967 and 1973 wars mark the Golan. Old hulking metal beasts lie at rest along the sides of the roads. Tank ditches, barbed wire, blown-up bunkers, access roads, firing zones, training areas, and the ubiquitous bases of the IDF are one’s companion on a drive. Much of this hasn’t changed greatly since the 1970s.

The bases still have the same old modular buildings and corrugated sheds and trucks.

The landscape has many memorials and memories. There is a junction named for the armored brigades. Trucks transporting armored vehicles are all around. Training is ongoing. The Syrian war is not far away.

This is at once past and present.

SOME SOLDIERS feel tank units like the 188th are being starved of resources and downsized, leading to an eventual disbandment. (IDF Spokesperson)
SOME SOLDIERS feel tank units like the 188th are being starved of resources and downsized, leading to an eventual disbandment. (IDF Spokesperson)

Israel’s famed armored units have a glorious past. In the 1960s they were the thing of the covers of Life magazine, featuring the dashing generals who defeated Egypt, Jordan and Syria. Israel built its armored brigades, the 188th, 7th and later the 401st, around the concept of “pure” tank units: Scores of heavy tanks designed for rapid wars of maneuver and crushing the enemy with overwhelming force. In 1967 they performed excellently. In 1973 Israel suffered a setback when Egyptian infantry with antitank weapons destroyed many vehicles. A soul-searching took place, similar to what would take place after the Second Lebanon War (2006).

Israelis still recall with nostalgia the armored units of the past when they were the pride of the army and received the big funding. Now reserve soldiers who fought in Lebanon with the tanks feel units like the 188th are being starved of resources and worry the IDF may downsize them or disband them one day to meet modern threats. They note that the officer corps is overwhelmingly made up of veterans of elite infantry units.

The 188th Brigade’s current command post still sits near the site of a major battle from the 1973 war when its 74th Battalion helped blunt a Syrian column on the Tapline Road, so named because an old oil pipeline runs along it. That is still a point of pride for the unit. Nir points out that unlike the 7th Armored Brigade, the 188th had so few officers left that “no one was left to tell the story.”

After 1973 Israel decided that building its own home-grown tank to suit its needs was a priority. Gen. Israel Tal, the “father” of the Merkava (Hebrew for “chariot”) series, helped support the introduction of the first version, the Mark I, in 1979. Although a number of these were destroyed in the First Lebanon War (1982), the new tank was seen as highly effective against Soviet tanks that Syria employed.

“Tal aimed to protect the team,” recalls Shitrit. “In every detail, this was in the minds of the planners. A lot of the capabilities were made with this thinking.

How to make the system more comfortable and protected for the team? It is equipped with the air-conditioning system to cool the crew, and overall other systems like [having the] engine in the front, were a benefit of protection to the crew. It had a shallow turret, the munitions are below the turret, so they are protected [and] the danger of explosion from enemy hits is lowered. In a lot of things, it was improved.”

In 1982 in Lebanon antitank weapons such as the Sagger antitank missile or RPG-7 were found to be less effective against the tank, saving lives and vehicles.

The Merkava was more expensive than some similar models abroad, but according to Hirsh Goodman and Seth Carus in their book The Future Battlefield and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, it proved its worth in battle. In Lebanon some 350 Syrian tanks were destroyed and the Merkava hit targets at up to 4,000 meters.

Sam Katz, who wrote Merkava Main Battle Tank MKs I, II and III, concludes that this machine was an “almighty tank designed with pragmatic vision” and highlights the advanced armored composite plating that provided it with additional protection.


War is an ever-changing balance sheet.

‘THE MAN in the tank will win,’ says Nir, pictured with members of his crew. (Laura Kelly)
‘THE MAN in the tank will win,’ says Nir, pictured with members of his crew. (Laura Kelly)

Although the Merkava III performed well throughout the ’90s and 2000s, in 2006 in Lebanon around 50 Israeli tanks were damaged, according to foreign media reports. The 188th as well as other Israeli units in Lebanon faced a formidable enemy in Hezbollah, which employed a wide assortment of weapons against tanks. Although some of these had been encountered in the past, Hezbollah’s Kornet and Metis Russian-made antitank missiles posed a real danger to IDF crews. BBC called the outcome of the war “tough lessons for Israeli armor.”

The experience of the 188th Brigade in Lebanon was even the subject of a tounge-in-cheek, tell-all book – The 188th Crybaby Brigade – about an American volunteer who becomes disillusioned while serving in the unit. Bad press, bad war. Was the era of the tank coming to an end? No. “The man in the tank will win,” says Nir. That’s the motto. We’re sitting in Nir’s office on the Golan. It’s a brisk morning. Behind the officer, his M16 rests on a rack. The walls are adorned with plaques and commendations made by his fellow soldiers. “We are called the spearhead of the IDF. We have been called to lead in each war because of the quality of the tank and proficiency of the people. At the moment we are the only brigade with the Merkava III.”

Nir has recently returned from eight months of training in the US at Fort Benning. He’s proud of the Merkava, in comparison to the US Abrams tank.

“The people inside the tank are the thing that matters. If you know how to train and act in an environment, they [the crew] use the tank and the tank uses them. They know how to kill the enemy if they need to.”

The unit has just come off a major training mission. Their commander has instilled in them the word “zamish,” a combination of the Hebrew words for quick and flexible. He describes a unit that is prepared for any scenario. Recently, when called upon to send soldiers to the West Bank, two battalions that had just finished training went without question. That’s one of the oddities in a tank unit. Even though they are trained for tanks, the men also can serve at checkpoints in the West Bank or doing other infantry-like work.

“Our main profession is tanks and armor.

But you won’t use tanks and armor in the West Bank; it isn’t appropriate; it doesn’t fit the threat.”

During Operation Protective Edge the 188th was in Gaza.

“I learned about motivation and bravery,” recalls the major. “I heard on the radio that a platoon leader was hit badly by an 81-mm. mortar, a spark [piece of shrapnel] hit him in the neck, and his crew’s reaction was not to panic; they evacuated him to the border. I was expecting them to give him treatment and remain [at the border], but they went back to the field, and the loader took command of the tank and asked what he could do now to help. You wouldn’t expect that from a regular soldier who has no command training, who sees blood for the first time and his commander is hit and he takes him to be treated but goes back to help his friends. That is bravery and professionalism; it shows you a lot of characteristics and qualities.”

He says the soldiers’ knowledge that they must protect the country behind them infuses them with dedication not to buckle under pressure.

“Another thing we have here on the Golan – we are responsible for a long border. Our brigade has the responsibility to defend against any threat that will come. We are sitting close to the border and [are to] be able to respond to any threat that will come,” says Nir.

He sketches two circles of heritage for this unit. The Golan and the history it has here, and the families who have been affected by the 188th. Many of those whose sons fell in battle come back every year for ceremonies. For them the modern unit is still a family.

He argues that it isn’t just a military organization. It also knows how to provide support to civilians whose family members serve in the unit. “It is important in our country to have the support of the people.”

Nir originally wanted to be a pilot. A native of Holon, he wasn’t accepted for the air force and was given the choice of artillery, air defense or tanks. He was still training with the 188th when the unit was sent into Lebanon in 2006.

“I wasn’t in the battlefield in Lebanon, so I didn’t feel the mistakes.”

Nir recalls that the training regime changed abruptly after the war. “We didn’t train before like we trained after.”

After 2008, when Gabi Ashkenazi became chief of staff, the training was nonstop. The failures revealed in 2006 in Lebanon had to do with coordination between armored units, like the 188th, and infantry units. “That is the basics of combined arms, you need to understand each other. I need to know about the infantry. If you don’t train together, you are not able to do it,” says Nir.

Shitrit agrees. “The efficient tool on the battlefield is that the tank should work in cooperation with troops and artillery and other forces.”

There was a lack of cooperation and coordination in Lebanon. Part of this was due to the fact that Israel’s forces had been deployed for so long fighting Palestinians. The threats presented by Hamas or other Palestinian groups were far different, and much less, than that of Hezbollah.

“I think this conflict with the Palestinians – the army was concentrated on that, and although we had our capabilities and plans, we aimed all our training toward the Palestinian sector,” recalls Shitrit.

“I remember I told one company commander: If we are doing so much without tanks in Judea and Samaria, let’s put the tanks at the depot and concentrate on our current activity, which was without tanks.

“The company commander replied, When the flames go up, everyone will call for the tanks, and we should be ready for this.”

The tank corps has been innovating.

“We developed new companies, assistant units,” explains Nir. “These companies have semi-infantry qualities and abilities, such as mortars, engineers, scouts, sighting. Since we have them, we are able to do a new task, which means that in the past we would have to have an infantry company; now we have this assistant company. By having them in the brigade, they understand tanks and you understand them.”

Nir’s headquarters tank is situated in a field of dirt surrounded by APCs, like a duck with its ducklings around it, awaiting orders. Today the tank is stripped down. The .50 BMG heavy machine-gun and two 7.62 MAG machine- guns, which could be mounted on top of the tank, are put away in storage.

In times of war they can be operated from inside using pulleys, so as not to expose the men to enemy fire.

And they are all men. As recently as May of this year the armored corps ruled out integrating women into the unit. Although 92 percent of IDF positions are open to women these days, the tanks remain a man’s world.

Peering into the turret, one can begin to understand why. The quarters are cramped, with barely enough room to move. Serving inside these machines days on end, as Nir recalls doing in wars past, “getting fat” on junk food, leads to lavatory necessities. Crapping in your own helmet, lined with a plastic bag, may be difficult enough with one’s peers; but in a coed environment, in a sweaty, smoky, tank turret, is not ideal.

These are the other horrors of war not always clear on the outside.

The IDF is an ongoing military evolution.

Military expert Anthony H. Cordesman reported in 2006 that there was consideration of discontinuing to produce the Merkava line in favor of buying US M1A2 tanks. “Others suggest that Israel should seek to be included in the US future combat systems program which aims to develop a future armored force that is far lighter.”

But all the talk of downsizing armored forces has not come to fruition. Instead, the Merkava IV, which was introduced in 2002, continues production, and the 401st Brigade and 7th are now using this fourth-generation Israeli-made tank.

Merkava IIs are being retired from service.

Some of them will be turned into Namer armored personnel carriers to replace the aging and vulnerable Vietnam- era M113 APCs.

The 188th Brigade’s Merkava IIIs are still highly relevant, a kind of “old reliable” of the army. Nir is proud of its capabilities, showing how it can pump out white smoke to obscure itself in battle and spinning its turret.

“In a war, you don’t need more than this.”

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