Post-battle probe finds Merkava tank misused in Lebanon

Failure to employ smokescreen defense cost lives.

merkava tanks 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
merkava tanks 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
On July 12, just a few minutes after Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser were abducted in a cross-border Hizbullah attack, the IDF Northern Command issued the infamous Hannibal Directive, standard procedure in the event an IDF soldier is abducted. Receiving the order on the ground near Moshav Zarit - scene of the kidnapping attack - was Battalion 82 of Armored Brigade 7. Led by Lt.-Col. Moti Basayuk, the unit was ordered to chase the kidnappers. Capt. Elad, commander of Company A, was given the directive and dispatched a Merkava 2 tank into Lebanon, for the first time since the IDF withdrawal in 2000. But after traveling just 50 meters, the tank drove over a massive explosive device buried underground that exploded, destroying it and killing its four crew members. After that initial foray, the IDF sent another 400 tanks into Lebanon to participate in the fighting against Hizbullah. Tanks assisted soldiers from the Golani Brigade during the fierce fighting in Bint Jbail and surrounded the villages of Maroun A-Ras and Ayta A-Shayeb. They were also used during the IDF's last-minute push to the Litani River on August 11, hours before the United Nations Security Council approved a cease-fire. At the height of the war, commanders hailed what they were calling the "successful integration" of tanks in the warfare and fighting against Hizbullah. But now that the dust has settled and the tanks have departed Lebanon, the military has been busy investigating the integration of these armored vehicles, with some officers already concluding that the military acted "negligently and irresponsibly" in its use of the tanks during the war. From testimony collected in preparation for the commissions of inquiry set up to investigate the war, the Armored Corps has put together an ominous picture regarding the use of the Merkava tanks. Said to be the "best-protected" tank in the world, the Merkava featured prominently during the war. In total, out of the 400 tanks in Lebanon, close to 50 were hit by the thousands of anti-tank Hizbullah missiles, and 22 were penetrated, leaving close to 30 crew members dead. According to one of the officers involved in the investigations, the Merkava tanks' protective elements were effective, and had the tanks been used correctly, the number of casualties would have been drastically reduced. One example the officer gave was the tank's ability to create smokescreens to hide from enemy sights. "There are many different systems on the tank that were just not used," the high-ranking officer told The Jerusalem Post. "The tanks' outer shield proved to be effective in stopping many of the missiles but there were many other systems aboard the tanks that were not used and for no clear reason." According to the officer, even during the Battle of the Saluki, when 24 tanks from Brigade 401 were stuck in a valley under heavy Hizbullah anti-tank missile fire, the commanders failed to utilize the smokescreen system. One of the reasons behind the tank crew's failures to properly operate the armored vehicles in Lebanon was their commanders' relatively little amount of hands-on tank training. "All of the brigades have spent the past year operating in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and mostly without tanks," he said. "They were not trained in advance of the war in preparation for the fighting in the Lebanese terrain." As a lesson of the war, the IDF is now interested in purchasing active-protection systems for the tanks similar to the Rafael-manufactured Trophy system or the Israeli Military Industries Iron Fist system, and is even asking the Treasury for a supplement to the defense budget that would fund the project, valued at hundreds of millions of shekels. "First the tanks need to be used effectively during the war and not negligently like they were," the officer said. "Once the commanders start to use the machines the way they are meant to be used we will be able to add on the active-protection system which will also defend them incoming anti-tank missiles."