'Tanks still needed for major conflicts'

Armored Brigade commander's troops ready for conventional war against Syria.

tank drives in dirt 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
tank drives in dirt 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Leaving behind clouds of dust, the Merkava 4 tanks picked up speed as they cruised across an open field in the northern Golan Heights heading towards a column of enemy Syrian tanks during an exercise this week. Firing off shells and continuous machine gunfire, the tank company succeeded in knocking out most of the enemy armored vehicles while sustaining a few minor hits of its own. Within minutes, armored personnel carriers operating as field ambulances alongside armored repair trucks rolled out to the field to begin evacuating the wounded while evaluating the extent of the damages. While the Syrian border with Israel has remained quiet tfor the 33 years since the Yom Kippur War, soldiers did enact a tank battle with the "Syrian enemy." According to senior officers who participated in the massive, brigade-level exercise, the threat of war with Syria still exists. The exercise was conducted by the 7th Armored Brigade and led by its commander, Col. Amnon Eshel (Asulin). The point of the exercise, Eshel told The Jerusalem Post, was to demonstrate how tanks and logistic assistance operate and navigate together within a battlefield. So while the IDF's main focus these days is on Low-Intensity Conflicts (LIC) against the Palestinians, Global Jihad and Hizbullah, Eshel is busy making sure his subordinates remain prepared for High-Intensity Conflict, such as a war with Syria. The Syrian army, the officer said, posed a threat to Israeli tanks with its relatively large number of advanced, Russian-made T-80 tanks. "The IDF has in recent years put most of its weight in LIC," the rugged-looking brigade commander said. "But this type of high-intensity battle is still out there, and the Syrians are getting stronger and have demonstrated abilities at high-intensity levels." The bottom line, he said, was that Syria still posed a conventional war threat to Israel. Last month, former Military Intelligence director Maj.-Gen. (res.) Aharon Ze'evi (Farkash) said that a conventional war with Syria was still a viable possibility. As commander of the 7th Armored Brigade, Eshel is well aware that he is following in the footsteps of some of the IDF's greatest commanders in leading what is no doubt its most famous armored brigade. Under the command of Shmuel Gonen (Gorodish), the brigade played a key role in the Six-Day War. During the War of Independence in 1948, the brigade fought in the battle of Latrun. While it used to belong to the Southern Command, it has for the past years been based in the Golan Heights, where it watches over the Syrian border. "The border with Syria is ironically quiet even though we don't have peace," he explained. "If, however, a war erupted here everything would change, and the pastoral Golan Heights would erupt like a volcano, with Israeli forces flooding the area." Alongside the focus on the Syrian border, Eshel also has his men deployed throughout the country, with one battalion stationed along the border with Egypt, another outside of Jerusalem and a third along the border with Lebanon. That is why even during the HIC exercise this week Eshel ordered the integration of some LIC elements, the type of warfare with which the battalions are more familiar. But asked if the tank was still a vital fighting tool for the IDF - many military experts claim the era of conventional ground battles is over - Eshel said: "Tanks are still relevant since a military needs to maintain the right combination of weaponry and the tank is a powerful war machine." In addition, rumors that the defense industry's Merkava Tank project might be suspended due to budget cuts do not scare the brigade commander. The project, he said, was vital for Israel's security as well as for the economy because thousands of workers were dependent on the jobs it created. The tank, however, would need to undergo technological advancements to remain applicable to the current type of urban and LIC warfare going on in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and on the Lebanese border, he said, predicting that the Israeli tank would not be downsized and would not turn into an unmanned vehicle in the short term. "In the end, it is all about man, the power of the tank and the technology," Eshel said. "Operating a tank is like an art, and that is why the tank operator will continue to be needed."