On June 24th, 2006, Guy Kabili was ambushed. A 300 kilogram explosive flipped his tank, after which it was hit with three anti-tank rockets. Six of the seven men inside survived. Their saviour was the Merkava ("chariot") tank, created with the slogan "the most valuable part of a tank is the crew".
Development of a fortress on wheels
Israel Tal, the father of the Merkava, was a tanker, not an engineer. He commanded the Israeli 84th "Steel" tank division. Tal himself proposed the design of a domestic armoured vehicle after talks to purchase and produce British Chieftain and French AMX-30 tanks failed.
Relying on his rich combat experience and rejecting the need to rely on foreign partners, Israeli workers concentrated on creating a tank suited for local conditions and peculiarities. For instance, while Soviet designers had to deal with railroad standards when making new tanks, Israeli designers would be able to cover their potential theater of war with wheeled transport or using the tanks' own tracks.
Designers studied and compared several suspension systems from various countries, including captured Soviet vehicles, and decided that a spring suspension would work best. It was considered obsolete by this point, but resulted in superior resistance to mines and the ability to quickly swap out road wheels. The driver's observation device was tested in a wooden mockup mounted on a Jeep in areas of potential conflicts.
The Israeli version of the L7 105 mm rifled gun was used as the main weapon, due to its excellent reputation in combat. Later Merkava tanks received a 120 mm smoothbore gun.
The highest priority of the designers was the survival of the crew. To achieve this, the engine and transmission were placed in the front, and the crew and ammunition in the back, the most protected part. A rear hatch increased the chances of leaving a knocked out tank alive. Since the fighting compartment turned out to be very large, it could fit additional ammunition, infantry, or wounded. The Merkava served as a basis for a so called "tankbulance", vehicles with on-board medical equipment and doctors.
These new tanks were adopted into the Israeli army in 1979.
The Merkava first saw battle in 1982 during a war in Lebanon. In early June, 200 of these tanks took part in "Operation Peace for Galilee". However, the first battle where they were supposed to engage Syrian T-72s never happened. There are many colourful stories about the slaughter of T-72s by Israeli tanks, but the truth is that the Merkavas simply didn't make it in time. Syrian T-72s fought only unarmoured Jeeps with TOW missiles from the Koah Yosi division.
Ironically, the first potential deadly enemy of the Merkava was an Israeli Magach (Patton). On June 9th, one Merkava from the 198th Battalion was knocked out by Syrians near Ain-a-Tina, after which it was mistakenly fired upon by tanks from another Israeli battalion. A good part of Merkavas lost in that conflict were lost due to friendly fire. For instance, on June 10-11th, Israeli helicopters fired on their own tanks twice. Five tanks were damaged, two crewmen died.
The largest use of Merkavas to this day happened in 2006, during the Second Lebanon War. 400 tanks including the newest Merkava-4s took part in an offensive on Hezbollah controlled territory. According to Israeli sources, over 1000 anti-tank rockets and shells were fired at these tanks, including Kornet rockets. 45 tanks were hit a total of 51 times, and about half of those hits penetrated. Three tanks were total losses, and 25 crew members died (these figures do not include losses due to mines and explosives).
The battles of 2006 showed once again that there is no such thing as an invincible tank, the only question is how much effort must be spent to destroy it. Even the best tanks will take heavy losses when used incorrectly. A battle at the dried out Saluki river serves as such an example. The Israeli offensive in this direction was delayed by two days. As a result, Hezbollah had time to prepare anti-tank defenses which were not discovered by Israeli scouts. Even though new Merkava-4 tanks were sent into battle, there were still losses. Tanks were fired upon from multiple directions, three out of 24 vehicles received penetrating hits, 7 tankers died. Considering the situation, a bold tank charge without reconnaissance and support, this is a relatively small loss,but it was possible for the whole column to remain on the sandy slopes of Saluki.
Merkava's designers managed to achieve their goal: maximum protection, especially for the crew. As Israel Tal once said "The tank with the better crew will be victorious!" Merkava's combat path shows that the tank's designers had their priorities straight. The most important component, the crew, was valued higher than anything else.
Original article available here.