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Merkava Killers in Lebanon


I had occasion to visit Israel as a guest of its ministry of defense in April 2001, in the run up to the Paris Air Show that July. The idea was for a group of defense journalists to spend a week visiting all of the key high-tech companies responsible for Israel's weapons systems, IAI Elta, IAI Malat, IMI, Tadiran, Elisra, Elbit, Raphael, and others. We also got to visit a number of interesting military installations, the Arrow ABM site and the 200 Squadron UAV unit outside of Tel Aviv, and the F-15I base in the Negev.

Coming into the country through Ben Gurion was a grueling process, however, and by the time most of our group had been processed I was still an hour or so in arrears. The upshot of this was that my escort, an IDF official, drove me to my hotel himself. It turns out that he was an armor officer, and was very enthusiastic about the Merkava main battle tank. Knowing that I was an American, he took care to say nice things about the Abrams. But the Merkava, he assured me, was the best tank in the world. It was conceived, designed, and built from the treads up to meet the specific requirements of the IDF. It fights in the desert. It fights in the streets.

It is interesting to note that Israel buys nearly all of its "platforms" from the US, notably its aircraft and vehicles. This is because the large amounts of military aid the US provides must be spent of US-supplied weapons systems. Into these the Israelis typically integrate indigenous electronics and weapons systems of demonstrable high quality. Therefore it is significant that the only indigenously produced combat vehicle is the Merkava series of MBTs. Most anything other type of platform can be purchased from other suppliers (the subs come from Germany because the US doesn't make diesel electric attack boats) and customized with Israeli electronics. Even the ship hit by an C-802 missile in the recent war with Hezbollah was built by Northrop Grumman. But Israel considers its ability to produce MBTs to its own specifications to be a strategic necessity.

One of the most dangerous counters to the Merkava on the market today is the AT-14 Kornet anti-tank missile. Not only does the weapon have a tremendous two-stage warhead capable of penetrating the armor of the latest generation of MBTs, such as the Merkava and the Abrams, it employs a laser-beamrider guidance. The importance of the latter is that laser-warning receivers on tanks may not detect the laser energy of the missile system, because the beam is focused on a receiver on the tail assembly of the missile rather than the target. Think of a laser beamrider as receiving its guidance commands by laser rather than through a wire. Targeting information is collected by the launch crew by means of a passive electrooptical system and an auto tracker. A computer translates the tracking data into guidance commands sent automatically to the missile via the laser. This form of guidance is much more difficult for a laser-warning receiver to detect than laser-guided weapons whose seekers home on reflected laser energy from a spot held on the target. The only opportunity a tank crew has to receive warning of an impending launch of a laser-beamrider is when the missile crew briefly lases the tank for range, an activity that can be difficult for laser-warning receivers to detect.

Reports that laser-beamrider anti-tank missiles are turning up in southern Lebanon must be a source of intense concern to IDF officials. The weapons are apparently coming from Syria and Iran, who have purchased the systems in large numbers from an obliging Russia. It is likely that many of Israel's casualties and the unexpectedly large numbers of armored vehicles lost in operations against Hezbollah were due to the introduction of the Kornet. Certainly, the loss of Merkava tanks to Hezbollah militia must have come as a shock and a painful blow to the IDF, which has placed such faith in its homegrown MBT. I wonder how long it will be before Hamas also has access to such weapons?


The real problem was tactical, and this filtered down from the strategic/political mess. IDF tanks were essentially immobolized and used as static artillery peices. No concept of mobile warfare was employed, which basically makes a tank a big target. Hezbollah are very good fighters as far as terrorists go, but they are hardly trained to Western standards of infantry. Nevertheless it doesnt take an elite soldier to hit a sitting target with a missile. Had Israali forces been moving things would have been far different.

Combined arms tactics need to be utilized more carefully as well. Finally tankers were sent into the field without simple systems like smoke generators which would have made a huge difference (budget cuts forbade this).

All this came from the confused and idiotic directives coming down from Olmert and Perezt, through the Chief of Staff Dan Halutz. This has once again proven an important military maxim- never, under any circumstance, allow an Air Force general to oversee a war. At first, the IDF ground forces were basically given vague orders to cross the border and then come back. Then they were told to go take a few strategic spots in Lebanon. What they were never allowed to do was what cavalry is made to do, break into the enemies rear and reak havock on turn the enemies hardened positions. Had this been done, tactically or strategically, Israeli casualties would have been significantly lower. This war was lost due to complete mismanagement of ground forces. I dont think too much should be read into the ascendancy of anti-tank missiles, Hezbollah couldnt have hoped to find more accomodating targets

The only constant in warfare is a continous evolution of strategic and tactical doctrine. New tactics and weapons were used by hezbollah and the IDf had their hands tied by an incompetent general staff. If Olmert will stop trying to be a general and let a soldier, not an airman, run the battlescape the IDF will adapt.

One thing the Olmert administration may go down in history for is cancelling the Merkava.

Ah, our "friends" the Russians.

Hi Mark,

I'm not sure what you mean by smoke generators. If you mean static smoke generators, then this would not allow the sort of open-field fighting you're describing. These are usually employed on the defense.

The Merkava has an integrated self-protection suite, with countermeasures dispensers with multi-spectral smoke and chaff. If you are saying these have been removed to save money, then that's more than I've heard.

What I'm saying is that laser-beamriders like the Kornet is that they way they work makes them hard to detect. It increases the element of danger.



Hi Michael- here's where i heard that:

"In addition, reserve soldiers called up to the war were astonished to discover that they are meant to enter Lebanon without a smoke shield in the tank. Shielding the area where the tank is stationed makes it possible to disguise it and prevent the enemy from firing on it. Due to the budgetary cuts, this option was prevented from the soldiers in the field."

Seems like a civilian description of smoke grenade launchers. After a little further research i found that the Merava carries a 60mm mortar which acts as its smoke generator. Apparently the mortar rounds werent issued during the Lebannon conflict, meaning that the smoke shells were also absent.

As far as utility goes, I would say the IDF armor was fighting defensively for many of their engagements, basically absorbing local counter attacks. Smoke would have been a very effective defense against ATGMs especially those requiring laser sighting. Particularly in the Urban areas, infantry should have been out screening the tanks (true regardless of smoke, hence the combined arms gripe) and they would have been able to utilize their night vision goggles to identify Hezbollah positions.

IDF tactics fell back on tried and true failures in this kind of setting- allowing the tanks to act as slow moving or stationary bunkers and the infantry to hide behind them. That worked sometimes in WW1 alright, but since then its become clear that tanks are at the mercy of infantry in urban and closed terrain settings. The armor should have been moving in open terrain to cut the towns off, and if the town needed to be stormed artillery should have pounded the advance with rolling fire, followed immediately by infantry storming the enemy positions. This is guaranteed to create more casualties and collateral damage than countenanced by IDF command. Instead they tried to go the easy way, which predictably ended up creating more of what they were trying to avoid- plus defeat ultimately.

Hi Mark,

I still find it hard to believe that smoke rounds would have been removed from Merkavas, particularly when anti-tank missiles were expected. Plus, in many accounts of the fighting, there are references to "smoke bombs" and blowing smoke" to provide cover for armored forces against missile attacks, which implies to me that the lack of smoke wasn't the problem:

So far, Israel?s only protection is to blow massive amounts of smoke on the battle field, hoping to obscure the view of those aiming the anti-tank missiles? hardly a sophisticated defense for the Israeli Army.

"We saw a missile flying over the border road behind us," said a tank commander. Two tanks that were hit and an engineering corps Puma AFV that had overturned just within the fences had to be dragged out by other tanks, while the artillery supplied covering fire on the hills opposite Metulla. Smoke bombs were also fired to hide the force from Hizbullah gun-sights. Altogether nine soldiers were lightly wounded in the fighting.

It seems to me that the inability to detect missile attacks, either because they were made from close range from concealed positions, or from longer range using laser-beamrider missiles like the Kornet that laser-warning receivers wouldn't detect might have contributed to Israel's problems.

Israel's Little Vietnam. Let politician's run a war and you will lose.

Uh, you fellers are forgetting the reason for a military. It is to effect political changes when diplomacy is not working and the issue is deemed essential.

So did the bombing effect political changes? You bet.

Hizballah In Distress.

Have the effects run their course?

Not yet.

The political changes are a result of the bombing campaign that destroyed Hizballah infrastructure and living accomodations.

The ground attack was a side show.

Which might explain the lack of attention it got.

I'm assuming that given all the attention that ground deficiencies are getting problems and defiencies will get attention and the problems will get fixed.

If you want to destroy infrastructure (as opposed to holding ground) the Air Force is the best branch to handle the job.


I say this despite the fact that as a Navy man I think the Air Force is filled with wusses.

I'm not sure the beam-riding guidance of the Kornet really amounts to much. After all, that only makes it as detectable to the target as a wire-guided missile, and it hasn't been that many years since that was the standard for infantry ATGMs.

The problem was largely Israeli tactics employed in this fight and possibly training levels.


You make a lot of sense. I might add, period.

But I will say that it's not just the method of guidance that's important. It's the fact that the enemy has moved past Israel's threat concept. You buy countermeasures based on the threats that you are likely to face. Israel is a very practical nation when it comes to what threats it arms itself against. Israel has not faced a wire-guided threat since the Saggers of the 1973 War. Without going into too much detail, I will say that there are aspects of wire-guided weapons that make them undesirable. And there are reasons why Israel places a premium on laser warning in certain wavelengths. There is also a reason why Russia has moved away from wire guidence in favor of the laser-beamrider method for its ATGMs.

The fact that the enemy is now fielding in large numbers weapons that employ a launch and guidence method that current Israeli AFVs, as deployed, can't detect is significant.

Successful tactics must take these facts into consideration.

The person who wrote this have a slim knowledge of the issues.

Laser Beam Riding is irrelevant, an wire guided missile like TOW or Milan etc also doesnt warn. So?!

AT-14 kornet the best OPFOR missile but it is irrelevant if any tank (be it Merkava, M1, etc) is hit from the sides or from the back. A TOW a Konkurz or any other missile able to penetrate 800mm of equivalente RHA steel would make the same.
Feedback from israeli side say they are much happy today than they were in 1982 when rpgs could cut into most tanks.

"Israel has not faced a wire-guided threat since the Saggers of the 1973 War."

Wrong. HOT, Milan(Syrian Commandos and Hizballah), Fagot, Konkurz, Tow/ Toophan (Hizballah) . Since 82 to today. And Saggers of course.

The Israelis have a anti missile system. Not may tanks were equipped with the system.

RE: davod #14:
SAID: "The Israelis have a anti missile system. Not may tanks were equipped with the system."

You are most likely referring to the TROPHY anti-Missle system, the most sophisticated weapon of its type in the world.

Alas, it was not that "not many" were equipped with it during the Lebanon war but that NONE of the tanks were equipped with it (officially at least ;-))...

TROPHY is an awesome piece of technology that will hopefully be rolled out en masse ASAP. Incidentally, the USA needs it RIGHT NOW more than the Israelis as they are facing shoulder fired arnaments daily (remember, the rockets does not have to penetrate and kill the tank-crew to be successful, when you immobilize a big Abrams on a narrow street the soldiers behind it are going to have a problem).

Apparently there is a mini-scandal going on regarding the insistence of the USA not to utilize Trophy. They should be using it now, at very least in the interim, until Raytheon gets its system ready. Long-story-short is Raytheon is developing something similar for the USA as part of their Future Soldier strategy but it's WAY BEHIND the development of trophy. MSNBC had been following the strange story behind this decision, it stinks of kick-backs (at worst) or politics (at best). As usual, the grunts will likely pay for this thumb-twiddling with their lives.

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