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Israel's war with Hamas shows why even 50 years of upgrades can't make tanks invulnerable

Israeli tank Gaza
A destroyed Israeli tank in Gaza City on October 7.Hani Alshaer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
  • Israel has lost nearly two dozen tanks during fighting with Hamas since October 7.

  • Those losses have come despite the sophistication of Israeli tanks and Israel's experience using them.

  • The fighting shows that the viability of tanks depends on how they're used and the forces they face.

The recent images of an advanced Israeli Merkava tank blazing on the Gaza border evokes memories of another October war 50 years ago.

During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the world was shocked by images of vaunted Israeli tanks burning in the Sinai desert, the victim of cheap Soviet-made anti-tank rockets. Some experts warned the tank would become obsolete.

That prediction was premature. Tanks are still the backbone of many armies, including those fighting in Ukraine. Nonetheless, about 20 Israeli tanks have been knocked out over the past two months by Hamas, an irregular force that lacks advanced weaponry.

Hamas video Israeli tank RPG anti-tank
A screen grab from a video shows Israeli armored vehicles targeted by Hamas fighters on November 1.Hamas Press Office / Handout/Anadolu via Getty Images

Footage of a small, bomb-equipped Hamas drone setting a $4 million Merkava on fire in October has once again raised questions about the effectiveness of main battle tanks, just as those photos from the Sinai desert, or the images of destroyed tanks in more recent wars, have stoked renewed debate about the role of tanks on a modern battlefield.

Are tanks as vulnerable as they were 50 years ago? Or did Israeli armor suffer because of tactical rather than technical errors?

"Some tanks were not combat-ready because crews were in vacation," Israeli military historian and blogger Oleg Granovsky told Business Insider. "On some tanks, the machine guns were removed from the roof of the turret to prevent them being stolen."

Tanks of 1973

Israel tank Golan Heights Yom Kippur War
An Israeli tank in the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War in October 1973.Henri Bureau/Sygma/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

The tanks that Israel used in 1973 would not have been out of place in 1943. The British-made Centurion was designed during World War II, while the US-made M48 Patton went into production in 1952. (The IDF even used modernized M4 Sherman tanks, which entered service in the early 1940s but performed credibly for the Israelis against newer Soviet armor.)

Though upgraded with 105-mm guns similar to those on NATO tanks in the 1970s, these vehicles had 1950s-era steel armor and lacked vehicle defense systems. They were as vulnerable to small shaped-charge anti-tank weapons as their predecessors were to bazookas and Panzerfausts during World War II.

However, the problem in 1973 wasn't Israel's tanks but its tactics. Cocky from their 1967 triumph, Israeli commanders initially sent their tanks on unsupported cavalry charges against Egyptian infantry who were heavily armed with Soviet-made AT-3 Sagger wire-guided anti-tank missiles and RPG-7 anti-tank rockets.

Israeli Centurion tank 1973 Yom Kippur War
Israeli Centurion tanks near Damascus on October 14, 1973.GABRIEL DUVAL/AFP via Getty Images

The IDF had to relearn what British tanks discovered in 1942 against Rommel's 88-mm anti-tank guns: Don't make reckless charges with tanks. Other vulnerabilities also became apparent. Israel's old Western-made tanks still had shortcomings, despite their upgrades — for example, the M48's hydraulic fluid proved to be horribly flammable when the vehicle was hit.

Once Israeli armor teamed up with infantry and artillery to conduct combined-arms operations, however, tanks again became the IDF's decisive instrument.

Nonetheless, the Israeli Armored Corps was profoundly shaken by the Yom Kippur War. Of about 2,500 Israelis killed in that war, most were members of tank crews. Out of the IDF's force of less than 2,000 tanks, 400 were destroyed and another 600 damaged, mainly by anti-tank munitions.

Enter the Merkava

Israeli Merkava tank in the Golan Heights
A Merkava tank in the Golan Heights in December 1980.Benami NEUMANN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Israel had begun to develop its own tank after Britain and France imposed an arms embargo on it following the 1967 war.

In 1970, Israel embarked on a quest to build its own main battle tank under the leadership of Gen. Israel Tal, a legend in tank warfare. Foremost among Tal's goals was incorporating the IDF's emphasis on preserving its soldiers.

Tal "was adamant that any Israeli design would have the crew's personal protection as a paramount objective; the vehicle would have to be capable of withstanding an enormous amount of punishment without endangering the crew's lives," Samuel Katz wrote in his history of the Merkava. "Since crew protection was the overriding concern, every aspect of the tank had to adapt to this demand; firepower would have to come second and mobility, third."

The result was the Merkava — Hebrew for "chariot" — a tank unlike any other. The engine is in the front, which adds a layer of protection to the part of the tank most likely to be hit. The rear has a ramp to an armored compartment that can be used to evacuate casualties and allows the tank to be resupplied with ammunition while in combat. It can even carry up to 10 (extremely cramped) infantry in the back.

Israel Merkava tank Jenin West Bank
A Merkava tank in the West Bank town of Jenin in April 2002.IDF/Getty Images

The IDF again had problems with anti-tank missiles during the 2006 war in Lebanon, when Hezbollah employed Russian-made Kornets. Though about 50 Merkavas were damaged, only five were destroyed, according to the IDF, which also struggled with poorly maintained vehicles and ill-trained crews.

The latest version in operation, the Merkava 4 — the Merkava 5 was only unveiled in September — was deployed with the tank battalion stationed on the Gaza border on October 7, as well as with the units now fighting inside Gaza.

The Merkava 4 is armed with a powerful 120-mm smoothbore gun and advanced fire-control sensors. It is also protected by layered composite armor, as well as modular armor kits shielding vital points.

Not surprisingly after 1973, Israel has been a pioneer in tank defense. Its Trophy active-protection system — which has been adopted by the US and Britain — uses radar to detect incoming anti-tank munitions and fire pellets to destroy or deflect them.

What happened in Gaza

Israeli tank Gaza
A destroyed Israeli tank in Gaza City on October 7.Hani Alshaer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Assessing the tank vs. anti-tank struggle in Gaza is difficult, as both sides are secretive and careful to release only information that benefits them. Hamas drones dive-bombing Israeli tanks is probably more of a rare occurrence than a decisive tactic — though the IDF has mounted steel cages on its tanks for protection.

More important is Hamas's polyglot collection of Russian, Iranian, and North Korean portable anti-tank weapons, including Kornets, Sagger knockoffs, RPG-7s, and SPG-9 recoilless rifles. Hamas has also produced a guide to destroying tanks, which suggests overwhelming the Trophy system by firing rockets at close range before the APS can react, among other tactics.

The selective release of battlefield footage does little to clarify the balance between tanks and anti-tank weaponry. Israeli videos appear to show the Trophy system successfully intercepting anti-tank missiles, while Hamas videos show explosions on or around Israeli tanks, though it's unclear if those blasts are Trophy interceptions or the Israeli vehicles being destroyed.

Ultimately, the utility of tanks in combat depends on how they are used, how prepared their crews are to use them, and how capable their adversaries are to defend against them.

Israeli tank Gaza City
An Israeli tank near Gaza City on November 27.REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Many of Israel's armor losses in the current war happened during Hamas's devastating surprise attack on October 7, which caught the IDF napping over the Simchat Torah holiday. About 50 Israeli armored vehicles were captured, including 24 of the Namer, a troop-carrier version of the Merkava, according to the open-source intelligence website Armada Rotta.

Israel's tanks were also not adequately manned during the attack: One Merkava 4 went into action against the attackers on October 7 with just two crewmen instead of four. Granovsky, the historian, said some reserve armored units had maintenance issues caused by personnel shortages. It also seems likely that Trophy defenses were not activated when the surprise assault began.

The crucial test will be how many tanks are destroyed or damaged during the fighting in Gaza. Urban battlefields, with close confines that usually benefit defenders, are the deadliest for armor: In one incident on October 31, a Hamas anti-tank missile destroyed a Namer armored vehicle, killing 11 Israeli infantry and wounding four more.

IDF armor will inevitably suffer losses in Gaza, but the Merkava will fare better than the Centurions and Pattons of 1973 would perform. Tanks were not invulnerable in the Sinai in 1973 or in Ukraine in 2022 and aren't in Gaza now, but the armored beasts being sent onto today's battlefields have tougher hides and sharper teeth than their predecessors a half-century ago.

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master's in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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