Israel Again Leads the Way in Battle Tanks

by Stephen Bryen

While the United States is still trying to refurbish and update the now-aged Abrams M1 tank, the Germans and British hardly produce any tanks nowadays, and the Russians are struggling to get its new T-14 Armata tank into service, Israel, it appears, is once again reinventing tank warfare. 

Under its Carmel “tank of the future” competition, Israel now has three innovative prototypes and there may be even more lurking behind.

Israel is not often seen by outsiders as a pioneer in tank warfare.  But its home-built Merkava tank (see photo below), following on critical improvements in the now-mostly retired M-60 main battle tank, demonstrated not only an ability to innovate, but a re-conceptualization of the modern tank itself. ​

Merkava tank

The main innovator for Israel was General Israel Tal, known as Talik, himself a war hero in 1967 and critically involved in the Yom Kipper war.  Along with the judicious use of inventive technology, Talik was already at work on a solution even before the 1973 October War. The war itself strongly reinforced Tal’s own thinking about the importance of the survivability of tank crews. 

Talik’s doctrine started with putting the crew first, and if a tank was hit, Talik’s design provided a means for the crew to exit the tank without having to climb out from the top of the tank through a hatch door. 

Tal’s new design also enabled the evacuation of the wounded from the battlefield. 

Talik moved the position of the tank engine from the rear of the tank, to the front, which let him put a rear door on the tank good for three things: crew evacuation, wounded evacuation and a much easier and faster way to load ordnance and ammunition into the tank.

The first modern internal combustion engine tanks appeared in World War 1.  The first was Britain’s “Little Willie” that became the Mark 1 “Landship.”  Because the British were secretive, they dropped the term “Landship” and replaced it with the term “Tank” to try and mislead the enemy.  The name stuck.

Britain’s tank appeared in battle in 1915; the French Schneider CA-1 went into service in 1917 and near the end of the war the Germans fielded around twenty A-7V tanks.

The notion behind tank warfare in the First World War is that tanks could race across the tops of trenches and get into the enemy rear.  The main hindrance for early tanks was poor armor protection, small caliber canons (if at all), and mechanical reliability.  

There is some superb footage of the Mark 1 in the British film, They Shall Not Grow Old.

A screenshot from They Shall Not Grow Old. Note the metal shielding on top of the tank to explode mortar shells before they hit the Mark 1 tank. Also note the two side-turret mounted guns. The tank did not have a top turret.

Between World War 1 and World War 2 there was a lot of rethinking about land warfare and tanks in particular.  The US was significantly behind and even during World War II American tanks were a poor match for German tanks and not nearly as good as the Russian T-34.  For the US Army, the focus was for tanks only to play a secondary role in support of the cavalry and ground forces.  Thinking into the future in the 1930’s, US war planners still thought of troops riding horses into combat.

The first great innovator in tank design was J. Walter Christie.  His idea was for a relatively light tank capable of moving fast over both roadways and open fields.  The Christie design was based on a unique tank suspension system featuring independently suspended running wheels and the ability to replace them with rubber road wheels for highway use.  The Russians were greatly interested* and worked a deal (with President Roosevelt’s cooperation) to buy a couple of Christie prototypes (exported as agricultural machinery without weapons).  Roosevelt also facilitated the transfer of tank engines (Liberty engines made by Ford’s Lincoln division) and engine parts, leading to local production in Russia.  The Russians abandoned the rubber road wheels, kept the Christie suspension and produced first the BT-series of tanks (BT-2 -BT-7) which were used in battle in the Second Sino-Japanese War, Spanish Civil War, Battle of Khalkhin Gol, the Winter War in Finland, the Polish campaign and in World War II.  (Below a model of a BT-2 tank by HobyBoss.)

Soviet BT Tank using Christie Suspension

​But the real innovation was the T-34, the most successful tank in World War 2.  Constantly improved during the war, the tank was agile and had a low silhouette, a feature that is still quite important in modern tanks. Over 57,000 T-34 tanks were produced during World War II by the USSR. (Below a photo of the T-34)

Soviet T-34 tank

German tanks featured heavy gun and strong armor protection, along with powerful engines.  But for Blitzkrieg warfare the Germans, after they took over Czechoslovakia, relied on Skoda tanks, particularly the L.T.M. 35 (Panzer 35) and the LT v2 38 which was used by the Germans in the invasions of Poland and France.

US tanks never used the Christie suspension and were already obsolete at the start of World War II.  While they were improved during the war (for example, highly explosive gasoline engines were replaced with diesel power plants, because diesel fuel has a much lower flash point) and up-gunned, tank losses were still very high.

The chart below shows statistics from July 1944 until May, 1945 with high casualties and a casualty rate mostly exceeding 50 percent. 


​Fast forward to 1973 and Israel was faced with three armies, Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian (and participation by outside countries as well on the Arab side).  At that time Israel’s two primary tanks were the Centurion from the UK and the M-60 from the United States.  

In the 1973 war Israel’s crew casualties in tanks approximated US casualties in World War 2.  Some of this was because the Russians had supplied effective anti-tank weapons to the Egyptians and Syrians which could kill the American and British tanks, and also attributable to the vulnerabilities of the M-60.  It was found that the M-60 had insufficient armor protection and a number of other issues, one of which was the propensity of the tank to self-explode on the hot desert battlefield.  These self-explosions were caused by a condition of the fuel cell material and the tank’s hull, with sand and grease building up between the fuel cell and the tank shell, creating a battery.  If fuel was spilled, as it often was, the M-60 became a tinder box.

Israel invented different ways to improve the M-60, among them was foaming the fuel cell to make it un-conductive.  But these improvements did nothing to get tankers out of their vehicles if they were hit.  That’s why Israel made the courageous decision (lacking the industrial base and funds needed), to go ahead and build a new kind of tank, the Merkava.  Eventually, updated Merkava tanks would use turbine engines like the US Abrams that replaced the M-60 starting in 1979-1980 when the first M-1’s were manufactured. (The M-60 would stay in US service for more than another decade.)

The new Carmel “tank of the future” builds on upgrades already in Israeli tanks and slowly being adopted in the United States.  The most impressive overall is the Rafael Active Protection System (“Trophy”) which is capable of knocking out anti-tank missiles (RPG and ATGM rounds) before they impact a tank.  By a clever use of very fast radar sensing and a special gun system, the incoming missiles are destroyed before they can hit either a tank or armored personnel carrier.

The new Carmel prototypes offer different advantages.  Elbit’s design uses a 360 degree “Iron Helmet” for the crew members that is based on the pilot’s helmet of the F-35 fighter jet.  Cameras are mounted on the outside of the tank and a panoramic image is available to the crew members who can see all around the tank.

Elbit Tank of the Future

​Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI, formerly Israel Aircraft Industries) proposes an autonomous drive system for their tank version, based on IAI’s autonomous system for drones that it already manufacturers.  The IAI autonomous system features an X-box style game controller to operate the various tank systems.

Rafael probably has the most ambitious offering that includes a “transparent” cockpit, augmented reality systems, augmented mission support, augmented driving, and augmented simultaneous operation of all the weapons on the tank.

Israel Defense Ministry says there is even more under development, including hybrid propulsion, cyber defenses, active camouflage and a new multi-task radar for tanks.​

Trophy system demosntration

All these developments appear to focus mostly on crew protection, but Rafael’s approach to augmented reality systems suggests that the tank of the future may not have a crew on-board at all.

Above all, this might please General Tal**.  I had the opportunity to spend time with him on the factory floor as the first Merkava tank was under construction.  He was my teacher and himself a student of tank operations and tank warfare.  Above all he cared for the troops, and wanted to give them a better chance at surviving combat in a tank.  He would find the latest developments consistent with his ideas and a good step in redefining the future of armored warfare.

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*The two Russian tank pioneers, Marshal Nikolayevich Tukhachevsky and Director of Motor Transport Innokenti Andreeovich Khalepskii, were murdered during Stalin’s purges, both executed as “part of a fascist clique intent on overthrowing Stalin” in 1938.

**Tal died on 10 September, 2010