What are the flaws of the Merkava tank

Federal Army

Tactical Lessons from Operation "IRAQI FREEDOM"

Use of tanks in the built-up area

Even in the run-up to Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, critics regarded the use of battle tanks as completely unsuitable for urban combat in the metropolitan areas around Baghdad. When, at dawn on April 5, 2003, US Armored Combat Group 2 rolled into the streets of Baghdad as the vanguard of the 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized), it became clear once again that the use of tanks in combined arms combat, including local combat, remains indispensable.

What was not feared: The heavy battle tanks M-1 "Abrams" would bring down the bridges over the Tigris and the tanks would be shot down by melee troops in the narrow streets of downtown Baghdad anyway. Others pointed out that Israel had lost three of its "Merkava" Mk.3s to Palestinian guerrillas in February 2002 under similar circumstances in Gaza ...

As samawah

On March 24, 2003, Kampfgruppe 3-7 Cavalry encountered the first Iraqi position on the main road "Appaloosa", which runs parallel to the Euphrates, south of the city of An Najaf.

The vanguard had advanced so quickly that they were out of radio range of the combat group. Only the satellite communication device still worked, but only in e-mail mode. There was also a sandstorm that reduced visibility to almost zero.

At 9:00 p.m., as the "Garret" company carefully approached the village of As Samawah, the tanks came under heavy fire from a well camouflaged position next to the mosque. The numerous hits of the anti-tank weapons had hardly any effect due to the armor of the "Abrams". The requirement for artillery support would hardly have made sense, since the distance between the forces was very small and there would have been too great a risk to the soldiers themselves. In addition, the greatest danger subsequently came from the Iraqi close-range tank combat troops approaching in the dark.

There were only limited opportunities for movement in the village, in principle only along the main road. When a second group of tanks was about to follow suit, an M-1 actually broke in while trying to pass a canal bridge. The battle group commander then ordered other ways to cross the canal to be explored. Those parts that were on the other side of the canal were attacked by enemy troops throughout the night. The crews defended themselves with weapons on board and suffered no losses.


After sunrise the combat group gathered and pushed on towards Baghdad. No less than nine enemy ambushes had to be put down before the location of Fasiliyah could be taken. The troops then referred to the road from Najaf to Fasiliyah as "Ambush Alley" (ambush alley).

It was astonishing that none of the battle group tanks were penetrated by the enemy shells and that there were no personnel losses to be complained about.

The tank weapon in operation "IRAQI FREEDOM"

Large tank battles did not take place during this operation. There were only isolated duels between tanks and tanks. The M-1 "Abrams" main battle tank and the "Bradley" armored personnel carrier proved their worth in these. They mostly got the upper hand against the Iraqi T-72M. The American 120mm tank gun M-256 of the M-1A1 proved to be superior to the Russian 125mm gun 2A46 of the T-72M. The M-1 also outperformed the T-72 when it came to target acquisition. The M-1 had a very high first hit probability at a distance of 3,000 m, while the T-72 missed a considerable number of its targets at a range of 2,500 m. When moving, the tanks of Russian origin rarely hit moving targets because of the relatively inefficient on-board computers.

In addition to all of this, the Russian APDSFS ammunition (Armor Piercing, Discarding Sabot, Fin Stabilized) describes a very flat trajectory, which means that the projectile becomes unstable after 1,000 m. The Russian ammunition experts are aware of this disadvantage and attempts have been made to solve this problem by means of so-called "gun-launched anti-tank missile technology" (barrel-launchable PAL).


One of the greatest challenges of the tank operation at "IRAQI FREEDOM" was keeping open the long and permanently endangered supply axes. The M-1 battle tank with its 1,500 HP gas turbine (around 1,120 kW) is known for its notorious thirst for fuel. This had already led to serious supply problems during the Gulf War of 1991. A solution for this is said to have already been worked out at the US Department of Defense, but what this looks like cannot be said at the moment.


The use of anti-tank weapons RPG and the mining of roads turned out to be extremely dangerous for the armored forces - especially in the first months after the official end of the fighting.

According to official statements by the US Army in May 2003, "no M-1s were destroyed by enemy action during the operation". It was later admitted that some tanks had failed due to serious damage; However, these were destroyed by their own troops in order not to be usable for the enemy. Pictures of destroyed US tanks were published, but mostly without a detailed description of the causes.

The Iraqi "Panzerknacker" tactic had proven its worth in the critical fighting over Najaf. There the first M-1A1 of the 7th US Cavalry were shot down by RPG-7. These were so-called "mobility kill" shootings in which the vehicle failed, but the crew remained uninjured. The guided missiles of the RPG mostly penetrated the engine compartment and exploded in the interior, the crew in the tower remained protected by additional armor elements. In total, no fewer than 16 such hits were reported by the troops.


On August 28, 2003, shortly before dawn, an M-1A1 was penetrated by a "mysterious" weapon while on a routine patrol. The incident was officially concealed at first, but pictures were made public that indicated that the "Abrams" had been shot down. From the outside only a small hole in the tub was visible, but pictures of the interior of the combat area and the tower showed major damage. The "mystery" of August has still not been solved, but experts believe that it was a hit by an RPG-7VR with a tandem warhead. Such weapons have already been used by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Another accident involved two months later, on October 28, 2003, an M-1 of the 4th Infantry Division (Mechanized), which was only in use for a short time. The 69-ton tank, in the latest version of the M-1A2 series SEP (System Enhancement Package), hit a booby trap that was laid in the street near the city of Balad in northern Iraq. Due to the force of the explosion of over one hundred kilograms of explosives, the tank fell into the ditch, the tower was lifted from the tub and came to rest next to the tub. Two men of the crew were dead on the spot, the others were badly wounded. They survived mainly because the internal fire extinguishing system had prevented the on-board ammunition from exploding.

Lessons learned

Combat experiences, especially those relating to combat in the built-up area, already flow into the training.

In order to make the tank troops "fit" for local combat, two goals are to be pursued:

- training in combined arms combat; - the adaptation of tactical principles and operational procedures for hand-to-hand combat.

Of course, tanks are not very suitable for fighting in the tight spaces between blocks of houses. The first rule is therefore: "The individual tank in local combat is a candidate for death." Even the best accompanying infantry can only offer inadequate protection in the long term if the tank crew has too limited a view through the optics to use their on-board weapons against the approaching enemy forces themselves. Like the fighter pilots, tank commanders want "wingmen" to support one another.

But other problems can arise in local combat, of which a layman can hardly imagine. The turbine of the M-1 radiates such heat that infantrymen passing by are practically "cooked". In addition there are the exhaust gases, the toxic combustion residues of the on-board cannon when firing, hazards from the gas pressure at the muzzle and damage from the muzzle bang.

Tactical combat teams are usually formed for combat in the built-up area. These should have at least - two tanks, - an infantry squad and - engineers and snipers. The use of D-9 armored bulldozers has proven to be extremely effective.

The tank crew fights with the hatches closed, as the danger from hand grenades and snipers from the upper floors is particularly acute. Due to the closed hatches, the crew can barely maintain contact with the accompanying infantry. Communication is therefore also difficult. Hand signals can hardly be seen, the rear telephone can also only be used to a limited extent, and last but not least, the radio link is very prone to interference in local combat.

We are working intensively on approaches to solving these problems.

Demands for increased combat value

In operation "IRAQI FREEDOM", the side armor on the M-1 and the armored personnel carrier "Bradley" proved to be inadequate. RPG and other recoilless weapons penetrated the undercarriage skirts, the fuel tanks and, especially in the case of the "Bradley", the turrets and ammunition chambers. Many of the "Bradley" deployed in Iraq would have suffered less damage if they had been equipped with reactive armor.

The American tank crews also had to make do with improvisation in other areas: the commanders of the "Bradley" armored personnel carriers had sacks of hand grenades and their M-231 submachine guns ready to fight approaching melee fighters. To do this, however, the tower hatches had to be opened.

The troops criticized the lack of a heavy machine gun on the tank commander's cupola; this was particularly lacking in close combat. An additional 7.62 mm turret machine gun M-240 was also required.

In the combined arms battle it was found that the means of communication to the accompanying infantry were completely inadequate. Tank men and infantrymen improvised by talking to each other on standard cell phones. However, these devices were not integrated into the inboard communication system in the tank. Whenever the tank commanders spoke to the infantrymen, they were disconnected from the radio and internal communications, which can be very dangerous in close combat. A special close combat radio (PRC-148) at group level should solve this problem in the future.

For the main task, the battle of tanks against tanks, the main armament is the high-performance on-board cannon, but this is almost ineffective in local combat. It is rarely used because the collateral damage is much higher than the actual effect. In addition, the cannon is a long-range, low-profile weapon that has only a small elevation area. Therefore, the tank cannot attack targets on roofs or on the upper floors with its main weapon.

The tank can hardly swing its cannon in narrow streets because the length of the barrel usually does not allow it.

The so-called "dead space" is particularly dangerous for tanks in urban combat areas. A panorama viewing device also enables a view into these rooms. Such a device is already available for the new Israeli main battle tank "Merkava" IV.

Conventional ammunition has only a very limited effect in local combat, so special ammunition was developed for this specific use.

The Israel Defense Forces already have the Anti-Personnel / Anti-Material (APAM) tank shell. This distributes six daughter floors, which are equipped with thousands of small tungsten cubes.

The US Army is using the Multi Purpose Antitank (MPAT) grenade, which has proven itself in clearing obstacles. Reports state that two rounds of this ammunition were enough to prepare houses for a break-in by storm troops.

The .50 turret machine gun (12.7 mm) has proven itself as a first-class on-board weapon. In cooperation with the thermal imaging device and the fire control computer, snipers could be located and fought quickly. The troops also suggested installing the 12.7 mm MG as a coaxial weapon in the future. This could increase the accuracy even further.

Israel's conclusions: "Merkava" for local warfare

The Israeli army has developed a "Merkava" Mk.3 for local combat. This version, intended for Low Intensity Conflicts (LIC), consists of various changes based on combat experience in the built-up area.

Details can be found in TRUPPENDIENST, issue 4/2004, on pages 400 and 401.

___________________________________ ___________________________________ Author:

Lieutenant Colonel David Eshel (retd) (Israel) was born in Dresden in 1928 and emigrated to Palestine in 1939. After the Second World War, he was one of the founders of the Israeli Panzer Corps in 1948 and served in the Israeli armed forces for 26 years. After his military training in Saumur (France) he worked in various command and staff functions, fought in all Arab-Israeli wars up to 1967 and was most recently a tactics teacher at the "Command and Staff College". He studied history at Tel Aviv University and was the editor of an Israeli-German magazine for twelve years. He currently works as a freelance journalist and security analyst for several European and American military publications.