Any Israeli advance into Lebanon will involve the Merkava tank. Whether Hezbollah can slow this advance will depend upon the effectiveness of its land mines and anti-tank missiles.
Any Israeli advance into Lebanon will involve the Merkava tank. Whether Hezbollah can slow this advance will depend upon the effectiveness of its land mines and anti-tank missiles. An Israeli Merkava Mark II tank struck a land mine about 77 yards north of the Israeli-Lebanese border July 12, almost completely destroying the tank. The mine is thought to have contained about 440 to 660 pounds of explosives, and would almost certainly have been shaped to achieve that effect given the amount of explosives used. Israel Defense Forces (IDF) sources said even with improved protection, the blast still would have killed the tank's crew. Nevertheless, the IDF reportedly began attaching steel plates to the underbellies of its Merkava tanks July 23 at an improvised maintenance station north of Avivim. (The underbelly, rear and top are the most vulnerable points in tank armor.) Named for the Hebrew word for chariot, the Merkava was designed from the ground up after the 1967 war, with crew survival as the highest priority, since a well-trained tank crew is far more valuable than a tank. Initial operational capability came in 1979, and the original Merkava first saw action in southern Lebanon in 1982. The Merkava Mark II is an update of the original design. The Merkava Mark III and Merkava Mark IV represent substantial improvements over the Merkava Mark II, with the latest model among the most modern and capable tanks in the world. It is also the heaviest, outweighing even the heaviest M1A2 Abrams by several tons and employing a special modular, layered armor that can be changed in the field. Scattered reports maintain Hezbollah has successfully engaged IDF tanks. A Merkava hit an explosive device in Bent Jbail on June 24, killing a battalion commander and one crew member. Within a few hours, an anti-tank missile struck another tank; no damage or casualties have been reported in this incident. Merkava Mark IVs are part of the current operations in Maroun al-Ras and Bent Jbail. That neither tank was entirely destroyed may indicate the Mark IV can withstand Hezbollah's capabilities. Hezbollah almost certainly deploys the AT-3 Sagger — a 60s-era anti-tank missile —which would not give a modern Merkava Mark IV any trouble. Reports also suggest Hezbollah possesses second-generation European MILAN and U.S. TOW and the third-generation Russian Kornet anti-tank guided missiles. The Kornet may have played a role in disabling U.S. M1A1 Abrams tanks in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and would give Hezbollah an anti-tank capability on par with most modern militaries. In the IDF's first push into Maroun al-Ras on July 20, one of the lead tanks was reportedly penetrated by an unspecified anti-tank rocket fired at the rear quarter of the tank, but was able to retreat. The attack did not destroy the tank — speaking to the survivability of the Merkava — but successfully held up the engagement, as the Israelis pulled back to evacuate their wounded. A second tank was reportedly disabled. This question of capability is a crucial one since it goes to the core of Hezbollah's ability to challenge Israel. With sufficient mines and anti-tank weapons, Hezbollah can slow, and effectively oppose, Israel's advance. Mines can be fashioned and shaped with fairly rudimentary resources, such as the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) employed successfully against IDF tanks in the Palestinian territories. Israel undoubtedly could blast its way through all of southern Lebanon, clearing mine after mine. But mine clearing could severely hinder Israel's advance, and speed is one of the cornerstones of Israeli doctrine. Hezbollah has carefully watched and learned from insurgent activity in Iraq. Such asymmetrical fourth-generation warfare is exactly what Israel hopes to avoid, and exactly what Hezbollah seeks to incite. Iraq has demonstrated that mines and IEDs can be employed to maximum effectiveness in this kind of warfare. And if Israel is drawn back into another long occupation of southern Lebanon — an occupation Israelis remember as their Vietnam — then Hezbollah will have won. Anti-tank guided missiles, on the other hand, offer Hezbollah the ability to actively engage Israel. They allow Hezbollah to assault sizable units and force the Israelis to dismount in order to protect their armor with infantry. While the IDF has the reputation for technology, more information is still needed on Hezbollah's ability to employ state-of-the art anti-tank guided missiles against the Merkava Mark IV, one of the most modern and capable battle tanks in the world.