Mighty Merkavas Fail In War Gone Awry: ‘Boom, Flames and Smoke’

HAIFA—Cpl. Michael Mizrahi’s Merkava tank crew had given up. After an hour-long search through the warrens of the southern Lebanese village of Kila for a Hezbollah missile squad, the tank gunner awaited new orders.

Then the anti-tank rocket came bursting out of a nearby school, slamming into the tank’s right flank in between the gunner and his commander.

“There was a boom, flames and smoke,’’ recalled Corporal Mizrahi, the right side of his face peeling and shriveled from first-degree burns, his arm sewn up in several places from shrapnel and a bandage over the roof of his nose. “My whole face was covered in blood.”

Wheelchair-bound in the orthopedic ward of Haifa’s Rambam hospital, Corporal Mizrahi took consolation in the knowledge that the Merkava armor ultimately saved his life. Over the weekend, a four-man Merkava crew from his battalion was killed by a Hezbollah anti-tank missile.

Celebrated as one of the most heavily protected tanks in the world and the embodiment of the might of Israel’s ground forces, the Merkava tanks seemed to become practice targets over the last three weeks for Hezbollah anti-tank missile teams. And as a ceasefire went into effect this week, footage of smoke billowing from paralyzed Merkava tanks are likely to remain burned in the collective memory as one of the dominant images of a war gone awry.

“The tanks are a symbol in this war. In other conditions, 15 tanks could conquer a country,’’ said Eyal Hurwitz, a former infantry commando sent on special missions in Lebanon. “As an Israeli, I can’t bear to watch a tank exploding on live television. It kills us.”

At the end of a war considered by Israelis as a just fight for survival in which they were supposed to crush Hezbollah, the country turned inward with angry questions about why the army finished off a month of fighting in a disappointing stalemate.

In the middle of the war, Army Chief of Staff Dan Halutz sidelined the general overseeing the ground war in Lebanon, marking the first time in more than three decades that a general had been so publicly rebuked in the middle of a war. With the war over, General Halutz himself is on the firing line.

Avshalom Vilan, a Knesset member from the dovish Meretz party, was one of the first politicians to call for a state commission of investigation like the ones set up in the aftermath of debacles in the 1982 Lebanon war and the 1973 war.

“I can’t call it a failed war, because most of the time there wasn’t even a war, except for the last four days,’’ he said. “There was an operation here, and there was an operation there.”

A week into the fighting, Mr. Vilan—a stocky veteran of Israel’s Sayeret Matkal elite commando unit—joked with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that the military seemed to be taking its time.

“I told him, ‘Come on, I can’t remember a long war in the Middle East,’” he recalled. “There was an assumption that we are not limited in time, and that we have all the time we need.”

Among the myriad questions that await investigators is an explanation of just how the vaunted tank became so exposed to Hezbollah rocket fire.

Hebrew for “chariot,” the Merkava was first developed in the 1970’s by the legendary Gen. Israel Tal to ensure Israel’s superiority against rival ground forces from Egypt and Syria.

The tank was the first to be designed with its engine in the front, in order to absorb a head-on strike and protect its relatively small four-member crew. Today’s Merkavas come with a 105-millimeter cannon, two machine guns on the slab turret and a cruising speed of 50 miles an hour.

“Anyone who you talk to will say it affords greater protection to its crew than any tank in the world,’’ said Michael Oren, a military historian and senior fellow at the Shalem Center. “No tank is considered impenetrable, but it was considered Israel’s powerhouse. Here you have a tank that costs $2.5 million that is being taken out by a shell that costs $900.”

As the current conflict progressed, questions about the Merkava’s viability could even be overhead in the corridors of the Kirya, Israel’s Pentagon.

That’s partly because the tanks were operating in some of the worst possible terrain. At their strongest when dashing across flat sandy plains, the tanks in Lebanon were puttering around rocky slopes while navigating the back roads so as to stay off booby-trapped highways. And the slower the tanks, the more sluggish Israel’s ground operation against Hezbollah became.

It took Corporal Mizrahi’s crew about five hours to navigate the 15-mile trip from the Israeli border to the village of Kila.

“You always feel exposed, because it’s open territory,’’ he said. “There’s nothing much to do. They hide in these holes and jump out and open fire.”

Military experts say that Israeli intelligence knew ahead of time that the Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters had gotten shipments of Russian- and French-made Sagger missiles.

What isn’t clear is whether Israel’s army knew how many missiles they would face, and or about the ace firing displayed by some Hezbollah missile teams.

“They knew where to fire and how to fire,” said Corporal Mizrahi.

The Israeli army declined to provide numbers for the tanks that were hit or destroyed, though the Ha’aretz newspaper last week estimated Hezbollah had struck at least 20 tanks.

To be sure, military planners anticipated heavy losses in a ground war in Lebanon, a factor that probably played a role in the much-criticized decision to wait until last week to widen the offensive. Was the vulnerability of the tanks part of that calculation?

Rafi Noy, a former brigadier general who oversaw ground operations in Lebanon, said that the tanks became exposed because they were deployed in far too few numbers.

“When it’s one tank against one group of rocket shooters, the tank is going to be very vulnerable, and it’s going to be easy to hit,” he said. “If you send dozens of tanks in, the same tank might still be vulnerable, but at least you can smother the group of rocket launchers.”

Whatever the reason for the failures, the realizations came too late, after three weeks of devastating losses.

Back at the hospital, Corporal Mizrahi reflected, picked dead skin away from his face, and talked about his Lebanon curtain call—a march to an evacuation helicopter in a flak jacket, underwear and boots—and the unfinished business left behind.

“There are cells that we never caught. If we had more people, we could have caught them,’’ he said. “Soldiers went in there and got injured without reaching the goal. The kidnapped soldiers didn’t return. Hezbollah can rearm. And the next time, they’ll have a better knowledge of how we fight.”