The Israel Defense Forces look at Russia’s strategies in Ukraine to learn what not to do with its tanks in contemporary conflicts.
Historically, armies have imitated the winners in wars. However, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is taking a different approach: analyzing tank operations in Ukraine to learn from Russia’s mistakes. The goal is to understand ineffective tactics in using tanks in modern warfare.
The IDF prepares for a ground operation in Gaza to dismantle Hamas. This mission is particularly complicated due to new challenges such as drones, errant munitions, explosive devices, and sophisticated anti-tank weapons. Iran, an ally of Hamas, has enhanced these threats with its drone technology and asymmetric warfare progress.
In preparation for this complex scenario, IDF troops specialize in urban combat. It is the first time since the intervention in Lebanon in 1982 that the IDF tank corps has been fully mobilized. The lessons learned in the Yom Kippur War in 1973 are fundamental, although strategies and tanks have evolved dramatically in the last fifty years.
Brigadier General Hisham Ibrahim, commander of the IDF tank corps, shared insights into Russia’s shortcomings in Ukraine. “We looked closely at how the Russians maneuvered their units and what failures they made,” he told The Economist. “ Russia fought with a unilateral strategy, neglecting the integration of different weapons.”
Russia underestimated the Ukrainian resistance, and the Kremlin did not reinforce its tanks with infantry, artillery, and air cover support. Ibrahim, overseeing the upcoming operation in Gaza, emphasizes that tanks can no longer be the vanguard in attacks, especially against well-entrenched forces in urban areas with complex networks of tunnels, such as the 300 miles that Hamas claims to have built.
Unable to operate in tunnels, Israeli tanks will have the critical mission of dominating the streets, facing dangers from multiple angles. This requires close collaboration with the infantry and other forces. “ Israel has transformed its approach to armored combat. We have been training in integrated operations for years,” concludes Ibrahim. “We face new challenges with these large platforms and expect our infantry and engineer forces to complement our capabilities on the battlefield.”
The IDF has highlighted the effectiveness of the Merkava, considering it one of the most competent tanks in the current context. Although Israel has fewer tanks than Russia, the Merkava is more adapted to contemporary conflicts than Russian models.
The Merkava Mk I, introduced in the late 1970s, has played a crucial role in protecting Israeli borders, showing its efficiency against regional adversaries. This tank innovated by placing the engine at the front, in front of the crew cabin, and relocating the turret to the rear of the chassis.
Its effectiveness was demonstrated in the Lebanon War in 1982, where the Merkava fought victoriously against the Syrian T-72s of Soviet origin in the Bekaa Valley.
Over time, substantial improvements have been made to the tank’s design. The Merkava 4, the most recent version to date, features a higher-performance engine and an advanced active defense system against anti-tank missiles and rockets. Specifically, the Mk. 4 incorporates the Trophy system for detecting and neutralizing incoming missiles.
Development continued with the Merkava Mk. 5, introduced earlier this year, featuring innovations such as 360-degree peripheral vision, thanks to external cameras, and advanced sensors for rapid target acquisition and neutralization. Its high-tech communications system prevents the crew from being left uninformed in critical situations.
Ibrahim, speaking to The Economist, explained: “The current battle tank can process information from various sources, allowing it to attack targets and provide data for other weapons systems.”
Although the Gaza incursion presents significant challenges, the IDF has learned from tactical errors seen in Russia’s operations in Ukraine. This strategic analysis is part of your intensive preparation.