"There are countries that want to buy the Merkava tank, but they are not countries that Israel can trade with. Since 2010, we've been trying to export the tank, but we haven’t made a deal yet," Ministry of Defense Mekava Tank Program Administration director Brig.-Gen. Baruch Mazliach told "Globes".
The decision taken four years ago by Ministry of Defense director general Uri Shani to export the Merkava, the mainstay of the IDF Armored Corps, raised hopes at the defense establishment: big money from the sale of Israeli tanks to the world's armies; expanding production lines; further R&D; and, most of all, protecting knowhow to allow the production of other armored vehicles in the years ahead.
It was not to be. "We're convinced that exports will strengthen all the Israeli companies involved in the Merkava's production, and will strengthen Israel's armored fighting vehicles industry. But some of the world's armies are reducing their tank forces, especially in Europe. While demand for tanks is growing in some Far Eastern and South American countries, the tanks being taken out of service in Europe are being sold at low prices to these markets, after upgrades, and it's hard for us to deal with that, even though we're offering a completely different platform, a war machine at another level," says Matzliach.
Matzliach is still optimistic, however, saying, "We will find a country that wants to procure the Merkava, and we'll be able to continue developing this industry in Israel."
The best tank in the world
The IDF and the Tank Program Administration are marking the 35th anniversary of the delivery of the first Merkava tank, the pioneer of the Israeli tank industry, to the Armored Corp's renowned 7 Brigade. Thousands of tanks have since left the IDF Maintenance and Refitting Base at Tel Hashomer, outside Tel Aviv, where the Merkava factory is located, realizing the dream of the legendary tank commander, the late Major General Israel Tal.
The Merkava Mk. 1 has since been superseded by the more advanced Merkva Mk. 2, Mk. 3, and Mk. 4, which the IDF likes to call the best tank in the world. "There is no question that it is the best tank in existence, by every measure, because it was built to meet Israel's defense needs," says Matzliach, "It has outstanding ability to move through the rough terrain of the Golan Heights. It passes through boulders and rocks without trouble, faster than other tanks, with a 1,500-horsepower engine and fire power that can enables it to identify, locate, and destroy the enemy."
Matzliach succeeded Brig-Gen. (res.) Yaron Livnat as director of the Tank Program Administration a year ago. Previously, he served as head of the administration's Merkava Development Authority for six years, in an engineering capacity, which gave him the knowledge and experience of the tank down to the screws in its treads.
Aware of the recurrent debate about the necessity of tanks on the battlefield of the future, Matzliach says, "The IDF will need tanks in the coming years. Israel has hundreds of kilometers of land borders, and it is surrounded by enemies. Just as it must guarantee itself air supremacy, it must guarantee itself supremacy in battle on land. This supremacy is achieved only through good maneuverability, which is achieved by the Merkava Mk. 4 and the Leopard (Namer Merkava armored personnel carrier).
"While the chances of a tank-vs-tank battle may be low, Israel still need tanks that can be integrated in other combat scenarios that are relevant to the current arena."
Dozens of Merkava tanks were damaged during the 2006 Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006. Hezbollah squads armed with Metis and Coronet antitank missiles ambushed IDF armored forced and caused losses. "A bloody experience?" says Matzliach angrily. "Merkava tanks proved in these clashes a higher survivability compared with other wars, especially the Merkava Mk. 4. In the Yom Kippur War, 60% of missiles that hit tanks caused serious damage, whereas in the Second Lebanon War, 60% of missiles that hit Merkavas of all versions caused no serious damage. In fact, 90% of the tanks hit from missiles in the Second Lebanon War were returned to operational service."
Since the Second Lebanon War, the upgrading of Israeli tanks has continued with the installation of active armor systems, which improve tanks' survivability against the even the most advanced missile threat on the field. Every Merkava tank delivered to the IDF in the past few years is equipped with the Trophy active protection system made by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd. to automatically detect and intercept incoming antitank missiles.
During operations in Gaza, the Trophy succeeded in neutralizing attempts to use missiles to hit tanks before the crews were even aware of them. "When I see the Merkava Mk. 4 today, I see a completely different tank from the previous tanks that emerged from the gates of the Maintenance and Refitting Base, especially the first Merkava Mk 1s. Some of those tanks have already been decommissioned and the pace of decommissioning the ones that are still in service and replacing them with new tanks is accelerating," says Matzliach.
35 years after the IDF received its first Merkava tank, 212 enterprises across the country are involved in the tank's production, and more than 10,000 people work on the production of this war machine. Nonetheless, the Israeli tank industry is far from secure.
The frequent debates about the size of the defense budget and calls to cut it repeatedly cause the enterprises that build and develop the Merkava long periods of uncertainty. In the past year, these cuts have hit the Merkava tank industry, and the Tank Program Administration reports a 25% reduction in activity. "These conditions force us to protect our knowhow in armored vehicle development and production, and we're constantly fighting to protect this knowhow. For every shekel that Israel invests in the Merkava, it makes four shekels in defense exports. Although we're not exporting the tanks, we export components and there is demand for them," says Matzliach.
Calls to cut the defense budget will probably be heard in the years ahead, along with arguments about the relevance of the tank on the battlefield of the future. In response, the Ministry of Defense has set up a special unit to examine the characteristics and planning of future Israeli armored vehicles. "The future vehicle will not replace the Merkava anytime soon, because the tanks are intended to service for 40 years. The new vehicle will be different, configured as an armored platform operated by a smaller crew and weighing half the Merkava. It can be equipped with all the systems needed for every activity, and it will revolutionize the Armored Corp," predicts Matzliach.
The Ministry of Defense's Administration for the Development of Weapons and Technological Infrastructure staff, IDF Ground Forces Command officers, and other experts participating in the planning of the future armored vehicle. The first technological models will be presenting in a few years, with the target of having an operational vehicle in commission in 20 years.
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on February 27, 2014
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