Israel, Ukraine and their tanks aren’t treading lightly
Tanks have featured prominently in the news lately, probably more than at any time since the Iraq war, and they will continue to do so in the coming months.
During the summer and fall, Ukraine likely will deploy the most diverse collection of armor in the world. The plucky nation fighting for its very borders and national identity will be using its own battle-tested but aging Soviet-era armor, augmented by more lethal British Challengers, German Leopards, and the American M1A2 Abrams.
Only one other nation can stake a claim to stocking as many different tanks in its inventory, and that nation was Israel during its infancy. Unlike Ukraine, however, Israel didn’t receive any aid from allies (they virtually had none) for military hardware. Tanks were literally scrounged from secondary surplus markets or captured on the battlefield from adversaries and patched together by imaginative mechanics, often in the midst of the fighting.
Israeli armored brigades included World War II American Shermans, British Centurions, and, of course, Soviet-era T-series clunkers captured from Egyptians, Syrians, and Jordanians, depending on the enemy and battlefield du jour. The IDF realized soon enough that this arrangement was self-defeating and began thinking, as only Israelis can when forced by dint of circumstances, completely outside the box.
Decades ago, I read a piece in the Atlantic describing the process Israeli engineers, technocrats and military officers went through conceiving and birthing the superb Merkava tank. Merkava means chariot in Hebrew, and the revolutionary armored platform certainly lived up to its name when it debuted in 1979. The feat was accomplished virtually from scratch, allowing Israel to develop its own defense industries after Britain and France cut off arms shipments and U.S. and German weapons exports hadn’t reached full tempo.
The Merkava didn’t quite look like other tanks, with its sloping bow, and low profile. Israelis turned the usual design norms inside out by placing the engine forward and the turret in the rear. The object was crew safety, incorporating the Jewish reverence for life with the stark fact that the IDF couldn’t afford to absorb heavy casualties. Protection gained priority over a tank’s two other considerations: firepower and mobility. And the vehicle seemed tailored to the harshness of desert terrain.
Israeli planners also realized that a country such as theirs with a narrow girth and hemmed-in borders could afford to sacrifice a bit of speed for more armor and an array of electronic, night vision and anti-missile gear. Over the years, Merkava iterations acquired upgrades and armament. The newest version, the Merkava 5 Barak, Hebrew for lightning, is set to debut this year and takes these features to higher levels with virtual and infrared capabilities and an enhanced onboard computer monitoring all functions for the crew of four. Its Israeli-manufactured protection system can pinpoint danger in a 360-degree field and dial up countermeasures.
Clearly, battlefield realities in Israel differ markedly from those in Ukraine, save for the fact both countries face existential threats in their respective neighborhoods. When the deadlock over sending German and American tanks to Kyiv finally resolved several weeks ago after a period of intense wrangling by NATO members, it marked a clear escalation of European and U.S. involvement in the proxy war against Russia. For the first time, observers felt that the drip, drip, drip policy of supplying weapons and munitions had been supplanted by a muscular, possibly game-changing gambit.
This decision, undoubtedly, will stiffen the already monolithic resolve of Ukraine fighters, but its effect on Russian forces has yet to be determined. The anticipated spring offensive of a war entering a second grueling year probably won’t reflect the impact of the additional armament since the bulk of shipments will still be working their way through various pipelines. Russia’s reaction to the announcement, however, seemed muted in comparison to its past strident and mendacious responses. No nuclear saber-rattling, more resignation than reaction, another shuffling of generals.
Ukrainian tank crews, like their Israeli counterparts, have proven extremely adaptive to the equipment and tactical challengers of the moment. NATO forces are hoping these battle-hardened veterans can be schooled quickly on the more sophisticated tracked vehicles and armored personnel carriers that will be delivered in the months ahead, guided by Western training and intelligence support. So far, Kyiv’s troops have mastered every weapons system sent their way.
Meanwhile, a strained atmosphere overhangs Ukrainian-Israeli relations during this pivotal moment in a rekindled cold war. Israel has deflected requests from Kyiv for arms because of its delicate dance with Moscow on the continuing ability of Russian Jews to emigrate. Ukraine has responded by casting several votes against Israel in the United Nations. Bitter memories of Ukraine’s complicity with Nazis still cloud feelings in both nations.
Yet Israel has felt the effects of the war to a greater degree recently, if peripherally, when the United States announced that it would draw down a portion of pre-positioned munitions stored in the Jewish state for use in a Mideast crisis and ship them to Kyiv. Almost simultaneously, President Biden directed American arsenals to begin ramping up production of the artillery shells now in increasingly short supply. When Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week, Ukraine fighting undoubtedly made the agenda, but no public statement was issued by either party.
This particular war has produced a series of cruel and exasperating ironies, and I’m placing Germany’s initial resistance and lingering intransigence to transferring its Leopard 2 tanks near the top of the list. After much cajoling and behind-the-scenes maneuvering, Berlin was coaxed into committing about 88 Leopards to the fight after the U.S. agreed to send 31 Abrams M1A2s. The irony is already weighing heavily on me: I never thought I’d want to see German armor on the move anywhere ever again.
More broadly, the decision (to be charitable about it) hinged on Germany’s decades-long paranoia over its proper military role in NATO squared against its position as the continent’s economic powerhouse. As perpetrators and losers of two world wars, the nation is gun-shy in an overt way, but not the least bit hesitant about exporting great quantities of arms to underwrite its export balance sheet. More narrowly, its unease in the current situation stems from years of Ostpolitik outreach to Moscow and the mixed results that policy has yielded by trying to have it both ways, especially with low defense budgets and cheap energy.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government disingenuously expressed concern about how the rest of Europe would perceive German weapons put in motion again, conjuring spectral images of Nazi blitzkriegs against the continent and Soviet Union. That’s a far-back reach and a faulty one. Of course, domestic politics also fed into Berlin’s calculus, as did its postwar mindset of leading from the middle of the pack. To further muddy the waters, Christine Lambrecht, the country’s oft-criticized defense minister, quit her post under pressure on the eve of the critical NATO summit on Ukraine.
Before consenting to send 31 Abrams (that’s the number in a Ukraine battalion) and provide Germany with the cover it needed to transfer their Leopards, the Pentagon asserted that the weapon (named after cigar-chomping General Creighton Abrams, not Jewish) was too complex for immediate use by Ukraine and would require lengthy operational and maintenance training. America’s first dominant tank — and one used to great effect in Desert Storm, Desert Shield and the Iraq invasion — is truly a 21st-century battlefield decider. Its turbine engine is highly tweaked and requires special petrol which it consumes in gargantuan quantities. Refuelers and maintenance crews must follow Abrams formations in train as they churn across the battlefield at 45 miles an hour. The electronics gear, armor, sensors, virtual capabilities and firepower have been continuously upgraded.
With the decision to encourage Germany towards a more assertive military posture and a simultaneous effort being made in the Pacific with Japan as a counterweight against growing Chinese influence and threats to Taiwan, the United States has come full circle in treating its bitterest World War II foes as alliance linchpins and crucial defense partners. The invasion of Ukraine’s far-reaching effects are being felt globally in an already stressed world.
Jonathan E. Lazarus of West Orange is a retired Star-Ledger editor and a copy editor for the Jewish Standard/NJJN. He tries to follow events in Ukraine as closely as possible.