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Eternal Proving Grounds in the Middle East

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Throughout the various Arab-Israeli wars of 1948-1982 Israel, Egypt, and Syria received foreign military vehicles in large amounts. The Middle East was an excellent proving grounds to compare the performance of Soviet and Western military vehicles in real combat. Let's see which vehicles Israeli and Arab tankers got their hands on and how they performed over the decades of conflict.

From old armoured cars to "Divine Chariots"

Few armies in the world can claim the use of as varied an armoured force as the IDF. Its armoured forces began humbly with armoured cars and used British tanks. The IDF later acquired American Shermans, M48 Pattons, and M60s, British Centurions and French AMX 13s, as well as captured Soviet T-54 and T-62 tanks. There were also "hybrid" tanks: M51 Super Shermans, Shot Kal (modified Centurion), Magach (modified American M48 and M60) and Sabara (modified American M60A3).

Medium Tank M4A1, a veteran of the Second World War. The Israelis called this variant M1 Sherman. This tank fought in the 1956 Sinai campaign as a part of the 7th Armored Brigade of the IDF. 

One must also remember the original Israeli creation: the Merkava ("Chariot") tank accepted into service in 1979. The pride of Israeli designers is reflected in the name. The Merkava is a divine throne-chariot described in the Kabballah as driven by four beings with four wings and four faces.

Four variants of the Merkava have been built since 1979. In September of 2013 Israel Defense reported that the Ministry of Defense of Israel decided not to develop a fifth generation Merkava tank, but to continue production of the Merkava Mk.4. It would be modernized to be a "future tank": lighter, faster, with an automatic loader, only two crewmen, and a modular weapons system including rockets.

The first Merkava was created under the direction of a veteran of many wars, Israel Tal. The fact that the tank design was directed by a soldier and not an engineer resulted in a strange product. The principle of crew survivability was placed at the core of the design and the location of all components served that purpose. For example, the engine was located in the front, to the right of the driver. As a result, he was protected not only by the tank's armour, but also the engine and transmission. This decision was largely impacted by Israel's limited manpower pool.

Historical precedent

The first armoured units of the Palmach, special forces of the Haganah created in the British Mandatory Palestine,  was born on February 24th, 1948. It was headed by Yitzhak Sadeh. On May 24th, Sadeh was also appointed the commander of the 8th brigade, the first armoured brigade of the new army. Today, Israel's armoured forces consist of four regular and eight reserve brigades. After Israeli tankers finish their conscription term, they move on to serving in the reserves. Active reservists meet for training once a year.

But let us return to 1948. Israeli armour was opposed by 200 used British and American tanks operated by the Egyptians. These were largely Matildas, Valentines, and Shermans. They also had armoured cars: British Humbers, South African Marmon-Herringtons, and American Staghounds. Syrians and Libyans were equipped with French tanks. Since Israel was under an arms embargo, all it managed to scrounge up was several M3 halftracks and French light tanks, veterans of WW2. The local British administration also provided three tanks. Despite this uneven matchup, Israel won its war for independence.

Egyptian Humber Mk.IV armoured car, 1948. The Mk.IV was put into production in 1942. It had a 37 mm cannon instead of a 15 mm machine gun used by previous models.

Israel learned its lessons well. The 7th Armored Division was brought up to full strength with 50 Sherman tanks. France later sold Israel another 60 Shermans, 100 AMX 13 light tanks, 150 M3 APCs, and 60 self propelled howitzers on the AMX chassis. This injection allowed Israel to form the 27th and 37th reserve brigades, the future backbone of the country's tank force.

An Israeli AMX 13 knocked out during the Six Day War (1967).

The Israeli armoured force developed in no small way thanks to American assistance. 70% of it consisted of credit to purchase American weapons and military vehicles. By the end of the 1980s 50% of the IDF's tanks, 85% of its airplanes, and 90% of artillery were American. Overall, the US provided $28.5 billion worth of aid starting in the 1940s and until the early 80s. Over $19 billion of that amount was military aid and $9.5 billion was economic aid.

By the mid-1950s, the modernization of the Israeli army from a WW2 era force to a modern one was a matter of life or death. Egypt and its allies were receiving modern tanks, jets, and other armament from the USSR and other Warsaw Pact nations. Against these multi-million man armies Israel could only mobilize 100,000 men. Less than half of them could be used against Egypt, the rest would have to be deployed to fight Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. A powerful armoured force was of the utmost importance for Israel. The nation's full strength was aimed at their formation, which had a positive effect on their performance in the Suez Crisis in 1956 and Six Day War in 1967. In both cases, the Israelis were outnumbered.

Two knocked out Egyptian T-54 tanks, June 5th, 1967.

Some statistics will help illustrate the situation. Arab sources state that the ratio of tanks and other heavy armoured vehicles (both at the start of the war and at the second ceasefire) was 2.3:1 in their favour. In 1967, the Arab forces had 1.7 times more tanks and 1.1 times more APCs. At Golan Heights, Syrian tank units had a 4:1 advantage. In some cases, the density of Syrian tanks was 25-30 per kilometer of front line, opposed by only 7 Israeli tanks.

Israel learned its lesson once more. If one tracks the changes in armoured forces from June 1967 to October 1973, they would see eight tank division HQs (eightfold increase), 16 tank brigades instead of 7 (2.3 times increase), and 10 mechanized brigades instead of 4 (2.5 times increase).

The Yom Kippur War of 1973 saw the largest tank battles since WW2. The Arab nations fielded about 3000 tanks of various types against Israel. After the fighting already started, the USSR sent 1200 more tanks to Egypt and Syria. Israel had about 1700 tanks at the start of the war. About half were Centurions, the rest mostly M48 and M60. There were also 150 Super Shermans armed with French 105 mm guns and several modified T-54/55 tanks.

The Yom Kippur War was one of the most damaging to Israel. By some accounts, the IDF lost up to 3000 dead, 900 tanks, and 110 aircraft. This was a war of new weapons: AA missiles and ATGMs. Israel lost about 25% of its aircraft and 50% of its tanks to these new threats, even though the Arabs' losses were greater.

Israeli Magach (modified M48 tank) in Sinai. Yom Kippur War, 1973.

After the fighting ended, Israeli leadership formed the Agranat Commission that analyzed the course of the war and made the following recommendations. First, to increase the number of tank divisions twofold (from seven to fourteen). Chief of Staff Mordechai Gur explained his reasoning in the following way:
"The principles on which our armed forces were built were correct. The main lesson of the war was that Israel has to very strong."

The second recommendation was to develop all types of armed forced further, but make an emphasis on the tanks in order to be able to make massed tank attacks on the main axis of advance.

Of the later Arab-Israeli conflicts, the invasion of South Lebanon of 1982 stands out. Israel committed 78,000 troops and 1240 tanks, mostly the Merkava Mk.1. Even though the Syrian army knocked out several Merkavas, not a single crew was killed. The tank proved itself in combat against the T-72, of which the Syrians had 200 units. The USSR was quite displeased that the still secret T-72 fell into the hands of Western experts as a result of this war.

The Merkava successfully opposed the T-62 tank that made up the majority of the Syrian Arab Republic's tank fleet. It was resistant to the RPG-7 and Malyutka 9K11 anti-tank rockets. Israel was right to transition from a patchwork of foreign tanks to domestic Merkavas.

Merkava Mk.IV, Lebanon, 2006.

A friend in need

Arab nations received a great deal of Soviet tanks either through loans, barter, or as outright gifts. The USSR was not the only vendor. For instance, after WW2 Czechoslovakia put the T-34-85 and SU-100 into production and sold them to the Middle East.

At the peak of its majesty, the Soviet defense industry stunned Western analysts and intelligence personnel. Factories in Nizhniy Tagil, Kharkov, Omsk, and Chelyabinsk worked like clockwork. The USSR put out about 9000 tanks, SPGs, and APCs per year in the 1980s. Add another 2500 vehicles produced by other Warsaw Pact nations and the export potential of the Eastern Bloc became truly enormous. According to estimates made by military historian Anthony Tucker-Jones, the USSR exported almost 8000 tanks and SPGs of various types as well as 14,000 other vehicles to the developing world from 1980 to 1990. These vast deliveries prevented the armies of Arab nations from outright collapse when fighting Israel.

Other Warsaw Pact nations were not far behind their "big brother". Czechoslovakia sold licensed copies of T-55 tanks starting in the mid-1960s and T-72 tanks starting in the late 1980s. The Czechs also sold over 3000 of their own OT-64 SKOT APCs. Iraq was their largest customer. Poland also produced and exported T-34-85, T-54/55, and T-72 tanks. Poland and Bulgaria also sold the ML-LB to Iraq and Syria. Romania got into the export game in the 1970s, selling its own variants of the T-55 tank.

Egypt made a large deal with Czechoslovakia in the mid-1950s. The deal covered 530 armoured vehicles: 230 tanks (mostly T-34-85, but some IS-3), 200 BTR-152, 100 SU-100. Some time later, 120 of the new T-54 tanks were added to the deal. Most of these vehicles took part in battle against Israeli, French, and British forces during the Suez Crisis of 1956.

BTR-152 on parade, 1960s.

Through various programs and initiatives, the Egyptian army received 290 T-54 tanks, 25 IS-3s, 50 PT-76es, as well as a large number of BTR-40/50/60/152 wheeled APCs and SU-100s from the USSR and its allies in 1962-1967. Syria wasn't left out either. By the late 1950s it received 200 T-34-85, 150 T-54, 80 SU-100, and 100 BTR-152. The USSR continued ramping up deliveries to Syria over the next decade, as it was considered one of the most reliable allies in the Middle East. By 1967, the Syrians had about 750 tanks and 585 APCs.

After the defeat in 1967 the Arab nations quickly restored their armies thanks to the USSR's aid. Deliveries didn't just continue, they grew, and at quite comfortable rates. For instance, Syria received the new T-62 tanks and BMP-1 IFVs practically for free and earlier than Warsaw Pact allies. The Egyptians were not forgotten either. In 1962-1973 Egypt received 1260 T-54/55, 400 T-62, 550 BTR-152/60, and 150 BMP-1. Later, Czechoslovakia sent another 200 BTRs on orders from Moscow.

This "iron fist" took part in the Yom Kippur War in 1973, which began quite favourably for the Arabs. The end result was a tremendous defeat, and only a delivery of 1200 Soviet tanks prevented the complete collapse of their armoured forces. The war of 1973 showed that the T-54, T-55, and even the new T-62 was no match for the new American BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missiles that the Americans began to deliver to Israel during the war. Israel claimed that almost 100% of all TOW rounds fired hit their target.

The TOW had its own counterpart on the Arab side: the Soviet Malyutka 9K11 (NATO classification AT-3 Sagger). This weapon was also a nightmare for Israeli tankers. The Saggers were first used by Syrians during clashes at the Golan Heights in the winter of 1972-73 where several Israeli tanks were destroyed. These ATGMs were used in large numbers during the Yom Kippur War. The Egyptians performed exceptionally. Grenadier Abdul Aata destroyed 23 tanks during the first 24 hours of the war, destroying 8 Pattons within one hour. According to estimates from the Arab side, about 800 Israeli tanks were disabled with Sagger missiles. About 60% of hits resulted in a penetration. On average, two crewmen were killed. Western sources consider that the commander of the 252nd division General Albert Mandler was killed then his vehicle was struck by a Sagger.

Shooting of the Egyptian movie "Armour Hunters" about commando units armed with the Sagger ATGM. A burned out Israeli M60 can be seen in the background.

Israel captured 27 Sagger units during the war in Libya in 1982. 24 years later, in a new Libyan war, Hezbollah fighters destroyed several Israeli tanks with Sagger missiles once again. This system was used with great effect by armies of developing nations and remains one of the biggest successes of Soviet missile building. About 300,000 units were built in total and exported to move than 35 nations. Similar units were built in Bulgaria, Iran, Yugoslavia, and China. The USSR continued to produce them until 1984.

Soviet vehicles were used not only by regular units of Arab nations but also many paramilitary formations. For instance, when Israel invaded South Lebanon it captured 60 T-34-85 and 20 T-54/55 tanks belonging to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

PLO fighters, Libya, 1982.

These large scale shipments of modern Soviet weapons also helped Israel and other Western states. The T-62 and T-72 did not remain secret for long. For instance, during the so called War of Attrition Israeli troops periodically carried out diversionary raids into Egyptian territory to the south and west of the Suez Canal. Troops that took parts in these raids spoke fluent Arabic, dressed in enemy uniforms, and even drove Soviet tanks and APCs. One of these raids captured two T-62 tanks that had just been delivered to Egypt. A joint Israeli-American research group studied these tanks in detail.

An Iraqi T-72 tank firing during the Yom Kippur War, 1973. 

The Syrian army's largest losses were taken during the fighting in South Lebanon in 1982: 200 T-62, 125 T-54 and T-55, 9 T-72, and 140 APCs. Syria continued to purchased armoured vehicles from the USSR and other Eastern Bloc states. In the early 1980s it acquired 800 BMP-1 IFVs and a large number of T-72 tanks and BTR-80 APCs. A decade later, it purchased 252 T-72 tanks from Czechoslovakia and 350 of these tanks from Russia (no longer the USSR). 

Soviet military advisors in Syria, 1983.

To conclude, let us mention the work of Soviet advisors that also played a big part in the formation of Arab tank armies. Former War Minister General Mohamed Fawzi wrote in his memoirs Three Year War 1967-1979:
"Soviet specialists had experience in military training, military planning (on the operational level), in preparations of theatres of war. They had exceptional physical endurance and discipline. Working among the troops, they built relationships with junior commanders and respected and obeyed senior commanders. They lived the everyday life that our troops lived no matter where they were, day or night. With this, they earned respect, trust, friendship, and cooperation of all Egyptian armed forces commanders."

Original article by Aleksandr Korablikov. 


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