Israel’s Land Forces Were Forged In Fire
Here’s What You Need to Remember: Manpower limitations also meant the Israeli Army tended to gravitate towards technologically advanced, high firepower forces, and become more proficient at them than its neighbors.
Much like the Israeli Air Force, the Israeli Army came from humble—but more established—beginnings. Israel’s ground forces had their origins in the Haganah, a Zionist paramilitary force created in the early 1920s to protect Jewish interests.
The Haganah cooperated with British authorities, but turned hostile in 1944 when the Axis neared defeat and the need for a Jewish state became increasingly clear. In 1947 the Haganah was reorganized into regular army units, and renamed the Israeli Army two weeks after the founding of the State of Israel.
Since then, the Israeli Army has seen combat every decade since its founding. It has fought numerous wars in defense of Israel, and embarked on numerous punitive expeditions into the Sinai, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank.
In 1947, Israel’s low population but high level of education meant its citizens could train and organize a national army fairly quickly. Manpower limitations also meant the Israeli Army tended to gravitate towards technologically advanced, high firepower forces, and become more proficient at them than its neighbors. With that said, here are five Israeli army weapons of war that no one in the Middle East would certainly want to tangle with in a fight:
Merkava Main Battle Tank:
The brainchild of General Israel Tal, chief of the Armored Forces, the Merkava is Israel’s first and only indigenous main battle tank. The tank was especially designed for Israeli tank doctrine: low to the ground, with a powerful gun, the Merkava even had the engine placed in the front of the tank to provide protection to the crew. Combined with heavily sloped composite armor, Merkava made an excellent defensive tank, well suited to defending against Egyptian armored formations on the Sinai or Syrian forces on the Golan Heights.
Early versions of the Merkava had the same British-designed 105-millimeter main gun as the initial versions of the American M1 Abrams. Newer versions are armed with a locally produced 120-millimeter smoothbore gun. The Merkava’s main gun is accurate to at least 2,000 meters with High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) and Armored Piercing (AP) rounds. Conventional rounds are supplemented by the LAHAT missile; capable of being fired from the barrel of the Merkava, the laser-guided LAHAT can engage targets out to 9,000 meters.
Merkava tanks were some of the first armored vehicles to be equipped with active protection systems against guided missiles. Israel has built just over 2,000 Merkavas in all versions, with 660 of the latest Mark IV built.
Spike Missile System:
The Spike Missile is Israel’s one-design-fits-all anti-tank guided missile system. The Spike SR (Short Range) system is a single shot, disposable missile system like the old American LAW. Spike has a thermal seeker, tandem shaped charge warhead (for defeating reactive armor) and a range of 800 meters.
Spike is mounted on everything from ground vehicles to Seraph (Apache) helicopters, naval vessels, and drones. It can be used against tanks and armored vehicles, ships, aircraft, and even individual high value terrorist targets.
Larger versions of the Spike are essentially the same missile, scaled up. Spike MR, similar in class to the American Javelin, has a range of 2,500 meters. Spike LR, similar to the American TOW-IIB, has a slightly longer range at 4,000 meters. Finally, Spike ER is similar in characteristics to the American Hellfire. A non-line of sight version of Spike, Spike NLOS, trails a fiber-optic cable that allows the operator to seek out and destroy targets to a range of 25 kilometers.
Namer Armored Personnel Carrier:
Most infantry fighting vehicles are not—contrary to what one might expect—heavily armored. Vehicles such as the M2 Bradley, BMP-3 and Warrior are not particularly armored against incoming tank rounds and modern anti-tank guided missiles, which is odd considering infantry fighting vehicles are expected to fight alongside much more heavily armored tanks.
Namer is different however in actually being built from older tanks. A Namer infantry fighting vehicle is an early model Merkava Mk.1 tank with the turret and main gun removed, and an enormous amount of armor applied to the front glacis, sides and side skirts. A Namer weighs roughly as much as a Merkava before modifications, a testament to the amount of armor that has been added.
About 120 Merkavas have been converted into Namers, enough to equip about three battalions. Namer has a crew of three, including driver, remote weapons station operator, and commander. It can carry nine infantrymen.
Tavor Assault Rifle:
Israel’s second generation indigenous rifle, Tavor is the standard infantry weapon of the IDF. A futuristic looking rifle, the Tavor’s bullpup design—wherein the magazine is located in the buttstock—makes for a compact design while still retaining a rifle-length barrel.
The Tavor may look like a 21st century rifle, but its roots are strictly 20th century. The compact rifle uses a gas operated, rotating bolt design straight out of the AK-47, which in turn was inspired from the M-1 Garand. The bullpup design allows the rifle to be a compact 28 inches long while maintaining a 18 inch long barrel.
Tavor is chambered in 5.56 millimeter, and can accept standard NATO 30 round magazines. Smaller, more compact versions have shorter barrels and are chambered in the pistol caliber 9mm Parabellum.
“Smasher” Multiple Rocket Launcher System:
Israel has a tendency to rename American weapons systems, and this is one case in which the new name is much cooler than the old one.
The “Smasher” rocket launcher is actually the American M270 MRLS. A mainstay of the U.S. Army’s artillery branch, the M270 was developed in the 1970s as part of the “Big 5” of weapons systems that would transform the Army. Based on a modified M2 Bradley chassis, the “Smasher” carries twelve 227-millimeter rockets. A three vehicle battery can send 23,184 cluster munitions downrange in one minute, saturating at one kilometer by one kilometer area.
Israel has 48 “Smasher” systems. Currently Israel is limited to rockets with a 40 kilometer range, but new 150 kilometer range rockets are in the pipeline. Such rockets will give Israeli artillery, positioned in Haifa, the ability to strike Damascus.
Kyle Mizokami is a writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in The Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and The Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch.
This article first appeared in 2019 and is being republished due to reader interest.