Last summer, the Israeli army unveiled the latest addition to its military might--the Merkava Mk 4 battle tank. Given the vast sums of money spent annually by Middle Eastern countries on military hardware, such news could be classed as unremarkable. However, analysis of the tank's improvements over its predecessors offers clues as to its intended use and a glimpse into Israel's possible future policy regarding its closest neighbours. Up until a year ago, the Merkava Mk 3--one of the most heavily armoured tanks in the world--was able to operate deep in Palestinian controlled areas without fear of crew safety.
However, answering a call to protect a convoy of settlers that had come under heavy fire, one such Merkava was destroyed by a bomb, well-placed to exploit a structural weakness in its underbelly--killing all three crew inside. The attack rocked the confidence of the Israeli military, which had believed the vehicle impregnable to such `low-level' assaults. So when the Mk 4 was rolled out to a waiting press, eyebrows were raised at the fact its vulnerability to bombs hidden beneath the surface of a road were not addressed.
Most notable in its modifications is its improved mobility over rocky terrain--particularly suitable for the Golan Heights, which hitherto have been notoriously difficult to negotiate for even the most rugged and modern of armoured vehicles. The West Bank and Gaza Strip offer no such impediments. Much, too, was made of the reinforced armour protecting the top and sides of the tank from aerial assault. The Palestinians do not possess an air force with which to launch attacks from the skies.
Another key difference between the Mk 4 and the Mk 3 is the increased power of its gun--capable of penetrating the armour of other tanks--of which the Palestinians possess none. While any evolution of the Merkava can quite naturally be expected to add improvements in its defensive and offensive capabilities, all military hardware is tailored to specific threats and its role in combating them. That this particular evolution has been produced with the mountainous border between Israel and Syria in mind and the challenges encountered in a ground war against an enemy in possession of numerous anti-tank helicopters gives rise to a number of questions. In recent months, Israel's determination to justify a US-led war in Iraq has been matched only by its efforts to implicate Syria with Saddam Hussein and his perceived programme for building...