2/3/2014 Or Heller - israeldefense.com
The reform in the IDF Armored Corps is taking shape. The IDF Chief Armor Officer, Brig. Gen. Shmuel Olansky, in an exclusive interview with Israel Defense
I am not sure where I would rather be with all of the threats we face today," begins the IDF Chief Armor Officer, Brig. Gen. Shmuel Olansky. "On foot behind a rock, or inside the Merkava Mark-IV tank fitted with the Aspro-A/Trophy system or on board the APC moving alongside that Merkava tank."
In view of the realization that wars have changed and reality has changed, the IDF Armored Corps is changing as well. Brig. Gen. Olansky is very clear and confident about the principles of the reform he is currently leading. "Alongside the tanks, which lead the battalion combat effort, we want to prepare the combat task force for the challenges facing it by empowering the armored/mechanized infantry within the armored (tank) battalions. In each armored battalion, we are assembling a combat support company that includes a mortar platoon, a surveillance element capable of calling in and directing fire support, and a reconnaissance platoon. All of these elements, along with the tanks that will continue to lead the maneuver, will make up a battalion-size combat task force that is relevant to today's battlefield. We have here a new world of content in the Armored Corps – combat reconnaissance."
What is the timetable for the implementation of the new plan?
"We intend to recruit the first company out of the November 2013 recruitment class. These recruits will take the complete training course, thirty weeks at the IDF Armored Corps School, where they will learn the Armored Corps occupational skill and then be divided into their respective specialized skills: scout, mortar operator and observer/surveillance operator. The graduates will make up the combat support companies within the armored battalions. We are currently reorganizing the entire tank OrBat of the IDF."
Will you be making adjustments in the Armored Corps training courses and seminars?
"Certainly. I am currently assembling armored/mechanized infantry companies just like those of the infantry brigades, possessing the same capabilities with the exception of extended operations on foot, as they will operate near the tanks. We have an opportunity here to empower the remaining elements. Today's armored/mechanized infantry warfighter looks exactly the same as an infantry warfighter, with the exception of the purpose-specific weapons, which they do not need."
The Aspro-A/Trophy system has, until now, operated effectively on the Gaza line in isolated and rare incidents of antitank fire. But how would this system operate during the third Lebanon war opposite a rainstorm of antitank missiles fired at each tank?
"That's just it. This system is excellent. The technology was considered fictional ten years ago. I suggest we refrain from terrorizing ourselves. Antitank fire does not come as a rainstorm. Even in antitank-saturated scenarios we have a range of capabilities for coping with the threats. As our maneuver becomes more substantial, the capabilities of the Aspro-A/Trophy system will come more significantly into play. Additionally, our range of capabilities will include a surveillance capability – for spotting the antitank threats; our surveillance elements will be able to call in and direct the fire of Keshet 120mm mortars; our reconnaissance platoon will possess the ability to recognize the antitank threats in advance, and our tanks will possess the ability of firing a round at the threat."
"Do Not Mourn the Syrian Army"
What do we know about the state of the Syrian armor after more than two and a half years of a bloody civil war? Is it still a significant player?
"Firstly, we know that it is much better trained now, as it has been fighting. It brushes with the opposition forces in the context of the civil war. At the same time, they have also experienced wear as a result of the on-going fighting, but it still exists. I do not know how many tanks the Syrian Army has lost in the civil war, they have been fighting for two and a half years. On the other hand you realize that people who fight become more proficient and stronger. The Syrian armor is definitely a significant player in the Middle East. I would not hasten to mourn the armored divisions and the land maneuvering capability of the Syrian Army."
But even in your presentations you focus on the fact that the fighting has shifted from the front line into the depth of the territory, namely – a war of rockets and missiles against the Israeli rear area, so how does the Armored Corps fit in?
"Even before the civil war in Syria broke out, we had observed those trends in the Syrian Army. The Syrian Army disbanded armored units and established commando units instead. They acquired antitank systems and demolition capabilities. The Syrians developed a substantial rocket layout. These were not just the trends within the paramilitary organizations. We observed the same trends in the Syrian Army, too. At the same time, they still have armored divisions and tank brigades that use T-72 tanks. They are there, and they are well-trained."
How would an encounter between a T-72 tank and a Merkava Mark-IV tank look in 2013? Is there any chance here for a fair fight?
"There is no fair fight here. The Merkava Mark-IV tank is a true masterpiece. It possesses capabilities that are superior to those of any other tank worldwide, and no one even comes close. This applies to crew protection, to trafficability and to fire control. In some aspects it is 'only' in first place. With regard to most aspects, however, it is far beyond anything else out there."
If the third Lebanon war should break out tomorrow morning, in what way will the maneuver executed by the Armored Corps be different in view of the lessons derived from the summer of 2006?
"The maneuver will be much stronger and faster, with a complete envelope of structured and precise intelligence gathering and fire employment activities. We will see combined operations of tanks with infantry and assault engineering elements, but a maneuver is still a maneuver. Its objective is to transfer strength from the contact line deep into the enemy territory. Just like in all of the wars that we had, that is what we will see in our future wars – a battalion-size combat task force with massive strength and firepower, which protects itself and reaches the point where its strength is utilized to maximum benefit – through firepower, through its scoring capabilities. In view of the threats we face today, I believe there's no escaping the need to maintain a strong and fully-prepared ground layout and to employ it when necessary in order to bring the campaign to an end as soon as possible.
"We would not be able, opposite Lebanon, to maintain a campaign of wearing out the opponent through the use of fire, like we did in Operation Pillar of Defense, for instance. Many people say 'here, we saw during Operation Pillar of Defense that a maneuver is no longer necessary.' But in Operation Pillar of Defense, the very fact that the maneuver was poised and ready to launch cut the duration of the fighting short. Secondly, Lebanon and Syria are not the same as the Hamas in Gaza. They will not be influenced by strategic players (like Egypt) as Hamas was. In Lebanon and Syria, if we want to bring about a prompt conclusion of the campaign, we will have no other choice but to maneuver into the enemy's centers of gravity, and the armored forces will execute and lead that maneuver, as they know how to do it quickly and forcefully."
How will a task force maneuver if it is made up, theoretically, of Merkava Mark-IV tanks fitted with the Aspro-A/Trophy antitank missile interception system on the one hand, while the infantry elements still ride in the outdated and vulnerable M113 APCs?
"I think that if you examine the land solution, you will realize that it is a good solution. Would I prefer something better? Of course I would. We do not live in a bubble and we realize that the defense budget is a derivative of the economic situation. It is a restriction that applies to us which I cannot ignore. Where I would have liked to invest the extra money is a question I ponder all the time. I think that as long as the M113 APC operates in the environment of a complete battalion system, I will have no doubts about committing to battle the battalion combat task force and all elements thereof."
What was your contribution as Chief Armor Officer to the staff work ordered by the decision of the Chief of Staff to disband six tank brigades using the old 'Patton' tanks?
"We are disbanding layouts that are outdated layouts that had reached the end of the road. The logic here is both conceptual and operational. It is not that we had called out a random number and then went on to look for what we could disband. Obviously, we would prefer that instead of the brigades we disband ten more Merkava Mark-IV brigades would have been established, but we live in a certain reality that we cannot ignore. The people at IDF GHQ sat down and thought and conducted discussions and carried out simulations and examinations, but eventually you realize that some layouts had reached the end of the road, like the 'Patton' and Merkava Mark-I tanks. But let's talk about the bright side – next year, the IDF 7th Armored Brigade will be converted to a Merkava Mark-IV brigade!"
Still, when there are voices at IDF GHQ who speak about the end of the armor-versus-armor battle era, what is the future you envision for the tank in the IDF?
"I think that precisely at the 40th anniversary of the Yom-Kippur War, we realized what our forefathers had understood since the days of the Bible: that the land maneuver has always been and will always be necessary in order to gain an overbalance in a war. The armored forces will be right there at the head of the land maneuver, with the tanks in front, surrounded by the envelope. We will reach the end of the maneuver era when we have reached the end of the era of wars. I still do not see an end to the era of wars. But if we do not train and practice, we will be less proficient – it's all very straightforward."