The two incidents last month in which 11 IDF soldiers were killed in APCs in Gaza have again raised the issue of how the army should deal with the threat of missiles and bombs against its military vehicles.
The team dealing with the Merkava tank plan in the Defense Ministry is currently building a prototype of a heavy APC ("Nemera") based on a Merkava Mark 1 tank, which is no longer serviceable and whose turret has been removed.
The Nemera's most significant advantage is the high level of protection it provides and its weapons systems; the disadvantage is its high price. The army team believes it will cost some $750,000 to build one APC of this type.
Israel is considered a world leader in armored protection, and some of the Israeli security industries have developed a revolutionary approach to armored combat vehicles. They believe that adding armor-plating to an APC is an old-fashioned approach that has outlived its usefulness, as new missiles are capable of piercing armor or finding weak spots in the seams of the protective armor. The new approach is protection based on radar and electronics that can deflect an approaching missile.
Following long-range assessments, the ground corps forces have concluded that light infantry should be given precedence over heavy infantry. Next month three American Striker APCs will arrive here for a long series of examinations and experiments. When the results are collated, the army will decide what kind of protection is needed for the infantry.
The decision in principle to acquire the Striker was preceded by visits to Fort Knox, Kentucky, by Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon and the commander of the ground forces, Yiftah Ron-Tal. IDF officers are pleased with the APC's ability to perform and its relatively light weight, and are not particularly worried about criticism in the U.S. about the Striker's faulty protective system.
The Striker, which rides on wheels, is an expression of the move toward a different type of warfare which is expected to take place to a large extent in urban areas. This assessment is based to a certain extent on guess work, but military intelligence does not believe that large-scale battles of the type fought in the Yom Kippur War are likely in the foreseeable future.
Until the IDF gets its Strikers, the ground forces have decided to rely on the Achzarit heavy infantry assault vehicle built on the basis of the Russian T-55s, and to try to upgrade the M-113s.
Last week, after a year-and-a-half's delay, the deal known as Project Bazelet was signed with Israel Military Industries for improving the protection of 50 M-113 APCs. It includes adding protective covering of three tons, a new engine, new tracks, and a driver's seat with power steering. The cost will be $20 million. Although the APC is 35 years old, the IDF is considering gradually upgrading hundreds of the old APCs because of their availability and relatively low cost.
No tank or APC stands a chance against a roadside bomb or mine in war time, and the enemy can always increase the quantity of explosives. But here too there is good news. A group of scientists at Rafael is developing an electronic system that can discover explosives deep beneath the ground. The solution therefore does not lie in passive protection, but development of the new system is still a long way off.
The budget of the ground forces for 2004 stands at NIS 1.3 billion, 23 percent less than last year. Ron-Tal believes that money can be saved by combining the Ground Forces and the Technological and Logistics Division of the army, as many similar functions are performed by both. The chief of staff thinks otherwise.
Ron-Tal claims that the slashed budget has put the ground forces' flagship project - "a digital ground force " - at risk. The project involves the development of a command and control system which apparently has no equal in any army in the world today. It would put the senior officers of the entire IDF, as far up as the chief of staff - on the ground, in the air, and at sea - on one communications system. The project, which would take eight years to complete, is expected to cost some NIS 5 billion.
In order to save the project, Ron-Tal has proposed to the German chief of staff to fund half of it in return for Israeli technological know-how. The Germans have not yet given their response. If they turn down the offer, the IDF is expected to seek another partner.
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