If this adventure could be likened to a pilot run, certainly all prospective buyers are on the edge of their seats, curious to learn about the ride and whether this Tank is worth making room for in their garage. Put simply, it was an absolute beast of an experience. It boasted power and, most importantly, it was exhilarating.
The experience of operating a tank isn't exactly a joyride. Though it was my maiden journey, if this particular tank didn't offer any pleasure, it's likely previous models wouldn't be any different. The destination doesn't matter because when you're in a tank, you're heading toward a confrontation with an armed adversary who wants to eliminate you.
Having spent roughly two hours engrossed in theoretical briefings, engaging in discussions with the officer crew orchestrating the deployment of the new "Barak" tank, and conversing with Lt. Col. Daniel Ella, the pioneer in mastering this tank, we finally arrived at our destination in the northern Golan Heights. It was then that the realization hit me - I was not the intended recipient of this experience.
As the moment to set things in motion arrived, Sgt. Roi Cohen became part of our group, taking his place in the driver's seat. There I was, clad in a Gentex tactical helmet, the conversation buzzing in my headphones, and as the scenario unfolded, it dawned on me that I was in over my head, struggling to grasp the entirety of the situation.
We are going up and down in the oil axis area in the Golan Heights. The pastoral Sea of Galilee is in the background, a herd of cattle behind us, and the Barak is roaring like crazy. If part of the user requirements of the potential customer is shock absorption, you can say goodbye to us here and try your luck with some APC or something. I'm standing on the loading shelf with the lower half of my body inside the tank and the upper half outside.
On my chest is the new and special vest developed for the Barak tank, on my head is the Gentex helmet and through it, I hear the conversation between the tank crew, but most of all I feel like a voodoo doll. They shake me, shake me, turn me around. I'm neither here nor there. Half a lower body inside the air-conditioned space, through which I try to create stability for myself, the upper half outside, in the heat and dust, and the few centimeters that connect between the two parts of my body are repeatedly hit again and again in the walls of the loading entrance of the steel monster.
Two critical points warrant highlighting: First, this is an unusual journey where the loader's head is exposed outside. Under normal circumstances, especially during swift and action-packed operational drives like this, the loader would typically remain inside. However, given the nature of this test drive, they are pushing the boundaries to the limit.
"Initially, Roi was unsure. Considering he had both a civilian and a commanding officer in the tank, his hesitation was understandable. But Lt. Col. Ella was there to push him, urging, "Hit it, hit it!"
The second, and arguably more significant point, is the palpable enthusiasm of those riding it. Daniel, company commander, exudes the wide-eyed joy of a child who has just unwrapped his Passover gift and hooked up his brand-new PlayStation. His passion for tanks is apparent, and his enthusiasm doubles when it comes to the Barak tank. The engaging conversation between him and Roi, the driver, signifies that they are in the throes of a transformative experience.
Initially, Roi was unsure. Considering he had both a civilian and a commanding officer in the tank, his hesitation was understandable. But Lt. Col. Ella was there to push him, urging, "Hit it, hit it!" Eventually, he gave in, flooring the accelerator. From my perspective, it seemed wildly reckless to speed into a cloud composed of three distinct types of dust.
There's the dust naturally carried by the wind, the dust stirred up by our tank's movement, and the dust that was just moments ago rocks crushed under our massive 60-ton vehicle. Visibility was virtually zero, but the commanding officer seemed to possess some unique capabilities. He kept motivating the driver, who matched his rhythm and kept the accelerator pedal down, during both uphill and downhill stretches, and most unsettling for me - during the abrupt transitions between the two.
In lieu of a Tesla - Mercedes
While I was being jostled, I found myself reflecting on the visible excitement of my companions. These individuals had recently transitioned from operating the "Merkava 4" tank and had now experienced a significant upgrade in their lives. As a civilian, I could easily relate to their situation due to a personal experience of life upgrade I had from a car rental company in Europe, a few weeks prior to my ride in this tank.
I had made a reservation for a Tesla from a car rental company, drawn by the intrigue and hype surrounding this brand. Upon reaching the rental counter at the airport, I learned that the last Tesla had been rented out an hour ago. The disappointment on my face conveyed my feelings to the staff, who, after a few back-and-forths, returned with the keys to a Mercedes 580 EQS. This vehicle, valued at a million and a half shekels in my country, represented a level of luxury someone of my socio-economic status would not typically encounter, let alone drive for ten consecutive days. However, by some divine stroke of fortune, I found myself behind the wheel of this luxurious machine just four days earlier at Munich Airport.
Now, here I was, inside a tank in the sweltering Golan Heights, my mind tossing around these connections like a bingo ball in a draw. However, I decided to momentarily set aside my tumultuous experience, as the focus was to be on the state-of-the-art technology we were dealing with - as Idan Tavor, a senior executive at Elbit Systems, had later defined it.
Indeed, as the ride continued, after the initial turbulence, I found myself immersed in the remarkable sight of numerous operational internal screens. Prior to our departure, I had explored the interior of the tank, taking note of these screens. Now, while on a tactical drive, one might find themselves encased within this steel behemoth, situated in the middle of the hot Golan Heights summer. However, the interior felt akin to a high-tech, air-conditioned command center, replete with touch screens and joysticks.
Throughout the day, Major Ariel Hoffman was consistently with us. His journey has taken him from the role of a standard soldier and combatant to the leader of the Barak tank division in the Armored Corps. "I undertake any necessary actions to ensure the seamless integration of the tank, which includes a broad set of tasks. This extends to the development of new instructions and combat techniques for this tank."
Do you intend to utilize it differently from other tanks? "Very much so. If we engage in combat using the Barak tank in the same manner as we have with our former tanks, it would represent a considerable oversight in leveraging the unique capabilities this tank possesses. In order to fully harness the potential and innovative technology this tank introduces to the battlefield, a shift in our current combat strategies and theories is imperative."
How will that come across? "I engage differently, especially when exposed to the enemy. Previously, the tank had to be exposed to the enemy for extended periods, primarily to identify the enemy's location. However, with today's advancements, the exposure time has been significantly shortened. Earlier, I would spend more time searching for targets, but the new technology now allows me to do it more quickly and effectively. As a result, we've revised all the professional guidelines, not just for the currently operational battalion but also for future training cycles on this equipment. The advancement in technology necessitates a new approach to combat, and my responsibility is to incorporate these capabilities."
In a sentence, how is this tank different from the Merkava mark4? "In many ways. Chief among them are the pace of turnover and the higher number of targets I can generate, all of which increase the level of lethality."
But you didn't change the cannon and the machine guns. How can it be more lethal? "Previous iterations would either get targets from allied forces or the crew would identify targets themselves. However, this new tank disrupts that paradigm by automatically identifying targets externally and also has the ability to self-generate targets using advanced technology."
Analyzing every grain of sand
Major Hoffman introduces a term that nearly made me lose my balance in the tank. It's a word you'd hear in every conversation between technophiles but never would we have imagined it being applied even in the midst of the dusty terrain of the Golan Heights, particularly in relation to tanks: AI. The 'Barak' tank is extensively integrated with artificial intelligence, a product of numerous advanced Israeli industries. To illustrate this, Major Hoffman and Major Nadav Pesach activate the tank's sensor system and what follows is extraordinary. The tank transforms into an almost all-seeing entity, capable of detecting and analyzing every speck of sand in a full 360-degree radius around it.
The 'Barak' tank has the capability to accept targets from external sources, anyone present on the battlefield: be it armored units, infantry, air force or intelligence. They input the targets, enabling the tank to perform a vast array of functions independently. The responsibility of the tank commander is merely to determine the timing of the shot and the initial target. On top of that, a multitude of sensors enveloping the tank in a 360-degree radius empowers it to create its own targets, for its own use and for others. It can transmit these targets to others on the battlefield - other tanks, infantry forces, air force, even to commanding officers. These could then serve as targets for other forces to attack.
These sensors, a product primarily of Elbit Systems, constantly survey the battlefield around the clock, examining suspicious movements, detecting body heat to identify people, spotting weapons, among other things that are best left unsaid. All the data gathered by these sensors are received by the tank's target acquisition system, which in turn designates them as targets for neutralization. These targets could range from a group of terrorists, an enemy tank or other vehicles, to buildings or hideouts of hostile forces.
The tank's onboard computer conducts a scan of the area, identifies the target, processes and analyzes it, and subsequently directs the team on the specifics of the attack - where exactly to aim, the type of ammunition to use, and the precise angle of attack, utilizing a guidance system.
Elbit's Idan Tavor, who has experience as a tank operator, lauded the technology of the Barak as though it were an aircraft, and his praise is not unfounded. He points out that the company's development teams consist of numerous engineers who serve as combatants and reserve armor officers. They work alongside technology officers from various IDF development units, and according to Tavor, "they all faced this milestone of the tank with profound reverence".
Which feature do you value most in this tank? "Equipped with groundbreaking new targeting systems and autonomous external scanning capabilities, this tank possesses features that no other tank in the world can claim. Both these features are linked to the world's leading fire control system. This combination allows the tank to strike targets at extreme distances, whether day or night, stationary or moving.
"The tank's installed screens are by no means inferior to any tablet that children might play with. Yet, the question is how these screens will endure the stresses of extreme temperatures, sand, dust, water, wind, and physical impacts - and this list is far from comprehensive.
"Resilience in harsh conditions is at the core of Elbit's expertise. We develop various products that appear as simple as a tablet, but are designed to withstand the demanding conditions you've described. As part of the product's development and testing process, it undergoes a series of rigorous tests, from exposure to heat and cold, to shaking, dipping, and subjecting it to materials like sand, dust, and salt. We make life extremely difficult for these items. We have engineers whose primary role is to design systems that are highly resilient."
The pièce de résistance developed at Elbit, a point of pride for everyone from the developers and technologists to Lt. Col. Daniel Ella, is the commander's helmet. It used to be said that introducing a new tank was akin to integrating aircraft technology. But in this case, it truly happens. "We took a helicopter pilot's helmet," Tavor explains, "and we're incorporating it into the tank as a new system. The Barak is equipped with 360-degree day and night cameras, so when the tank commander dons the helmet, he can see in real-time on his visor both what's happening inside the tank and, reminiscent of a computer game, whatever he turns his head to see outside, no latency involved."
The Lt. Col. is quite taken with these benefits. "Up to this point, particularly in built-up area combat, our greatest obstacle was the demand for cautious movement. The commander had to keep his head out in the open, necessitating caution, the identification of targets, and awareness of dangers such as shrapnel.
"During Operation Protective Edge, we experienced two instances where commanders, who had their heads outside to maintain situational awareness, were fatally hit by moving fire. This helmet alters the balance of power. Within Gaza, this tank can navigate freely and swiftly, with the commander inside, wearing the helmet, able to perceive as though he were outside. He can move among targets, lethal yet shielded."
Staying ahead of the curb
The Defense Ministry's liaison for developing the Barak is Brigadier General Oren Givar. "Even though the Merkava 4 is the world's most sophisticated tank, it has been operational for a number of years. Our task is to envision the battlefield of the future, to stay several steps ahead of our adversaries and to incorporate the systems enabled by evolving technology into our arsenal," he says.
"A person who lays eyes on this device and thinks, 'Oh, that's a tank I recognize,' is fundamentally incorrect. It isn't just a tank; it's a weapon of a completely different class.'"
"Around five years ago, we recognized that the future progression would involve the spheres of digital technology, data processing, and Artificial Intelligence. We don't need to invent a new device to realize these advancements, as the Merkava 4, with its superior mobility, defense, and destructive power, already serves as an exceptional platform."
So the creation of the Barak meant taking the same 'skeleton' and applying new technologies? "Sure, but there's more. The letters BRK in Barak stand for Bohe (Gazing), Rochesh (Acquiring) and Katlani (Deadly). This isn't just any tank; it's a highly mobile, constantly searching weapon that identifies its targets and exhibits an unprecedented level of lethality. In the past, the commander in armor was engaged in a battle on the map, always on the lookout for enemies and allied forces. With the Barak tank, the commander transcends the confines of the map and steps into the wider arena.
"The use of a new visor and helmet marks a shift in perception. The system we've developed is capable of learning and receiving continual updates. We aim to achieve a state where tanks can receive software updates remotely. The Barak is intelligent and deadly in a way that is unparalleled globally. A person who lays eyes on this device and thinks, 'Oh, that's a tank I recognize,' is fundamentally incorrect. It isn't just a tank; it's a weapon of a completely different class."