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Kevin Myers: The death of the tank took place around Crossmaglen

Health warning: All right, this is one of those columns for my friends on the Curragh and a couple of readers in Donegal. All others may look elsewhere, NOW.

THE following caught my eye last week. Israel is developing a new tank defence: a miniature anti-missile system that detects and shoots down anti-tank rockets before they reach the vehicles.

The 'Trophy' system -- so the Israeli claim goes -- could radically alter the balance of power between Israel and Hezbollah or Hamas guerrillas, as well as in Afghanistan.

Which simply tells us that the Israelis haven't understood the first great military lesson of the 21st century: 95 years after the first tank was born in a workshop in Lincolnshire, its era is over. And one of the prime movers in creating the technology that is spelling the end of the tank was the bomb-making engineers of the IRA.

They pioneered the so-called Improvised Explosive Device (IED) -- ie, home-made bomb -- which for years turned south Armagh into a no-go zone.

The Provisionals taught their techniques to the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the knowledge spread to Islamic groups, which used it to turn Iraq into a killing ground.

This process coincided with another turning point in war: the real terrain of combat is now human, rather than the landscape. This too was foreshadowed in Northern Ireland, with the changing of the rules of combat enjoined on all British soldiers. These forbade them from shooting armed terrorists, unless the latter were an active threat to anyone.

If a gunman had ceased to shoot, he was no longer a target. The logic was simple and practical: a dead terrorist has a network of perhaps two dozen grieving and possibly angry relatives who might take up the struggle in his stead.

This tactic has now become a US strategy in Afghanistan and is called "courageous restraint" by General McChrystal. The British army's new doctrinal manual reflects these thoughts, with the same core messages: al Qa'ida terrorists must be killed, mercilessly. But the accidental "terrorist" -- the peasant who has been drawn into insurgencies because the foreigner is in his fields -- is only a participant in the struggle through local and temporary circumstances.

To kill him is perhaps to enlist his entire family, sect and tribe in the struggle. Thus, to the most ancient engine of war, religion, is added its coeval evil, the blood feud, which is fed by the most renewable of fuels. War then becomes generational and almost perpetual.

So modern soldiers must win the human terrain and they can only do that on foot, eyeball to eyeball. Such an approach will, of course, not work with a dedicated al Qa'ida terrorist, who has 72 panting virgins awaiting him. But it might win over the decent Muslim lad who is drawn into the struggle -- like most of the IRA were drawn into the Northern war -- by the accidents of geography and local loyalties.

The tank is useless in such circumstances. It can win ground with phosphorus and white-hot steel, but never win hearts. Yet the heart is the home of the new war -- whether in Aden or Zanzibar. Moreover, the tank is vulnerable in the new battlefield, where it must go amongst civilians, some of whom will be literate in the arcane black magic of IEDology. To meet civilians, tanks must go down predictable routes, with predictable consequences.

The war between mine and tank is only a little younger than the tank itself. The first tank-kill by a mine occurred on September 18, 1918, when four British tanks attacked German positions at Fresnoy-le-Petit, near Epehy in France.

Three were stuck in mud and hit by artillery. (One of the few survivors was a Captain Hamlet, who was probably not musing on the merits of being, or not being). The fourth hit a mine improvised from some old shells and ended up upside down.

Ninety years on in Iraq, similarly deployed shells were doing something similar to US Abrams tanks, whose all-terrain caterpillar tracks focused the blast neatly into the body of the vehicle. The explosion doesn't even have to penetrate the belly armour. The momentum of a 90-ton tank being blown two feet upwards will break the necks of its crew.

So who is going to field an army of tanks in open battle any more? Peru? And against whom? Tibet? Moreover, the tank offends civilians, without totally cowering them, and is vulnerable to the subterranean alchemy of icing-sugar, diesel, patience and spades.

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Yet while south Armagh perfected the IED, another SA, South Africa, was producing the semi-answer: the wheeled personnel-carrier with an armoured, boat-like hulled bottom that, rather than absorbing the blast, obliquely deflects it. The abomination of apartheid in its dying hours devised the technology that can limit the effectiveness of the IRA's contribution to terrorist war.

The tank is over. In wars in which respect is obligatory, it is now almost entirely counter-productive. And the most effective weapon against it comes not from sophisticated airborne missiles but from the kind of amateur device that ended the life of a tank and its crew, 82-years ago near Epehy.

All of which makes Israel's new Trophy system seem like a halberd on the same battlefield.


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