The day is clear and bright, and a light wind runs through the air. Dozens of soldiers and their commander have set up a tent on the edge of a desert firing range that stretches out as far as the eye can see. These master gunners are nearing the end of their two-week course.
They are already tank commanders, and they are now studying advanced material such as how wind speed and air temperature affect trajectory. Following their completion of the course, they will return to their regular companies, where these new experts will teach the intricacies of large-gun warfare.
Today, the master gunners are training for the abnormal emergencies that may occur in the course of a tank battle: Their ammunition may require a highly arched volley, or their primary aiming system might be damaged. Each of the gunners learns to prepare for every situation.
“Fire!” is yelled through the intercom. Quickly, binoculars are raised into the air, and those without earplugs stick their fingers into their ears. Six tanks are lined up roughly 150 yards away, and flame and smoke burst forth from one of them. Nearly instantly, a pillar of dust is tossed into the air two kilometers away.
“Target!” the gunners yell. High fives and cheers all around.
Maj. Barak Asraf leans back from his massive pair of binoculars, a look of satisfaction on his face. This is far from his first course, but seeing that first target explode never seems to get old.
All six tanks hit the target from a distance of two kilometers. Celebrations ensue, as gunners rise from their tanks and pump their fists in the air. There’s a feeling of camaraderie, despite each master gunner coming from different units.
“Quiet!” yells Maj. Asraf. The master gunners settle down. “Now we’ll shoot at targets 4,600 meters away – just a bit more challenging.”
The first shot is fired from the longer distance, and those with binoculars look at each other in shared disappointment. The assessment: “They’ve missed long.”
Maj. Asraf speaks into the intercom, correcting the students near him and in the tanks. “You’ve missed long and to the right. Fix it – one half and one half,” he says, adjusting the aim of the cannon.
“Target!” yell the master gunners after the next shot is fired. But this time the celebrations are held off. The binoculars are still raised in the direction of the targets. Two more miss long, and the commander turns to his students.
“They’re quite small targets,” he says. A soldier runs out with a small device to measure the wind speed. “2.2 meters [per second],” he yells back. The corrections are given to the teams in the tank.
More than four and a half kilometers away, the target is hit. Cheers can be heard from the successful tank over the intercom.
Becoming a Master Gunner
To become a master gunner, a soldier must be chosen for the course. Such a soldier must be considered professional and knowledgeable about tanks.
Those who are selected still have a choice of whether or not to sign on for the rigorous course and the responsibilities of serving as a master gunner. Those who go do so because they believe in the motto of the IDF (Zahal) Armored Corps: “The man in the tank will win.”
Staff Sgt. Ran Fuhrman is one such believer. He speaks about tanks with great enthusiasm.
“The tank is the ultimate weapon,” he says. “There’s ammunition for every type of situation, and the tank will always be the most precise.”
More than anything, the master gunner course is meant to teach these tank experts how to share their expertise. There are three days set aside exclusively for pedagogy, and when the course is over, they will have to run the exercises in which they participated during the course. This focus on teaching is what drew Staff Sgt. Fuhrman here in the first place.
“At the end of the day, it’s important that we teach as well as possible,” he says. “If we defeat the enemy, it’s thanks to the tanks. Tanks are the most important – they are the air force of the land.”