KETZIYOT, Israel -- When last in combat, the tanks at this desert base hard by the Egyptian border were painted with Arab markings and seen through Israeli gunsights.
Stripped to bare metal, upgraded with Israeli and American equipment and repainted, these Soviet-built tanks now defend Israel.
Israeli forces captured more than enough T-54, T-55 and T-62 tanks from Egypt and Syria in the 1967 and 1973 wars -- mostly in 1973 -- to create a division of 300 of them. They call it the 540th.
Tank columns need support vehicles and Israel's wars supplied those, too. Sitting in rows of corrugated iron sheds are armored personnel carriers, fuel trucks and supply vehicles -- all from Soviet factories and once driven by Egyptian or Syrian soldiers.
In short, everything that moves on tracks or wheels in the 540th is Russian.
'Any good army is one that has enemy tanks in its ranks,' said the division commander, a brigadier general who could not be identified for security reasons.
Bravado aside, no other army has captured as many enemy tanks. The reason for keeping them are obvious.
For one, Israel used captured Soviet tanks with their original Egyptian markings to create havoc behind Egyptian lines along the Suez Canal during the 1968-70 war of attrition. The one-star general did not dismiss the possibility of using similar tactics in the future.
Having the primary ground weapons of their adversaries also gives the Israelis a chance to study their advantages and limitations, aiding in developing their own tank, the Merkava. So, too, for American armored specialists whose tanks face the Russians in Europe.
'When I arrived (as division commander) I was surprised at the good performance of these tanks,' he said. 'I really was surprised at the positive attitude of the Israeli soldiers. I didn't expect that.'
The Soviet-powered division was created after the 1973 October War, an 18-day conflict marked by some of the biggest tank battles since World War II in both the Sinai and on the Golan Heights.
To bring the Soviet tanks up to Israeli standards for crew comfort, fighting ability and commonality with other tanks in the arsenal, nearly all of the equipment was ripped out and new gear installed. A dieselreplaced the less trusty gasoline engine and a 105mm cannon was inserted into the turret.
To correct one deficiency, the Israelis installed air conditioning to ward off the blistering desert heat.
'These Eastern tanks are a nightmare' for the crews, the general said. 'The human engineering is horrendous. You sweat your guts out and work your guts out in a Russian tank. It's easier to fight in American tanks because they're better for the gunner.
'The main thing is that we left all the advantages and put Israeli advantages on top of them. It's taken all our battle experience to rebuild the tank. Anything that didn't mean a basic structural design change of the metal, we've changed.'