Merkava: The Israeli Main Battle Tank

Israel has been constantly involved in some or the other conflict during its entire history. Until recently, it has always suffered either qualitative or quantitative disadvantage in almost all conflicts. Its adversaries in most of the cases could easily import state of the art weapons from both east and west while the Israelis had to use older weapons to fight against them. In the 1960s, with the arrival of the T-62 in the region, a new tank was desired as the older AMX-13s, M48s etc. were no match for the T-62’s 115mm main gun and new generation of armor. The Israelis were determined to obtain something on par with the T-62. This led to the development of Merkava a.k.a the Chariot in Hebrew.

The Background

2The T-62 can be distinguished from its predecessor by the position of the bore evacuator and the distance between the first 2 road wheels.

Israel was looking for a suitable tank to counter the T-62 but the western countries were not ready to sell them their best tanks thanks to the diplomatic pressure from the Arab states. They finally got a good proposal in the year 1966 when the British offered to co-develop the Chieftain main battle tank with the Israelis. The Israelis would participate in the final stages of development while contributing funds for the cash strapped project. In return they would get older Centurion tanks as a stop gap before a dedicated Chieftain assembly line is setup in Israel.

2The Chieftain turned out to be a pretty capable tank.

The Israelis invested heavily in the project and received 2 Chieftain prototypes for domestic testing. Again international pressure following the conflict in the year 1967 forced the British to abandon the joint venture thus leaving the Israelis with little know how about tanks. They could still procure older tanks from the western countries but they won’t be able to counter the T-62 entering service enmasse with the Arab nations. Looking at the scenario, it was decided to develop an indigenous tank which would allow the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) to be self sufficient. Thus the programme to develop the tank was started in the year 1971 with just 3 basic aims in mind.

  1. To make Israel self sufficient in tank development.
  2. To develop a new tank with cutting edge technology as nobody was selling them new tanks.
  3. To design a tank which would meet the unique set of Israeli requirements.

The Yom Kippur war of 1973 bought in a nasty surprise. Large number of tanks of Soviet origin defeated the Israeli armored regiments. Even though the IDF had superior training but fighting against a massive enemy with limited assets of your own is not an easy job. The lessons learnt led to several modifications in the existing tanks. Additional machine guns and armor was added to protect them from infantry and man portable anti-tank weapons. This increased the weight but then crew safety held foremost importance. The new tank would also be designed ground up to take large amounts of punishment while keeping the crew safe. It was decided that each and every part of the tank would be used to shield the crew during combat. Firepower and mobility thus became 2nd and 3rd most important characteristics of the tank. Crew comfort was also looked after as the tankers would spend a lot of time in their tanks while training for combat and during actual combat. It would support a conventional 4 man crew of commander, gunner, loader and driver. Interestingly the Soviets kept firepower and mobility above all while keeping crew comfort and safety at the bottom of their priorities while designing their fighting machines.

2Destroyed Israeli M60.

Mobility is another aspect tank designers pay a lot of attention to. The designers scrutinized the Leopard prototypes, AMX-30 and even a T-72 while designing the Merkava to take the best capabilities from them while keeping their limitations away. These European tanks were designed for the European plains, but the Merkava was supposed to operate on rough terrain seen in the middle east and hence its suspension and propulsion systems were designed accordingly.

The Design

In May 1979, the tank was finally unveiled for the people with its official name Merkava Mark I. It was very different from the tanks we are used to seeing. The overall design was sloped thus increasing the thickness of the armor a warhead would have to penetrate while keeping the weight low. Its silhouette has been kept low for making it a tough target to hit. What was even more shocking for the people was the sight of 10 fully armed troops charging down the rear hatch ready for combat infront of them. The hatch at the rear was provided for easy loading of the ammunition. It was done after the exhaustive study of Yom Kippur war found out that tanks ran out of ammunition and hence a large space at the end was provided to safely carry larger amounts of ammo. It didn’t take time to realise added advantages like carrying troops, injured soldiers, crew of a damaged tank in the ammo storage area. A Merkava can ordinarily carry 2-3 personnel with the ammo or 8-10 without it.

2Rare hatch of a Merkava Mk III

The engine unlike other tanks is placed in the front thus the turret has been placed further behind to balance the weight. This design however has been claimed to be dynamically unbalanced causing adverse driving characteristics. The driver sits to the left of the power-pack whereas the rest of the crew is present in the turret. The running gear consists of 6 road wheels and tracks on each side. They have been designed ground up to improve endurance and reduce the need for maintenance. The components were designed to be modular for swift replacement during combat thus improving the turn around time of the tank.

2Engine being removed from a Mk III

The Variants

Merkava tank family consists of 4 sub variants along with several other vehicles designed for specialized tasks. Lets have a look at the tanks.

Merkava Mk I

Unveiled in the year 1979, this tank sported a 900bhp V-12 diesel which could propel the 62 tonne bulk of the tank at speeds over 50kph. Its primary armament is a licensed copy of the Royal Ordnance L7 105mm gun known for its lethality. It can fire a wide range of ammo including APFSDS which uses sheer kintetic energy to penetrate armor, HEAT which uses a liquid metal jet to penetrate it and HESH which uses sheer explosive energy to damage the tank’s interiors. The ammo is stored at the rear of the tank in armored containers each of which houses 4 rounds. Six ready to fire rounds are placed in the turret. The housings are heavily armored to reduce the chances of a catastrophic explosion. This tank proved itself in the Lebanon war of 1982 where it came face to face with the T-72 and easily superseded it. It took out the Soviet tank at ranges over 3000m with ease. Its armor proved impregnable to advanced ATGMs thus improving crew morale and combat proficiency. The Mk I has been retired from active service as of now and their hulls are being used for Namer APC.

2The Mk I

Merkava Mk II

The development of Merkava Mark II was started in the late 1970s just as the Mark I was entering service. Post 1973 and 1982 tank battles, tank crews were roped in to give their feedback about the tank. Several improvements, listed below were done to improve the combat capability.

  1. Improved armor,
  2. Newer and stronger electronics,
  3. Ball and Chain armor at the rear to reduce losses due to hits in that sector,
  4. Automatic transmission,
  5. Improved engine,
  6. Improved range finders,
  7. Improved FCS,
  8. 60mm mortar for infantry support.

It would be produced from 1983 to 1989 and around 600 of these have been produced for the IDF. They are retained in reserves as of now and might be converted into the Namer APC.

2The Mk II

Merkava Mk III

The Mark III variant received an extensive rebuild to make sure the venerable design is up to date for the modern battle fields. They are listed as follows.

  1. A new 120mm L44 gun was developed to replace the L7.
  2. To suite the new gun, a better fire control system was developed jointly by Elbit and El-Op.
  3. The ordance industry swiftly abandoned developing 105mm rounds and started development of advanced 120mm rounds.
  4. The ammo storage now has dedicated fire retardent systems to avoid spectacular explosions due to ammo cook off.
  5. The turret was heavily redesigned to include a new type modular armor which could be modernized as and when needed. On the other hand, it improved the replacement of damaged armor modules with new ones during combat.
  6. A new 1200bhp engine improved mobility of the tank.
  7. The turret is electrically controlled to reduce the number of inflammable substances in the turret.
  8. A new suspension allowed for smoother ride inside the vehicle.
  9. New air conditioning system capable of operating in NBC environment was added.

Production of this tank continued till 2003 and over 800 of these have been produced. They still actively participate in exercises and patrols.

2Mk III putting rounds down range.

Merkava Mk IV

The Merkava family has been constantly upgraded with new tech and lessons learnt during the conflicts. The Mark IV is the epitome of this family and is being actively produced. A number of improvements have been done to improve its capabilities, they are as follows.

  1. Improved Non-Explosive Reactive Armor to reduce the chances of troops being hit by exploding ERA modules.
  2. New 1500hp engine along with a new transmission to improve mobility.
  3. Redesigned turret to improve survivability.
  4. Separate containers for individual rounds with fire retarding system.
  5. Trophy active protection system has been deployed on the latest Mark IV-D variant to counter newer ATGMs.
  6. It sports an improved FCS which allows the gun to hit air-borne targets.
  7. It can fire the tube launched ATGM named Lahat which has a range of 8km and a tandem warhead.
  8. A newly developed electric turret control system replaces the older one on the Mk III.

The Merkava Mark 4 features 2 machine guns, one placed at the commander’s station whereas the other is placed above the main gun and acts as a co-axial machine gun. The gunner has his aiming sight slightly to the right whereas the commander’s panoramic sight is slightly to the left of the main gun. The turret ring is effectively covered from all sides with additional armor and ball and chains. The hull also features add-on armor for protection.

583picMk IVD with the Trophy APS

Overall, the Merkava family of tanks has been one of the most proficient tank families ever designed. Four tanks along with the successful ARV and APC have served the Israeli armed forces. The new Mk IV-D variant deploys the Trophy APS system which intercepts incoming hostile rounds with shot gun like buckshots to destroy them before they hit the tank. This was done to reduce the losses inflicted by newer ATGMs like the Kornet The APS has proven itself during combat. Interestingly, Israel has made peace with its former rivals and there is a very small chance that the Merkava might be involved in a tank battle in the near future. Even if it does, its present rivals have nothing which the Merkava can’t handle. This tank has allowed the Israelis to retain the qualitative edge permanently.

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