The Merkava is a main battle tank used by the Israel Defense Forces. The tank was first introduced in 1978, and four main versions of the tank have been developed and deployed. It was first used extensively in the 1982 Lebanon War. The “Merkava” name was derived from the IDF’s initial development program name.
It is designed for rapid repair of battle damage, battlefield survivability, cost-effectiveness and off-road performance. Following the model of contemporary self-propelled howitzers, the turret assembly is located nearer the rear than in most main battle tanks. This gives additional protection against a frontal attack. This arrangement also creates more space in the rear of the tank that allows increased storage capacity, as well as a rear entrance to the main crew compartment allowing easy access under enemy fire. This allows the tank to be used as a platform for medical disembarkation, a forward command and control station, and an armored personnel carrier. The rear entrance’s clamshell-style doors provide overhead protection when off- and on-loading cargo and personnel.
It was reportedly decided shortly before the beginning of the 2006 Lebanon War that the Merkava line would be discontinued within four years. However, on 7 November 2006, Haaretz reported that an Israeli General Staff assessment had ruled of the Merkava Mark IV that “if properly deployed, the tank can provide its crew with better protection than in the past,” and deferred the decision on discontinuing the line.
The Merkava series of tanks dates to the 1960s, when Israel drew up plans to remove its military-industrial complex from reliance on foreign factories. Israel’s economy and national reserves, backed by U.S. military grant aid after 1967, allowed it to purchase nearly any land, sea, or air platform and weapon from friendly nations, but Israel’s infrastructure was not capable of producing those items domestically.
In 1965, Israel’s military establishment began research and development on a domestically-produced tank, the “Sabra” (Hebrew slang for a Jew born in Israel, not to be confused with the modern Sabra tank). Initially, Britain and Israel collaborated to develop the United Kingdom’s Chieftain tank that had entered British Army service in 1966. However, in 1969, Britain decided not to sell the tank to Israel for political reasons.
Israel Tal, who was serving as a brigade commander after the Suez Crisis, restarted plans to produce an Israeli-made tank, drawing on lessons from the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which Israeli forces were outnumbered by those of the Middle East’s Arab nations. Realizing that they could not win wars of attrition, the Israelis set stringent requirements of crew survivability and safety for the new tank platform.
By 1974, initial designs were completed and prototypes were built. After a brief set of trials, work began to retool the Tel HaShomer ordnance depot for full-time development and construction. After the new facilities were completed, the Merkava was announced to the public in the International Defense Review periodical. The first official images of the tank were then released to the American periodical Armed Forces Journal on May 14, 1977. The IDF did not officially adopt the tank until December 1978, when the first full battalion of 30 tanks was delivered for initial unit training.
The lead organization for system integration of the Merkava’s main components is Israel Military Industries (IMI). The Israeli Ordnance Corps are responsible for final Merkava assembly. Israeli-owned and -operated contributors to the vehicle are:
-IMI manufactures the 105 mm and 120 mm main guns and their ammunition;
-Urdan Industries assembles and constructs the hull, drive- and powertrains, and turret
-Soltam manufactures the 60 mm internal mortar;
-Elta designs and manufactures the electronic sensors and infrared optics;
-Elbit delivers the ballistics computer and digital fire-control system (FCS);
-Tadiran provides cabin air conditioning, crew cabin intercom and radio equipment;
-El-Op, Elisra and Astronautics implement the optics and laser warning systems;
-Rafael Advanced Defense Systems builds and installs the Rafael Overhead Weapon Station and
Trophy active protection system;
-L-3 Communication Combat Propulsion Systems produces licensed copies of Germany’s MTU MT883
1500 hp diesel engine powerplant and RENK RK325 transmissions;
-Motorola supplies Tadiran communication encryption systems;
-DuPont supplies the Nomex, ballistic, and fire-retardant materials used by Hagor;
-Russia Military Industries helped to design the KMT-4 & -5 anti-mine rollers and the ABK-3
dozer blade, now built by Urdan;
-FN Herstal supplies 7.62 mm (MAG 58) and 12.7 mm (M2) coaxial and pintle-mounted machine guns;
-Caterpillar assisted with an Israeli-designed track system.
Armor and protection
The Merkava was designed for survivability and rapid repair. The Mark III Dor Dalet BAZ and the Mark IV were designed with more modern modular armour, which allows repairs to take place more easily. Other features include a fire extinguisher system, and the engine and transmission being located in the front of the tank. This offers protection in the front, since any round that penetrates the frontal armor will be further slowed or stopped by the engine before it reaches the crew. This also allows for a squad of infantry to ride in the back of the tank. An emergency escape hatch is located in the rear of the tank for crew evacuation if the regular hatches are jammed by a blast. The hatch is so wide and large that infantry in the back of the tank, as well as the crew can use it. An additional feature is a stretcher to evacuate a wounded crew member.
The latest Merkava MK4 tanks rolling out of the assembly line now include the Trophy active protection system as standard feature.
The Merkava Mark I was armed with a 105 mm M68 gun, as well as the Mark II. However, the Mark III, Mark III Dor Dalet BAZ kassag, and the Mark IV are all armed with an IMI 120 mm smoothbore gun.
Each model of the Merkava has two 7.62 machine guns for anti-infantry defense. Another unique feature, present in every model of the Merkava, is the 60 mm mortar that can be loaded and fired internally.
The tank’s 1,500 horsepower turbocharged diesel engine was designed by MTU and is manufactured under license by L-3 Communication Combat Propulsion Systems (formerly General Dynamics). The Mark IV’s top road speed is 40 miles per hour (64 km/h). On the other hand, the Mark IV’s off-road speed is faster than most comparable tanks, clocking in at 34 miles per hour (55 km/h) (to compare, the M1 Abrams has an off road speed of 40 miles per hour (64 km/h)).
In addition to increased off-road speed, the Merkava’s tracks have been specifically built to handle extremely rough terrain such as the basalt rocks of the Golan heights, allowing the tank to move with ease through territory that would pose a considerable challenge to most tanks.