Merkava Main Battle Tank series (1978)

Israeli Tanks Main Battle Tank - about 2,000 built, production close c2030

Learning tank warfare the hard way

Since the war of 1956, Israel learned how to deal with far superior forces with limited resources and astonished the world with its fast, daring tactics and unexpected victories. The country forged in fifty years, with limited foreign assistance, a powerful, modern defense force. The armored symbol of which is the Merkava, a reference to the ancient war chariots of the days of King Solomon.

The Merkava was designed soon after the Yom Kippur War (1973). The Israelis initially wanted to acquire Chieftains from Great Britain, but the British Government decided in 1969 to cancel any weapon deliveries to Israel, and therefore the project was halted. This prompted the designing of a local tank, which would become the Merkava. The first prototype was ready in 1974, heavily drawing on lessons learned from the 1973 October War. In short, the Merkava was the embodiment of the ideal MBT for Tsahal. Combining speed, endurance, firepower and accuracy with high survivability requirements and an emphasis put on crew protection.

Development history

After the plans were ready by 1974, construction of several prototypes began. All were briefly tested before a stage of complete modifications, performed by the brand new Tel HaShomer ordnance depot, which was specially tailored around the Merkava. The "Merkava" (derived from ancient Hebrew word meaning "chariot"), was also the name of the entire domestic tank project since 1973 and saw nearly a full year of development before a full-scale production could be started in 1977. By then, it was made public in May, and the official acceptance into service with Tsahal was ratified in December 1978, when the first series had been delivered. The design, development, and assembly of the Mk.I and subsequent modernized series were performed by MANTAK arsenal along with IDF Ordnance Corps and other contractors. Systems integration, including sights and weaponry, were performed by Israel Military Industries (IMI).

The Merkava design

At first, the Merkava’s most striking aspect was its rearwards turret, a feature more common in SPGs than MBTs. But the positioning of the engine at the front was a deliberate attention to crew protection, as it participates in the frontal defense of the fighting compartment. Second, this compartment was exceptionally roomy, allowing several infantrymen and their equipment to embark. The rear two-hatch door was another originality, allowing fast evacuation by the crew, as well as an APC-style access which was found very useful during the Lebanon campaign. The drive train and suspension was largely inspired by the British Centurion and the tracks were directly derived from it. The diesel engine provided, to a 65-ton vehicle, a good power-to-weight ratio and enough mobility on soft grounds. Many other solutions were borrowed from existing systems, thus allowing it to fulfill two of the initial specifications: cost-effectiveness and easy maintenance and repair on the battlefield. The drive train was made of six road wheels, one rear idler wheel, one front drive sprocket and three return rollers per side. The turret was large but low, narrow and triangular in shape, presenting the absolute minimal surface from the front.

Merkava III Dor Dalet BAZ Kasag
Merkava III Dor Dalet BAZ Kasag

The Merkava Mark I

The engine was a 900 hp (670 kW) diesel, locally built by Urdan Industries, which gave, at first, a power-to-weight ratio of 14 bhp/ton. Its main armament comprised an M68 105 mm (4.13 in) gun, a derivative of the British L7 Ordnance AT gun. Secondary armament comprised two 7.62 mm (0.3 in) machine-guns of US design and a third heavy .50 caliber could be mounted on top of the commander cupola, both for added firepower in urban combat and AA defense. An external 60 mm (2.36 in) mortar could be fired by an operator partly from inside the hull. The Merkava Mark I was produced to an extent of 250 machines when deliveries stopped in 1981.

It was found fully involved in the 1982 Lebanon War and the lessons learned quickly led to the revision of some aspects of the design. At first, the mortar position was relocated in a more remote position. Second, a weak spot was found beneath the rear of the turret bustle, resulting in jamming the turret completely. This "shot trap" was eliminated by modifying this part of the turret. Third, the turret's rear protection against RPGs and fragmentation projectiles was greatly improved by adding chain netting. All these modifications were performed in 1982-83 while the Mark II was introduced. Most Mk.I are now (as of 2013) placed into the reserve forces.

The Merkava Mark II

The Mk. II retained the 105 mm (4.13 in) M68 gun, which was well-proven in 1973. In a general way, the Mk.II was first introduced in April 1983, included from the factory all the improvements learned during the Lebanon war. Emphasis was put on urban warfare and low-intensity conflicts, but general specifications remained unchanged. The new mortar was now completely internal and can fire remotely to avoid exposure of any crew member to small arms fire in a reduced environment. The new, rear part of the turret included an anti-rocket (mostly RPGs) netting and recently discovered "shot traps" were fixed. Protection was made of spaced, rolled homogeneous armor. The transmission was now fully automatic, including a more efficient regime depending on the situation and an increased fuel capacity. The fire control systems (FCS) were given attention, with a general upgrade including meteorological sensors, crosswind analyzers, which all fed the central FCS computer. The electronic sights were also upgraded, with a more finely tuned image amplification and better thermographic optics.

The Mk. II production was more extensive (580), and stopped in 1989. However, the series was upgraded in several steps and remains in service today.
- The Mk. IIB received even more refined thermal optics and many updates to their fire control system
- The Mk. IIC received an increase in armor on the turret top, both for AA protection and in urban warfare, against RPGs fired from building rooftops
- The Mk. IID featured a modular, brand new composite armor (highly classified composition) for easier maintenance and repair.

The Merkava Mk. III

The Merkava III Dor Dalet BAZ Kasag, latest improvement of the Merkava

The MkIII was introduced in December 1989 and production ran until 2002, with a total of 780 being produced by MANTAK (Merkava Tank Office), together with no less than 16 subcontractors, locals like IMI (gun and ammo), Urdan Industries (powertrain, transmission and hull), Soltam (mortar), Elta (sensors & optics), Elbit (FCS and electronics), Tadiran (turret and hull internal equipments), El-Op, Elisra and Astronautics (optics, laser warning systems), Rafael Advanced Defense Systems (active protection and remotely operated machine-guns), L-3 Communication Combat Propulsion Systems (main engine and transmission), Urdan (mine-roller/dozer kits) or foreign like Motorola, DuPont, FN Herstal, or Bental Industries in other areas.

This new machine came with two major improvements. The IMI 120 mm (4.72 in) gun, a smoothbore capable of firing upgraded "intelligent" ammunition like the LAHAT ATGM and a much more powerful diesel engine, a license-based MTU turbodiesel giving 1,200 horsepower (890 kW), and a new transmission. The weight rose to 35 tons, but the maximum cruising speed also rose to 60 km/h (37 mph). Another important change was the new turret-driving system, which was now completely independent of the hull, allowing target-focusing while on the move. During the 90s other improvements were added during production, including an external telephone at the rear for close infantry support, improved and safer ammunition storage containers, laser designators and Kasag modular armor system (Mk. IIIB). The latter was improved in the early 2000s, but as always, details are classified.

The Mark III BAZ (contraction of Barak Zoher) was a set of improvements applied in 1995 on the oldest series, comprising a new composite armor (Mk. IIID), upgraded FCS components and improved tracking system from EL-OP and Elbit Ltd allowing to engage several moving targets while on the move, NBC protection, and a better, locally built air conditioning system.The Mark III Dor Dalet (fourth generation) pioneered improvements which would become standardized with the Mark IV. Introduced in the early 2000s, these comprised new Caterpillar tracks, and the R-OWS system (Rafael Overhead Weapon Station), a remote-controlled turret mounted machine-gun.

Contemporary Merkava: The Mk. IV

The Merkava IV, for which development began in 1999, was first revealed in an October publication of Bamachaneh and put into service in 2004. This is the most recent addition to the series and is scheduled also for a scaled-down production. 260 have been delivered as far as 2012, 300 more will probably be added by 2025-2030. They include the modifications previously adopted on the BAZ and Dor Dalet, with the Mk. IIID protection. The first major change came from the gun, the improved MG253, upgraded to fire the latest ammunition types, including the APFDS sabot ammunition. The 12.7 mm (0.5 in) main machine-gun is also improved and fires longer and heavier HE rounds.

The Mk.IV has the latest improvements of modular removable armor so far developed with the Mk.IIID, with the addition of the El-Op Knight Mk.IV fire control system, capable to deal with air threats as well like AT helicopters. Coupled with Elbit BMS (Battle Management System), interaction and awareness of the battlefield are also greatly improved. Protection is increased on vulnerable parts for increasing urban warfare efficiency, including to the turret roof, and the belly, in a "v" shape to cope with landmines and better deflecting the blast.

Ammunition protection was also increased by giving a fireproof individual protection to all rounds and removed for sensitive areas. None is actually stored in the turret. To confuse enemy gunners, heat deflection systems are used, borrowed from the IAI Lavi development program. The Tracks, now of the TSAWS-type have also an improved durability of the harshest terrains. Lately, the MkIV also displayed the Trophy active protection system, which is its latest upgrade. Replacement for the Merkava is not scheduled before 2020.

Variant of the Merkava

The Merkava LIC (Low-Intensity Conflict)

This "kit" was designed for urban warfare, includes a remotely operated 12.7 mm turret. Its optics, exhaust ports and ventilators are protected by a metal mesh. Pole markers with LED tips and a rear camera improve all-angle and night vision for the crew.

The Merkava Tankbulance

The roomy hull with capacity for 6 extra passengers has already been tested for ambulance tasks in combat and led to the modification of some tanks (one for each battalion) especially for this purpose. These are internally modified to carry injured personnel, taken in hands by a small team equipped with stretchers and a life support medical station. The tank remains fully operative at the same time, with the sole disadvantage of carrying less ammunition.

The Merkava IFV Namer

Namer means "Leopard" and is, at the same time, the contracted acronym for Nagmash Merkava, or "APC" Merkava. The turret is removed and the cabin completely revamped to carry 9 infantrymen and their equipment. Armament is comprised of an M2 heavy 50 cal. Mg, a remotely-operated RCWS Mk19 Grenade launcher or the MAG (also remotely operated) 7.62 machine-gun and the usual 60 mm mortar. The Nemmera (Leopardess) is an armored recovery variant. The Sholef is a 155 mm howitzer SPG variant built by Soltam in 1984-86, which remained at prototype stage (2 delivered).

The Merkava in action

As it came into production the Camp David peace treaty seemed to settle the territorial dispute and the lack of immediate threats from Syria, Jordan and Egypt allowed some relief of tensions. But soon the Abu Nidal Organization assassination urged the IDF to invade Southern Lebanon, both to deal with PLO active cells and with Syrian influence over the area. Centurion and older models then formed the bulk of the armored forces, but the Merkava made its debuts and immediately outperformed the T-62. The war ended in May 1983 and led Tsahal to increase its tank survivability in urban warfare, but shifted into a border conflict which lasted until 1985, after a progressive withdrawal. Latest modifications proved it was immune to the RPG-7 and, most importantly, to the AT-3 Sagger. Later, they were engaged during the Second Intifada (2002) and the 2006 Lebanon War, dealing with the Hezbollah, now armed with a great array of modern AT equipment (over 1000 missiles were fired at Merkava tanks).

The war left 5 tanks destroyed (two Mk. IV) and 40 damaged, but later salvaged and repaired. The Russian AT-14 "Kornet" proved the most lethal against Mk. II/III models, but Tsahal declared it was satisfied by the Mk. IV performances. The casualty number after tank penetration remained low, an average 2 to 1.5. This was confirmed during the Gaza War, with no casualty so far, mostly the result of revised tactics and better training for asymmetric warfare. Furthermore, since 2010, the Trophy active protection system is being introduced gradually to improve the Mk. IV survivability against the most advanced HEAT missiles, which was proven on March 1st, 2011 near the Gaza border.

Merkava Mk. IV specifications

Dimensions (L-W-H) 8.63m (7.45m without gun) x 3.7m x 2.75m (28'3" (24'4") x 12'1" x 9'
Total weight, battle ready 65 tons
Crew 4 (driver, commander, gunner, loader) + 6 troops
Propulsion 12-cyl 1500 hp (1120 kW) turbocharged diesel
Suspension Helical Spring
Top Speed road/off-road 64/55 km/h (40/34 mph).
Operational maximum range 500 km at medium speed (310 mi)
Armament 120mm (4.7in) SB MG253 with LAHAT ATGM capacity 1xCal.50 (12,7 mm) and 2x7.62mm mod. remote 1x60mm (2.4in ) internal mortar
Armor Classified composite and sloped design
Production Around 500 Mk.IV built as of 2013


Merkava Mk.I
Merkava Mk.I. Designed in the late seventies. The first Merkava was loosely based on the British Centurion, which was highly regarded by Tsahal. It incorporated all the advances in modern weaponry, electronics, armor and an added emphasis put on protection. For this, the Merkava has an unusual configuration of a forward engine vehicle, and is unusually roomy as well.

Merkava Mk.II
A late version Merkava Mk. II during the Lebanon War, 1984. The olive green livery was customary for armored units operating in the north of the country and along the Syrian border, and sand beige for southern units.

Merkava Mk.III
Merkava Mk.III in early configuration (1990). Side panels protected the turret and the general armor layout was similar to the Mk. IID.

Merkava Mk.IV
Merkava Mk.IV from the 118th Tank Battalion in beige livery, 2008. The Mk. IV is the latest (2004) and arguably the best MBT in the Near East. Production is scheduled to last until 2020, before a replacement would be needed. This project will be completely new and will end the long line of "Chariots" in service with Tsahal.
Merkava MkI at Latrun
Merkava II at Latrun
Merkava III
Merkava III Baz
Merkava IV at Yad La-Shiron museum
Merkava Mark IV in operations
Credits Michael Mass


Merkava YouTube video channel

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