The Israeli Merkava Tank Background and Development
After World War 2, the British Army was no longer able to control Palestine and passed the responsibility to the UN who decided to divide the country into Jewish and Islamic states. A bitter war broke out with Arab countries not wanting a Jewish state created. Jewish forces had started to invade Arab villages clearing them of Arab’s and expanding their designated 55% of Palestine territory to 78%, prompting military intervention from the Arab League. When a ceasefire was called in 1948 the UN recognised the new Israeli state, but it had made enemies with its neighbouring Arab/Islamic countries.
Not in a position to develop a new indigenous tank, Israel purchased all the second hand tanks & ARV’s it could lay its hands on. It showed great skill in adapting and up-grading them such as the old WW2 Sherman and by 1958 were purchasing old British Centurion tanks and up-grading them too the Sho’t. by the 1960’s Israel was attempting to develop its own MBT, but instead struck a deal to build under licence the new Chieftain Mk4, which was built to Israeli specifications. However The British Ministry of Foreign Affairs saw that the deal was cancelled and in late 1969 the prototypes were returned to the UK.
The Israeli Defence Force had learnt the value a tank fleet could bring to the battlefield during the Six Day War of 1967, especially by a General Israel Tal, who went on to organise the tank doctrine of Israel, as well as organise its armoured corps, who started to press forward with the development of a new indigenous MBT.
In the short term, Israel started to purchase US M48 & M60’s during the late 60’s/early 70’s. These over a period of time were up-graded by Israel and were known as the Magach series, which went on to fight during The Yom Kippur War of 1973. They suffered heavy losses including the crews as a design flaw of running the explosive hydraulic lines used to power the turrets movement, were run along the front of the turret and would destroy the tank when hit.
It was the loss of crews that had the greatest influence on General TaI’s doctrine, that protection of the crew remained the highest priority with future indigenous tank design. By 1974 the Israel Military Industries Ltd (AKA – IMI) design was chosen. It was unveiled to the public in 1977 as final production of the new Merkava was under taken by the Israel Ordnance Corps at the refurbished Tel-Hashomer ordnance depot. It entered service with the Israeli Defence Force in 1979.
A Chariot is born… The Merkava Tank
Despite other Western Tanks adopting 120mm main gun, the Merkava (AKA the Mk1) was fitted with the M64 L71A tank gun, (firing APDS, HEAT, HESH, Phosphorous and APFSDS ammunition) 105mm for two main reasons. Firstly the turret was triangular, making it harder to hit during frontal attack, in compliance with General Tal’s doctrine, that protection remained the highest priority. If a 120mm cannon was installed then the triangular shape would have been far less effective. Secondly for logistical and supply purposes, as the existing Sho’t and Magach’s also were equipped with the same cannon, so therefore could all use the same ammunition. It had a fire control system made up of a computer, laser range finder and thermal/passive night vision. It could store up to 62 rounds of 105mm ammo, with 6 stored in a ready to fire magazine.
A 7.62mm coaxial Machine Gun is inserted into a vertical armoured slit with a MG mounted on the commander’s turret and a third on the loader’s hatch for close encounters and anti-aircraft role. The vehicle was also equipped with a 60mm mortar externally mounted.
Other than its triangular shaped turret, the vehicle had a number of other unique design features. Rather than the diesel engine being located at the rear of the vehicle, it was placed in the front, so that it acted as a physical barrier from a frontal incoming round hitting the turrets fighting compartment, which was now moved further back in to the hull, which in turn increased protection of the crew. It also meant that the vehicle had a rear compartment which could carry a small number of armed soldiers which would exit through an armoured door at the rear of the vehicle. The crew also had access to the compartment and rather than escape through the top hatch’s of the turret, exposing them to enemy fire or fire from the vehicle burning (heat and flames rise) they could escape safely through the rear door, using the disabled tank as protection from further enemy fire as they retreated to friendly forces.
Though the vehicle used a basic laminated armour, by placing the vehicles systems between the outer skin and the fighting compartment the designers had created a form of spaced armour increasing crew protection. A good example is the fuel tanks run along both sides of the hull between the outer skin and fighting compartment. Munitions were also stored in the spaced armoured area’s, so they weren’t in the fighting compartment with the crew and were generally stored in heat resistant protected containers (one container per four 105mm rounds). It was also fitted with an NBC protection system.
With any tank doctrine, there is always one characteristic of its survivability that has to be lacking and with the Merkava it was its mobility in favour of superior protection and firepower. It was powered by the Teledyne Continental (the company was bought by GDLS in 1996) AVDS-1790-6A 900 hp V12air-cooled diesel engine with a semi automatic CD850-6BX Allison transmission, providing a power to weight ration of 14.5hp/ton and a top road speed of 46 km/h. It had an operational range of 400km. Compared to other modern MBT’s it had lesser trench crossing, vertical obstacles etc capabilities and weighted in at 63 tons.
Production ended in 1982 with a final number of 250. It served with distinction in the 1982 Lebanon War, with no losses of crew and only a few incidents of the engine being knocked out by frontal attacks, but were fixed in the field. It went up against the Syrian’s T-72’s and in one incident, penetrated the frontal armour and cooked off the ammo, leaving the T-72 to burn.
The Merkava Mk 2 Tank
Despite the Mk 1’s success in the Lebanon War, it did show up a number of area’s that needed to be addressed/up-graded which were added to the Mk 2 design which had been drawn up, when the Mk 1 had entered production. The Mk 2 entered production in 1983 which saw the addition of some new armour to the turret, which is often referred to as ‘special’. Comparing pictures of the Mk 2 to the Mk 1, it looks like the thickness had been increased along the sides of the turret, which could have been further laminate armour containing a new ceramic, hence ‘special’. The side skirts were replaced with new thicker ones (possibly ‘special’ armour) and a cage was added to the rear of the turret where heavy chains were attached to protect the rear from RPG’s and shots, which could jam the turret from moving.
The primary and secondary weapons weren’t up-graded except for the 60mm mortar. It was mounted with in the vehicle and set up to be operated with in the vehicle, protecting the operate from small arms fire.
The fire control system was up-dated bring it on-line with the Magach series. It was fitted with new meteorological sensors and crosswind analyzers to make adjustments to the main cannon when fired to increase accuracy. The sights were up-graded with new thermal and passive night equipment. The transmission was up-graded to the Ashot Ashkelon hydro mechanical automatic transmission, which had 4 gears and increased the operational range to 500km.
The vehicle finished production in 1989 after 580 were manufactured. It served through out the Lebanon occupation and 2006 war.
The Mk 2 received up-grades and were re-designated:
Mark 2B – thermal optics and unspecified updates to the fire control system.
Mark 2C – additional armour to the top of the turret to improve protection against attack from the air.
Mark 2D – modular armour on the hull and turret.
However the Mk 2’s 105 mm main cannon could not be upgraded to the Mk3’s 120 mm.
The Merkava Mk 3 Tank
As the successor to the Mk 2 (entering production in 1990) it presented a large number of significant improvements to the series, allowing it to become the backbone of the Israeli armoured corps with 750 built when production ended in 2003.
The most obvious up-grade was the introduction of the 120mm Calibre Length44 smoothbore main gun by IMI, which can be identified by the larger fume extractor in the centre of the cannon, which has no straps running across it, unlike the previous rifled cannons fume extractor, which did. It is enclosed in a thermal sleeve for increased accuracy. Since then Israel has also developed and manufacturing its own HEAT and APFSDS rounds which are NATO compatible. The Mk 3 is able to store 46 120mm rounds, of which, 5 are ready in a mechanical drum, the rest are stored in heat proof containers which hold 1 120mm round per container.
Mobility wise, the vehicles weight had increased to 65 tons, so a new Teledyne Continental AVDS-1790-9AR 1200 hp V12 air-cooled diesel engine was installed (retaining the same transmission as the Mk 2) and new suspension, providing an increased power to weight ration of 18.5 hp/ton and increased road speed to 60 km/h.
The Mk 3 went through a number of armour up-grades, focusing around the use of modular design (a box bolted to the side of the vehicle and different ceramics/materials are inserted and can be as easily replaced with newer materials). The original Mk 3 used Kasag modular armour and the Mk 3B was also up-graded with an unspecified type.
Mk 3 BAZ –
was the most visually significant up-grade which entered production in 1995. A large number of modules were added to the hull across the engine top and sides. Modules were added to the sides, front and top of the turret to protect against top attack ATM’s & air strikes.
Mk 3D –
This vehicle introduced the Mk 3’s ‘forth generation’ armour. Extra armour was added to the chassis, as well as further modules to the turret sides, making them look sloped.
The Mk 3 has also gone through a number of electrical and electronic up-grades to increase crew survivability. The hydraulic turret drive on the Mk 1 & 2 was replaced with an electrical drive on the Mk 3, reducing the number of parts that could explode if struck. A laser warning system, (lasers being used as the targeting system of ATM’s and air-craft) with a threat warning display installed at the commander’s station and manufactured by Amcoram LWS-2, was also installed. The NBC system was also up-graded with the addition of air-conditioning in the BAZ.
An external telephone for supporting troops was also added to the rear of the vehicle so they could communicate with the tank crew.
The BAZ also saw a new advanced fire control system installed called ‘Knight Mk 3’. Manufactured by Electro Optics Industries and Elbit Ltd, it gave the vehicle the ability to engage moving targets while on the move via the use of an automatic target tracker.
The last variant was the Dor-Dalet, which had newly designed tracks (by Israel) and manufactured by the US firm CAT. It also had a small number of improvements being tested for the next Mk in the series.
Merkava Mk 3 LIC
(Low Intensity Conflict) provides a number of up-grades, most featured on the Mk 4. It gives a rear camera so the driver can see as he reverses, the coaxial is beefed with a .50 cal, the exhaust ports, sights and ventilators, are all protected by a newly-developed high-strength metal mesh to protect against attack, and finally rubber whip pole-markers with LED tips to improve navigation and manoeuvrability in an urban environments.
The Merkava Mk 4 Tank
This vehicle with its new slopping shaped turret has seen some extensive up-grading from all previous Mk’s and true to Israeli tank development, has yet again introduced some unique features that other countries are yet to adopt.
The Mk 4 turret design has done away with the traditional shape (vertical frontal & side plating, horizontal top) with a new front slope that spreads out over the top and sides. Combined with its modules and the removal of the operators cupola, the new design has a greater armoured coverage compared to other turret designs.
The new shape with its modules containing the IDF’s new ceramic/material mix has further enhanced protection of the upper turret from the more modern threat of top-attack missiles rather than traditional tank on tank engagements. Continuing with the protection from modern threats, the greatest being the IED, rather than attaching a heavy metal belly plate, the vehicle uses a modular belly plate, allowing for ceramic/material’s offering better protection than just steel to be used. The rear of the turret is protected with the same system as other Mk’s, a storage rack acting as bar armour and chains with heavy balls.
It’s had a complete digitalisation overhaul with a new battle field management system by Elbit Systems, which provides rapid communications networking between command and its subordinate units. It enables mission planning, navigation, updating of situational awareness and can also record data for mission debriefing via the Vectop digital data recorder. Each member of the crew has an individual flat-panel colour display showing the status of his systems. It also displays the view of his respective sight.
It’s sighting equipment has been up-dated with the Vectop Tank Sight System, which is made up of a number of new camera’s built in to armoured box’s. These are mounted around the vehicle, providing a full 360° view of its immediate surroundings, providing a direct feed to the crews flat-panel colour display’s. The commander also has a new independent sight for hunter killer capability. All sights are day/night stabilized. It has an improved threat warning display, detecting laser designation and launch/incoming missiles.
The new fire control system is the Knight Mark 4 and with its up-graded automatic tracking ability, is able to track and engage anti-tank helicopters, as it can now fire the Line Of Sight LAHAT missile from the main cannon! which also doubles up as an anti-tank missile.
The main cannon has been replaced with an improved locally manufactured version of the L44 used on the Mk 3. which is said to generate superior muzzle velocity over its predecessor, the breech is also said to have been up-graded. The loader now has a new electrically operated 10P Revolving Magazine. He can now load the breech from the fully automated, fireproof revolving magazine, which stores up to 10 ready rounds, and has four types of ammunition for selection, such as HEAT, APFSDS and the new APAM round which disperses sub-munition shrapnel at defined intervals, covering a wide lethal area against soft targets such as anti-tank troops. It’s reported that each fragment is shaped to have enough kinetic energy to penetrate conventional body armour, or other such materials.
The co-axel MG has been replaced with a .50cal, which has proven more effective at engaging technical (improvised fighting vehicle’s i.e. a 4×4). The commander’s MG is now mounted in the centre of the turret and operated under armour. Other defence improvements is the use of exterior non-reflective paints to confuse laser designators, and shielding for engine heat plumes mixing with air particles to confuse enemy thermal imagers.
The mobility of the vehicle has also been improved with a new engine that is manufactured by General Dynamics (their designation – GD883) and was developed by German firm MTU (their designation – MTU883). It’s a V12 water-cooled diesel generating 1500 hp and coupled with its Renk RK325 hydro mechanical automatic, 5 gear transmission, which provides an increased power to weight ratio of 23 hp/ton and a new top road speed of 64 km/h.
Another interesting area of development has been the addition of a frontal mounted rammer which gives the vehicle the ability to safely knock down obstructions and avoid damage to the main gun or sighting equipment. A pre-installed tow chain harness is also used, so that Mk 4’s can recover and tow another disabled tank to safety without having to wait for an ARV.
Development of the Mk 4 started in 1999, production in 2003 and entered service in 2004. Currently the IDF field 220 and numbers could reach 520, the first vehicles replacing units still fielding the Magach MBT.
The Mk 4’s début on to the battlefield was in the 2006 South Lebanon conflict. The vehicles protection was tested to the limit during the conflict and has lead many to question the vehicles success. The reality is that the Mk 4 received a level of attack by more modern & advanced tandem charged ATM’s, un-matched by any other modern Western MBT and therefore was going to have more casualties allowing people to question its success. Hezbollah had spent time amassing fortifications and weapons including – RPG-29 ‘Vampir’, AT-5 ‘Konkurs’, AT-13 ‘Metis-M’, and AT-14 ‘Kornet’ missiles. It’s reported that 50 Merkava’s where struck and damaged by these weapons (a further 2 were struck by IED’s). Of the 52 damaged, 18 were Mk 4’s, of which 5 had their armour penetrated and 10 crew were killed. Of the 18 damaged, 16 were repaired and returned to service, with 2 beyond repair.
The IDF’s use of modular armour, considering with its “telescopic development” process (continued development on lessons and feedback from users, rather than the slower operational testing processes) will no doubt be able to develop and deploy with ease a further superior ceramic tile mix to better combat these types of weapons. Plans are already in place to introduce the Israeli Trophy Protection system to the Mk 4, which detects and intercepts ATM’s.
The Merkava’s design of having the engine forward mounted so that it allows for a rear infantry compartment has further expanded the use of the tank. Other than allowing for an infantry men to monitor the rear of the vehicle through a small fire portal in the door (Mk 4) and to carry supporting infantry, (essential for urban warfare so they can work together to clear enemy threats) it doubles up as an armoured ambulance. The compartment for these vehicles is modified with attachments for two stretchers, lighting equipment and mountings for intensive care equipment, including controlled ventilation, oxygen, suction, IV and monitoring gear. The ambulance-tank enables the evacuation of two wounded soldiers on field stretchers, accompanied by two medical personnel and has already proved its worth on Mk 3’s in the Gaza strip.
The Merkava Mk 4m Windbreaker
The Merkava Mk 4m Windbreaker is a Merkava Mk 4 equipped with the Trophy active protection system (APS) designated “Meil Ruach” (Hebrew: מעיל רוח; “Windbreaker” or “Wind Coat”). The Trophy APS whilst mounted on the Merkava is combat proven and successfully intercepted RPG rounds and anti-tank guided missiles fired at the Merkava.