Israeli IDF Merkava Main Battle Tank

In 1970, stimulated by lessons learned in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, by the Soviet sale of T-62 tanks to Arab countries, and by the failure of a program with the UK to develop an advanced tank, Israel began the development of an indigenous tank-building capacity. Israel Defense Forces (IDF) General Israel Tal, considered one of the greatest tank commanders in history, led the development team. Their work became Israel's Merkava (Chariot) tank, the Main Battle Tank of the IDF.

Merkava Mk 4.  Photo courtesy Israel Defense Forces
Merkava Mk 4. Photo courtesy Israel Defense Forces.

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History of the Israeli IDF Merkava Main Battle Tank

In May 1977 Israel announced the Merkava (Chariot) Main Battle Tank and delivered the first model in April 1979. The Merkava has evolved since its initial development through six models and variants (Mark 1b, 2, 2b, 3, 3b, and 4). The main time line is:

  • Merkava Mk 1 (1979) 105mm gun
  • Merkava Mk 2 (1983) 900hp engine
  • Merkava Mk 3 (1990) 120mm smoothbore gun, modular armor, 1,200hp engine
  • Merkava Mk 3B (1995)
  • Merkava Mk 4 (2002) advanced 120mm gun, 1500hp diesel engine

In addition to gaining firepower, each new model had improved armor protection and crew survivability, larger engine and stronger power train, advanced fire control, advanced NBC (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) protection, and other improvements. As new models enter service, older Merkavas are deployed to reserve brigades of the IDF.

Description and Characteristics of the Merkava Tank

The primary characteristics of the Merkava, as delineated by the IDF description of the tank, are:

  • A high-degree of survivability - achieved via modular armor, and augmented by the use of systems for ballistic protection. Examples of this include: the placement of the engine in the front of the tank, and the storage of ammunition in fire-proof containers;
  • Can be used to transport infantry forces.
  • Rear door;
  • 60 millimeter mortar as a secondary source of firepower;
  • Mechanical suspension system which enables a high degree of maneuverability even in difficult terrain, i.e., the Golan Heights.

The Merkava tank's innovative design starts with the engine in front to protect the crew. The basic load for the main gun was 85 rounds but rear doors opened to allow access to a series of ammunition racks holding an additional 200 rounds to facilitate rapid resupply. The tank has sloped sides to repel projectiles as well as reactive armor. In urban combat the Merkava would often sustain multiple hits from RPG-type weapons without damage or crew casualties.

By removing the ammunition racks, the Merkava carries an infantry squad of ten under full armor protection. Tactical use has included positioning a Merkava at the point of entry to a building, using the main gun to breech the wall, then dismounting the squad. The tank can back up to the hole it just created to allow the infantry to dismount directly into the breech.

The Merkava is not invulnerable and Israel's enemies have learned to defeat it. The first such incident was on 14 February 2002 when Palestinians lured a Merkava into a trap and destroyed it with an 80kg bomb, killing the crew. In the Lebanon-Hezbollah war of 2006, powerful anti-tank missiles, RPG-29s and IED weapons were able to destroy Merkavas.

Multiple Uses of the IDF Merkava

The capability of the Merkava to serve as an Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) has been put to use in other ways. The Merkava has been configured to be an ambulance, able to recover and transport wounded soldiers under fire, or used as a command post. Variants mounting heavy machine guns are used in urban situations instead of main gun rounds. Another variant of the Merkava chassis serves as an armor recovery vehicle, capable of towing a disabled tank.

Specifications of the Israeli IDF Merkava Mk 4 Main Battle Tank

Crew 4 (driver, commander, gunner, loader)
Weight 62,000 kg (68.3 tons)
Height 2.66 m (8.73 ft) to turret roof
Width 3.72 m (12.2 ft) w/o skirts
Length 9.04 m (29.66 ft) w/gun forward
Engine V-12 diesel
Horsepower 1,500
Road speed 60 km/hr (37.3 mi/hr)
Range 500 km (310.7 mi)

Armament of the Merkava Mk 4 consists of its 120mm smoothbore main gun (an advanced version of the 120mm gun introduced with the Merkava Mk 3), a 60mm mortar and a 7.62mm machine gun.

Merkava Mk 1.  Photo courtesy Israel Defense Forces
Merkava Mk 1. Photo courtesy Israel Defense Forces

Merkava Mk 3.  Photo courtesy Israel Defense Forces
Merkava Mk 3. Photo courtesy Israel Defense Forces.

Merkava Mk 4 visited by Chief of Staff, Lt.-Gen Moshe Yaalon, 5 October 2005.  Photo courtesy Israel Defense Forces
Merkava Mk 4 visited by Chief of Staff, Lt.-Gen Moshe Yaalon, 5 October 2005. Photo courtesy Israel Defense Forces.

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