Merkava Tank (Hebrew for Chariot) was the first indigenous Main Battle Tank to be developed and manufactured in Israel. Its unique design and layout came about from lessons learnt in Arab-Israeli Wars and further perfected over the years into 4 distinct Marks (Mk).
As of 2015 The Merkava Mk 2 are in Reserve Units of the Israeli Defence Force and scheduled to be converted in to Namer APC, whilst the Mk 3 and Mk 4 are still in front line service with the Israeli Defence Force, with the latter still being in production.
Merkava Tank Development
Prior to the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel had acquired a number of surplus tanks from other countries such as the American M48/M60 Patton series and British Centurion. Israel proved at being very adept at upgrading these tanks and installing common shared parts, such as engines and a 105mm main gun (to save on logistics and training) but still required a modern Main Battle Tank it could locally manufacturer.
In the UK, The British army was taking delivery of its new Chieftain Main Battle Tank, entering service in 1966. Israel began to work with the UK in developing a Chieftain model adapted for the needs of the IDF and tailored for fighting in the local hot terrain that could be built under licence.
2 prototypes (known as the Mk 4) were delivered to Israel, but threats made to the UK of oil embargos by Israel’s Arab neighbours who were concerned about Israel having such a powerful tank saw the UK withdraw from the project and both prototypes were returned in 1969.
In 1973 the Yom Kippur War broke out. Despite Israel winning, it lost large numbers of Patton Tanks to Egyptian operated, Russian supplied Sagger Wire Guided Anti-Tank Missiles.
Whilst tanks could be replaced the greatest loss to Israel was that of well-trained and experienced tank crews.
Shortly after the war’s end General Israel Tal of the Israeli Defence Force commenced on a new program for an indigenous Main Battle Tank to be developed and manufactured in Israel.
Merkava Tank Prototypes
Between 1974 and 1977 a number of concept prototypes, wooden mock ups, testing platforms and working prototypes for trials were completed. The British Centurion Tank designated as the “Sho’t” which had been a great success for the IDF in both the Six-Day War and Yom Kippur War played a key role in this stage of Merkava development.
The Merkava design and layout was simple but unconventional for a Main Battle Tank, the engine compartment was moved to the front of the hull, the turret was set backwards and an infantry compartment with a door was added to the hull rear. This insured the greatest level of protection for the crew and their evacuation if the armor was compromised.
An early example of this layout is on display at the Yad la-Shiryon Museum in Israel in the form of a converted Sho’t. The hull top was modified to look like a Merkava (or what the designers thought it would at that stage) and the turret was mounted on the front, which represented the rear. This converted tank served no other use as the main gun could not be positioned to fire.
Another Sho’t hull was also photographed having a wooden mock-up of the Merkava turret, hull top and sides fitted to it.
Other photographs have emerged that show the hull was most probably built first and M48 Patton turrets were added during trials.
The Merkava was accepted into IDF service in late 1978.
Merkava Tank Firepower
Israel was a licensed manufacturer of the American M68 105mm Rifled main gun (itself a licence built version of the British L7) which it was retrofitting into its Centurion Sho’t and Patton Magach tanks. The M68 was chosen for the Merkava main gun and was capable of firing several types of ammunition also manufactured in Israel by IMI.
Secondary weapons included a 7.62mm coaxial Machine gun and a second mounted on the cupola. A 60mm mortar was carried.
Merkava Tank Protection
The Merkava was constructed in rolled homogeneous steel of varying thickness. The frontal engine compartment acted as a form of spaced armor and the engine a physical block. The driver was off set to the left of the engine compartment reducing the chance of him being hit. Additional storage compartments were set in the turret and hull sides acting as spaced armor.Steel plates were also added as protective side skirts.
The turret and hull front were also sloped to help in defeating ATGM. The 3 man turret crew (Commander, Gunner and Loader) had access to the rear troop compartment (which held six infantry) and could exit the rear of the vehicle using the tank as cover as they ran to following vehicles.
Merkava Tank Mobility
The Merkava used imported and locally used components associated with mobility, namely an American 900 hp Teledyne Continental engine and Allison transmission as well as tracks used on the Centurion Sho’t tank.
Now known as the Merkava Mk 1, the tank entered service in 1978 and was first fielded in 1979. It has been deployed during several conflicts, the first being the 1982 Lebanon War. Serving not only as an Main Battle Tank, its troop compartment allowed it to be used as an ambulance to rescue injured troops.
It served throughout the campaigns in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank of the 1980’s to 90’s. Production of the Mk 1 ended in 1982 with a total of 250 built. Production was replaced with the Merkava Mk 2 which was an improved version of the Mk 1 following lessons learnt in the 1982 Lebanon War.
It was gradually phased out of service as the Mk 3 and Mk 4 entered IDF service. It was not exported.
Merkava Tank Specifications
|Main Gun||105mm Rifled|
|Secondary Weapons||x1 coaxial 7.62mm MG, x1 7.62mm MG, x1 60mm Mortar|
|Ammunition Storage||x62 105mm, x10,000 7.62mm|
|Engine||908hp Teledyne Continental AVDS-1790-6A V12 air-cooled diesel|
|Transmission||Allison CD850-6BX semi-automatic|
|Top Road Speed||46 km/h|
|Road Range||400 km|
|Fuel Capacity||1,250 Litres|
|Water Capability||1.38m (2m with preparation)|
|Length Gun Forward||8.63m|
|Height||2.64m (cupola 2.75m)|
|Weight||60,000kg aka 60 tonne (combat)|
|Armor Type||Spaced / Steel|
|Active Protection Systems||No|
|Troops Carried||6 Max|