The Buzz

The Merkava Tank: How Israel Plans to Crush Any Army, Anytime

Mobility was the lowest of the three priorities for the Israeli tank, and the tank used just a nine-hundred-horsepower diesel engine to power a sixty-three-ton hull, for a horsepower-to-weight ratio of 14.5 to one. As a result the Merkava had a relatively sluggish top speed of just twenty-eight miles an hour. (This was in contrast to the American M1 Abrams, which had a set top speed of forty-five miles an hour and had a horsepower-to-weight ratio of twenty-five to one.) Given that Israel is just 263 miles across at its widest point, it’s hard to argue with making mobility the lowest priority.

The new tank, known as Merkava (“Chariot”) was unveiled in May 1979. The tank was unlike anything fielded by other armies, particularly the United States and Soviet Union. The Merkava first saw action in 1982, when it fought Soviet-made Syrian T-72 tanks in the Bekaa Valley. Merkavas destroyed several eight T-72s at ranges of up to four thousand meters, without loss to a single T-72.

Israel’s frequent wars have resulted in a consistent flow of combat experience, resulting in new and progressively improved Merkava tanks. The current tank, Merkava IV, retains the Merkava I’s design priorities and incorporates a new redesigned turret, explosive reactive armor and modular passive armor for quicker battle-damage repair. It mounts a larger 120-millimeter main gun with fifty-eight rounds, including the LAHAT antitank guided missile, eighteen more rounds than the M1A2 Abrams with a similar gun. It has a larger 1,500-horsepower engine, bringing the horsepower-to-weight ratio up to 23.8 to one, and the tank is correspondingly faster.

The Merkava is protected by the Trophy active-protection system, which uses a combination of turret-mounted sensors and explosively formed projectiles to shoot down enemy tank gun rounds, rockets and antitank guided missiles. Trophy is combat proven, having saved several Merkava IV tanks (and their crews) from antitank weapons fielded by Hamas in 2014’s Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip. Israeli tankers are also set this year to experiment with Iron Vision, an augmented reality system designed to allow crews to “see” outside of their tank with a combination of VR goggles and distributed aperture system.

An iconoclastic tank in the world of heavy armor, Merkava is also a proven combat winner. While not the tank for every army, it is the perfect main battle tank for the Israeli Defense Forces. As important as tanks are to Israel’s security, the country has already started development of a successor to the Merkava IV well before it reaches obsolescence. As Israel’s enemies already know, the Merkava will be a tough tank to beat.

Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.

Image: Creative Commons. 

This first appeared last year.