The Israeli Merkava (Chariot) main battle tank is an example of a sophisticated weapon system designed to deal with very specific national requirements.
Though similar in performance to Western main battle tanks such as the German Leopard 2 and American M1 Abrams, the Merkava has many features not found in any other contemporary tank designs.
Today we’ll compare the Merkava to the Abrams in terms of the three vital qualities of a tank: firepower, mobility, and armor.
First, however, a little background.
The Merkava was first conceived by an Israeli General Israel Tal following the titanic armored clashes of the Yom Kippur War. Tal wanted a tank that prioritized crew protection above all else. The Merkava I entered service in 1978, and saw its first major action in Operation Peace for Galilee in 1982, where it performed well in engagements with Syrian T-62 tanks. Nonetheless, several were lost in battle, and the subsequent Merkava II tank featured upgraded spaced armor. The 1990s saw the Merkava III with a critical upgrade to a 120 millimeter main gun, and finally the latest Merkava IV has a more powerful engine and has recently been fitted with a sophisticated active-protection system for use against anti-tank missiles and rockets.
The Abrams, of course, is the classic American design introduced in the 1980s which devastated Soviet-made Iraqi armor in the 1991 Gulf War without losing a single tank to enemy fire. Though the M1’s reputation for invulnerability was slightly dented by a few losses in the later 2003 war in Iraq and more recently by Saudi Arabia in Yemen , the Abrams still helped set a standard in tank performance that only a few designs can rival. The U.S. Army has continuously tweaked the M1’s ammunition, armor package, and sensors to keep it up to date.
Is there any a chance of Israeli Merkavas could confront M1s in combat?
Both Egypt and Iraq have fought wars with Israel and currently operate Abrams tanks with downgraded armor. However, given the decent Israeli-Egypt relationship today and Iraq’s present situation, encounter between these armored monsters will likely remain confined to speculative scenarios in computer games . Thus, this comparison is more focused on how well the two designs serve their nation’s military needs.
The Merkava IV and the M1 are both armed with powerful 120 millimeter guns of comparable performance--they can easily dispatch most Soviet-era tanks at any combat range. The Merkava may lack some of the fancy depleted uranium shells available to M1 tanks. These would be optimized for defeating advanced reactive armor systems on modern Russian tanks—but Israel hasn’t faced significant opposition from enemy tanks since the early 1980s, and doesn’t have to worry about any sophisticated armored threats in its neighborhood.
The Merkava can fire anti-tank missiles from its main gun tube, while the M1 cannot. The Merkava’s LAHAT top-attack missiles would be suitable for attacking vehicles or helicopters (in direct fire mode) at extremely long ranges where tank shells lack accuracy and hitting power. However, it must be noted that tank-launched missiles have seen little actual use in combat and are seen in the West as a somewhat niche capability. Both vehicles are also armed with sophisticated sensors and fire control systems, as well as data-links to network with friendly armor.
The Merkava and M1 now both feature remotely-operated machine guns, helping protect the crew from exposure when fighting in urban environments. However, the Merkava uniquely among modern tanks is armed with a 60 millimeter light mortar that can be fired from within the turret. This allows a Merkava to drop anti-personnel shells on targets out of line of sight—for example, behind a wall or on the other side of a hill. It also affords the crew an additional means to engage the enemy without resorting to the overwhelming blasts of its main gun, an important consideration in counter-insurgency warfare.
The M1 is designed to engage in fast-paced armored warfare with tanks making decisive thrusts over long distances as occurred in Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom. By contrast, the Merkava is oriented to meet Israel’s operational realities, including defensive warfare against foreign invasion and counter-insurgency operations in urban environments and mountainous terrain. Accordingly, while the M1A2 is capable of tearing down the road at over 42 miles per hour, early models of the Merkava crept along in the low- to mid-30s.
However, the Merkava IV has an upgraded 1,500 horsepower diesel engine, allowing it to attain 40 miles per hour, largely closing the gap. The M1’s turbine engine is also an infamously demanding beast, limiting the vehicle to an operational range of 265 miles compared to 310 for the Merkava IV. Lastly, Israel claims the suspension on the Merkava is optimized to deal with the rocky terrain of the Golan Heights.
The Merkava also has one additional feature unlike any other Western MBT; its ammunition compartment can be repurposed to carry a team of four infantrymen. This is intended more as emergency field expedient—say to evacuate the crew of knocked out tank or wounded personnel—rather than as a standard tactical procedure.
When the M1 was first produced in the 1980s, its Chobham composite armor represented a breakthrough in armor technology. The M1’s frontal armor completely outmatched most early anti-tank missiles and proved impervious to the standard 125 millimeter armor piercing shells fired by Iraqi T-72 tanks in the 1991 Gulf War. (Russia has since introduced more powerful 125 millimeter shells that may be effective against the M1’s armor at shorter distances.)
The original Merkava I did not benefit from composite armor technology. Instead, the Israelis design featured a heavily sloped turret that gave the Merkava it’s space-age sleekness. Sloped armor plate is effectively thicker against most incoming shells (depending on the angle of approach), and also poses a lower target profile. Later Merkava models did incorporate new armor technology, and the Merkava IV now has a modular composite armor package. Though formidable, the Merkava IV’s armor is still thought to be a bit inferior to the depleted-uranium armor in the M1A2, which has benefitted to constant upgrades over the years. The Merkava IV would not necessarily come out on top in a clash against the world’s top main battle tanks.