Since the war of 1956, Isräel learned how to deal against far superior forces with limited resources and astonished the world with its fast, daring tactics and unexpected victories. The country forged in fifty years, with limited foreign assistance, a powerful, modern defence force. The armoured symbol of which is the Merkava, a reference to the ancient war chariots of the days of King Solomon.
Designed soon after the Yom Kippur War (1973), this MBT was derived from a first project named the Sabra, developed in 1965 by Tsahal, the first domestic tank design. But since it was an adaptation of the British Chieftain and the British Government had decided in 1969 to cancel any weapon deliveries to Israël, the project was dropped. Israel Tal, an army commander, reinvigorated the concept after the 1973 October War, and the plans were redrawn, incorporating all the ideas drawn form the lessons of the last engagements. In short, the Merkava was the embodiment of the ideal MBT for Tsahal. Combining speed, endurance, firepower and accuracy with high survivability requirements and an emphasis put on crew protection.
After the plans were ready by 1974, construction of several prototypes began. All were briefly tested before a stage of complete modifications, performed by the brand new Tel HaShomer ordnance depot, which was specially tailored around the Merkava. The “Merkava” (derived from ancient Hebrew word meaning “chariot”), was also the name of the entire domestic tank project since 1973, and saw nearly a full year of development before a full scale production could be started in 1977. By then, it was made public in May, and the official acceptance into service with Tsahal was ratified in December 1978, when the first series had been delivered. The design, development, and assembly of the Mk.I and subsequent modernized series were performed by MANTAK arsenal along with IDF Ordnance Corps and other contractors. Systems integration, including sights and weaponry, were performed by Israel Military Industries (IMI).
The Merkava design
At first, the Merkava’s most striking aspect was its rearwards turret, a feature more common in SPGs than MBTs. But the positioning of the engine at the front was a deliberate attention to crew protection, as it participates in the frontal defense of the fighting compartment. Second, this compartment was exceptionally roomy, allowing several infantrymen and their equipment to embark. The rear two-hatch door was another originality, allowing fast evacuation by the crew, as well as an APC-style access which was found very useful during the Lebanon campaign. The drive train and suspension was largely inspired by the British Centurion and the tracks were directly derived from it. The diesel engine provided, to a 65 ton vehicle, a good power-to-weight ratio and enough mobility on soft grounds. Many other solutions were borrowed from existing systems, thus allowing it to fulfil two of the initial specifications: cost-effectiveness and easy maintenance and repair on the battlefield. The drive train was made of six road wheels, one rear idler wheel, one front drive sprocket and three return rollers per side. The turret was large but low, narrow and triangular in shape, presenting the absolute minimal surface from the front.
Merkava 4 main battle tank capabilities
The tank is capable of carrying eight infantry soldiers, a command group or three litter patients (stretcher casualties) in addition to the tank crew of commander, loader, gunner and driver. The tank is capable of firing on the move at moving targets and has demonstrated high hit probability in firing against attack helicopters using conventional anti-tank munitions.
Major contractors include: the El Op Electro-Optic Industries subsidiary of Elbit Systems which is responsible for the fire control system; the Israel Defence Force which carries out main construction and system integration and testing; Israel Military Industries for the supply of the main gun, ballistic protection and munitions; Imco Industries for the electrical systems; Urdan Industries for the hull, main turret and castings; and IAI Ramta for protection components.
The main part of the tank production, the construction of the hull and integration of all the systems is carried out in the Israel Defence Force workshop.
Merkava 4 battle tank weaponry
The Merkava 4 has a new all-electric turret developed by Elbit and subsidiary El-Op. Only one hatch is installed in the turret, the commander's hatch.
The improved 120mm smooth-bore gun has been developed by Israel Military Industries.
The new gun is an advanced generation of the gun developed for the Merkava 3. A Vidco thermal shroud on the gun reduces bending of the barrel resulting from environmental and firing conditions. The gun can fire higher power munitions including new 120mm high-penetration projectiles and guided shells.
The loader can select semi-automatically the ammunition type. The tank carries 48 rounds of ammunition each stored in a protective container. An electrically operated revolving magazine contains 10 ready-to-fire rounds.
The range of ammunition includes APFSDS-T M711 (CL 3254), the HEAT-MP-T M325 (CL 3105) and the TPCSDS-T M324 (CL 3139) supplied by the Ammunition Group of Israel Military Industries. The gun is also capable of firing French, German or US 120mm rounds.
The tank is fitted with 7.62mm machine guns and an internally operated 60mm mortar system developed by Soltam Ltd. The mortar can fire explosive and illumination rounds to a range of 2,700m.
The protection suite includes an advanced electromagnetic threat identification and warning system.
El Op fire control
The new fire control system, developed by El Op, includes very advanced features including the capability to acquire and lock onto moving targets, even airborne helicopters, while the tank itself is on the move.
The computer-controlled fire control system includes line-of-sight stabilisation in two axes, a second-generation television sight and automatic thermal target tracker, a laser range finder, an improved thermal night vision system and a dynamic cant angle indicator.
The commander's station is fitted with a stabilised panoramic day and night sight. The integrated operating system includes advanced data communications and battle management. Tadiran developed the Merkava's communications system, the inter communication system and the VRC 120 vehicular transceiver radio with embedded auxiliary receivers
The fighting compartment and turret occupies the rear of the vehicle, with an entrance hatch being provided in the hull rear. As with late production Merkava Mk 3s, the new Mk 4 turret has an elliptical shape to its front and sides with a stowage basket at the rear. In earlier versions of the Merkava there was a roof hatch for the commander (right) and loader (left), but the latest Mk 4 only has a roof hatch for the commander. In the Merkava Mk 4 the ballistic protection is modular and is claimed to provide more effective protection against modern threats involving both protection efficiency and coverage area.Installation of the new 1,500 hp powerpack has allowed for a redesign of the hull of the Merkava Mk 4 that has improved frontal protection. The driver's field of view has also been improved as there is no longer a bulge to the right side of the hull. Merkava IV is fitted with a modular special armour covers the turret. The tank is protected against a range of threats, including air-launched precision-guided missiles and advanced and top-attack anti-tank weapons. Automatic fire detection and suppression has been installed. The underside of the hull has been fitted with additional armour protection against mines. The latest generation of Merkava IV is now equipped with the Trophy active protection system developed by the Isreali Company Rafael. The Trophy is a situational awareness and active protection hard kill system that operates in three major stages: Threat detection and threat tracking followed by hard kill countermeasure (Multiple Explosive Formed Penetrators – MEFP) activation and threat neutralization. The neutralization process takes place only if the threat is about to hit the platform. The Trophy active protection system creates a hemispheric protected zone around the vehicle where incoming threats are intercepted and defeated. The Trophy system is able to intercept any incoming HEAT threat, including RPG rockets at a range of 10 – 30 meters from the protected platform. The Trophy was declared operational by the IDF in August 2009 and is currently in full production. Merkava 4 tanks integrated with Trophy active protection systems are presently being deployed in combat areas along Israel's borders.
The Merkava 4 is powered by a V-12 diesel engine rated at 1,500hp. The engine compartment and one fuel tank are at the front of the tank and two fuel tanks are at the back. The new engine represents a 25% increase in power compared to the 1,200hp powerpack installed on the Merkava 3. The Mk 4 Merkava has six rubber-tyred roadwheels either side with the drive sprocket at the front, idler at the rear and four track-return rollers. Each roadwheel is suspended by a separate helical spring with suspension arms for two roadwheels, each caged in a housing.
The German company MTU manufactures the engine components and the GD 883 engine is manufactured under licensed production by General Dynamics Land Systems in the USA. The engine is transferred to Israel for installation and integration with the automatic transmission and with the engine computer control system. The tank has automatic five-gear transmission rather than four gears as in the Merkava 3. The transmission system is manufactured by Renk. The single position rotary shock absorbers are installed externally.
Merkava 4 is equipped with a modern fire control and sighting system which includes computerized ballistic calculations and compensations, a dual axes stabilized gunner sight and a dual axis stabilized commander panoramic sight, both equipped with an advanced FLIR and TV channels for day and night operation. The Merkava IV is also fitted with Battle Management System (BMS) designed by Elbit Systems' ElOp - the system is providing fast communication networking between the commander and subordinate units, and enables the crew to plan missions, navigate and continuously update their situation awareness. The system also enables Commander's BMC tactical display system as used in the Merkava Mk4recording and debriefing the operation, by utilizing the tank's digital recorder.
Merkava Mk. IV specifications
Dimensions 7.60 x 3.72 x 2.86 m (24.93 x 12.2 x 9.38 ft)
Total weight, battle ready 65 tons
Crew 4 (driver, commander, gunner, loader) + 6 troops
Propulsion 12-cyl 1500 hp (1120 kW) turbocharged diesel
Suspension Helical Spring
Top Speed road/off-road 64/55 km/h (40/34 mph).
Operational maximum range 500 km at medium speed (310 mi)
Armament 120mm (4.7in) SB MG253 with LAHAT ATGM capacity
1xCal.50 (12,7 mm) and 2×7.62mm mod. remote
1x60mm (2.4in ) internal mortar
Armor Classified composite and sloped design
Production Around 500 Mk.IV built as of 2013