Merkava tank – the steel chariot of Israel

The description of one of the world’s best tanks – Israeli Merkava. History, armour, armament and many interesting facts about this beast.

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On October 26, 1973, the Yom Kippur War, also known as the October War, ended. After a short, 20-day struggle, the Israeli army defeated a coalition of Egyptian and Syrian troops, which unexpectedly hit the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights to take revenge for  previous military failures against Israel. Although there was general joy in the country, many Israeli soldiers did not miss the fact that their armoured corps, which had so far been invincible, suffered heavy losses during the fighting. This was not the destruction of hostile tanks; This time, the Egyptians used Soviet hand-built anti-tank cumulative missiles that easily penetrated the armor of Israeli tanks, mostly modified American and British constructions. The destruction was not caused by enemy tanks; This time, the Egyptians used Soviet “hand-built” anti-tank cumulative missiles that easily penetrated the armor of Israeli tanks which were mostly modified American and British constructions.

Merkava Mk III at the Yad-Shiryon Museum, a place to commemorate the fallen soldiers of Israeli armored troops
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Israel, as a country with a small area and a low population, could not afford the mass loss of trained armored personnel crews. Efforts have been made to create a tank for which priority is not firepower or mobility but protection of crew life. In 1978, Merkava’s main battle tank (the Hebrew “chariot”) was seen in daylight. Serial production started in 1979.

Merkava is an unusual tank. Bearing in mind the experience of the Yom Kippur War, the sides of the vehicle were covered with aprons with reactive armor plates, which provided better protection against cumulative missiles than traditional armor. These tiles contain an explosive charge that explodes during a hit, thus absorbing much of the damage and has the chance to stop the projectile from completely penetrating the armor of the tank.

Merkava Mk III in the Golan Heights in 2008
Source: Flickr / Israeli Defense Forces

In order to further reduce the risk of piercing and to facilitate the re-firing of missiles, the plates of the front armor were tilted in the Merkavah and the tower was flattened. Additional protection against enemy fire is provided by the engine located at the front. The tank chassis is V-shaped causing any shock wave after a mine explosion to likely disperse. Israeli tanks also have an advanced fire system that reacts to fire or oil / fuel explosion in 80 milliseconds.

Merkava Mk III at the Yad-Shiryon Museum, 2005. Visible chains constituting additional protection of the tower against anti-tank grenade launchers
Source: Wikimedia Commons / Bukvoed

If the Merkava is seriously hit, there is a chance of surviving inside the vehicle because the ammunition was placed outside the crew compartment (after removing half the ammunition in the warehouse hatch it can hold up to 10 soldiers). Once the crew has to evacuate quickly from the vehicle, it is possible to use the rear output which is shown below:

Merkava’s weaponry is as impressive as her armor. Israeli basic tanks are equipped with a 120 mm smoothbore cannon (the first two versions had a 105 mm gun), 3 machine guns, a smoke grenade launcher, and even a mortar gun. The 120 mm gun produced by Israel is very similar to the one used in the American M1 Abrams and, like its western counterpart, can theoretically shoot at low-flying air targets.

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Merkava Mk II equipped with a mine detonator 
Source: Wikimedia Commons / michael aronov

Since the start of the production of the Merkava, its armor, firepower and mobility have been continually improved by Israeli engineers. Below is a brief overview of all the Hebrew tanks:

  • Mark I – introduced in 1978; First combat test in 1982 during the Lebanon War.
  • Mark II – in service since 1983; The night vision and the thicker armor to the turret (protection against air attack) has been added. At the rear of the tower, chains were assembled, forming an anti-condensation screen for the space between the tower and the hull. In addition, the chassis and tower gained a modular composite armor that could be replaced very quickly if needed.
  • Mark III – presented in 1989; The 105 mm cannon was replaced to IMI 120 mm, introduced a 1200hp engine (37miles / h top speed with the total mass of 65 tons). A communication system between the vehicle and the infantry, and a number of other improvements were made to the electronics, propulsion system, armament and armor.
  • Mark IV – the last version of Merkava, in production since 2004. The Mark IV features, in modular composite armor on almost the entire surface of the armor, improved traction and battlefield control (which retrieves and displays data from vehicles and drones). Merkava IV was also designed for lower maintenance and production costs – now the Israeli tank is the leader of the Western armies in this matter. Since 2009, these vehicles have been fitted with a Trophy system, an active anti-tank missile system that shoots down objects that threaten the tank. In the Gaza Strip, the crew often had no idea of the dangers that the Merkavas were defending themselves from.

The Merkava is unquestionably the world’s best adapted tank for desert operations. This certainly was one of the reasons why Merkava was chosen as the best tank in the world, according to the monthly “International Defense Review”.

Merkava Mk IV during shooting exercises


Brief presentation of Mk III version


Demonstration of mobility of already withdrawn Mk I generation


Source Discovery: "Ultimate Weapons" TV document

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