The Yom Kippur War, also known as the October War, ended on October 26, 1973. After a short, 20-day struggle, the Israeli army defeated a coalition of Egyptian and Syrian troops, which unexpectedly struck the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights in order to take revenge for previous military failures against Israel. Although there was general joy in the country, many Israeli troops were not unaware of the fact that their – until now considered invincible – armored troops suffered very heavy losses during the fighting. However, this was not the destruction inflicted by enemy tanks; this time the Egyptians used Soviet hand-held cumulative anti-tank missiles, which easily pierced the armor of Israeli tanks ( mostly modified American and British constructions).
Israel, as a country with a small area and low population, could not afford the massive loss of trained armoured vehicle crews. Efforts have begun to create a tank for which priority will be given not only to firepower, or mobility, but to protecting the lives of the crew. Thus, in 1978, the basic combat tank Merkava (Hebrew “chariot”) saw the light of day. Series production started in 1979.
Merkava is an extraordinary tank. Bearing in mind the experience of the Yom Kippur War, the sides of the vehicle were covered with plates of reactive armor which provided better protection against penetrating weapon than traditional armor. These plates contain an explosive charge that explodes on impact, thus absorbing a large part of the damage and having the chance to stop incoming projectiles from completely penetrating the tank’s armor.
In Merkava, the front armor plates were bent and the turret was flattened to further reduce the risk of breakthrough and make ricocheting of the projectiles easier. Additional protection against enemy fire is provided by the engine placed in front. The tank chassis is V-shaped – a possible shock wave after a mine explosion is dispersed. These Israeli tanks also have an advanced fire protection system, which reacts to fire or oil/fuel explosion in 80 milliseconds.
If Merkava is already seriously hit, there is a chance of survival inside the vehicle, because the ammunition was placed outside the crew compartment (after removing half of the ammunition, up to 10 soldiers can fit in the storage hatch). Once the crew has had to evacuate the vehicle quickly, this is possible by using the rear exit 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.
Merkava’s armament looks as impressive as its armor. The Israeli tanks are equipped with a 120 mm smoothbore cannon (the first two versions had a 105 mm cannon), 3 machine guns, a smoke grenade launcher and even mortars operated from inside. The 120 mm cannon, produced by Israel, is very similar to the one used in the American M1 Abrams tank and, like its western counterpart, can theoretically shoot low flying air targets.
Since the start of production of the Merkava tank, its armor, firepower and mobility have been continuously improved by Israeli engineers. Below is a brief description of all generations of these machines:
- Mark I – introduced in 1978; First combat test in 1982 during the Lebanon War.
- Mark II – in service since 1983; among other things, night vision and thickened turret armor (protection against aerial attack) were added to the tank’s equipment. At the back of the turret there are chains installed which provide additional protection for the space between the turret and the hull. Additionally, the chassis and the turret were given modular composite armor, which could be replaced very quickly in case of damage.
- Mark III – presented in 1989; there was a change from 105 mm cannon to IMI 120 mm, an engine with 1200 hp was introduced (maximum speed in the field: 60km/h or 37 miles/h with 65 tons vehicle weight). A communication system between the vehicle and the infantry was added and a number of other improvements in electronics, propulsion system, armament and armor were made.
- Mark IV – the last version of Merkava produced since 2004. The Mark IV has, among other things, modular composite armor over almost the entire armor surface, an improved traction system and a battlefield control system which takes and displays data from vehicles and drones. Merkava IV was also designed for lower maintenance and production costs – today the Israeli tank is the leader among Western armies in this aspect. Since 2009, the Trophy system, an active anti-tank missile protection system, has been installed on these vehicles to shoot down objects that threaten the tank. In the Gaza Strip, crews often had no idea about the dangers that Merkavas defended themself against.
Merkava is, without a doubt, the best tank in the world today for desert operations. Surely this was one of the reasons why Merkava was chosen the best tank in the world in the opinion of “Intenational Defence Review” magazine.
Merkava Mk IV during shooting exercises
Brief presentation of Mk III version
Demonstration of mobility of already withdrawn Mk I generation