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The Merkava Program; How Israel Indigenously Developed Some of the World’s Most Capable Battle Tanks

March 31st - 2018

Following the Merkava’s initial successes in the Lebanon War Israel went on to develop more advanced variants of the battle tank. The most critical adjustment required of the Merkava I based on combat experience was the need for a 60mm mortar within the hull - one which could be fired remotely. In 1983 Israeli ground forces inducted the Merkava Mark II, a modernisation heavily based on the Mark I which incorporated several adjustments to enhance combat performance and improve on the original platform’s shortcomings. With the same weight and engine as the Mark I, the new platform was capable of storing more fuel to increase its range, fitted with anti rocket netting and had improved sensors and fire control systems. Many of its features were designed to reduce its vulnerability and improve its survivability in urban warfare environments. The Mark II saw combat in the Lebanon War and proved more effective than its predecessor.

With the winding down of operations in Lebanon Israel would continue to develop its battle tank, inducting the Merkava III into service in 1989 and continuing production until 2003. Following the end of the Lebanon War Israel was primarily involved in conflicts with poorly trained and negligibly armed Palestinian militias, meaning opportunities to test its new platform were few and far between. A single tank was lost in February 2002 near the Gaza strip when it was lured into a trap and destroyer with a heavy mine - to tally destroying it and and killing four soldiers inside. Two further Merkava tanks were further destroyer later that same year by Palestinian militants, though whether they were Mark II or Mark III platforms was unconfirmed. It was nevertheless clear that the tank could only be engaged with asymmetric or insurgent tactics, and the Palestinian militant forces could hardly pose a threat to the battle tank otherwise.

As the Merkava III was never exported, the platform would not see combat in a major war for seventeen years from its first induction. The new battle tank thus had a significant disadvantage over its predecessors in that it could not be combat tested, and its design therefore could not be refined based on battlefield experience. The battle tank was nevertheless highly formidable, fielding the Israeli made IMI 120 mm gun, a larger 890 kW engine and with a greater weight of 65 tones. Several new features such as laser designators, improved ammunition storage and a new turrets capable of moving independently of the main chassis were also installed.

In 2006 the Merkava III faced its first trial by fire, and participated in the operation which would become Israel’s first ever military defeat. Incursions into southern Lebanon and combat operations against the Hezbollah militia, what was by a significant margin the best trained and prepared adversary Israel had ever faced, saw Merkava III tanks take heavy losses. Hezbollah forces, using advanced Russian made AT-14 Kornet laser guided missiles as well as AT-5 Konkurs and AT-13 Metis-M missiles and the more basic shoulder fired RPG-29 took a heavy toll on Israeli tanks. The construction of Hezbollah’s invaluable fortified tunnel networks had been built supervised by North Korean technicians and many of its military leadership had studied in the country. With elite North Korean training in logistics, anti tank operations and use of tunnel networks for ambushes, Hezbollah was able to use their anti tank platforms to great effect to both counter the Merkava’s reactive armour and disable or destroy them with penetrating hits. 45% of Israeli armoured vehicles hit with anti tank missiles were penetrated.

The vulnerability of the Merkava Mark III in Lebanon was far more a result of the strength of Hezbollahs’ training and capabilities than the battle tank’s own shortcomings. Indeed, U.S. Abrams tanks and German Leopard II tanks operating against insurgent forces in Iraq and Syria have if anything proven far more vulnerable - despite these forces such as Islamic State and the PKK being far less well armed and lacking the high levels of training of Hezbollah. The Merkava Mark III has since the Lebanon War gradually been replaced by the more modern Merkava IV, the most recent Israeli tank platform and today one of the most capable battle tanks in the world. The platform first entered service in 2004, and was operational in small numbers during the Lebanon war where two were destroyed. The Israeli military has nevertheless shown confidence in the ability of this new tank platform to operate against Hezbollah and other highly capable adversaries.

Israel’s new Merkava tank comes with a more powerful 1,500 horsepower diesel engine, removable modular armour, a larger main gun using an electrical semi automatic revolving magazine and modern fire controls allowing it to lock on to moving and even airborne targets such as helicopters. The tank’s improved gun can fire more types of ammunition such as APFSDS kinetic energy penetrators and sabot rounds, while it is also equipped with remotely operated machine guns ideal for urban environments. The platform also deploys an Amcoram LWS-2 laser warning receiver to reduce vulnerability to laser guided anti tank missiles. Improved reactive armour further reduces the tank’s vulnerability. Other than its lack of depleted uranium ammunition, possibly for ethical rather than practical reasons, and its relatively slow speed, the Merkava IV is overall far superior it its capabilities to the most advanced Western platforms currently in service such as the U.S. Abrams and German Leopard II. With the induction of new fourth generation tank platforms in Russia (T-14), South Korea (K2) and Japan (Type 10), the former two which have already show signs of proliferating to the Middle East, Israel will likely need to develop a more capable tank such in future.

With Syria set to continue to receive some of Russia’s most advanced armour and with Hezbollah’s capabilities continuing to grow, Israel’s military remains under constant pressure to retain a technological edge or at the very least technological parity, something which its Western partners have increasingly failed to provide in a number of fields. A return to reliance on Western tank platforms remains highly unlikely, and should the Merkava demonstrate its capabilities in future conflicts it could well penetrate markets traditionally held by Western suppliers, particularly considering its relatively low cost and Israel’s recent rapprochement with several Western aligned Arab states.

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