In this first part we'll be discussing the history and development of the Merkava series of main battle tanks (MBTs) - covering how the tank came to be, how it was improved, how it fares in combat and what the future holds. In Part 2, we'll cover everything about the Merkavas in War Thunder: how to obtain them, their strengths and weaknesses, and how to best play these rather capable MBTs.

If you were to ask someone equated in armoured warfare what they think the best modern tank is, you’ll typically be greeted with a selection of unsurprising yet still valid responses. The pioneering T-14 Armata from Russia, the venerable Leopard 2A7V hailing from Germany, or the esteemed M1A2 SEP v3 Abrams of the United States are all great choices for the top steel beast of the military powers of the world.

There are however two types of the ‘best tank’ - and it is the objectively most superior vehicle that people generally focus on. However, there’s also the question of the best tank for that particular nation’s needs. The best tank for that given country - the Merkava.

It’s the late 1960s, and the United Kingdom is in talks with Israel to sell and license domestic production of their current main battle tank, the Chieftain. Prototypes were delivered to Israel for testing and inspection, but due to rising tensions in the Middle East and the UK’s contemporary alignment favouring the Arab states over Israel, the deal was abandoned.

Israeli tankers posing for a photo in front of a Chieftain sent to Israel for testing sometime in 1967-69.

More than a decade later, Israel proved its armoured superiority and tactical prowess once again in the dunes of the Sinai in October of 1973 during the Yom Kippur War. Humiliated, the Arab states would not touch Israel for another decade. This brief and uncertain period of peace was all that Israel Tal, a pioneering tank tactician in the IDF needed to restart a program for a domestically-produced tank. Despite serving largely well in the Yom Kippur War, it was painfully clear that Israel’s aging Centurions, M48s and M60s were rapidly becoming obsolete and were no longer appropriate to the tactics employed by the IDF, and despite extensive modifications in the Magach and Sho’t Kal variants, these relics of the early Cold War were no longer adequate for the rapidly-advancing era of the MBT. 

Less than a year later in 1974, an initial prototype of the tank was completed. Over the next few years, this predecessor to the famed beast underwent scrutinous testing and, after being accepted as a final design, production facilities were completed.

In 1977, the tank was finally unveiled to the public. It shocked designers everywhere, with its unconventional characteristics appearing confusing to the untrained eye. However, these issues were misconstrued, as this tank was tailor-made to the IDF’s requirements with lessons learnt from how foreign designs fared in their previous conflicts.

Merkava Mk I.

A front-mounted 1,500hp diesel engine drove the tank to a respectable speed of 64kph across desert terrain. Firepower was no joke either, with the commendable and proven 105mm M64 smoothbore cannon supported by 3 roof-mounted and 1 coaxial machine guns. The armour however, is certainly the most interesting aspect of the vehicle.

Israel’s military is small, and well-trained. The bloody conflicts of the 50s, 60s and 70s led to many lives lost in the armoured formations racing across the Sinai and Golan Heights. Lives which the IDF could not afford to replace, whereas their enemies could. It was because of this that the decision was made to prioritise crew survivability over all else. This new tank would keep its tankers alive as long as possible, even if several rounds penetrated the vehicle.

Because of this, the IDF developed ingenious solutions to the issues with their previous tanks. Instead of adding excess weight by equipping thick armour to the frontal glacies and turret, the engine would become the armour, reducing weight, cost and complexity, while making it as effective as a thick plate of steel. The driver was protected by armoured screens, so in the event of engine damage, they would remain protected. The turret crew was protected by an extremely narrow and thus hard-to-hit profile, cleverly evading the need for thick slabs of imposing armour like its Western contemporaries. Even the tank itself was coated in a paint resembling the texture of sandpaper, making it less reflective in the far distance of the flat terrain of the deserts of Israel.

Surface drawings of Merkava Mk I, showing the slim turret profile, frontal engine and array of machine guns.

The tank was coined ‘Chariot’ in Hebrew - also known as Merkava. A fitting name, given that the vehicle was the first production main battle tank to be able to field infantry, entering service with the IDF in 1979. This famous attribute of Merkava is however quite overstated, as in order to carry the maximum of 6 passengers, all ammunition stored in the rear of the vehicle had to be removed, leaving only 6 rounds for the main gun stored in the turret. The rear door is still extremely useful for a rapid evacuation from the tank in case of bailing out, and while it drastically reduces the capability of the Merkava’s primary weapon, carrying a squad of soldiers, well-protected and ready to deploy on a moment’s notice has proven immensely effective in the IDF’s tactic of employing Merkava, and it’s still able machine guns atop the turret, in combined arms and infantry support operations.

The Merkava first saw action only 3 years later, when once again the Middle East erupted into conflict in the 1982 Lebanon War. In the baptism of fire, a number of Merkavas were lost, but the tank proved tremendously successful and largely immune to obsolete Lebanese tanks and RPGs.

After the war, incremental improvements were made to the Merkava Mk I, resulting in the IDF receiving the Mk II in the following year. The version was optimised for urban warfare, further refining the niche the Merkava serves to an impeccable level. The Mk II featured thermal optics, a new transmission and fire control system, chain armour to protect vulnerable areas against ATGMs and RPGs and later iterations featured composite panels to easily replace damaged armour.

Merkava Mk II.

The Merkava design continued to be improved upon, with the Mk III appearing in 1989, and the IV in 2004. The Mk III featured a redesigned turret, with composite armour further protecting the crew against increasingly modern munitions. A domestically-produced 120mm gun was mounted to the Mk III, with more capable ammunition, safety systems and fire control. The Merkava Mk III is the most produced variant, with 1,200 units across 4 armoured brigades. The Mk IV is the latest variant of the Merkava, with the 4M being the most modern iteration, entering service in 2011. The 4M, also known as ‘Windbreaker’, equips the infamous TROPHY hardkill active protection system, revered across the world for making the Merkava immune to enemy RPGs and ATGMs, notably Kornet missiles. TROPHY is a truly impressive piece of equipment that militaries across the world are striving to counter. The system detects incoming threats and fires projectiles at them, with nanosecond precision, to intercept and destroy the threat mid-air before it can damage the tank.

2 Merkava Mk 4Ms race across the desert sands. The TROPHY active protection system (APS) is visible as flat panels on the sides of the turret.

The future for the Merkava is strong, with it serving well in the IDF and notably, with the F-35’s Iron Vision helmet technology currently being developed to fit the tank. Iron Vision mounts external cameras 360 degrees around the tank and links them up to a helmet HUD for the commander and driver, essentially allowing them to look outside the vehicle and ‘through the armour’ without leaving the tank.

The 'Iron Vision' system currently incorporated onto the F-35 Lightning II, allowing the wearer to 'see' outside of the vehicle through external cameras.

The Merkava and its modern variants are certainly up there in the top tanks of the world, but it is often overshadowed by the mighty armoured beasts of the world’s superpowers. However, the history that led to Merkava’s production and its incremental improvements are a textbook case of mistakes made and lessons learnt to produce the most personalised tank which excels in the environment and combat that the IDF requires of it, making it arguably the best tank in the world for that nation’s needs, and truly deserving of its title.

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Published May 10, 2021

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