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Merkava Mk 4 Main Battle Tank. Photo by Michael Mass.
Merkava Mk. 4 Main Battle Tank, at the The Armored Corps Memorial Site and Museum at Latrun (Yad La-Shiryon).
The Merkava Mk.4 is one of the most advanced tanks in the world. Photo by Michael Mass.



The Sinai Campaign of 1956 was characterized by mobile, armored warfare. Israel deployed 200 tanks in Sinai, versus 150 tanks deployed by the Egyptians.

Since the Sinai Campaign, the land war between Israel and the surrounding Arab nations has become a war of highly mobile and armored formations. A total of 2,500 tanks were deployed during the Six-Day War by Israel and the enemies. 6,200 tanks engaged in combat during the Yom-Kippur war. Since the Sinai Campaign, thousands of tanks have been destroyed in battle.

Today, the tank is central to the art of war, and is considered the primary decisive factor on the modern land battlefield.

Prior to the Sinai Campaign Egypt received, within the framework of the "Czechoslovakian Arms Deal", 300 Soviet tanks and tank destroyers, including the Stalin-3 and T-34 tanks and SU-100 tank destroyers. This was considered an impressive addition to the Egyptian armored fleet, which at that time numbered some 430 western armored vehicles, of various types.

At that time, Israeli weaponry was always inferior in both qualitative and quantitative aspects, consisting mainly of World War Two vintage Shermans, and French AMX-13 tanks. Some years later, Israel managed to acquire some British Centurions and American M48 Patton tanks, and more recently, some American M60 Main Battle Tanks. But the numeric and qualitative inferiority continued, and Israel had no option except to start developing their own armored force, with whatever resources available.

The first step was the modernization of the tanks and armored vehicles they already had. Israel proved, by the means of their ingenuity, to be able to upgrade their available armored force up to a point that they could, by the means of a very well thought concept of combined arms warfare, plus the introduction of new training systems for their troops, to defeat all threats and to advance and occupy part of enemy territory, overcoming the superiority those enemies appeared to have.

In time, the continuity of the ever present possibility of war ensued the decision, by the Israelis, to develop their own Main Battle Tank. The original plan was for the development of a tank to be based primarily on existing systems and components. But, as a result of various know-how restrictions, specific technological reasons and operational requirements, it become clear that if Israel was to develop an entirely new tank, it would necessarily have be based not only on existing systems, but also on entirely new developments and original components.

With the objective of reducing the development time to a minimum, it was adopted a philosophy of "telescopic development" process. This method is characterized by the start of serial production, based on prototypes, before completion of all development and demonstration stages. So, the last development stages were happening as the production process itself was going on.

Merkava Development:

Merkava Mk.1
Merkava Mk.1
Merkava Mk.2
Merkava Mk.2
Merkava Mk.3
Merkava Mk.3

It was also decided to utilize the industrial infrastructures existing within the IDF, the civilian and governmental military industries, expanding the manufacturing potential of existing plants where necessary. The existing IDF basic tank depot was to be utilized as the tank's final assembly plant. In addition, two hundred industrial plants would be upgraded with new technologies and capabilities, as required for the manufacture of the thousands of parts, components and systems, needed for the production of the Merkava MBT. It was decided that any technological knowledge which may be lacking would be acquired in part from abroad, and in part developed within the country's own defense and industrial establishments and by Israeli research institutes.


Merkava Mk. 2
The Merkava Mk. 2

The Merkava is the main battle tank in service with the Israeli armed forces. The first Merkava Mk 1 tanks were supplied to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in 1979. Production of the Mk 1 continued up to 1983, when the IDF began to receive the Merkava Mk 2. The Mk 2 featured improved mobility, fire control system and armour, as well as the inclusion of an internal 60 mm mortar. Production of Mk 2 continued until 1990 when it was superseded by the Mk 3. The Merkava Mk 3 Baz entered service with the IDF at the beginning of 1990. The main features of the Merkava Mk 3 are a new suspension system, a 1200 horsepower engine and new transmission, a higher power main gun, and particularly new armour protection. Ballistic protection is provided by special armour modules, which are attached to the tank by bolts. These are easily replaced whenever better ballistic technology is introduced. About 1200 Merkava Mk 2 and Mk 3 tanks are in service with the IDF.

Merkava Mk 3 baz.
The Merkava Mk 3 Baz with 4th generation sloped armour packs, fitted to the turret sides.

The Merkava is the innovative Israeli design of Major General Israel Tal. The primary design criteria was crew survivability. Every part of the overall design is expected to contribute to helping the crew survive. The engine is in the front to provide protection to the crew. There is a special protective umbrella for the tank commander to enable protection from indirect fire with the hatches open. Special "spaced armor" is in use along with protected fuel and ammo compartments. Rear ammunition stowage is combined with a rear entrance and exit. Since the rounds are stowed in containers that can be removed from the vehicle whenever necessary, this space can accommodate tank crewmen who have been forced to abandon their vehicles, or, if thought to be appropriate, even infantrymen. Rear ammunition stowage allows replenishment much more easily than if rounds have to be replaced in a carousel in the hull center, as in typical Russian vehicles. Tank soldiers have long admired Merkava's rear entrance and exit, recognizing that it would allow them to mount and dismount unobserved by the enemy and would provide an excellent alternative escape route. The Merkava can also carry a small Infantry squad internally under complete armored protection.

An Israeli Merkava 3 main battle tank just after firing its 120mm smoothbore gun.
An Israeli Merkava 3 main battle tank just after firing its 120mm smoothbore gun. Golan Heights, late 1990's.
Art courtesy of Jody Harmon.

Merkava Mk-4

Merkava Mk 4 Main Battle Tank. Photo by Michael Mass.
Merkava Mk.4 Main Battle Tank. Photo by Michael Mass.

The IDF has begun to equip itself with the Merkava Mk-4 tank, which was completely developed in Israel and is considered one of the best tanks in the world. The new tank, a fourth generation of the Israeli tank, is currently in production, and is expected to enter operational status with a regular tank brigade, replacing older M-60 (Magach) tanks currently in service. It represents a sensible improvement over its three predecessors of the Merkava series, being a more lethal weapon on the one hand, and a safer vehicle for its crew, on the other.

Merkava Mk. 4 - Front View. Merkava Mk. 4 - Back view
The new Merkava Mk. 4: Front view. Back view of the Merkava Mk. 4.

The Merkava Mk-4 includes innovations in all tank quality components - protection and survivability, firepower and mobility.

Protection and survivability

The principles on which the design of the Merkava tank family development was based have been applied again in the Merkava Mk-4. Priority has been given to protection and survivability, utilizing the tank's systems for protecting the crew (the engine is installed in the front of the tank), with storage of ammunition in protected containers, automatic fire suppression system, an overpressure NBC system, and more.

Unique among the main battle tanks of the world, the Merkava design features a front-mounted power pack, which presents a heavy mass in the forward area, protecting the crew from enemy attack. Enemy fire directly striking the front of the tank, the most likely point of attack, is absorbed by the mass of the engine block, protecting the crew. This configuration also cleared room at the rear section for a safe exit and enough space to carry a few fully armed infantrymen, in addition to the crew. The rear access hatch allows for the quick and safe exit of injured crewmen or pickup of wounded soldiers for evacuation.

The Merkava is one of the best protected tanks in the world. Its advanced protective systems provide increased protection against penetration of APFSDS shells and all known ATGM's, and its sensors are capable of detecting the launch of such missiles in advance, including laser-guided missiles. The tank's is fitted with the Amcoram LWS-2 laser warning system, with threat warning display installed at the commander's station.

Mekava Mk.IV. Photo by Ed Brighton
A view of the Merkava Mk.4 top armor. The Merkava Mk.4 is one of the best protected tanks in the world.
Photo by Ed Brighton.

In the Merkava Mk-4, the ballistic protection is modular and provides more effective protection against modern threats, involving both protection efficiency and coverage area. Above all, the ballistic protection includes roof protection, which provides a capability against overhead attacks. The electromagnetic threat identification warning system is an advanced generation of its predecessor in the Mk-3. The turret and the hull are fitted with a modular armour system which can be changed in the field. The forward section of the turret is fitted with additional blocks of armour which provide extra protection against the latest generation of top attack anti-tank missiles. A skirt of chains with ball weights is installed on the lower half of the turret bustle. Incoming HEAT projectiles detonate on impact with the chains instead of penetrating the turret ring. Sprung armour side skirts protect the wheels and tracks.


The tank is equipped with a 120-mm gun that is an advanced generation of the type developed for the Merkava Mk-3. Its 120mm gun is also modified to sustain higher pressures, resulting in improved range and penetration performance. The new gun provides for firing of high-power munitions with increased penetrating capabilities. The ready-to-fire ammunition is stored in a protected compartment. The system allows the loader to semi-automatically select the desired ammunition type.

10P Revolving Magazine of the Merkava Mk. 4
Merkava Mk-4 10P Revolving Magazine
A microprocessor controlled, fully automated, electrically driven, 120 mm rounds magazine. The system is located in an isolated space of the turret and is designed to protect the crew in case of ammunition explosion. The system is easy to operate from the crew compartment. The loader can select proper ammunition out of four different types and 10 rounds total.

The tank's new fire control system includes modern components, whose capabilities are very high in detection range and target acquisition. The night vision system is based on the world's leading thermal technology. The automatic tracking ability has been significantly improved. The systems provide for the implementation of an effective combat doctrine in target acquisition, allocation and destruction by commander and gunner. The tank 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 system is equipped with an improved tracking system which enables tracking of moving targets, such as tanks, helicopters, vehicles or soldiers. It also enables locking the sight and gun on targets when the tank is on the move, utilizing the ultra-fast gun stabilization and electrical turret drive system. Merkava Mk-4 is believed to be protected by a new type of hybrid armour, which can be conformed from modular elements, to match specific threats. The Mk-4 retains the hull design of the previous Merkava versions.

The tank also utilize the 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 recording and debriefing the operation, by utilizing the tank's digital recorder. The Merkava Mk4 is equipped with the new VDS-60 digital data recorder produced by Vectop, it records and restores the sight images and observation data collected during the mission. The capture of such images can also be shared by other elements, which are networked with the BMS, to enable reporting of enemy targets. This concept is rapidly becoming an essential part of the "digitized land forces" integrated battlefield concept, combining tanks, anti-tank and combat helicopters in a combined task force at various levels. Each crew member has an individual flat-panel color displays showing the status of systems each member is responsible for. The gunner and commander can also see the sight images on their individual screens. The commander can use his display for map navigate, orientation and reporting.

For example, the driver can see a rear and side view of the tank from the closed compartment. This capability is derived from a new, and unique system called Tank Sight System, developed by Vectop. The system provides video coverage the tank's surroundings in day and night. It improves safety, especially when traveling backwards and in conditions where the driver's visibility is impaired. Merkava Mk 4 uses four cameras installed in hardened cases embedded outside the tank. These cameras are providing full peripheral view displayed on high resolution monitors installed at the driver's position and in the fighting compartment.

Another feature provided by the "computerization" of the Merkava Mk4 is the introduction of "integrated training capability", providing the crew and unit a sophisticated training environment based on their tanks and readily available in the field. This capability will be integrated with the "virtual scenario" a set of virtual terrain features, friendly and enemy elements, and "intelligent" behaviors based on pre-set maneuvers, doctrinal concepts etc. All will be presented to the tank crew, and unit members, through their observation systems, sights and sensors, to support a comprehensive training scene in the field.

The system which supports the firepower is controlled by displays and advanced operating systems, helping the commander with effective data communication and battle management. The tank carries an ammunition store of 50 rounds of 120 mm ammunition. The tank is also equipped with three 7.62 mm machine guns, two roof mounted and one co-axial with the main gun. The tank carries a store of 10,000 rounds of 7.62 mm ammunition.

The 60 millimeter mortar system, which is a large caliber gun with a low muzzle velocity, is capable of firing high explosive rounds and illumination bombs. The crew can load, aim and fire the mortar system from within the turret. The mortar system is developed by Soltam Limited of Haifa.

Merkava Mk.3 firing LAHAT 120mm missile.
Merkava Mk.3 firing a LAHAT 120mm missile from a hull-down position.

A series of live firing tests of the LAHAT - Laser Guided anti-tank missile developed by IAI/MBT (Israel Aircraft Industries-MBT Division) included the firing of 120mm missiles, adapted for smooth-bore guns used on Merkava Mk3, Merkava Mk4, Leopard 2A5/6 and M1A1/A2 Abrams tanks. The missile is also designed for employment from launch tubes, where it could be deployed from fixed positions, light vehicles or APC's. The missile’s trajectory can be set to match either tank (top attack) or helicopter (direct attack) engagement. Finally, the missile uses a tandem warhead which can defeat modern armour and reactive panels. The main warhead has a high penetration capability, defeating all known armored vehicles at high impact angles typical of top attack trajectories.


The Merkava Mk-4 tank is equipped with a modern engine. This is a 1,500 horse power American-built diesel engine, controlled by a computer connected both to the driver's panel and to the modern automatic transmission system, affording the tank greater power than the previous version, which has a 1,200-horsepower engine. Some of the new models have already covered more than 10,000 kilometers in field tests. The engine and transmission constitute a power pack that is considered a world leader. The great power of the engine, in conjunction with the strong suspension based on that of the Mk-3, provide the tank with high mobility and maneuverability. The installation of the new power pack in the Merkava tank has allowed for a redesign of the hull in a way that has improved frontal protection and the driver's field of view. For improving reverse driving, a camera has been developed which enables the driver to look behind the tank while driving backwards without requiring commander or ground direction.

According to the tank's designers, headed by the progenitor of the Merkava, Maj. Gen. (res.) Israel Tal, the fourth generation represents a quantum leap forward. Part of the revolution lies in the fact that the tank will, for the first time, be equipped with full perimeter defense, both vertical and horizontal. This, combined with an advanced observation and control system, will enable the tank commander to function from the turret with full protection from external threats such as anti-tank missiles.

The engine pack is easily replaced. The tank is powered by the new General Dynamics GD833 1,500-horsepower direct injection, liquid cooled diesel engine, (co-produced in the USA by General Dynamics and MTU). This type is also powering the French Leclerc MBT. This powerful weighs 1.9 tons net, and 4.9 tons with its entire power-pack. This powerful engine affords the tank greater mobility than the previous versions, which had the 900 and 1,200-horsepower engines. The tank utilizes an electric turret and gun control system, designed by Elbit Systems, which comprises two electrical brushless motors, produced by Bental Industries.

The Merkava Mk-4 is expected to be equipped with an active full perimeter defense, which utilizes, among other capabilities, warning against laser-guided threats. The Mk-4 like its predecessors, is also equipped with a central filtering system designed by Kinetics, which maintains positive air pressure at the fighting compartment, for protection in a chemical biological and radiological (CBR) environment. The system also provides air conditioning for individual crew members (micro-cooling) and for the entire cabin, as well as auxiliary power when positioned at “silent watch” for battery recharging.

Merkava in the twilight

Merkava Tanks- Comparative of Main Properties

Source: Israeli Defense Forces Web Site


Army Technology Web site

Defense Update Web site

FAS - Military Analisys Network

IDF - Israel Defense Forces

Israel at Eurosatory 2006

Israel Military Industries, Ltd. (IMI)

Israeli Weapons Web site

Jane's Information Group


Download the article "The Merkava Mk 4 - Israel's Newest MBT Enters Service", by Lieutenant Colonel David Eshel, IDF, Retired (in Adobe PDF format).

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