Israel’s Merkava “chariot” battle tank may be the world’s most efficient and advanced tank. Its battle power, protection, and mobility are truly unparalleled. As the backbone of the Israel Defense Force’s (IDF) armored corps, the tank has undergone a series of modifications and advancements since its entry into service in 1979. The latest variant of the Merkava IV MBT will be delivered to the IDF by mid-2023.
Merkava – Explained
The native-grown Merkava tank fulfills Israel’s need to be able to rapidly produce modern and sophisticated military equipment without having to rely on foreign countries. The original Merkava design was developed in the mid-1970’s after the United Kingdom reversed the joint tank-development initiative that would have provided Israel with its Chieftain tanks. At this point, the then-commander of the IDF Armored Corps, Maj. Gen. Israel Tal, recognized his country’s land-based protection could not be guaranteed by any other nation. Therefore, a domestic production capability was necessary.
Merkava Needed to Be Protected
The original Merkava tanks centered around its protection capabilities. Due to this factor, the IDF prioritized keeping personnel losses down in combat by installing thick-spaced armor and setting up the engine and transmission in the front of the tank. The position of the engine system provides extra protection for the crew. The design also created more space in the tank’s rear, increasing storage capacity and access to enemy fire for the crew. The IDF rolled out the Merkava battle tanks during the 1982 Lebanon War, where they successfully countered the Soviet-designed Syrian T-72 tanks in the Bekaa Valley.
Subsequent variations of the Merkava have only made the original battle tank model more lethal and advanced. The current Merkava IV model entered full production in 2001 and became operational two years later. This model is slightly larger than its predecessor and incorporates some of the best protective measures in the world. The tank is fitted with transferrable armor which can be shifted depending on the type of threat. The tank’s bottom has been strengthened to provide better protection against land mines.
While these protective measures are significant, the real star of the Merkava IV is its Trophy active protection system. This advanced technology defends armored vehicles against anti-tank missiles and rocket-propelled grenades. The Trophy defense system has saved countless lives in combat by allowing its crew to identify and intercept oncoming attacks. Its success rate has allowed the IDF’s Armored Corps to be more offensive on the battlefield.
According to the executive officer of the IDF’s tank commander school, “the first and foremost difference in the tank commander’s behavior (pre and post Trophy), we used to be a lot more defensive, and we found ourselves sort of hiding on the battlefield and trying to get out of the range of the anti-tank systems. With Trophy, you feel you have the ability to be more offensive and put yourself out there a little more and allow yourself to accept a little more risk than what we did before.”
While Trophy has become an internationally-used platform in recent years, the Merkava IV is not yet offered for export. The newest variant of this unbeatable battle tank will serve as an even more significant deterrent to Israel’s adversaries.
Maya Carlin is a Middle East Defense Editor with 19FortyFive. She is also an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.