Last update - 07.06.2002
Author - Oleg Granovsky
The Merkava MBT series
The first moment when Israel has seriously considered producing
its own battle tank was in February 1964. Then, the idea was
to assemble the French AMX-30 tanks in Israel, with the chassis
produced locally, and the turrets imported from France.
However for various reasons this idea wasn't accepted, and never
became a reality. As we know today - for the better.
In the beginning of 1966, the UK has agreed to sell the Chieftain
tank to Israel, and even to help with establishing its production
in Israel. At first the tanks were supposed to be assembled
in Israel from British parts, and then later gradually switched
to full production in Israel.
In November of 1966 two Israeli delegations - from the Armored
Corps and Logistics - parted to Britain to study the Chieftain.
In the beginning of 1967 two Chieftains arrived to Israel for
field trials. After extensive testing, they were replaced by
two new tanks.
Overall the field tests lasted for two and a half years, numerous
suggestions and solutions were developed to improve the tank's
functioning in the hot desert climate of the Middle East.
On 17/10/68 Israel has officially requested the United Kingdom
to purchase the Chieften. In April of '69 another delegation
was dispatched from Israel to study the tank's production in
At the same time, the British government was furiously debating
whether it should allow the sale or not. The Ministry of Defense
was in favor of the deal, while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
vigorously opposed it for political reasons. In the end, the
Foreign Affairs Ministry has won, and in December 1969 Britain
officially informed Israel that its request was denied. Later
the same month, both Chieftains were returned to the UK.
On 06/05/70, major-general Israel Tal has presented the Ministry
of Defense with the results of an extensive study on the economical
feasibility of developing and producing a completely locally
made battle tank.
The development project, code named the "Merkava Program"
(Tohnit Merkava) was approved by the government on 20/08/70
- a date that could be considered Merkava's birthday. Later
the program's name became the tank's name, and after creating
several prototypes from modified Centurions, in December of
1974 the first Merkava has begun its field testing.
The first 4 machines were given to the IDF for further field
tests on 26/04/79, and the tank was officially commissioned
into service exactly six months later, on 29/10/79.
In 1980 after manufacturing the first 30 tanks, the rate of
production was on average 7-10 machines a month, and later it
rose to no less then 10 tanks a month.
For the beginning of Operation Peace for Galilee (the Lebanon
war) in June 1982, the IDF had about 200 Merkava tanks.
According to one source, the irrecoverable losses of Merkavas
in that war were 7 tanks.
Merkava means "Chariot" in Hebrew - not necessarily
a "battle chariot" even, the word comes from the root
Resh-Kaf-Bet, meaning "vehicle".
To differentiate between the models, the word "siman"
is used, which literally means "mark, label", same
as in English.
Merkava siman 1 (Merkava mk 1) - the first produced
model, with a Taleidan Continental AVDS-1790-6A 908-horse powers
engine, hydro mechanical semi-automatic "Allison"
CD850-6BX transmission, 105mm rifled American M68 gun (license
produced by IMI), and a Matador mk.1 fire control system (apparently,
the Matador name is a commercial one).
Merkava siman 1 Bet (Merkava mk.1B) - a modernization
of the Mk.1 tanks to the Mk.2 level. The upgrade includes new
FCS, apparently the Matador mk.1 is upgraded to mk.2, new sideskirts,
and also the famous chains with balls on the rear of the turret
At the same time, usually there's no additional armor on the
turret, the 60mm mortar remained external, and other minor things.
Merkava siman 2 (Merkava mk.2) - the second basic model
in production, has a new Matador mk.2 FCS, new sideskirts, new
automatic transmission made in Israel by Ashot, improved armor
especially on the turret, internal mortar, etc.,
Merkava siman 2 Bet (Merkava mk.2B) - replaced Mk.2
in production, has an improved fire control system, including
a thermal sight.
Merkava siman 2 Bet dor Dalet
(Merkava mk.2B with fourth generation armor) - the modernization
of existing Merkava mk.2B, the main difference is additional
armor plates on the chassis and the turret, the so-called "fourth
generation armor" (dor - generation in Hebrew). Not to
confuse with 4th generation tank, this only means that Merkava
mk.1 had first generation armor, mk.2 - second, and mk.3 - third.
The add-on armor plates are fourth generation.
Sometimes this tank is also called Merkava Mk.2D
The visual difference is the additional armor modules on the
turret sides that are curved downwards, as opposed to Merkava
mk.3 dor Dalet modules which extend sideways. The tank also
has easily noticeable additional armor plates on the sides of
the chassis above the sideskirts, and on the front left side
above the driver's position.
Merkava siman 3
(Merkava mk.3) - replaced Mk.2B in serial production. Has modular
armor of the turret and chassis, 120mm MG251 gun developed and
made by IMI, 1200 horse power AVDS-1790-9AR diesel engine, Matador
Mk.3 fire control system, new suspension, completely electrical
and electronic turret and gun control system (as opposed to
electro-hydraulic in the previous versions), and other improvements.
Merkava siman 3 Bet (Merkava mk.3B) - in turn, replaced
Mk.3 in production, the main difference is improved armor.
Merkava siman 3 Bet BAZ (Merkava mk.3B BAZ) - replaced
Mk.3B, the main difference is a new fire-control system designated
BAZ (commercial name - Knight mk.3). Although BAZ means "falcon"
in Hebrew, it is actually an acronym for Barak Zoher - "Shining
Lightning" (no relation whatsoever to the former prime-minister
Ehud Barak). Among other things, the BAZ system can automatically
track any selected target, which greatly increases moving target
hit accuracy, and allows engaging even low-flying helicopters
with regular ammunition.
The FCS also includes an independent commander's panoramic sight.
Merkava siman 3 Bet BAZ dor Dalet
(Merkava mk.3B with 4th generation armor) - the same Mk.3B
BAZ, with a new modular sloped armor pack. Easily identified
by the extended side modules on the turret.
Sometimes also called Merkava Mk.3D.
Merkava siman 4
(Merkava mk.4) - the latest model with numerous improvements
and modifications, including most notably:
Some of the above designation can seem very long. In practice,
they're often shortened - for example Merkava siman 3 Bet BAZ
is Merkava siman 3 BAZ, the "Bet" is usually not mentioned
and is "dor Dalet" almost never used in real life.
At the beginning of the Lebanon war in 1982 the IDF had some
200 Merkava mk.1 tanks. Overall, according to most sources,
only 250 tanks of the first model were built (although some
mention the number 330). In September of 1983, the first Mk.2
rolled off the production line, IDF's frontline units first
received them in February '84.
Only a year and one month later, in October '84, a new Mk.2B
model already entered production.
But in December 1984 the budget was drastically cut and military
spending seriously reduced. Accordingly, the rate of production
of Merkavas slowed down as well.
Another problem was that the major overhaul of tanks that were
damaged in the Lebanon war, or simply used up their motor resources,
was done at the same factory where they were assembled up until
1988, when a new repair facility was finally opened. All these
factors and the changes from Mk.1 to Mk.2 to Mk.2B have contributed
to a low production rate throughout the 80-s, with only about
550-600 Mk.2/2B ever built.
Some sources, without mentioning the number of Mk.2/2B built,
state that in 1989/90 (when Mk.2 was already about to be replaced
by Mk.3) the IDF had some 600 to 800 Merkava tanks, including
both Mk.1 and Mk.2/2B.
In April 1990 the first 14 Merkava mk.3 were produced. But starting
from the summer of 1990, because of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait
the production was stopped, and all efforts immediately redirected
to repair of older equipment. The serial production of Merkava
mk.3 was restarted almost a year later, in the beginning of
Merkava mk.3B replaced Mk.3 in 1994, but lasted for only two
years - already in 1996 the production of Merkava mk.3B BAZ
began. Since 1999, the BAZ was also fitted with a new independent
commander's panoramic sight, but the upgrade was too minor to
warrant a new designation. Later in the same year production
of Merkava mk.3B BAZ dor Dalet began, and older mk.3 and mk.2B
were modernized with the new armor pack
The first official mention of Merkava mk.4 appeared in October
of 1999 in IDF's Maarahot magazine which announced that "several"
(later in May 2000 the JIDR magazine wrote that there were 3
prototypes) Mk.4 prototypes have already accumulated over 10.000
km each in various tests.
In December of 2001, Israeli newspapers stated that the first
Mk.4 have begun their field trials with the IDF, and on June
28th 2002 Merkava mk.4 was officially commissioned into service.
Overall the total number of all Merkava tanks produced as of
2001 is estimated at 1280 tanks, although as opposed to most
other sources, according to Jane's Defense Weekly, the IDF operates
about 1,050 Merkava mk.2/2B and 700 Merkava mk.3/3B/BAZ tanks.
Assuming the more widespread number of 1280 tanks is the correct
one, we see that during the last decade (1990-2000, taking into
account the stopping of production in 1990/91), some 480 to
680 Merkava mk.3 tanks were built, meaning a rate of production
of about 50 tanks per year.
Although the capability is there to produce no less then 120
machines a year, the funding most likely isn't.