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Last update - 07.06.2002
Author - Oleg Granovsky

The Merkava MBT series

 

History

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 Britain.
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.

 

The models:

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 are added.
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:

  • Higher pressure gun and breech that allow the use of enhanced kinetic ammunition.
  • New armor, including a new turret with significantly improved top protection, and anti-ATGM systems, possibly both passive and active. Also a new 5-egar automatic transmission made in Israel.
  • New 1500 hp GD883 diesel engine, developed by MTU of Germany, will be produced in the United States by General Dynamics.
  • A digital system of communication between the tank and other elements on the battlefield. Data such as enemy location, target designation can be exchanged with other tanks, or helicopters, artillery, etc., allowing better situation awareness. Moreover, for example a guided LAHAT missile fired by one tank can be guided to its target by another.
  • An electrical semi-automatic revolving magazine for 10 rounds.
  • Other improvements such as a rearwards looking camera for the driver, improved stabilized panoramic commander's sight with both day and night vision, new tracks.


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.

 

Merkava production

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 1991.
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.

 

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